Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Wednesday Thoughts on the Readings for Sunday, March 11th, 2018

After a weekend during which I did not preach on Sunday because I was traveling to a continuing education conference, we return to look at the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent.  This is traditionally known as "Laetare Sunday," a day of hope within the dark season of Lent.  "Laetare" is Latin for "Rejoice!" (in the vocative case, meaning that it is a command or an order).  On this day, we rejoice and celebrate, pushing aside the gloom of Lent and looking ahead to the joy of Easter.  So as we read these reading for Laetare Sunday, we can look for themes and ideas within the readings that we can lift up as causes to celebrate with the Lord and rejoice.

Below are some of my initial thoughts: many of them were recorded last week, and some of them I have added as I typed up this post.  I invite you to share your thoughts, questions, and celebrations in the comments below.

Numbers 21:4 - 9

4From Mount Hor [the Israelites] set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Numbers 21 provides a number of places to run with an idea.  The people grumbling about the lack of good food and water remind us that many will not be able to hear our testimony about Christ before their need for food and water are satisfied.  The serpent on the pole was the inspiration behind the internationally-recognized symbol for medical personnel, two snakes wrapped around a pole.  We could also focus on the power of confession and repentance (which fits the season of Lent and is likely the reason why the story is included in the Lenten season) or the power of prayer.

Some will wonder why the Lord used a tool (snakes) that caused death.  I don’t have a good answer to this; we know that God has changed since this time, because God no longer causes the death of members of a community or nation to inspire (force) the confession and repentance of that community or nation.  But we cannot say why God chose to act in this way in the early years of the nation of Israel.

Psalm 107:1 - 3, 17 - 22

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.
 2 Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those he redeemed from trouble

 3 and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.

 17 Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction;
 18 they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death.
 19 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress;
 20 he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction.
 21 Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.

 22 And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.

Psalm 107 reads like a poetic retelling of the Exodus story.  We have narrowed the psalm down to the parts that echo the first reading.

Ephesians 2:1 - 10

1You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Ephesians 2:8 is the theme verse for the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering, so that suggests that I should look here for the calling of the Holy Spirit to preach this Sunday.

There is a question of what is meant by “dead” and “alive.”  I notice that, in this telling, we are made alive NOW and we are raised up to sit with Christ in the heavenly places NOW.  Where and how do we experience this?

Does “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…” mean that we are saved through the faith of Christ (which would not conflict with Paul’s theology even if we believe that Paul did not actually write this letter to the Ephesians)?  In this line of thinking, our good works do not save us, but we are created and saved so that we may do good works as a way of life.  That does change everything!  This frees us to do good works solely for the benefit of our neighbor(s) rather than concern ourselves with what reward in heaven we might earn through our good works.  And, in working for the benefit of our neighbor(s), we have the opportunity to demonstrate and share the love of Christ for all people.  This is something worth celebrating!

John 3:14 - 21

[Jesus said:] 14“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
  16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
  17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

John 3 is a well-known passage up through verse 17.  We don’t really like verses 18-21 because they talk about condemnation and judgment.  Verses 19-21 could be the inspiration behind the popular phrase about sunlight as the greatest disinfectant, meaning that removing evil deeds from their dark hiding places tends to end the deeds and bring the perpetrators to justice.

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