The Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12: 1-4a.
God initiates a covenant with Abram. Abram enters it by leaving his country and family to start over where God leads.
Psalm 121 (UMH 844).
Tone 5 in D minor with the sung response.
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17.
Abraham was made righteous — not because he did good things, but by a life bent on trusting God.
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Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night. Jesus tells him, "You must be born again."
Today is the second Sunday in Lent. Today we begin a series of readings in John’s gospel that point to the many ways we need God’s saving help, and the calling to become more than we can make ourselves. Today, it is Nicodemus, and the call to be born again. Next week, we encounter the woman at the well and the call to drink and share living water. Then it is the blind man and the call to be healed of blindness. Finally, it is Lazarus, and a call to come forth from death.
We can do none of these things in our own power. But we can prepare our lives to make room for the Spirit to do them in and through us. This is the primary reason for the church’s intensified Lenten disciplines of prayer, searching the scriptures, fasting, and self-denial—to prepare baptismal candidates to be born again by water and the Spirit in their baptism, and to renew the power and vibrancy of the new birth in those of us who walk with them on their journey.
Coming up in March
One Great Hour of Sharing
April 13-19 Holy Week
April 13: Palm/Passion Sunday
April 17: Maundy Thursday
April 18: Good Friday
April 19 (before sunset): Holy Saturday
April 19 (after sunset): The Great Vigil of Easter (explanations here)
April 20: Easter Sunday and Festival of God's Creation (Earth Day April 22)
April 20-June 8: Easter Season
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
May 1 National Day of Prayer (USA)
May 4 Native American Ministries Sunday (Native American worship resources)
May 5-11 Christian Family Week
May 11 Festival of the Christian Home/Mother's Day (USA)
May 17-18 Change the World Weekend
May 18 Heritage Sunday (GBOD resources)
May 24 Aldersgate Day
May 26 Memorial Day (USA)
May 29 Ascension of the Lord
As with all Sundays that include denominational or other programmatic observances elements, keep in mind this advice from the Book of Worship
“Such special Sundays should never take precedence over the particular day in the Christian year. The special Sundays are placed on the calendar in the context of the Christian year, which is designed to make clear the calling of the Church as the people of God.” (UMBOW, 422).
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Atmospherics: Called to Be Born again
Throughout this season of Lent, these helps will help you develop worship around the theme, “Living Our Baptismal Calling.” Each week, theScriptures highlight one element of our baptismal calling and invite us to live into it together. For Lent 2, we explore “Called to Be Born again.”
This week the readings tell us in no uncertain terms that we ourselves can do nothing to be part of or even perceive God’s redemptive plan for the world or for ourselves short of an entirely new beginning—a new land (Abram), a new perspective (Paul in Romans) and ultimately a new birth (John). What is called for here, too, is more than a “restart,” a CTRL-ALT-DEL move on a Microsoft Windows®-based computer. We need, and God is ready to supply, an entirely different operating system.
Today’s Scriptures provide rich imagery or suggestions of the same to express the forms our re-creation may take.
In Genesis the call to be born again is the call to leave everything familiar and begin a new life in an unknown land far away. This is no pilgrimage. On a pilgrimage, one sets out to a new place or a holy place to learn something and return where one came from with some new insight for living back home. Abram’s is to be a permanent relocation, something far more like the experience of the millions since Abram who have immigrated to other countries, including the vast majority of the population of the current United States or at least their ancestors.
Romans reminds us of what may have become by now an “old Protestant saw”—we are justified by faith and not by works, even as Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. As Protestants and evangelicals, we may come to this text with blinders about its meaning. Indeed, it may have become so familiar that we can hardly hear its actual message at all.
Paul offers all of us, if we will truly hear him, a powerful critique of the way even many of us live our lives with God and each other.
Do we treat our relationship with God as something we earn by what we do, by “being good” or at least “not being bad” on the basis of some checklist of good or bad behavior?
Do we ultimately measure our relationship with God using some “career ladder” or “success chart”?
Have we reduced a life of discipleship to Jesus to morality and status instead of actual faithfulness to trust him and follow where he leads every day?
