Faith leads us into the abyss of death, and these lectionary readings are honest about that journey. It is the death faced by Jesus when he was executed by the empire, the death to which the church is called. Good Friday is about the losses that go with that contradiction.
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But the texts are also hope-filled about a move out of that abyss into God’s gift of new life. As Easter is the new life given to Christ, so Easter is the new life offered to the church—and eventually to the world. The crisis among us now in our society is that the new life to which we are called, one of generous hospitality, is not like the old life we have lost. The new life—filled with joy and shaped like forgiveness—is one of demanding resolve and fidelity.
Walter Brueggemann, a Sojourners contributing editor, is professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.
Light in a Dark Valley
1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
We live, from time to time, in “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). That valley in many forms is marked by risk and threat. But in every such valley we are kept safe, because God has the capacity to guard, protect, and eventually make new. By the end of the psalm, the speaker is safe in God’s “goodness and mercy” (verse 6).
That transformative power of God—to make safe, to fill cups, to set tables (Psalm 23:4-5)—is evident in our two narratives. The prophet Samuel finds a new king for Israel, David, on whom God’s spirit rushes, an act that creates a new possibility for Israel. More spectacular is the healing of the blind man in the gospel narrative. The man bears witness to the power of God to overcome blindness and create new possibility.
Lent is a time to ponder the “valley” and to relish the goodness of God that makes all things new. As the valley in the psalm is also translated “darkest valley,” the epistle reading takes up the theme of “darkness” and witnesses to the light of the Lord in which the faithful may walk. Paul’s teaching details the “unfruitful works of darkness” that disappoint God and damage the neighbor. Now the faithful are “children of the light,” who are to live differently in the world (Ephesians 5:8).
These texts trace the central plot of the gospel from darkness through God’s newness of life and sight, to a new ethic of what is “good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:9). Our life is in a society that mostly has lost its way in the darkness of what is not good, not right, and not true. Those who draw close to God’s goodness, however, are not fated to such an existence, but can live alternatively in the world. We are summoned to make “the most of the time” (Ephesians 5:16).
[ April 10 ]
Scandal and Wonder
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45
The faithful receive new life in the power of God. The dramatic presentation of that claim is the gospel narrative wherein Jesus summons his dead friend, Lazarus, to new life in the face of death. He says to him: “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43). And he is released for new life. This gift of new life is the bottom line and the scandal and the wonder of the gospel: the power of God.
That narrative (and others like it in the orbit of Jesus) has an Old Testament antecedent. In Ezekiel 37, the prophet is offered a vision of the “dry bones” of Israel brought to new life by the spirit of God. The imagery refers to the homecoming and restoration of Israel, but the rhetoric concerns resurrection of the dead! In context, resurrection is the power and will of God to restore this defeated, displaced, despairing people, after it has been routed and humiliated by the force of empire, to real life in the world. “Resurrection faith” is lined out variously in the Bible physically, literally, historically, symbolically, and metaphorically. We can see in the Lazarus narrative how the literal report shades over into the theological (verses 25-27). We need not quibble, however, because the narrative claim in any case runs well beyond our explanatory categories.
The psalm suggests that God’s power for life takes the form of forgiveness that frees from the burdens of sin and guilt that immobilize. As is evident in the Jesus stories, the gift of life and readiness to forgive are synonymous (see Mark 2:9). The power of death enslaves; the power of guilt immobilizes. And God, in these texts, manifests the power to liberate the enslaved and reconcile the alienated. It is no wonder that Paul becomes lyrical about the resurrection that is a continuing force, as God’s spirit “dwells in you” (Romans 8:11). Resurrection is not only an event; it also a continual state of empowered living.
[ April 17 ]
Praying in the Abyss
Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 27:11-54
In Christian confession, Friday is the day of loss and defeat; Sunday is the day of recovery and victory. Friday and Sunday summarize the drama of the gospel that continues to be re-performed, always again, in the life of faith. In the long gospel reading, we hear the Friday element of that drama: the moment when Jesus cries out to God in abandonment (Matthew 27: 46). This reading does not carry us, for this day, toward the Sunday victory, except for the anticipatory assertion of the Roman soldier who recognized that Jesus is the power of God for new life in the world (verse 54). Given that anticipation, the reading invites the church to walk into the deep loss in hope of walking into the new life that will come at the end of the drama.
That Friday-Sunday drama of loss and recovery, defeat and victory, is given classical doxological expression in the astonishing hymn of Philippians 2:5-11. The poetry lines out the events of Christ’s life, marking both the humiliation of Christ before the empire in his self-emptying obedience and his exaltation given by God. For Paul, the story of Jesus, in this lyrical summary, becomes the way the church is to live. The church empties itself in obedience in order to be honored by God.
But the Friday-Sunday drama can be told and enacted not only as a narrative about Jesus or as a doxological lyric. The psalm shows that the same drama pertains, in a pastoral idiom, to the life of the faithful. The psalmist describes a life of futility marked by scorn and suffering humiliation (Psalm 31:9-13); but the reading ends with the powerful disjunction “but” in verse 14: “But I trust in you.” The psalmist, speaking for every person of faith, prays in the abyss of futility but anticipates deliverance into new life by the faithfulness of God. It is that trust, even in the abyss of alienation, that becomes the seedbed of Easter newness.
[ April 24 ]
Awake in an ‘Eastered World’
Jeremiah 31:1-6; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 28:1-10
The wonder of Easter is not for arguing or explaining or disputing in order to domesticate it to our categories of reasonableness. It is for storytelling that leaves us in awe and for preaching that asserts in the world what the church knows deeply and trusts completely. Both story and sermon break out of Friday defeat into God’s wonder. The story, according to Matthew, is dominated by the double “Do not fear,” spoken first by the angel and then by Jesus. Peter’s sermon in Acts lines out the way the church talks about the Easter miracle before both the astonished crowds and the vexed authorities.
We may accent four of the themes from that sermon. First, the truth of Easter is continuous with Jesus’ earthly life of healing the oppressed (Acts 10:38). In the tradition of the creeds, the life of Jesus is lost, but the apostles knew better. It is his visible ministry that helps us to ponder the wonder of Easter. Second, his appearance is to the faithful who were chosen. Easter is an event in the life of the church, among those who position themselves in his presence ready to be nourished. Third, Easter is a mandate to the church to proclaim, to go public with the news that will disturb the authorities, for his resurrection means the end of their pretense of control. Fourth, it is all about forgiveness, exactly what the imperial authorities could not fathom or permit.
The two Old Testament readings help us situate Easter in Israel’s faith. In the poetry of Jeremiah, God promises to rebuild and restore, on the basis of God’s everlasting love. The psalm begins and ends with God’s fidelity; sandwiched between is the responsiveness of God, Israel’s gratitude for God’s attentiveness (verse 21), and Israel’s deep joy (verse 24). We can imagine all of Israel, all of the church, and eventually an “Eastered world” poised with tambourines and much merry-making, ready for God’s newness (Jeremiah 31:4).
“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at www.sojo.net/ptw.