Today in the Spirit: Lent 4B (Laetare Sunday)

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The church takes us this week to another event of Jesus’ ministry in which he comes into conflict with unbelief in the world. In Lent, the church intends for us to meditate carefully on the challenges we face with unbelief in our daily lives, both our own and those we face from others. The assigned Gospel reading is the account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John 6:1-15. This is the only Sunday in the three-year cycle where we hear John’s version. During Pentecost, we hear Mark’s at Proper 11B and Matthew’s at Proper 13A. In John, the conflict with unbelief comes from two directions: first, from the disciples’ failure to grasp the power of the Son of God in their midst, and later, from the people who would force Jesus to be their king for what they might gain by doing so.

The assigned OT reading from 2 Chronicles 36:14-23 recounts for us as worshipers the woeful events leading up to the fall of Jerusalem and the desecration of the temple, all because the priests and the people likewise were exceedingly unfaithful. Somewhat surprisingly, rather than a psalm of lament at this point to mourn our loss due to unfaithfulness, the church assigns Psalm 122, a pilgrim song of ascents giving voice to a “David” figure arriving in Jerusalem to worship there, praying for peace in the city.

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The church assigns another of Paul’s writings to remind us that we have salvation from God because of his mercy in reaching us despite our unbelief. Ephesians 2:1-10 starts with a solemn reminder that we were dead in the trespasses and sins (1), but God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (4-5). The assigned Collect for Lent 4, with its reference to “true bread,“ fits with the Gospel narrative on the Feeding of the Five Thousand but, in spirit, looks ahead to the words of Jesus later in John 6, where he declares, “…it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (32-33).      

The Collect

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Until There Was No Remedy (2 Chronicles 36:14-23)

14 All the officers of the priests and the people likewise were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations. And they polluted the house of the Lord that he had made holy in Jerusalem. 15 The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. 16 But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy. 17 Therefore he brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or aged. He gave them all into his hand.

Strangely, if we turn our bibles just one page ahead from this text at the end of 2 Chronicles, we find the end of our passage (22-23) repeated word for word at the beginning of Ezra (1:1-3a). And then, reading on in Ezra, we discover an almost complete reversal of the sad news reported in our reading. We see the holy furnishings that were carried away returned, the temple rebuilt, and worship which had completely stopped resuming (see Ezra 1:6,3:10-11).

That said, at this point in Lent, the church clearly intends that we leave that page unturned. We should now linger on the message at the end of 2 Chronicles: But [the leaders and people of Judah] kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy (16). Let us carefully consider the haunting phrase, “until there was no remedy.” By no human means whatsoever, by no change of heart arising from the human instinct to revere God, by no godly counsel, could this condition of reckless rebellion against God ever be rectified. The wickedness of God’s chosen nation had crescendoed to such a high pitch that the only means to a holy silence must be exile and pain.

It reminds us of similar painful episodes in Genesis, especially the killing flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the day’s NT reading, Paul offers the very same verdict concerning all humankind: And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience (Ephesians 2:1-2). 

Today, in the Spirit, we succumb to the church’s invitation at Lent to meditate on the depth of our sinful condition without remedy and, having done so, find hope in God’s solution to send the Christ.

Let Us Go to the House of the LORD (Psalm 122)

1 I was glad when they said to me,
    “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
2 Our feet have been standing
    within your gates, O Jerusalem!
3 Jerusalem—built as a city
    that is bound firmly together,
4 to which the tribes go up,
    the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,
    to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
5 There thrones for judgment were set,
    the thrones of the house of David.
6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!
    “May they be secure who love you!
7 Peace be within your walls
    and security within your towers!”
8 For my brothers and companions’ sake
    I will say, “Peace be within you!”
9 For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
    I will seek your good.

As a pilgrim psalm (a song composed for people on pilgrimage in Israel), Psalm 122 stands out both for its enthusiastic devotion to the city of Jerusalem and for its wonderful projection of a corporate spiritual experience. Unlike many pilgrim psalms that give the feel of a person traveling alone (which would have been highly unlikely in reality), this song exults in “David’s”  group experience: from the conception of the plan to go to Jerusalem (I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”); to the three-fold invocation for peace (Heb. shalom) at departure from the city (For my brothers and companions’ sake I will say, “Peace be within you!”).

Devotionally, on this Sunday in Lent, saying or singing this psalm in worship might cause us all to look around at the congregation and think, “What a glorious ride the Lord has all on together. Peace to us all through Jesus Christ who inhabits our praises.” Paul’s own exulting in the church in Ephesians comes to mind: So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:11-13, NIV). 

Today, Holy Spirit, catching the thrill of our psalmist over the saints trekking to Jerusalem to worship the One God in the temple, and in my own community finding enjoyment in the spiritual journey I am on with my companions in Christ, I confirm my devotion to God and the church. 

Made Us Alive Together (Ephesians 2:1-10)

1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 

There is a lot of going back and forth between you and we in Ephesians, so it can be challenging to know who exactly Paul is addressing at any given point. Chapters 1-3 are addressed to Gentile Christians in Ephesus (you) but with frequent reference to Jewish Christians (we and us). So, in our passage, Paul writes in verse 1, you [Gentiles] were dead in the trespasses and sins; and then in verse 3, among whom we [Jewish Christians] all once lived in the passions of our flesh. That is clear. But then, all at once, in verse 5, there is what I like to call the resounding US designed to cut across any and all conceivable human divisions: But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us [all Christians!], even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.

Every letter of St. Paul contains evidence of the resounding Us (see especially 2 Corinthians 5:11-21, where we and us language transitions from being just Paul and his team to all Christians). His wordplay compels our Christian communities to radical unity in fellowship. No matter what our race or class or caste or educational level, we are one, really one, in Christ Jesus. We are one both in our undeniable predicament of being dead in our trespasses and in our undeserved privilege of being made alive together with Christ

How do you relate to others in your church community–honestly? Is there any favoritism or discrimination of any kind? Today, in the Spirit, we take note of the resounding Us in Paul’s writing, repent, and adjust our behavior accordingly.

By Himself (John 6:1-15)

1 After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. 2 And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. 3 Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. 5 Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” 

14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” 15 Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

John’s report here is one of Jesus first embracing the people and then withdrawing from them. Our Lord sees to the crowds’ needs when he is surprised by them. However, he goes off alone when he hears them clamoring to make him king. We saw something of the same dynamic in the Gospel reading from a few weeks ago when Jesus healed the crowds outside Peter’s home one evening, and then the next day, when the crowds wanted more, Jesus led his disciples off to visit other villages (Mark 1:29-39, Epiphany 5B). This is perplexing behavior from the Son of God, and if you have walked with Jesus for any length of time, you probably have experienced something of this uneven treatment yourself.

Devotionally, what do we make of this behavior of our Lord? It tells us of the character of the Son of God. On the one hand, he is forthright in carrying out his ministry to preach the Gospel, heal the sick, and feed the hungry: The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor… (see Isaiah 61:1-5). Here is the mission of the Servant of God to Israel, and it compels Jesus to carry it out in feeding the multitude.

On the other hand, the Son of God is glory-averse regarding people’s adulation. Earlier in this Gospel, John comments on Jesus’ attitude toward the fickle feelings of his onlookers in Jerusalem:…many believed in his name… But Jesus, on his part, did not entrust himself to them because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man (2:24-25). The only one the Son of God will receive glory from is the Father: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you” (John 17:1).

Lord, you are loving but sometimes confusing, good but not tame. Your ways are higher, and I will admit my failure to understand you often. Today, Holy Spirit, as Jesus promised you would do, take from what is his and make it known to me, at least as much I need now.

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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