The Common Good
February 2010

An Answering God

by Walter Brueggemann | February 2010

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle C

The readings for February include the final Sundays of Epiphany and the first Sundays of Lent, linked by the pivot of Ash Wednesday.

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The two Sundays of Epiphany feature the wondrous transformative power of the gospel God who has capacity to make all things new. That proclivity of God is evident in the glow on Moses’ face and in the dazzle of the transformed Christ. The consequence of such an exhibit of God’s wondrous power is to recruit disciples to a fearless, buoyant obedience in the world.
 
The two Sundays in Lent summon us to focus on the God who answers us as the only secure source of well-being in the world. The worldly implication of this summons is that life in faith contradicts the way the world is organized and calls us to an alternative life of fearless discipline.
 
The placement of Ash Wednesday amid these Sunday readings focuses our attention on reconciliation to God that empowers our reconciling work in the world. A Lenten people is not to hunker down in remorse or in self-preoccupation, but to approach the world where God has put us afresh, with the transformative work of a “new fast” that may reorder the political economy.
 
The lectionary is unrelenting in its narrative about another life in another world, the one that God wills and gives. Readers are endlessly in the process of deciding, always yet again, for the alternative, refusing the seductions of the “belly”-propelled regime.
 
Walter Brueggemann, a Sojourners contributing editor, is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.
 
[ February 7 ]
A Divine Response
Isaiah 6:1-13; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11
 
This cluster of texts evidences the grand drama of the gospel from human need to transformative divine response to a new life. The drama begins in the reality of human need and the inability of humans to resolve that need themselves. Isaiah 6:5 and Luke 5:8 offer an admission of powerlessness in the face of sin. In the psalm the trouble is an enemy from which deliverance is required (Psalm 138:7). In the lyric of Paul (1 Corinthians 15), the human condition concerns the power of death. Thus the predicament of sin, enemies, and death attests to the helplessness of the actors in the text.
 
The response of God to such need overwhelms and cancels out the trouble. The God of the gospel is an answering God. Isaiah is answered by “blotting out sin” (Isaiah 6:7). In the gospel story it is, “Do not be afraid” (Luke 5:10). The psalmist can say, “On the day I called, you answered me” (Psalm 138:3). In 1 Corinthians 15, it is a “victory” (v. 57). The claim of faith is that our vexed life has been answered and resolved by the attentive mercy of God.
 
Such divine answering has consequences. Isaiah is “sent” (Isaiah 6:8-9). The disciples “follow” (Luke 5:11). The psalmist erupts in thanks. The Easter church stands “steadfast and immovable” (1 Corinthians 15:58). The word is out that life in faith is answered and summoned to new obedience.
 
[ February 14 ]
A Church ‘Aglow’
Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12 - 4:2; Luke 9:28-43
 
The reports of Moses’ shiny face and of Jesus with a changed face offer “theophanies,” accounts of the inscrutable, inexplicable exhibit of God’s transformative power. Both Moses and Jesus take on dazzling form that attests to God’s overwhelming presence. The voice of heaven makes this exhibit, for the church, a sign that Jesus is indeed God’s rule come near. In Jesus, God’s power of new governance is resident and visible.
 
That dazzling exhibit of God’s power in human agents is beyond rational explanation. We are meant to be dazzled, and by being dazzled, also metamorphosed. The dazzling, in these lessons, has two important outcomes. First, the exhibit of God’s shining power evokes exuberant, unfettered praise. In Psalm 99, the community of witnesses remembers Moses (Psalm 99:6-7) and in Christian purview anticipates Jesus, gladly acknowledging the new governance of God in the world. Second, Paul avers that the church is “transformed into the same image,” entrusted with a new freedom and recruited to a demanding ministry without being discouraged (“losing heart”). Such dazzling leads to courage for ministry, which in turn leads to truthfulness about the world and singularity of conscience. That is, the exhibit has insistent ethical outcomes. This shining is not a “phenomenon” by which to be dazzled, but a summons to ministry “outside the box” of untransformed assumptions, having been transformed. Beyond Moses and Jesus, it is the church that is caused to be “aglow.”
 
