The Common Good
January 2011

Walking With the Light of the World

by Walter Brueggemann | January 2011

Epiphany is the exhibit of Jesus in the world. The early church was utterly enthralled by Jesus, but did not find it so easy to characterize him.

Epiphany is the exhibit of Jesus in the world. The early church was utterly enthralled by Jesus, but did not find it so easy to characterize him. The early followers found that, in his radicality, he outran all of their explanatory categories. But they had to bear witness to him.

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For that reason the early church readily appealed to the promissory texts of the Old Testament and found that they anticipated his coming. In the prophetic promises of Isaiah and Jeremiah they found expectations of Jesus. The early church found guidance and comfort in the ancient psalms that celebrated God’s role in lyrical doxology, that acknowledged God as light, and that commanded a neighborly life in the world.

After prophetic promise and psalmic solace and guidance, the church issued its own evangelical conviction that Jesus is the beloved of God, the Word become flesh, the light of the world. They piled up images and phrases, because none was fully adequate to the wonder of his presence. And after all of that imaginative rhetoric, they concluded that it comes down to conduct that reflects his intent. After all of the talk about Jesus, there is the walk. The early church was summoned to a new righteousness, to bold decisions, to vulnerability in the world that attested the new governance of Jesus. Since then, the church has been coming to terms with the reality of Jesus, the one with whom God is well pleased.

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

[ January 2 ]
'Grant Us Peace'
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 147:12-20; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:1-18

In the Epiphany season the world gets its first good look at Jesus. The world seeks to locate Jesus in the categories it already has at hand. But of course Jesus shatters all of those categories and exhibits a newness that the world cannot domesticate. These texts are an effort to situate Jesus in the midst of the world.

In the poem of Jeremiah, God is gathering all the Jews home to well-being. The Jews are treated as God's beloved firstborn. And now, in the epistle reading, God has a plan to "gather up" of all the "adopted children" of God, all now valued like the first born (Ephesians 1:5, 10).

The awesome truth of Jesus requires special articulation. John affirms that Jesus is the very word of the Creator "full of grace and truth." Paul lets wondrous words and phrases tumble out, one after another, to articulate Jesus as the one who "gathers up all things," according to the purpose of the Creator. Both of these testimonies locate Jesus on the screen of creation to show that his birth and his life are events of cosmic proportion. Both John and Paul speak of Jesus as the "truth" of God, the truth being grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation (John 1:14; Ephesians 1:13). In Christian imagination, all the creatures are wrought through Jesus. He is the one who "grants peace" (Psalm 147:14). Those who praise him and trust him live in and toward a shalom that contradicts the destructiveness of a tired world. No wonder his creation erupts in joy.

[ January 9 ]
A Glorious Contradiction
Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

In the Isaiah reading, God’s servant is an answer to the waiting of the world. Three times it is asserted that the servant will do "justice" among the nations (42:1, 3, 4). That justice will be concerned with the healing and rehabilitation of the blind and prisoners, representative of those not given a fair deal by the world.

Jesus’ baptism marks him as the one who will do God’s good pleasure. In the bold preaching of Peter, Jesus is acknowledged as "Lord of all" (Acts 10:36) who has power to heal and to overcome the power of evil (verse 38), and grant forgiveness (verse 43). God’s power for life, invested in Jesus, is stronger than the power of death. Jesus is the vehicle of God’s rule that yields all that is needed for the well-being of the world.

Psalm 29 is a grand doxology of God's rule that overrides the chaos of the flood and ends in shalom (verses 10-11). These readings all together ponder God’s resolve for the world and locate it in the life of Jesus. The gospel offer of shalom for the world contradicts the nullification of the world on its deathliness. It is the glorious contradiction that is the ground of faith and the opening for action among those who sign on with this one in whom God is well pleased.

[ January 16 ]
Power in Weakness
Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11;
1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

Jesus appears as "the Lamb of God," the one offered as a valuable sacrifice (John 1:29, 36). By the end of the paragraph, the Lamb is recognized as the awaited Messiah, the one who will enact all the ancient expectations of Israel. The twinning of "Lamb" and "Messiah" evidences the way in which Jesus, from the outset, is seen as power-in-weakness, as authority-in-vulnerability, the newness that will confound the authorities of the world and make newness possible.

The church's task is to let the world have access to this power-in-weakness that will transform reality. Thus the Isaiah text witnesses that God gives Israel and then Jesus as light to the world and as salvation to the ends of the earth (49:6), salvation that extends into every venue of need in the world. The psalm expresses thanksgiving to God for rescue. In this context the great rescue of the world is what God has done in and through Jesus. The outcome is the "glad news" that is told in public (verse 9) concerning God’s faithfulness and steadfast love.

The event of Jesus shows God to be eagerly invested in the life of the world. In John's gospel, the summoning of Peter (John 1:41) shows that Jesus initiates a movement in the world that is the gathering of all those who will live in "abundance" with "spiritual gifts" until his rule is complete (1 Corinthians 1:2, 7, 8).

[ January 23 ]
Becoming Fearless
Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 4-9;
1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

There is something about the darkness that is ominous and scary, when powers we cannot see haunt and threaten us. These texts look the darkness of oppression and abandonment in the face, receive the light, and become fearless.

The poem in Isaiah imagined a new king who would be light against the darkness of Assyrian oppression. Matthew takes over the poem of Isaiah and quotes it with reference to Jesus (Matthew 4:15-16). Jesus then issues an imperative summons to repent. The repentance to which he summons is a bold recognition that the world has changed. It is under new governance! His governance of light, freedom, joy, and well-being has displaced the old governance of exploitation, oppression, fear, and anxiety. Jesus enacts a dramatic transformation of the world.

We read Psalm 27 in the context of the "light" of Isaiah and Matthew. The psalm avers that God is "my light and my salvation;" cringing fear of the dark is no longer appropriate. God is a presence and shelter who protects from every threat.

When "the light" is acknowledged in the church, there is no need for contentious quarreling. Paul addressed the Corinthian church in deep dispute (verses 12-13). Those addressed are invited to gather around the cross that summons beyond petty self-regard to be "in agreement" and "united in the same mind" (verse 10). Only those frightened in the darkness use their energy to quarrel.

[ January 30 ]
Like Good Neighbors
Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12

The appearance of Jesus has demanding ethical implications. Christians are to exhibit the rule of Christ in their lives by conduct that is congruent with God's will and character. Psalm 15 is a recital of behavioral norms expected of those who come to worship YHWH: Act like good neighbors! Depart from the conventional ways of power and control! The poetry in Micah famously commends Israel to justice, mercy, and humility (verse 8). The specifics of the psalm and the large summons of the prophetic oracle of Micah both concern neighborliness. They resist actions that seek power or control at the expense of the neighbor. They remind us both of how radical the summons of faith is, and how ignoble the power practices of common life have become among us.

The "beatitudes" of Jesus in Matthew are fully congruent with these covenental norms. Israel knows that covenantal obedience results in covenantal blessings. Jesus offers an inventory of behaviors that will result in blessings of well-being. The sum of them attests to faithfulness that matches the faithfulness of God, a way of life that resists self-serving initiatives. Paul radicalizes such conduct by appealing to the wisdom and strength of the cross. The people around Jesus shun worldly strength and worldly wisdom and live out the life that Jesus modeled and to which he summoned his followers. Clearly "life in Christ" is a radically different life in the world.

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

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