The Common Good
March 2011

Trusting God's Inexplicable Goodness

by Walter Brueggemann | March 2011

Reflect;ion on the Revisd Common Lectionary, Cycle A: Transfiguration, False Desire to LIfe, Can We Start Again, and High-Water Mark.

The final Sunday after Epiphany witnesses to Jesus -- Jesus alone—as a lamp in darkness. The imagery is compelling for our society, now in a season of dismaying darkness that awaits a lamp of guidance and assurance. Lent invites us to restored life with God, being able to start again when we come to a failed end, and being given water from the midst of the intransigent "rock" of life on our own. Then the texts witness to a fresh offer of life that is given by God in the life of Jesus. It is life that contradicts our usual way. It walks us through self-surrender and relinquishment to the surprise of living water, shining light, and ample love.

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

These texts witness to the overwhelming reality of God, who refuses all of our explanatory categories and who meets us in awesome inscrutability. The Old Testament texts appeal to the two defining traditions of Israel’s faith. The Exodus reading concerns the holy mountain (Sinai) where Moses is permitted to rendezvous with God. Psalm 2 attests to the tradition of David and the designation of David as God’s "son" who will be God’s governing agent in the world. The traditions of Sinai and David together evidence God’s majesty, rule, and effective governance in the world.

The reading in 2 Peter brings these two quite distinct traditions together. In verse 18 there is an appeal to the Mount of Transfiguration from the gospel reading, behind which is the experience of Moses in the cloud of Mt. Sinai. In verse 17, the Davidic designation of the psalm is reiterated with reference to Jesus. Both Sinai and David are drawn to the wondrous authority of Jesus. These claims for the tradition are framed in verses 16 and 20 by reference to "cleverly devised myths" and "one's own interpretation." The church faces the temptation of going astray, either by available ideologies or by subjective private reading. The church, in its interpretation and testimony, is under the Spirit’s authority and cannot have the gospel on its own willful terms.

Matthew's gospel narrative exhibits Jesus as the one who commands and assuages fearfulness among his disciples. In the end it is "Jesus himself alone" who matters (Matthew 17:8). It is enough to have the rule of Christ as "as a lamp shining in a dark place" (2 Peter 1:19).

[ March 13 ]
False Desire to Life
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32;
Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

Psalm 32 offers one of the most acute analyses of the power and cost of sin -- and the way out of the torment of sin. It knows that we are "happy" when forgiven and restored to relationship with God (verses 1-2), that we are immobilized when out of sync with God (verses 3-4), and that the route from being burdened to being happy is by truth-telling (verse 5). The deep either/or is the reality of the "torments" of alienation or the "steadfast love" of reconciliation (verse 10). These ancients understood the deep processes of alienation and reconciliation before they came to be expressed in modern, scientific categories.

The Genesis reading about the "garden of desire," and the complementary epistle reading in Romans, concern the deep, insatiable human propensity to live out of sync with God through an uncontrolled (uncontrollable?) desire. Human persons are propelled in ways that we do not understand to live in willful self-assertion or in willful abdication -- either way refusing the covenantal, dialogical invitation to be God's partner in the life of the world. As the Genesis reading gives dramatic force to that compulsion, so the reading from Romans 5 counters the power of false desire with the power of Christ, who is God's decisive resolution of such alienation. Matthew 4 exhibits Jesus as the one who has the capacity to resist such tempting desire and so to defeat the elemental force of false desire that so occupies and commands the world. The route from alienation to reconciliation is a path that we travel over and over. Thus we may believe that Psalm 32 is -- in ways both didactic and liturgical -- a reiterated process whereby its practitioners move from false desire to a shared life with and before God.

[ March 20 ]
Can We Start Again?
Genesis 12:1-4; Psalm 121;
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17

It is by the power of God that we may begin anew. Everyone knows about being mired down, fatigued, discouraged, or even immobilized. Everyone in such a state knows that one cannot be a self-starter and lift oneself by one's own effort. We are not and cannot be that self-sufficient! These readings are studies of exemplars of faith who have begun again by the power of God.

Father Abraham is in a state of hopelessness, because he and his wife Sarah are barren and have no heir. And then God intervenes and addresses Abraham and Sarah. God commands them to go in obedience, and promises them a radical, durable newness if they go. And they go! They receive a new land and eventually they receive a son who will be their heir. They had a future opened for them. Their story is all about the power of God’s promise. Paul’s exposition in Romans 4 takes Abraham as a carrier of the newness that is to be initiated again by God’s grace so that all can begin again, not by merit or worth, but by God’s ready power. Indeed, not only human persons can begin again; so it is even with the world. For the creator God calls worlds into being that do not exist, even as the Lord of life "gives life to the dead" (Romans 4:17).

John's gospel concerns the case study of Nicodemus, the Jewish teacher. He is invited by Jesus to begin again, to be born "from above" (3:3). He does not quite get it, and so he disappears from the text. But the point is clear enough. The God who loves the world is the God who gives new life to those in it, because God’s Spirit-wind blows freely where it will (John 3:8). It is the wind of love, the offer of new life that is inexplicable and quite beyond our control.

Both the Abraham text and the Nicodemus text entail going where we have not yet been ... into God's new life. For that reason Psalm 121 is a fitting companion piece. That psalm is about a journey, being safe on the way even if the route is dangerous. Thus we can imagine father Abraham being one for whom God will "neither slumber nor sleep" (Psalm 121:4), and Nicodemus being invited to be kept by God in his "going out and [his] coming in" (verse 8). The journey is to return again to God's newness; we may be safe in God's care as we travel.

[ March 27 ]
High-Water Mark
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

God is the good gift who keeps on giving. These texts converge in the wonder that God gives; we receive and live by what we receive from God. The subtext is that we cannot, of our own power and resources, generate life for ourselves. We are dependent upon God’s faithful generosity, without which we cannot live.

The Exodus narrative is about the gift of water from rock. In an arid context Moses is instructed by God to secure water from rock, an unlikely source. The counterpoint in the narrative is that Israel "quarreled and tested" God, unwilling to trust itself to God's inexplicable goodness.

The reason we read Psalm 95 now is that in its latter verses there is an allusion to the crisis in Exodus 17. Verses 7-11 of the psalm portray the hard-hearted who do not trust God and always test God’s fidelity. Verses 1-6, by contrast, offer a people who willingly belong to and rely on God. It is as though the two parts of the psalm voice the choices always offered in faith: either trust in God’s goodness or choose a pervasive doubt that trusts none.

John’s gospel narrative works the same "water" theme. Here it concerns the thirsty woman at the well. She has a hard time moving from the literal to the metaphorical; when she "gets it," she sees that Jesus is now the water of life that will sustain in every arid context. Jesus is the great sustainer!

In Romans 5, the move goes further from the gift of water to the abundance of God's love. It is boundless love that nourishes and sustains. The imagery is an overflowing abundance that meets every need. Of course the water-love of God is given via God’s suffering in Christ, in which the disciples are called to share. Lent is a time for relinquishing self-sufficiency and drinking deeply of water that ends in glad obedience. The folk in Psalm 95:1-6 are committed to glad obedience, reliant on God, and committed to God’s alternative way 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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