Gospel: John 3:1-17
Epistle: Romans 4:1-8, 13-17
Lesson: Genesis 12:1-9
Psalm: Psalm 121
CLB Commentary – Dr. Richard Erickson
Two years ago, for the fourth Sunday in Lent, the text was John 3:14-21, overlapping a bit with this Sunday’s text. If we consider the natural boundaries of the text, we might notice how 3:1 and 3:22 mark beginning places and wonder just why those who designed the lectionary ended with v. 17 in the one case and began with v. 14 in the other case. Trying to work that out, with an eye to the other texts for this day in the Church Year (Psalm 121, Genesis 12, Romans 4 this week, e.g.) can be challenging and satisfying. But ultimately it’s a task of doing exegesis of the lectionary, rather than doing exegesis of the biblical text itself.
Several observations made in comments two years ago are equally relevant here. The first and second “signs” performed by Jesus form a frame around (1) his meeting with Nicodemus, (2) John the Baptist’s further comments, and (3) Jesus’ subsequent contrastive meeting with the Samaritan woman. Those first two signs (water to wine, 2:11; healing of the royal official’s son, 4:54) are part of a string of seven or eight “signs” that John narrates in chapters 1–12, the so-called “Book of Signs,” and these signs are meant to convince his readers that Jesus is the messianic Son of God (20:30-31). We can reasonably conclude that the three intervening pericopes (Nicodemus, John the Baptist, Samaritan woman) somehow unpack the meaning of the first sign.
Clearly Nicodemus struggles with “new wine.” He’s one of the good Pharisees, willing to understand, even if he does not understand. (We tend to paint all Pharisees with the same brush, quite unjustly.) His problem is that it is from his “social location” as a revered teacher of Israel that he “reads” Jesus’ message of signs (plural; evidently there were other signs not explicitly mentioned in John); Nicodemus is trying to fit this new message into the old wineskins of his Jewish-Pharisaic expectations. We are not actually told how successful Jesus was at getting Nicodemus to see things afresh, but some success is implied in the two later references to Nicodemus (7:50; 19:39).
Nor is he the only one who struggles with “new wine.” The next two texts (3:22-36; 4:1-42) continue the theme of audiences trying to make sense of what was going on; what they were hearing and seeing simply does not fit their worldviews (plural again; Nicodemus’ perspective is very different from the Samaritan woman’s).
But back to Nicodemus—and us! Who are the “teachers of Israel” today? If we think of “Israel” as God’s people—whom Paul defines as the church, Jews and Gentiles together (Romans 2, 9, etc.)— then we ourselves are the teachers of God’s people. We diligently labor away (most of the time), striving to follow our calling, faithfully rehearsing for our people the “old, old story.” It’s worth asking, though, to what degree our inherited perspective on that old, old story has taken on a stiffened brittleness, like old wine skins.
We sometimes hear that part of our task is to defend the faith, to fight for a particular (correct, of course!) understanding of the Bible. But is it the Bible as we really have it in front of us that we are defending, or is it our interpretations of it that we are defending? If we hear an interpretation that challenges our standardized understanding, what is our reaction? John 3:16-17 is a very famous and oft memorized text. We are sure that we “know” what it means. But do we? What would Jesus have included in “the world” God loves that we wouldn’t think to include, or that we would intentionally exclude? What does Jesus have in mind by the term “believe in”? Would his expectations match ours, or would they involve something far more radical than we are willing to contemplate? And how would we know? What if he means quite literally what he says in his first sermon in Luke 4? And what if his call to us to follow him should not be spiritualized? Is that even conceivable?
When Nicodemus comments that Jesus could not do these signs if God were not with him, Jesus turns the subject from doing to viewing: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (3:2-3). What does Jesus mean by “the kingdom of God”? Are we sure we know? And what does he mean by “seeing” the kingdom of God? What does it mean to see that God is king, here and now, and to “believe” in the way he rules through his sacrificed and “lifted-up” Son? Has our “wine” gone flat? Are our “wineskins” too stretched and brittle to handle the new wine? Is God “with us” in what we do (v. 2)? Do we do what we do “in God” (v. 21). Or are we perhaps just doing over and over what we’ve always done, the way we’ve always done it, because that’s all we allow ourselves to consider doing?
Lent is not about doing signs, anyway; it’s about lifting one’s eyes to the One who himself has been lifted up (v. 14). What if the psalmist is actually saying (as I think he is): “I lift up my eyes to the hills, but is that where my help comes from?! No way! My help comes from the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth, including those hills!” (Ps 121:1-2) Follow him on his path: he will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber, nor sleep.