Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
Sometimes, it’s helpful to realize when the scripture is telling us a “story within a story.” There are two great examples of this today, with the reading in Genesis and the gospel account from John.
On the one hand, this brief passage in Genesis is about the straightforward calling by God of a man named Abram. God wants Abram to do some big things — beginning with leaving behind his comfortable, familiar life and departing for a place that he has never lived before. God assures Abram that he will be shown all that he is to do, and that there will be a “blessing” in it for him. (The word here in Hebrew, barach, is the same word used for the way we are to worship — literally, “kneel before” — God.) God intends to something very weighty and important in the life of Abraham.
Abraham’s response is obedience — hence, in v. 4, “So Abraham went….” Good story, good lesson.
But there is a deeper intent on God’s part here, one that may go right by us if we don’t pay attention. True, God desires to “bless” Abraham for his faith and obedience — but the deeper purpose of God is to bless “all the families of the earth” through Abraham. The blessing of God is not a thing for Abraham to hold on to too tightly; it is bigger than just his own life.
Do you think that there is any connection from Abraham’s call to obey God, and to receive a blessing, and the call of God in our own lives? If so, what about the issue of “being a blessing” to others in turn? What purposes might God have for your life — so that others might receive the blessing of God through you?
Due to the extremely popular translation appearing in the King James Version of the Bible, verse 1 in this psalm has often been interpreted as encouraging us to “lift our eyes to the hills” in order to look for help in the difficult moments of our lives. I love the hills and mountains as much as anybody, but the translators of that beautiful text missed the point (literally — the punctuation in the text is misplaced!)
“I lift my eyes to the hills” is something of an act of wonder and questioning — one might even say, exasperation. In the midst of a difficult moment, the psalmist asks, “Where does my help come from?” Will I ever get any help here? Am I on my own in trying to sort out this sometimes messy event known as life?
Then, after the question, comes the answer. “No, I’m not alone — because my help comes from the LORD, the Creator of heaven and earth!”
Notice that the rest of the psalm is an indication of the ways that the psalm writer gives testimony of God’s presence all around. Day and night (sun and moon,) waking and sleeping, going in and coming out — in all of these places, God is present. God helps!
As you reflect over the circumstances of your own life, can you see times and ways that God was present with you, a “very present help in trouble?” (cf. Psalm 46)
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
Paul references the story of Abram (who was later called Abraham) as he continues a discussion of what makes a person “right” with God. At issue is the idea of earning a payment, versus receiving a gift. The apostle feels that God’s grace to Abraham — and to each of us — is the latter. We have received the gift of God in the form of righteousness in the same way that Abraham received it: by faith.
What does it take to “believe” that God loves us and offers us the gift of salvation? What does your own faith look like and feel like?
Now, for a classic conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus is identified as a Pharisee (basically, a member of a particular “denomination” of Judaism) and that he is a “leader” among his people. He wants to understand more about the kind of “signs of the kingdom” that Jesus has been performing in and around Jerusalem (see the previous chapter 2 in John’s gospel.)
Jesus moves the conversation to the ultimate sign of God’s presence — a “new birth” that comes from above. Nicodemus misunderstands and thinks that Jesus is speaking of a “second birth” according to the physical nature. Jesus responds that having a new life from God is much more like feeling the wind blow than it is being “born again.” It is a bit unpredictable — and certainly uncontrollable — but you definitely know it when it happens.
Again, we see that there is something of a “story within a story” unfolding as these two men talk; Nicodemus begins the conversation in the dark (literally.) As Jesus reminds and encourages him to take a look around at the working of God all around him, the light dawns on Nicodemus. Just in case we might miss it, Jesus sums it all up in the famous words of John 3:16-17. God has always loved the world, and has always wanted to see the world saved from perishing. Hence, the opportunity for a “second birth” — a second chance — a new life!
