The Fourth Sunday in Lent, 11 March 2018

March 11, 2018 | by Robert McDonald

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Numbers 21:4 – 9 Psalm 107:1 – 3, 17 – 22 Ephesians 2:1 – 10 John 3:14 – 21

Discussion of the Texts: Today’s readings continue many of the stories we have been following for the last several weeks of Lent:  within the readings from the Hebrew Bible we have heard of the covenants established with Noah, Abraham, and Moses; the New Testament Epistles have thematically followed along, while pointing us toward the Gospels; the Gospel passages have told us of Jesus entering into his ministry, beginning with baptism and his time in the wilderness, moving through such narratives as his future suffering, the Transfiguration, and the cleansing of the temple; and the Psalms have provided for us respites wherein we offer ourselves in thanksgiving and adoration.  And that brings us to today’s stories.

Within the first reading we find Moses and the Israelites wandering through the wilderness, following the Red Sea to work their way around the land of Edom (Numbers 21:4).  This led to the Israelites becoming impatient and speaking against both God and Moses — why not cut through Edom?  God then sent serpents which, being poisonous, took the lives of many Israelites (21:6).  After recognizing their sin, God directs Moses to raise a bronze serpent to which they may look and live, rather than removing the poisonous serpents (21:7 – 9).  Similarly, we can read from the Catholic Lectionary the account of Second Chronicles 36 (i.e. 14 – 16 and 19 – 23), which recounts the fall of Judah at the hands of the king of the Chaldeans (2 Ch. 36:17):  after the anger of God is incited by the depravities and idolatry of the people (36:16; cf. 36:12) Jerusalem — especially the temple and all of the palaces — is razed, the royal and Temple treasuries are looted, and the those few who are spared from the sword are taken as captives back to Babylon (36:18 – 20).  Thus began the Babylonian exile, seventy years of struggle and tribulation (cf. Psalm 137:1) which ended only within the reign of Cyrus, when those in Babylon were allowed to return to Jerusalem:

In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia, in order to realize the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD roused the spirit of Cyrus, King of Persia, to spread this proclamation throughout his kingdom, both by word of mouth and in writing:  “Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has also charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. All among you, therefore, who belong to his people, may their God be with them; let them go up.”  (2 Ch. 36:22 – 23; cf. Ezra 1:1 – 4, Jeremiah 25:11 – 14, 29:10 – 14; Zechariah 1:12 – 13)

Both of these stories point us to the Epistle, Ephesians, which begins:  “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world” (Eph. 2:1 – 2).  Yet, just as with the Israelites, we are told that “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved” (2:4 – 5; cf. 2:8).  And the grace of this salvation is made explicit in the Gospel reading, with its familiar passage:  “God so loved the world that he [sic] gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).

Process Theology and the Texts: Today’s readings present several points-of-departure for analysis from a process perspective.  These include interpreting the references to grace in the Letter to the Ephesians, exploring how Cyrus is refered to as the mashiach (the Hebrew מָשִׁ֫יחַ, which is the root for our English “messiah” and translated as the Greek Χριστός),1 and connecting the salvific sub-texts of the readings from both Numbers and Chronicles to the Gospel reading.  While there are more points than these, the one I would suggest is of particular interest seems to be perhaps the most obvious:  the “nature” of God.

Whether or not we allow for an element of historicity within the readings today, we find that God is mutable — God changes, especially affectively.  As we have read from both Numbers and Chronicles, not to mention the various accounts from other books of scripture, God frequently grows impatient, even angry, with Israel.  In time, of course, God’s irritation and anger abate, but not before exacting some punishment upon the chosen people.  Now, if we connect the First and Gospel readings, we could reasonably assert that God has grown, developed, evolved — in fact, God seems to have become ever more patient with an unruly humanity/cosmos:  even under the rule of Rome, God (as we read from the Evangelist) “so loved the world that he [sic] gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Comparing this to Numbers 21 — when God directs Moses to make the bronze serpent — and 2 Chronicles 36 — when Cyrus allows the Israelites to return to Jerusalem — we find in John a God who gives of Her-/Himself, rather than having another act on Their behalf.  Recall the words of Philippians 2:7 – 8:  “Rather, [Christ] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”  Even if we were to take the low Christological approach not uncommon among prominent process thinkers (e.g. John B. Cobb, Jr. and David Ray Griffin, Process Theology:  An Introductory Exposition 1976, 95 – 110; Robert B. Mellert, What is Process Theology? 1975, 75 – 88), we find a God who is acting through the human person of Jesus of Nazareth, himself having realized in a particular and intimate way his own relation to God, such that the salvific nature of Jesus of Nazareth as Christ is that he has become for us a paragon, “the primordial model of human life lived in freedom and love” (Mellert, What is Process Theology?, 88).

