Lent 2A

March 10, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 3:1-17

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Genesis 12:1-4a

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms

    Psalm 121

    Author: Doug Bratt

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    I have often used this psalm during pastoral visits to various members of congregations I serve. On one particular visit early in my ministry I read it to and with a family that told me they read Psalm 121 before they left on each trip. They found great comfort in its rich promises of God’s protective care during their travels.

    Journeys, of course, include a wide variety of experiences. They can lead from anything to a new home, a new beginning or a vacation destination. Journeys involve both daunting or even frightening destinations, as well as returns home.

    Often, however, the joy of journeys is found neither in the destination nor home, but in the movement itself. In fact, perhaps ironically, few parts of our journeys produce more joy than various “mountains” (1) to which the psalmist lifts up his eyes.

    Most scholars link Psalm 121 to Israelite pilgrimages to Jerusalem and its temple. Such journeys were at best strenuous and worst dangerous. Water along the way was a scarce commodity. The hot sun beat down mercilessly on pilgrims. Some scholars suggest that banditry also posed challenges to pilgrimages.

    The psalm has liturgical elements. Some scholars suggest that the pilgrims themselves spoke verses 1-2, while verses 3-8 were spoken by perhaps a priest, travel leader or worshipers who remained at home. The voices of the first two verses and last six both insist that God protects faithful pilgrims on their journeys.

    To western Christians such “travelling mercies,” as we sometimes call them, seem largely unnecessary. Our modes of transportation are generally safe. We often attribute safe travels to skilled driving or piloting and favorable conditions.

    But to the psalmist’s deeply religious world, safe travel was a matter of the favor of the gods. In fact, even as pilgrims travelled to Mount Zion, they passed by mountains that were topped with shrines and Asherah poles at which people sought various gods’ favor.

    It raised a question that’s no less pressing today than it ever was. From where does our help come? Does it come from the puny gods of materialism, technology, the state, military or economic might, or science? Does our help come, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, from those who help themselves? That’s the conclusion to which many of our contemporaries have come.

    From where did the pilgrim to Zion’s help come? From the gods of the various mountaintop shrines? Or “from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth”? (v.2). If the question is just as pertinent today as it ever was, so is the answer. The pilgrims’ source of help was the same as modern worshipers’: the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.

    This God, insists the poet, protects God’s beloved. She uses the Hebrew verb samar, which we generally translate as “keep” or “watch over” no less than six times in the psalm’s eight verses. While it’s a word that can be applied to both human and divine watchfulness, here God is clearly the “keeper.” Because God creates all that exists, the psalmist insists travelers can rest in God’s sustaining protection in every part of God’s creation.

    This protective God is vigilant. Israel’s “neighbors” assumed that their gods slept or even died during the winter months, awakening or coming to life only in response to spring prayers and sacrifices. The psalmist insists, by contrast, that the God of heaven and earth never even takes a nap. So God can keep a constant watch over Israel and her pilgrims.

    In verse 5 the poet cites the “sun … by day, [and] the moon by night” as threats from which God protects God’s children. Yet those planets threaten travelers with more than sunburn and dehydration as well as lunacy which ancients linked to exposure to moonbeams. Israel’s neighbors thought of the sun and moon as representing Ra, the Egyptian sun god and Nanna, the Mesopotamian moon god. So the poet suggests that God protects God’s people not only from the elements, but also the threats posed by other gods.

    Yet as one scholar notes, while it’s comforting enough to know that God watches over travellers as we move from one place to another, it’s even more comforting to know that protection also extends throughout worshipers’ lives, from one circumstance to another. Not only does the Lord protect God’s adopted sons and daughters from “all evil” (7). That protection lasts the whole lifetime … and beyond, “both now and forevermore” (8).

    In the season of Lent during which the Lectionary appoints it, parts of this psalm take on special poignancy. For example, verses 1’s “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from?” alludes to the ancient practice of people climbing mountains in order to meet their deities. In the Jesus Christ whom we follow to the cross during Lent, God has come among God’s people. God’s people don’t have to climb anything, including mountains, to meet the Lord. God, in Christ, has “climbed down” to meet us.

    Illustration Idea

    The March 11, 2013 “Huffington Post” (www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/11/nap-benefits-national-napping-day_n_2830952.html) invited readers to celebrate the unofficial holiday of National Napping Day. It lists six healthy reasons to “slumber” for even as little as just 20 minutes.

    Napping, first, boosts alertness. The Harvard Men’s Health Watch suggests that even just a 20-minute nap perks up shift workers. Second, napping improves memory and learning. MRI scans suggest brain activity in nappers remains higher all day than in people who who don’t take a rest. Napping, third, increases creativity. Researchers discovered a burst of activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, the side most closely linked to creativity, after naps.

    Fourth, napping boosts productivity. Short power naps can be just the right pick-up for sleep-deprived, worn-out employees. Napping, fifth, lifts spirits. Quick naps are well-documented mood boosters. Napping, finally, zaps stress. Even just a short time of resting in bed can be helpful.

    Yet God never even “slumbers or sleeps” (4).

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    Romans 4:1-5; 13-17

    Author: Stan Mast