How about our relationships with others? Do we approach others as those to whom God has also offered justification by faith, or do we expect them to prove themselves to us by their works and/or their status before we embrace and support them as God has embraced and supported us?
Or have we gone Gnostic, and decided we’re “in” because we have the “right knowledge” (intellectual assent to the right doctrines)?
All of these miss the biblical understanding of faith. And all of these are “dead-end” paths. None lead to life. It’s time for rebirth.
“Faith” in Scripture never means mere assent to an idea. Faith means placing one’s complete trust in the one being followed and therefore following where that one leads. That’s why James could write “faith without works is dead” without at all contradicting what Paul was teaching to the Christians in Rome.
Abram was reckoned righteous not because he was good, or not bad, or because he was successful, or because he had the right ideas. He was reckoned righteous because he trusted God enough to keep going where God led him, even when that meant a long journey for him and his family to start over in an unknown land far away. That’s faith!
John 3 is, likewise, a very familiar text, or at least parts of it are. Look to this text this week for its many images of how God saves us. The Spirit blows like a wind. We are reborn of water and Spirit in baptism—an image that speaks strongly of God as birthing mother and font as both bath and womb-water.
Why rebirth or being “born again” (in King James and more recent evangelical language) or new birth, as John Wesley called it? Is that really necessary?
Yes, it is. And it is also God’s gracious offer to us through baptism by water and the Holy Spirit (John 3:5).
Nicodemus, however, could not understand what Jesus meant by his talk of new birth. So Jesus changed metaphors. He spoke of the story of the bronze serpent recounted in Numbers 19. In that story, God had appointed “fiery serpents” to attack and destroy the Israelites for their slanderous words against Moses and the God he proclaimed. But with the attack, God also provided a remedy. Those who would look to a bronze serpent lifted up on a pole and ask for God’s healing could be spared. This required three things: an acknowledgement of the connection between their own sin and its consequences (they were the reason the serpents were there doing what they were doing!), that they were powerless to save themselves, and trust that God, through Moses, would save them in this way. When we observe Jesus lifted up on a crucifix, recognize that our sin put him there, and seek God’s mercy to deliver us from such sin, we, too, can glimpse something of God’s saving deliverance from the Serpent, from sin and death.
To be sure, as the rest of the story of the bronze serpent reminds, we are not called to worship the cross or any images of it. The bronze serpent, which had been a source of deliverance in this story, later became a stumbling-block when it became a focal point of worship and incense was offered to it as if it were a divinity. 2 Kings 18 records how Hezekiah destroyed it in obedience to God’s command for that reason. The serpent itself was not powerful. Nor is the cross itself. God’s salvation even with such crude instruments is powerful, and only God’s name is to be praised.
In Your Planning Team:
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Today’s call is to new birth. The question is how your community can best hear this call based on their particular context and experiences. The Scriptures provide a variety of ways to get at that today—Abraham’s call and journey (Genesis), his righteousness based on faith (Romans), being born again by water and Spirit (John) and the “serpent on the pole” (also John).
Start in your team. How has new birth happened for you in your lives? What led you to realize nothing less than new birth would do? Are there songs or hymns that resonate with your experiences of new birth? Artwork that depicts something of it?
Perhaps for some of you your stories of new birth are not explicitly religious or even particularly “spiritual.” Perhaps others of you fit better what philosopher William James called “the once-born,” having come to a deeper appreciation and even discipleship to Christ without what might be called a “crisis moment” that cleanly divides your life narrative between “before” and “after” but perhaps something more like “less” and now “more and more.” Exactly how we describe being born of water and the Spirit in our own lives is less important than that it happens in us, and that we be the kind of community that both expects it and nurtures it every time it does.
So after you’ve shared these stories, ask what it means for your congregation to be a community that expects new birth to happen in its midst on a regular basis. What are the signs of that expectation? How strong are they? How might you go about making them more prominent, and so increase the awareness of this expectation?
Then ask how those who are experiencing new birth in your midst have been and are being nurtured toward maturity in Christ. This isn’t a theoretical question, but a most practical one. You want to share and discover together what’s worked in your lives in this worshiping community to help folks grow toward “entire sanctification” or “perfection in love in this life” as the Wesleys put it.
