The Common Good
January 2010

Wondrous, Inexplicable, Demanding Newness

by Walter Brueggemann | January 2010

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle C

The biblical writers, in a rich variety of ways, confess that God is giving a newness. That newness from God is the center of Hebrew Testament faith. And for Christians, the life of Jesus is the quintessential exhibit of God’s newness in the world. Three things strike me about that constant assertion of God’s newness. First, it is beyond explanation and beyond our own conjuring. It depends wholly upon God. Second, the Bible is concerned with the community that receives, trusts in, and embraces the miracle of newness. It knows that this community, synagogue, and church is summoned to a radical way of obedience in the world, a way so radical that it evokes the hostility of the world. But third, those vexed by such a summons turn to God in hope and trust that God will overrule such hostility.

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It strikes me that these texts, especially in the season of Epiphany, are stunningly contemporary for us. The world in its fearful anxiety grows more hardhearted and violent. Clearly such a bent can never lead to well-being. The question is, how can that vicious cycle of deathliness be broken? The answer given here is that it is broken when a community boldly acts in response to God’s self-giving jubilee. The ground for enacting jubilee in our world is baptism, entry into an alternative existence that is not beholden to the old orders of death.

Walter Brueggemann, a Sojourners contributing editor, is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

[ January 3 ] The Great Gatherer

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 147:12-20; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1: 10-18

We may trace the exuberant acknowledgment of God’s impact on the world through the prophetic poem, the lyrical epistle, and the psalmic doxology, all of which attend to the way in which God has come in Christ, “full of grace and truth.” The poem of Jeremiah is addressed to Israel in exile, assuring a homecoming from Babylon. We notice the double use of “gather” (Jeremiah 31:8, 10); God is the great gatherer who does a sweep of the Near East, and by act of daring sovereignty brings all the lost back to safety. Paul echoes Jeremiah, witnessing to God’s “plan” to “gather up all things in him.” This is the God who has “blessed,” “chosen,” “destined,” “lavished,” and “made known” (Ephesians 1:3-9); now everything is changed and made new. God promises a safe place (“inheritance”) in even larger scope than that of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:14). It is no wonder that we have in Psalm 147 a great doxology that catalogues the transformations wrought by God, all on behalf of the people whom God loves (Psalm 147:20).

The news of Christmas is that God gathers home a relationship, a possibility, a belonging. That is a gospel assurance in a world of displacement, alienation, and fearful violence. It is a gift to come down where we ought to be!

[ January 10 ]
Fearless Submission

Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

The baptism of Jesus is given in a terse narrative. Something happened in the event that defies explanation; it involves a spirit who will empower and a voice that will authorize. Something new is happening! Karl Barth says of the wonder that in the baptism we see: “His free subjection to the will of God. His free association with [humanity]. His free entry upon the service of God and [humanity].”

In this event Jesus accepts a role with reference to God and to humankind. His submission puts him in contradiction to the world in a way that will lead, eventually, to his execution. His solidarity with humanity defines his ministry among the poor, the needy, the disabled, all those who wait for the gift of God’s rule that will override the way the world has been. We cannot read about the baptism of Jesus without reading about the baptism of the church (Acts 8:14-17). The candidates were convinced of the news of God in Christ; they were baptized and they received the spirit at the hands of the apostles. What happens to the church in baptism is what happens to Christ in baptism: submission to God’s intent and solidarity with the human community.

The reading in Isaiah makes a powerful anticipation of baptism with its double “fear not.” Those without fear can be submissive to God and in love with needful humanity. Baptism is an antidote to fearfulness!

[ January 17 ]
Radical Transformations

Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11

Everything has been changed! Everything is being made new! The church gathers around such breathtaking affirmations. The miracle narrative of John 2 is a sign of the move from old to new that Jesus enacts everywhere. That act of “water to wine,” we are told, exhibits Christ’s regal splendor, his God-ness, that will eventuate in his death and resurrection. It is no wonder that his disciples trusted in him, overwhelmed by what they saw (John 2:11).

That stunning transformation by Jesus isn’t a new theme in biblical faith. The poem from Isaiah anticipates Jesus by lyrically asserting the transformation of Jerusalem and God’s people, who are beset by misery and discouragement. Israel and Jerusalem, it is anticipated, will exhibit glory not unlike that of Jesus, with a new name and a new life (Isaiah 62:2). The transformation is from “forsaken” and “desolate,” to “my delight is in her” and “married” (Isaiah 62:4). The poet uses the imagery of an abandoned woman, who in ancient patriarchal society was an object of shame and contempt. Jerusalem in exile was an object of contempt. Now God, cast as husband, marries her and offers new life. While the imagery is problematic, the point is clear enough: The city is given new life by the goodness of God.

These radical transformations, Psalm 36 attests, happen out of God’s fidelity, expressed in the three covenant terms “steadfast love” (three times), “faithfulness,” and “righteousness.” Those who witness and accept God’s gifts of newness are bound for a new life, one committed to the “common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).

[ January 24 ]
Torah and Spirit

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31; Luke 4:14-21

This cluster of texts presents us with a tension that revolves around “the law and the prophets.” The two Hebrew Testament texts are preoccupied with the Torah (the law). The narrative of Nehemiah 8 tells of the full realization of the Torah by Ezra, an event commonly regarded as the founding event of Judaism wherein Israel became “a people of the scroll,” committed to all of the narrative lore and deep memory that gives identity to Jews.

Psalm 19 juxtaposes the wonder of creation (verses 1-6) and the life-giving power of the Torah (verses 7-10). It is the Torah that is “reviving the soul … making wise the simple … rejoicing the heart … enlightening the eyes … enduring forever.” The Torah makes creation go around in an orderly, beautiful fashion; Israel responds in glad obedience to that world-guaranteeing tradition.

The Luke narrative presents Jesus preaching from Isaiah 61 in his hometown. The text concerns “the year of the Lord’s favor,” the Jubilee year. Jesus is led by the spirit to do the text (Luke 4:18-19). Thus we have, in these texts, the juxtaposition of Torah and Spirit, the old tradition and the free-breathing imagination of the Spirit. The church is Torah-based and Spirit-led. The community that responds to Torah-and-Spirit is a community of belonging (1 Corinthians 12:14), wherein all have accepted “a still more excellent way” that culminates in forgiveness and other acts of jubilee.

[ January 31 ]
Subversive Lives

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:12-30

The more excellent way of the gospel is a way of generous forgiveness that hopes all things and forgives all things. It is a way that is against the grain of the world, so that the church is called to a daring, subversive life in the world. The performance of that way in the world is demanding and costly.

We have two examples of the more excellent way that is against the grain. Jeremiah is called to radical obedience against the political economy of his day. He does not want such a call, but God sends him on his way of obedience (Jeremiah 1:6-7). Second, Jesus signs on for the same vocation and receives the same rude reception. He has declared jubilee through his own life. He showed the radicalness of jubilee by reference to a foreign woman and a foreign general. In response, they tried to drive him out and kill him (Luke 4:25-30).

Both Jeremiah and Jesus are grossly unwelcome, and their lives are at risk. We may imagine the two of them falling back on the prayer world of the psalms to cope with their burden. They fall back on Psalm 71, a prayer for rescue from “the grasp of the unjust and the cruel” (Psalm 71:4). The prayer confidently assumes God’s readiness to respond and sustain. They know that the God who calls is the God who rescues.

“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at www.sojo.net/ptw.

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