Monday, March 6, 2017

LENT II 2017

Abraham and the Angels -- Marc Chagall (1966)

This week’s Old Testament lesson is remarkably short – just four sentences. It records God’s call to Abram to leave his home country and set off on a journey – who knows where – solely on the strength of God’s promise that his descendants would become “a great nation”.  God’s promise could hardly have been more spectacularly fulfilled. Abraham (as he is later renamed) must have had many contemporaries who were also leading figures in their day. But we know nothing about them because they left no discernible trace on the world they once inhabited. If -- as Paul insists – we include Christians among Abraham’s descendants, then the ‘great nation’ that grew from his obedience to God’s call, amounts, in our day and age alone, to well over two billion human beings in every country of the world.

“If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God”, Paul writes in this week’s Epistle. Abraham could rightly take pride in the fact that he had the strength of mind and will to set out into the unknown. But it is the ultimate significance of this decision in which Paul is interest, and the key to this is not strength of character, but the power and purposes of God. The outcome of Abraham’s historic decision “depends on faith”, not on ingenuity or hard work. The humanly momentous decision to leave his homeland home only matters “in order that the promise may rest on grace”.
Christ and Nicodemus  - Ilya Repin (1887)
Paul is confident, of course, that the ultimate embodiment of faith and hence of grace is Jesus. In the the Gospel passage we encounter another figure, Nicodemus. No less well versed in Judaism than Paul, he is much less confident about Jesus. He is still wondering what to make of him, and that explains, no doubt, why as a devourt and learned Jew, he decides to seek him out at night. 

Nicodemus makes two further appearances in John's Gospel, and in each one, he steps a little closer to discipleship -- though never completely or unreservedly. On this first occasion Jesus asks him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?" The implication  is clear. Anyone who wants to penetrates the faith of Israel must be driven on to find its fulfillment in Jesus. The heart of the transformation is this: fear of judgment is turned into hope of salvation. As John puts it: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him”.

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