What does it mean to you to be born of the Spirit? How does the coming of Jesus into the world affect the (evidently) long-held plan of God to bring redemption for all creation? To put it another way, how is it that Jesus accomplishes the salvation of the world — as best you can understand it?
This text was discussed for the Sunday of the Transfiguration (available here.)
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
In his book, Following Jesus without Embarrassing God, Tony Campolo tells a story about Randy Johnson, who was President Lyndon Johnson’s nephew. Randy was a mediocre quarterback on a mediocre Oklahoma State football team. Nobody would have noticed him except for the fact that he was LBJ’s nephew.
It was 1966 and Oklahoma State was close to finishing another bad year, except for their final game against arch-rival Oklahoma, a top ten team on their way to a bowl game. State should have been beaten easily, but you know how it is with big rivalries; it was a close game right down to the very last. But with 8 seconds left Oklahoma State was behind by 6 points, it was raining hard, and they were 80 yards away from the goal line.
The coach called time-out and sent in all the seniors so they could finish the game on the field.
He said to third-string quarterback Randy Johnson, “Call any play you want. It’s over.” When they came out of the huddle, the coach couldn’t believe his eyes. They were lining up for play 13. Play 13 was a trick play they never used in a game for one simple reason – it had never worked in practice. But, they ran play 13. And it worked. They went 80 yards on that one play and kicked the extra point and won the game. While fans stormed the field and players jumped up and down, the coach just stood there in shocked disbelief.
In the locker room, the coach asked Randy, “Why? Why did you call play 13? And Randy said, “Well Coach, we got in the huddle and I looked at old bill and there he was injured for two years and never getting to play much and now it was all over. He had tears running down his face and I looked and saw his number was 8. Then I looked around and there was George and he had come to practice and worked hard for four straight years and only gat to play one or two times and now it was over and there were tears running down his face and I looked and his number was 7. So I added 8 and 7 and got 13; so I called play 13.”
The coach just stared at Randy a minute and said, “But Randy. 8=7 isn’t 13 – it’s 15.” Randy thought a minute and said, “Well coach, if I was as smart as you, we would have lost the game!”
Campolo concluded, “Sometimes the ‘correct’ answer is not the ‘right’ answer.”
When I read in John about the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, I sometimes feel like I listening to Randy Johnson and his coach discuss Play 13. Nicodemus is looking for the correct answer, Jesus is trying to give him the right answer, and poor old Nick can’t seem to make “the math work.”
He, like many others, is looking for correct answers to life’s many questions. I’m guessing he would prefer something along the lines of “10 things you can do to guarantee your place in God’s Kingdom,” or “Get closer to God the Rabbi way – Four weeks to a holier you.”
Instead he gets riddles along the lines of 8+7=13. “You must be born again” or was that, “you must be born from above?” Either way, it doesn’t make much sense. How can one crawl back in the womb after one has grown old? I don’t get this.
Like Campolo said, “Sometimes the correct answer isn’t the right answer.”
Just like Nicodemus – we look for correct answers, proper answers, appropriate and sensible answers to life’s many questions. We want things to be logical, to be sensible, to be grounded in good research and proper documentation. And then we read the Bible and hear Jesus talking about being “born from above,” and the “Son of Man,” being lifted up like Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, and then we have to look up that strange story about the Exodus and Israelites being rebellious and bitten by snakes and getting sick and dying and then Moses makes a bronze serpent and puts it on a pole and carries it through the camp and people look at it and get healed and this is like Jesus; oh, I see that’s like Jesus on the cross and, and, and . . .it’s enough to make your head spin.
But like Campolo said, “Sometimes the correct answer is not the right answer.”
Because the Son of Man being lifted up is the right answer, and it’s not an answer any of our human logic or philosophy or science would have come up with. It is the moral equivalent of 8+7=13. Though God in Christ going to a cross to die for us makes no sense in human terms – by divine calculus it is the right answer every time. Because it is most certainly true that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Amen and amen.