Genesis 15:1-18 (children’s passage) • Genesis 12:1-4a • Psalm 121 • Romans 4:1-17 • John 3:1-17 • Matthew 7
Psalm 121 (responsive reading)
Psalms 120-134 are often referred to as the ‘Psalms of Ascent(s)’ as they were often used by Israelites facing a journey or pilgrimage – or, a new phase of life. It is quite possible that these Psalms were said in a liturgical sense, meaning that the congregation said some parts and the priest said other parts – much like our responsive reading at the beginning of worship. The use of these Psalms in this manner is still common among many Israelites today. This Psalm begins with the first two verses being said by the person taking the journey or entering a new phase of life – it is said in first person and asks ‘who will help me?’ The question is then self-answered in a very general sense – ‘the Lord will help me.’ The remaining verses, said in second person, voiced by the priest who not only affirms that the answer is ‘the Lord’, but also makes the answer more specific giving something to look for in times of doubt and concern. You may desire to go a little deeper with the Psalms of Ascent by reading some of the others and considering the the specific cry of the person and the answering help of truth.
We have very little context for this passage except for the lineage description in the prior chapter that takes us from Shem, the blessed son of Noah, to Abram, whose family has recently moved from a place called Ur to the land of Canaan. It is also important to note that this lineage comes after the story of the Tower of Babel and the scattering on the descendants of Noah. No reason is given for the relocation of Abram’s family (which is lead by Abram’s father, Terah). Many speculative reasons have been offered including the fact that Ur was a central location for the worship of false gods and idols – a religious move that was prompted by God. Whatever the reason, this was a geographical move of a man named Abram led by the one true God – a journey that would last long beyond the life of this one man. After Abram moves, with his father and family, God calls him to his own move. This move led him to leave his father and take his own family forward with a promise of a future. This promise is about Abram, his family, a people (a new nation formed by his descendants), and a blessing or curse on other nations depending on their response to this new nation.
As we approach chapter 15 we see that Abram has already become a force in the land where he now lives. As the previous chapter closes he has been victorious in battle, rescued his nephew Lot, and received a blessing from a very important priest named Melchizedek. In chapter 15, the focus of our children’s lesson, we see God expand the promise the had been given in chapter 12, God had promised that the descendants of Abram would be a people, a great nation. A promise of descendants was a very odd promise since Abraham and his wife Sarai, were far beyond child bearing years and had no children prior. Now, in this passage, we see God get specific, telling Abram that he, and Sarai will have a child. The children’s lesson will focus on this promise and the assurance that God keeps his promises.
The letter from the Apostle Paul to the church at Rome is possibly the most used epistle (letter) when dealing with, and understanding, the Christian faith. In this letter, Paul is addressing the typical concerns of many of his letters as well as a concern for the church thousands of years later (as in now). There is great division in the church at Rome, they are divided on social and economic lines, but there seems to be an emphasis on addressing the division between the Jews and the Non-Jews. The first four chapters of the book stress the supreme righteousness of God and then, as our focus passage arrives, the message narrows in on faith and the law, or faith and works, in light of God’s supreme righteousness. This section looks back at the Old Testament, particularly the follower Abraham, to better understand the relevance of faith now, but also that faith was a necessity then as well as now.
John takes a different approach in telling the story of Jesus’ earthly, and in the flesh, life than we have seen in the other gospels. In the short time of the two chapters prior to this week’s passage, Jesus had been baptized, chosen disciples, performed his first (semi) public miracle at a wedding attended with his mother and the disciples, cleansed the temple of those abusing the faithful, and now he visited by a religious official who is very interested in the mission and message of Jesus. Nicodemus, the religious official, comes to Jesus after dark – remember that Jesus said that the ‘darkness cannot overcome the light’. The visit by Nicodemus, as well as his faith journey following this visit, is a prime example of how we seek, and eventually accept, truth. Nicodemus has difficulties understanding what Jesus says when it seems counterintuitive to what the religious institution taught. He also was conflicted when the teaching seems to contradict his understanding of the natural realities of the world. While a miracle is part of the context leading to this encounter of Jesus and Nicodemus, the exchange that takes place between these two men is probably the most common and ordinary – much the same as own journey in coming to Jesus, a journey that frequently holds certain risks and uncertainties. We come out of darkness and then slowly come to a place where we understand and accept the truth. The story of Nicodemus does not come to dramatic conclusion in this passage, actually we never see the expected climax that we would expect. We never see Nicodemus come to a salvific moment where he proclaims his own acceptance of Christ, instead, we see Nicodemus, in the midst of his religious contemporaries, take the risk of defending Jesus (John 7:45-52). We also see Nicodemus, along with another religious official, Joseph of Arimathea, carrying the lifeless body of Jesus to the grave prepared to anoint and honor the crucified Christ. While the miracles get attention, it is the personal seeking and journey out of the darkness that brings us to a true and lasting commitment to Christ.
In Matthew 7 – Jesus bring his sermon to a close with powerful instructions to all believers about seeking God, treating others with love and respect, and, consistently being salt and light that gives all others a taste and revelation of Jesus in, and through, our lives.