With these conversations as backdrop, you’re now ready to design worship together that may enable your congregation to identify their own need for and experiences of new birth, to expect it for others, and to nurture those who experience it.
Liturgy for the Second Sunday in Lent. Remember, Sundays in Lent are little Easters. The cross will come; but for now, focus on the encounters of Jesus with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, the family at Bethany (Mary, Martha, and Lazarus). If you have people preparing for baptism or confirmation (children, youth, or adults), pray for them and their sponsors by name during the intercessions. Keep the baptismal themes of this season and these readings front and center. Strongly consider keeping the font front and center, full of water and in full view of all either as they enter the worship space or on a pathway as they move to the Lord’s Table. For more on preparation for baptism and the role of sponsors, see Come to the Waters by Daniel Benedict (Discipleship Resources, 1997).
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Embodying the Word: The Second Sunday in Lent, Year A
Today and throughout Lent, this section will focus on second movement of the basic pattern of our worship (see UMH pp. 2-5), and in particular the reading of Scripture in worship.
Lent is a season for hearing the Word of God in Scripture for its power to challenge, inspire and move us to new life and renewed life in Jesus Christ, to begin or deepen our life in the covenant of baptism. If there is a season where we are called to listen for God’s Word to transform us, this is it!
During these weeks, we will consider ways to help God’s word in Scripture be heard deeply by one and all.
Genesis: Consider reading this short passage three times. The first time, read it straight through, with one reader, at a deliberate pace. The second time, offer two other readers with two very different kinds of voices—perhaps one older and one younger, or one higher and one much lower. One will read a part of verse 1, then the other will read one of the blessings, in alternating fashion. The third time through, the two readers will read their lines simultaneously while the original reader reads the passage straight through again. The value of this way of reading is to experience the “pull” of the GO and the “push” of the promise of blessing.
Here is how this might be done the second time:
Reader 1: Go from your country
Reader 2: I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.
Reader 1: Go from your kindred:
Reader 2: I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
Reader 1: Go from your father’s house.
Reader 2: I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.
Reader 1: Go to the land that I will show you.
Reader 2: And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
Romans this week presents problems for reading and hearing similar to those of last week’s text. Again, consider reading from a more contemporary translation, or the possibility (if you are not preaching from this text) of a monolog in paraphrase, such as the following.
So what can we say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor? Perhaps something, if it could be shown he was justified by his works. But the Scripture says otherwise. “Abraham believed God; that was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
If you work for someone, and you are paid for your work, your pay is not a gift. It is simply owed to you. But, when you simply trust the one who justifies the ungodly, your trust, your faith becomes your righteousness.
Back to Abraham. Even the promise that his descendents would inherit the earth did not come to him because he performed the works of the law. Rather, that promise was because he was deemed righteous by God because of his faith in God.
Look, if the only ones who can be inheritors of the promise from Abraham are those who do the works of the law, then, yes, faith is meaningless and we have no promise at all. Why? The law only and always brings wrath because we violate it. Therefore, any promise from God has to depend on faith, and ultimately on God’s grace and guarantee to all of Abraham’s descendents.
We are Abraham’s descendents if Abraham is our father. And Abraham is our father, not just the father of those who observe the law, but the father of all who share his faith, faith in the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that had no being.
John: This text presents us with three voices: a narrator, Jesus, and Nicodemus. Consider offering the reading of this text as you may have offered last week’s gospel lesson, reader’s theater style. No physical acting is required. You might consider offering images relating to the text on a screen as it is being performed. A dark night, water, wind blowing, childbirth (but be discreet!), womb, bronze serpent on a pole, and conclude with one word: Love.
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Greeting: BOW 327
Prayer for Illumination: See Season of Ash and Fire , page 27.
Prayer of Confession:
BOW 494 (Genesis) and Pardon: Last portion of BOW 475
See Season of Ash and Fire , pages 25-26. (Seasonal)
Confession and Pardon: BOW 476 or BOW 477 (Romans)
Prayer: 373-374 (Genesis)
Prayer: 375 (John)
Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam
Prayer of Thanksgiving if the Lord's Supper is not celebrated:
Great Thanksgiving: BOW 60-61
Dismissal with Blessing:
BOW 529 — If you are bold enough and if it commends itself to your people, try using the sign of the cross and inviting each person to sign himself or herself on the last line of the prayer. Continue this practice through Lent as a sign of our baptism and the way we are to live.
