Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17 or Matthew 17:1-9
Narrative Lectionary: Laborers in the Vineyard, Matthew 20:1-16 (Psalm 16:5-8)
We begin this second Sunday of Lent with the call of Abram in Genesis 12:1-4a. God spoke to our ancestor and told him to go away from his family and homeland to a new place that God would show him (and Sarai). God would bless Abram and Sarai and from them would come a great nation. God would make them and their descendants a blessing to others, making their name great and known, for through them all people of the earth would be blessed. Abram listened to God, and Abram and Sarai, along with Abram’s nephew Lot, followed God’s instructions and left their home.
The psalmist sings of assurance of God’s help in Psalm 121. The hills, the mountains, the high places that were known to be where heaven and earth met in the ancient world—they are not the source of the psalmist’s hope, but the Creator who made heaven and earth. The psalmist sings a blessing: God is the one who keeps the people and protects them from evil. God guards their entrances and their exits, and is with each person at their rising and their lying down, always.
The Epistle reading continues in Romans but backs up a chapter from last week to 4:1-5, 13-17. Paired with the Genesis reading, Paul interprets Abraham’s trust and obedience in God as righteousness. It is not the works that Abraham did but his faith that made him righteous before God. This applies to all people, regardless of those who follow the law or not, as part of Paul’s introduction of his theology of inclusion of Gentiles with the Jewish followers of Jesus in Rome. This section concludes with Paul’s use of the blessing of Abraham into a great nation (“father of many nations”) as an indication of God’s promise of resurrection, a promise of calling things into existence that do not yet exist. A promise that what seems impossible is possible with God.
There are two choices for the Gospel reading this Sunday:
John 3:1-17 contains the famous visit of Nicodemus to Jesus, a Pharisee who knew that Jesus was sent by God but had questions (and seems to indicate there may be other Pharisees who believe and question). Jesus told Nicodemus that no one could see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Nicodemus took this literally and asked how someone could crawl back into their mother’s womb to be born anew. Jesus explained that one must be born of the Spirit. Nicodemus still does not understand, and Jesus explains that if he cannot understand earthly things, he cannot understand heavenly things. Jesus then uses the story of the people in the wilderness in Numbers 21:4-9 who had been quarreling among themselves and God sent poisonous snakes among them. However, when Moses prayed on behalf of the people, God told him to make a serpent and place it on a pole, and that everyone who was bitten would look up at it and would live. To Jesus, this story illustrated that when we look above the quarrels and everyday squabbles of the world and look up at God’s ways, we are living into the Spirit, and that the Son of Man will also be lifted up to save people from sin and death. Perhaps the poisonous snakes were the lies and bitterness and jealousy of the people metaphorically biting each other, lost in their sinful ways. Jesus then teaches that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son so that everyone who believes would not die but have everlasting life. In the use of the previous metaphor, Jesus’s death and resurrection saves us from ourselves, our own sin, the way the serpent on Moses’s pole saved the people of Israel from their own sinful ways. Verse 17, often omitted, includes that Jesus came not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
The second option for the Gospel is Matthew 17:1-9, the same scripture for Transfiguration Sunday. Echoing Moses’s experience on Mount Sinai in Exodus 24:12-18, Jesus went up the mountain and was transfigured before Peter, James, and John, in that his appearance changed. And like on Mount Sinai, God’s glory appears through a cloud, coming upon them while Peter is still speaking, trying to make sense of what happened when Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus. In most English translations, the word used for dwelling is translated as tents, suggesting giving Moses, Elijah, and Jesus equal authority. The Common English Bible uses the word shines, which suggests perhaps worship or elevated significance. In any case, Peter has missed the point, and the point is to listen to God’s beloved Son. The disciples are full of awe, trembling, but Jesus tells them to get up and not be afraid. In verse 9, Jesus orders them not to tell anyone about what they saw or experienced until he was raised from the dead. The Transfiguration is a mystery—what exactly happened, we cannot know. But what we can understand is that God is the God of the living, that the same God who spoke through Moses and Elijah spoke through Jesus, and that God is still speaking to us, calling us to listen to the Beloved One.
