Engaging the Word: Readings for 3/15/15 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

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By Barbara Klugh

Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21. Go to www.lectionarypage.net to read or print the weekly lectionary text.

Numbers 21:4-9: The fourth book of the Bible, Numbers covers almost 40 years of the Israelites’ desert wanderings following their Exodus from Egypt. The book’s name comes from the two censuses that were taken during this period. Although the title “Numbers” doesn’t sound too intriguing, a more apt title, perhaps “Grumbling in the Desert” wouldn’t sound all that attractive either. It’s too bad, because it has some good stories.

Moses and the Bronze Serpent (18th century), by Francesco Campora. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Moses and the Bronze Serpent (18th century), by Francesco Campora. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Our reading this week is one of the good stories and has a nice tie-in to this week’s Gospel. The Israelites set out for the Red Sea, but they have to take a detour around the land of Edom. The people became tired of their lack of water and manna (“this miserable food”) and “spoke against God and against Moses.” In punishment, God sent poisonous serpents among his people and many Israelites died.

The people repent of their sin of speaking against God and Moses, and ask Moses to pray to God that the serpents be taken away. God responds, not by taking the serpents away, but by instructing Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. Whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look up at the serpent and be healed. As far as I can tell, the Israelites stopped complaining, at least in the book of Numbers, after this hard lesson.

The bronze snake reminded the Israelites of their sin and its outcome, while also reminding them of God’s mercy. Later, in the Second Book of Kings (18:4), we learn that King Hezekiah destroyed the bronze serpent because the Israelites had made it an object of worship, an idol.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22: Psalm 107 is a community thanksgiving to God, for despite our sins, his love is steadfast and he delivers us from many troubles. It was probably sung by a group of pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem for one of the festivals. “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, and his mercy endures for ever.”

St. Paul, by Vincenzo Gemito (1852 - 1929). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

St. Paul, by Vincenzo Gemito (1852 – 1929). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ephesians 2:1-10: Ephesians is a circular letter written to a group of churches in and around the City of Ephesus, now in western Turkey. Paul was well acquainted with the Ephesians as he made Ephesus his home base for several years. For various reasons, some, but not all, scholars think that the letter was written in Paul’s name by a later author who was greatly influenced by Paul’s thought. I’m staying with tradition and will regard Paul as the author.

In this week’s reading, Paul’s letter contrasts the lives of his readers—now us!—before and after conversion. Before, we were spiritually dead through trespasses and sins, followers of Satan, ruled by self-centeredness, the passions of the flesh, and in danger of God’s wrath.

But God, who rich in mercy, loved us anyway. By God’s grace we are made alive together with Christ, saved and enthroned with Christ. As Jesus was physically raised from the dead, we have been spiritually raised from the dead. Why? So our new lives may be shown as God’s gift to the world. We are saved by God’s grace through faith—even our faith is a gift from God, not our own doing, so no one may boast. We are “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Our good works are a response to the abundant grace and mercy of God.

Christ talking with Nicodemus. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Christ talking with Nicodemus. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

John 3:14-21: Recorded only in John, this week’s reading is a portion of the story of Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee. Nicodemus came to Jesus because he realizes that Jesus is “a teacher who has come from God.” Earlier in the conversation they talked about spiritual rebirth, the kingdom of God, and Spirit of God.

Our reading is sort of a homily by Jesus that begins with him recalling the bronze serpent of Moses, saying to Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus will be lifted up on the cross, and those who look to him will be healed and have eternal life.

“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. 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.”

Jesus was sent into the world to be the means of transformation and renewal, to bring light to the world, and those who believe in Jesus will live in the light. Each of us has the choice to live in the light or to remain in darkness. It’s unfortunate that some choose darkness. We can pray that our lives will be an example for others to see.

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