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The Gospel reading for the second Sunday in Lent contains one of the most familiar and beloved scriptures in the Bible: “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” (John 3:16). These cherished words have brought hope and healing to generations of Christians.
But what is it about these 27 words that speak so directly and profoundly to our hearts? What is it about this Scripture that is so mesmerizing that out of all the thousands of words in the Bible so many people commit these to memory?
Maybe it is the promise that if we only believe in Jesus we will be born again and have eternal life. Or maybe it is the part about God so loving the world that God was willing to become Christ in order to release us all from the bondage of our sins.
I don’t know what it is that so touches our hearts; but whatever it is, it touches mine as well. These words touch me because they are, as I said, profoundly beautiful all on their own. But certainly they touch me at an even deeper level when I consider them within their larger context.
Since the abovementioned words occur towards the end of the reading, I will start there and work my way back.
In verses 14-15, Jesus makes reference to an incident from the Old Testament in which Moses lifts up a “serpent in the wilderness.” I would guess that most people who have memorized John 3:16 aren’t going to have the slightest idea what comes before it, or what Jesus was talking about in 14 and 15, or why the story of Moses and a wilderness serpent serves as an introduction to John 3:16. What in the world does a snake have to do with God’s love for the world and God sending God’s son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life?
The ill-informed might think that maybe this wilderness serpent is a reference to the snake who tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, which was the reading from the Old Testament from last week. But they’d be wrong. Because in fact, this particular serpent is not a tempter, but a savior. But we’ll come back to that in a moment.
Actually, the story that the gospel writer is referring to is found in the 21st chapter of the book of Numbers, where it tells of the people of Israel journeying for forty years in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan after the Exodus.
The book of Numbers is a story of lost faith. After leaving Egypt, the Israelites got held up making their way to the Promised Land for forty years. Their route required them to skirt the land of Edom, and this unfortunate and lengthy detour had apparently made the Israelites very cranky and caused them to bring up some complaints they’d raised to Moses before:
“We were better off in Egypt. Why did you bring us out here into the wilderness to die?” they cried.
Then, in a rant that doesn’t even really make sense, they added, “We’ve got no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food!” See what I mean about it not making sense? How can they detest miserable food that they don’t even have?
So anyway, they were going on and on with their whining, but the big mistake they made this time was that they leveled their complaints not only against Moses, but also against the Lord God.
Now if we are really getting into this, we have to back up even a little bit further into Numbers, so we can see that this was not their first occasion for whining and complaining.
It’s not their second or even their third.
No, it is at least the fourth occasion in which we find them complaining. In each preceding incident, God addressed their complaints in some way. But here they are at it again. And at this point, according to Numbers chapter 21, God’s response was not pretty, because the book of Numbers reports that after this last incident of complaining, God sent poisonous serpents among the people who had complained; and the snakes bit them, and many of the people died.
So the ones who didn’t die apparently went running back to Moses to confess that they had sinned against him and against God, and they threw themselves on the mercy of Moses and begged him to intervene with God on their behalf.
When Moses did this, God told him to fashion a serpent out of bronze and place it on a pole. God told Moses that anyone who was bitten by a live serpent should look at the bronze serpent on the pole. And when the bitten person looked at the bronze serpent, he or she would recover and live.
So, fast-forwarding to the lesson from John for today, when Jesus says to Nicodemus, “And 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,” being a very knowledgeable Pharisee, Nicodemus would have understood very clearly that Jesus was saying he was to be a healer to the Jewish people in some way. He would have understood the context.
Now most likely, at that point, Nicodemus would never have imagined Jesus dying on a cross and being “lifted up” in that sense. But he’s at least beginning to realize what Jesus means.
Jesus is saying that just as looking at the bronze serpent on a pole enabled the ancient Israelites who were dying because of their sin to live, so would looking at Jesus with belief enable those who are dying in sin today to live eternally.