The Narrative Lectionary continues its series on the Parables of Jesus with the Laborers in the Vineyard. In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells a parable in which a landowner hires laborers throughout the day to work in his vineyard, but at the end of the day pays them all a full day’s wage. The ones who only worked the end of the day were paid the same as those hired at the beginning of the day, and the ones from the beginning of the day grumbled about it being unfair. But the landowner replies that they are doing no harm by being generous, because it was what was agreed to. The punch line is “the last will be first and the first will be last.” Perhaps it was a reminder to those who had been with Jesus for a while that things would not always be fair. Perhaps it was a message to Jewish neighbors listening to him about Gentiles who would be joining. Parables have layers and interpretations, left open for the listener. In any case, it is a reminder that some have it easy, some do not, but God loves us all the same and that wealth and possessions are not blessings from God, but mercy and grace are. This story counters the “prosperity gospel” in that it is actually those who are without and have not received mercy who will know God’s grace first.
The supplementary verses of Psalm 16:5-8 proclaims that the psalmist has received blessings and goodness from God because they have chosen God. Because they have kept close to God, they rejoice, and rest assured of God’s presence
Both the Narrative and Revised Common Lectionaries remind us that God so loved the world God sent us Jesus, not to condemn the world, but to save the world. Not to bind us, but to liberate us. To be born anew is to recognize that the dividing line of earth and heaven doesn’t have to exist. We can participate in the reign of God here and now. When we work to dismantle systemic sin, becoming aware of evil in this world instead of participating in it for worldly measures of success, we are participating in a Spirit-led life. When we are born of the Spirit, we know that the flesh, the world we have made of systems and structures of sin, has no true hold on us, not even death. The systems of the world would pit workers and people against each other; the grace of God reminds us there is enough for everyone, inviting us in to share with others and participate in God’s beloved community together, rejoicing for the last as well as the first.
Call to Worship (from Psalm 121)
I lift up my eyes to the hills– from where will my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.
God will not let your foot be moved; God who keeps you will not slumber.
God who keeps us all will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all evil; God will keep your life.
The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in
From this time on and forevermore.
As we enter this time of worship,
May we know the God who loves us all is with our rising and our lying down,
Our prayers and praise and petitions,
Our sighs too deep for words,
Our tears and heartache and joy.
Know that God is with you, now and always,
May we bless one another and worship God together.
Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Almighty One, we confess that we do not like to be vulnerable. We do not want to appear as weak. We do not want anyone to see our faults and failures. Yet You are the one who made us, and You know every fault, every crack, and You call us beloved, made in Your image. Help us to show grace and mercy to ourselves, O God. May we be tender-hearted in our care of our bodies, minds, and souls, and grant mercy and grace to one another. Deliver us from the ways of this world that cause us to compare and compete, and instead, open us to receive one another and our own selves, with humility, courage, and peace. In the name of Jesus Christ, who cried with the mourners, who feared his own death, who lamented in loneliness, and yet rose again, we pray. Amen.
Know the love of God and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ are with you, now and always. Know that there is nothing you can do that will separate you from God’s love in Christ Jesus. There is no place you can go where God will not find you. You are God’s beloved child. Know that You are forgiven when you forgive one another. Work to mend what needs to be mended, and give over to God what cannot be, and know Christ’s peace is with you, now and always. Amen.
God of the Wild Geese, we pray that You would gather us together, and help us to know the way to go. Like the geese know when to fly, may we know when it is time to move on, and when it is time to sit down. May we know when it is time to rise up and make noise, and when it is time to be still in our heart. May we know our need to gather together, and may we support one another. In this time of Lent, as we wait for the lengthening of the days, as we await the changing of the season, may we know You in the stillness of waiting for the earth to be born anew, as we live into Your ways of love, justice, and mercy. May the God of Wild Geese remind us that we are not alone on this journey of faith. Amen.