Scripture Introductions

Fourth Sunday of Lent March 22. 2009 Scripture Introductions by Stewart Clarke
It seems to me that, to help understand the Bible, especially in terms of its early or original setting, it make sense to provide a respectful Introduction before we read a passage. On another hand, I hear that we are not as Biblically literate, as we were in some idealized age, ago. There is also a repeated invitation from some branches of the church to take the Bible literally, which can rob us of some of the depth of the Bible. Respectful introductions, I hope, can be a contribution to respectful hearing and respectful study. There may be parallels between the first reading, at least, and some of the news we get. In the passage, we have the Hebrews moving into unfamiliar territory. On television, we have reports of troops moving into strange and dangerous territory, and people being kidnapped. With the financial news, we may see ourselves moving into a strange, new landscape, with comparisons to the Depression[1]. And we may pause to ask about God's presence, will, and care. In the Gospel, we have the reference to God loving "the world[2]," which may make us question prayers that God be on one side or another in conflict. (There are comments in parentheses, which you may wish to skip. In fact, you are invited to use these any way you see fit, to print or read, to adapt, or put aside as you prepare your own. The concern is for information shared and for respect for God, the Bible and the congregation. ) We may find ourselves amazed that the chosen/recommended readings may say so much in today's tense world.
The first reading is from the collection of stories in the book of Numbers. (Except for the reference to "Mount Hor" at the beginning, it is from the northern E = Elohistic) tradition[3].) We find the covenant people wandering[2] in uncultivated areas ("wilderness"), rebuilding their identity as nomads before they enter the land flowing with milk and honey with its agricultural-religious temptations. But they are in unfamiliar territory, and the journey is getting long and bothersome. The manna, which was once so welcome, has become tiresome. They start to complain (hardly a mild grumble, but an angry protest with raised voices and fists). The next thing they know, there are snakes among them, and some died from poisonous bites.[6] The story unfolds in a distinct pattern of Angry demonstration, Injury seen as penalty, Repentance, and Relief. (In this instance, Moses is said to have specific instructions from God that seem to contravene at least one of the commandments, read just last Sunday, against making an image of anything! A copper or brass snake is mounted on a pole, speaking to Christians of Jesus crucified.) The underlying message is that we live in God's world, and God cares. Let's listen to this ancient story with such modern echoes, and may God speak to us, in: Numbers 21:4-9 We may follow the reading with a traditional response, or say something like, "May God bless to us this reading, and ponder events in our lives and our modern world. Amen"
The Psalm is in close harmony with the Numbers passage. It speaks of gratitude to God, but it links sickness with sinfulness[7], a repeated and still popular view[8], although Job, Jeremiah, and Jesus disputed it. While we remember that someone's sickness does not indicate that she or he has sinned any more than anyone else, we can find joy in the reading of: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 (VU p.831) [9]
The author of the letter to the Ephesians tries to balance the importance of good deeds with the foundation of our faith in God's love, and Jesus' ministry. Let's listen closely. It begins with a reminder of God's Grace: Ephesians 2:1-10 We may say something like, "Thank God for this message of Grace."
The Gospel picks up the reference to Moses and the serpent, as a model of Jesus' sacrifice.[10] We are given this passage as Jesus' words to Nicodemus, inviting him to move from his old faith into a new life. We hear that "God so loved the world," and wonder: Does it refer to those who believe? Does it refer to everyone? Does it refer to all nations and religions? Does it include nature? The intent, we are told, is salvation, but there are no details! Let's rise to honour and be open to God's Good News for us in: (Or: Let's listen closely for God's Good News for us in:) John 3:14-21 It is appropriate to follow the readings with words of Thanks and Praise. There are traditional words, as, "Let us hear what the Spirit is saying to us," with the response, "Thanks be to God." Or we may say, after the Gospel reading, God help us hear this message, and respond in faith to God's love."
  1. With thanks to MB, CAM and EMC. (Though she could not vet the final version).
  2. What does "the world" mean? Is it about all people? Is it wider, including all creation?
  3. "From Mount Hor," is P.
  4. There was a long tradition of hostility between the people of Edom and the people of Israel.
  5. In some respects, I wonder why pay attention to such detail. On the other hand, it seems to me that the details help us to see the stories in the context of real people in real situations, in line with the belief that God works through events in human lives.
  6. The snakes may well have been there, undisturbed until something happened. You may want to compare with Ecclesiastes. 10:8!
  7. This is different from consequences of certain actions. Excessive speed in driving, for example, raises the probability of accident or serious accident.
  8. Patients, in hospital, for example, can be heard to ask, "What did I do to deserve this?" Rev. Dr. G.A.A.Beveridge, in hospital, commented: "I have never asked, 'Why me?' I have asked, "Why not me?"
  9. It is too bad, I think, that verses have had to be cut out. They give a graphic picture of people feeling stressed and lost.
  10. It is also an example of the way that writers picked up and applied references, not always (!) following the principles of exegesis that we would advocate today!
(Comments to Stew at