This then is the initial aim set for us by the primordial nature of God; hence, the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

For I know well the plans I have in mind for you — oracle of the LORD — plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.  When you call me, and come and pray to me, I will listen to you.  When you look for me, you will find me. Yes, when you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me — oracle of the LORD — and I will change your lot; I will gather you together from all the nations and all the places to which I have banished you — oracle of the LORD — and bring you back to the place from which I have exiled you.  (Jer. 29:11 – 14)

Preaching the Texts: Today, an approximate mid-point between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, is a day of celebration for many Christians:  for some traditions, Catholic and Protestant, today is known as Lætare Sunday.  This term comes down to us from the old Latin entrance to today’s liturgy:  “Lætare Jerusalem;” or, “Rejoice, O Jerusalem.”  Since I can speak primarily of my own Catholic tradition, today is marked liturgically with a shift from the typical purple vestments of Lent (which are also used, along with the options of black or white, for funerals), being replaced with rose vestments.

All of this is well and good — I have been refered to as being persnickety when it comes to the details of the Catholic rites and rituals — but, it leads us to a powerful question:  even in the darkness, amidst our sorrows and tribulations, the trivialities of life, how do we hold onto hope?  How can we say with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that we are “prepared to press on to the end of a long road in which each step makes us more certain, towards horizons that are ever more shrouded in mist” (Teilhard, How I Believe 1969, 90; Christianity and Evolution [1969] 1971, 132)?   Suggest that it is by faith, despite triviality, a faith which is “personal knowledge of God” and “our perception of God in the midst of life” (Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism:  Study Edition 1981, 25), even in the midst of triviality.  Today we can hold out hope-in-faith that God is “reaching out to the creation which is making its way up to him [sic], [and working] with all his [sic] strength to beatify and illuminate it) (Teilhard, How I Believe, 90; Christianity and Evolution, 132).

Let us consider how this ties into today’s reading from Genesis, the story of Moses and the Israelites, since we could connect the experiences of the Israelites in the wilderness to our own journey through the Lenten “wilderness”:  just as the Israelites suffered attacks and death after speaking out against God and Moses, so too have we in the last several weeks come to recognize our own iniquities; and, just as the Israelites, we have prayed for mercy and succor.  For the Israelites, in the midst of their trek through the wilderness, were given a bronze serpent set upon a pole to which they could gaze and live;  so too, we in the midst of Lent rejoice in the knowledge of hope-in-faith that God does not abandon us to our sufferings and failings — indeed, we take solace in the knowledge that God-in-process, Teilhard’s “God of evolution” (Teilhard, Christianity and Evolution, 237 – 43), feels our suffering, suffering with us.  This then, we could say, is the joy of the Gospel:  “God so love[s] the world” that “those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (Jn 3:16, 21).

As such, perhaps we ought not say with the Psalmist that “for [God we] wait all day long (Psalm 25:5); or, let us understand this Psalm aright.  Are we not called to act in the world?  We must continually ask of ourselves how we are sharing in the processes of the cosmos to thus build-up the Reign of God and realize the Divine life, which is to be a part of God (Mellert, What is Process Theology?, 59):  Indeed, the words from today’s Gospel point us back to other words from the Psalmist:

For he [sic] did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he [sic] did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him [sic].  From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him [sic].  The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him [sic] shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever!  All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him [sic].  (Ps. 22:24 – 27)

The Evangelist reminds us that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved.”  It is this knowledge, from faith-residing-in-hope, which leads us to proclaim today’s Psalm — to “give thanks to the LORD, for he [sic] is good; for his [sic] steadfast love endures forever” (Ps. 107:1) — and to proclaim the opening of the old Latin rite:  Lætare Jerusalem!

  1. My linguistic background includes German, Ecclesial and Scholastic Latin, some Homeric and Attic Greek, and English (being my primary language), as well as the Japanese and French which I am beginning to teach to myself; as such, I make no claim of authority vis-à-vis the rendering of mashiach in the original Hebrew.  See Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels:  The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York:  The New Press, 2012); Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology (New York:  Paulist Press, 1994); particular emphasis may be placed upon “Appendix I” in the latter, pp. 155 – 61.

Robert McDonald

Raised Roman Catholic, Rob is a first year PhD student with the Center for Process Studies at the Claremont School of Theology.  Having studied philosophy, theology, history, and public policy/administration at the undergraduate and graduate levels at both Gannon University (Erie, PA) and Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA), his specific research interests with the Center and CST (to hopefully culminate in a dissertation) are the ethical implications (especially environmental and social) of a comparative analysis/integration of the lives/works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ and Morihei Ueshiba (as well as the Kyoto School of philosophy), in light of Whiteheadian process thought.