[ February 17 ]
Reconciled Living
Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 51:1-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20 - 6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
 
These texts refuse and resist the conventional Lenten accent on pious self-denial. They have in mind not preoccupation with failure and inadequacy, but rather a future-oriented embrace of new life that God will accomplish through a daring obedience. The daring obedience of “the new fast” in Isaiah 58 is the recovery of neighborliness alongside the oppressed, the hungry, the naked, and the homeless poor.
 
The bid of these texts is to be reconciled, to overcome the alienations. What strikes one is that these texts are buoyant and hope-filled. Psalm 51, the most familiar of all psalmic confessions, does not grovel in guilt. By verse 10 it eagerly petitions for a new life and never doubts that God will give it. The cluster of imperatives in Psalm 51:10-12 anticipates God’s ready capacity for restoration and sustenance, and a new heart and spirit—in short, a life fully in sync with God’s good purposes.
 
In his somewhat self-pitying inventory, Paul pivots around the imperative “be reconciled”—be reconciled to God, with no doubt that what will surely follow is reconciliation with the neighbor. These texts turn Lent away from personal piety toward a world that may be healed. For us Lent is now set in a world of deathliness, profiled as poverty, violence, greed, and acres of inhumanity. The good news is that it need not be so! We may ponder how a reconciled, reconciling life may be lived.
 
[ February 21 ]
Ultimate Security
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13
 
These texts constitute a meditation on a primal human question: “Who will make us safe?” The answer, in biblical context, is not a surprise. The only security is trust in God:
  • Deuteronomy 26 is a classic affirmation concerning the God who saves, provides, and protects. This God is powerfully and totally committed to God’s treasured people.
  • Psalm 91 is a poetic affirmation about the protective God for the journey. The psalmist names the many threats on the journey of life, and then points to God’s protective angels who keep us safe from snakes, lions, and every threat.
  • Paul affirms “salvation” for all who trust in Christ, for this God is “Lord of all” and “generous to all who call on him” (Romans 10:12). There is no qualifying condition. We need only shun other helps and trust completely.

The narrative of Luke offers a challenge to this threefold affirmation. The tempter seeks to talk Jesus out of his security and his vocation by offering other fake modes of well-being. In Luke 4:10 the tempter quotes from our psalm as a way of seduction. But Jesus refuses the offer. (In the reprise of the same story in Matthew 4:11, the angels of Psalm 91 minister to Jesus, just as promised.)

Lent is a time to sort out and refuse the other offers and to embrace the only reliable gift of well-being. Imagine choosing the Lord of the gospel rather than money, control, and power—the usual seductions in our society.
 
[ February 28 ]
Alternate Citizenship
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17 - 4:1; Luke 13:31-35
The gospel reading portrays Jesus in sharp contradiction to the dominant ordering of Herod and Rome. Jesus heals and casts out demons, whereas the dominant order of Herod is itself wounding and demonic. In his grief over the dominant order in Jerusalem, Jesus anticipates a future that will be ordered in healthy, messianic ways. The theme for the day is contradiction and alternative.
 
Paul’s word is an echo of the teaching of Jesus. He characterizes the “enemies of the cross” as preoccupied with commodities (“belly” in Philippians 3:18-19). He invites his congregation to an alternative, to remember that there is another “citizenship” (in heaven), so that they are not to be committed participants in the dominant culture of commoditization.
 
The Hebrew Testament readings readily serve the same themes of contradiction and alternative. Abraham is presented as one who trusts God’s promises (for an heir and for land), who does not need to grasp for self but can receive what is to be given. The psalmist, finally, sorts out fear and trust, settling for trust in God that counters the conventional fears of the world, awaiting “the land of the living.”
 
The readings converge for a Lenten community that is focused on the demanding, glorious truth of the gospel. Such a community can embrace ample distance from dominant values of violence (killing prophets), serving the belly, grasping for self, and fearing too much. The gospel invites otherwise!
 
“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online re-source for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at www.sojo.net/ptw.

 

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