Second Sunday of Lent

5th March 2023

What is the right way of living well? 

To live well sounds like the offer that God makes to Abraham: to be blessed and be made great. 

To live well sounds like the promises made in Psalm 121: to have God watch over you, protecting you from danger by day and night.  To be preserved from all evil – which in other words is the meaning of salvation. 

Paul in his letter to the Romans, describes the relationship Abraham has with God as being one of righteousness. Abraham has a right relationship with God – it is based on faith (it is interesting to consider whether this is God’s faith in Abraham as it is God who makes the first move; or Abraham’s faith in God – or maybe the faith of both). What Paul is keen to assert is that God’s promise to Abraham of blessing, is a gift of grace – freely given – a gift that cannot be bought.

Paul uses the analogy of a worker who, having been paid for the work he does, has no further call upon or relationship with the employer. That is not the nature of righteousness. What Paul doesn’t explore is the relationship between someone who works for free or someone whose commitment to the work, to the employer, goes over and above the financial wage. Whilst the former has no ongoing interest in the business or the employer, the latter surely does. Indeed in the latter scenario the relationship is of mutual trust that together they share the same interest – the success of the business or project. The worker is not solely – if at all – interested in the financial reward, but has an interest in the well being of the business or project. 

If we were to transfer this to a family or community setting, we could distinguish between those members who are only  interested in what they are getting out of the relationship (hot meals and clean clothes) and those who are interested in the well being of the whole family / community. Those whose commitment is not just to self but to everyone else. Those whose commitment means they will stay within that group when the future looks grim, when things are difficult. Isn’t this the essence of a Christian community, of a church? 

Can we see parallels between these reflections on righteousness, on the right way of living , and what Jesus is explaining to Nicodemus? Just as there are two ways of being part of a family or community – the self interested loner, and the mutually concerned lover of all – so Jesus talks of two ways of being born, two ways of coming into being in the world: the purely human and the divinely inspired. The purely human is easy to see in the physical birthing from our mother. The divine is less easy to see – God’s Spirit has an intangible quality, it has the quality of a free spirit. It cannot be bought over the counter. It is not a wage for services rendered – indeed who could repay God for service received? But at the same time there is much we can do to be open and ready to receive that inspiration – in prayer, meditation, in contemplation of God and God’s world. We can shape ourselves by the ways we live and by the way we care for others. We can shape ourselves to be receivers of the Spirit, to be Christ-like. 

Living well is living not for self interest but for the whole enterprise – be that family, church, community etc. Living well is living in a trusting, faithful, Spirit shaped relationship with God. Living well is being concerned for the well-being of the victims of the Turkish earthquake. It is being concerned for the wellbeing of those who – even on benefits – cannot afford to buy food. It is being concerned for the wellbeing of  amphibians who lack places to breed because there are so few wet ponds and ditches following another dry winter. It is being concerned for the wellbeing of the economy when it is controlled by the few who commandeer the profits as their gain. It is being concerned for the wellbeing of activists -modern day prophets – trying so speak truth to power. It is being Christ-like. 

Genesis 12:1-4a

The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

Psalm 121

1 I lift up my eyes to the hills; *
from where is my help to come?

2 My help comes from the Lord, *
the maker of heaven and earth.

3 He will not let your foot be moved *
and he who watches over you will not fall asleep.

4 Behold, he who keeps watch over Israel *
shall neither slumber nor sleep;

5 The Lord himself watches over you; *
the Lord is your shade at your right hand,

6 So that the sun shall not strike you by day, *
nor the moon by night.

7 The Lord shall preserve you from all evil; *
it is he who shall keep you safe.

8 The Lord shall watch over your going out and your coming in, *
from this time forth for evermore.

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.

For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) —in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

John 3:1-17

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Author: Judith Russenberger

Environmentalist and theologian, with husband and three grown up children plus one cat, living in London SW14. I enjoy running and drinking coffee - ideally with a friend or a book.

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