So all of this context helps us to grasp not only verse 16, but also what Jesus says in verse 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.”
In the Numbers story, the live serpents were agents of judgment. Yet here is where Jesus tells Nicodemus how his role differs from the serpent’s role in the wilderness. He didn’t come to be like the biting serpents of judgment and death. He was not sent to condemn the world, but to save it.
Only the bronze, lifted-up serpent was a representation of the role Jesus came to fill.
So we can clearly see that condemnation is not why Jesus came. He didn’t come into the world to judge and condemn. He came to save all those who are dying spiritually in sin. He came to give new life to the wounded, healing to the broken-hearted, a new beginning to the lost.
In baptism we are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation and made to share in Christ’s royal priesthood. Our old sinful nature is washed away, and we are given a new start in life so that, having been born through water and the Spirit we are enabled to live from that point on as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.
From Transfiguration through Trinity Sunday (First Sunday after Pentecost) all of the lectionary texts are chosen to support the gospel reading. These helps for the Old Testament and Epistle readings will explore how you might use these texts as adjuncts to the gospel in preaching.
But what kind of believing is at stake? Is it enough to believe that Jesus is our healer, or that by water and the Spirit we are given new birth? Or is there something more?
Both the grammar of John 3 (which we’ll get to later) and the Old Testament and Epistle for today are fairly clear there’s something more, and what that something more is.
Abram’s faith in Genesis is his willingness to obey when called by God to go to what was for him and his family an unknown destination filled with unknown peoples. Whenever he would “arrive,” it would be like being born again, living a very different life in a new place. The long journey to get there might be considered like a period of gestation, gaining some (if not all) of the tools he would need to negotiate the new life to come.
Paul in Romans makes the nature of Abram’s faith and its significance even clearer. His faith—his constant commitment to follow God’s voice—was the basis of his righteousness. Neither the mastery of some checklist of “good deeds” nor any expertise at avoiding “bad deeds” got him there, though surely he learned how to do both better as he followed God’s leading, and perhaps doing good and avoiding evil also helped him to follow a bit better. But the main thing was simply following. God said, “Go. Leave everything. I’ll let you know when you’ve arrived.” And Abram went.
Now back to John 3:16. The Greek verb for believe (pisteuein) normally takes one of two prepositions, either en (in) followed by the dative case, or eis (into) followed by the accusative case. When pisteuein takes en + dative, it typically points to giving assent to something or believing something about someone. We might say “I believe in resurrection,” as an intellectual or philosophical or metaphysical principle, for example. But when pisteuein takes eis + accusative, it means “place my whole trust in.”
That’s the kind of faith Abram had in God. And that’s the kind of believing John 3:16 calls for: “that everyone who believes into him should not be destroyed, but have eternal life.”
The Lenten journey is one of accompanying persons preparing for baptism as they seek to learn how to say yes to all of the baptismal vows, which is to say, learning how to renounce all other powers and embrace Jesus as Savior and Lord, putting their whole trust in his grace. We in the congregation are midwives for the new life gestating among us, awaiting the new life to come. And in the process, we also act as midwives and encouragers of new birth in one another.
The new birth itself happens by water and the Holy Spirit. But just as a connection to the mother is vital to the survival of the one in gestation, so is believing into Jesus vital for the spiritual survival of one in this time of spiritual gestation leading to baptism.
If last week’s spiritual exercises were about renunciation, this week’s are about learning to “put our whole trust in his grace,” or, as the old gospel song puts it, “leaning on the everlasting arms.” While infants in the womb may not be able to resist developing and being born, believing into these other things rather than Jesus can arrest our development toward new birth and later impede our sanctification.
So how will you—this week, starting with your preaching-- help your congregation and especially those preparing for baptism practice learning how to hear the voice of Jesus, trust, and follow? And then keep listening, keep trusting, and keep following? How will you guide others into putting their whole trust in his grace—not their works, worthiness, status, accomplishments, or capacity to make themselves “better”? How will you concretely lead your baptismal candidates and congregation to learn and deepen their learning in how to lean on the everlasting arms?
These Preaching Notes were written Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources, firstname.lastname@example.org
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