Embracing the Powers that Be

God’s saving power is for all people across time and space. God wills us to believe in divine power, to call upon it, and to respond in faith when we perceive it at work around or within us. We get so lost in our own limited realities that we forget the reality of what is possible with God. We put human power above God, forgetting that God called all creation into being. Power begins and ends with God. And God cares about the details of God’s creation, from the awe-inspiring placing of the stars in the universe to domestic care for ailing mothers-in-law. Continually God uses God’s power to draw us to fullness.

We endure and continue in faith only because of God’s sustaining Spirit—yet we still have responsibilities. What do we do with the invitations to belief, discipline, commitment, perseverance, witness, and proclamation? How do we remain open to God’s transforming power, allowing our lives be a light that breaks through the darkness of fear, hunger, sickness, poverty, oppression, enslavement, and captivity? The first three Sundays this month steep us in the reality of God’s power and presence. We are reminded who God is, of what God is capable, and how we are called to follow. The month closes with the first Sunday of Lent. We know what the coming weeks will bring. The reality of Lent could not be endured without the reality of God’s power and presence offered in these initial weeks.

Enuma Okoro, of Durham, North Carolina, is the author of Reluctant Pilgrim and co-author of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.

[ February 5 ]
Wonder-Working Power
Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11,20c;
1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

Apparently, we have forgotten the creative and ongoing power that God wields in the world. Not only is God powerful, but God chooses to use God’s power for human restoration. The author of Isaiah acknowledges that all of us grow weary, bone-weary even. But our circumstances are never a limitation for God (Isaiah 40:28-31).

God is praiseworthy because God is God and works in history to nurture and heal the broken, to provide for all creation (Psalm 147:1-9). God is more interested in our trust and dependence than in any natural strength and ability (Psalm 147:10-11). Yet so many of us struggle to believe in God’s real power in the world. Isaiah 40 beckons us to remember who God is, to reflect on God’s work in the past, to believe and trust in God’s power and strength in the future, no matter how bad things get. It’s funny how we can continue to hope in political leaders to bring change on our behalf no matter how much they mess up and stumble. But trusting in the One who called all things into being is so difficult for us.

Mark’s gospel speaks to how God’s healing, redeeming, and forgiving power in Jesus goes from the domestic sphere out to the world. Do we believe in this healing power? Do we believe it is for all people, as Paul wrote? Do we acknowledge that the center of that power is the reconciling gospel message? Within that message of God’s love and redemption is the power to heal the suffering of humanity in a myriad of ways. It is interesting that Paul desires to be “all things to all people” for the sake of sharing that gospel message, not for the sake of meeting every perceived human need (1 Corinthians 9:16-23). Jesus did not meet every perceived need as the crowds pressed in on him. His mission was to spread the gospel of God’s power and love as far as possible (Mark 1:36-39). While all our needs are secondary to that essential core, Jesus was also training disciples to continue the work of meeting human need after his ascension.

[ February 12 ]
The Power of Proclamation
2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30;
1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45

There are several themes at work in these texts. One is that human characters play a pivotal role as they proclaim that power comes from God, not humans. There is a clear distinction between worldly power and divine power (2 Kings 5:7). Kings, and even prophets, have their abilities, but even these stem from God. The captive Israelite girl tells her captors of the prophet Elisha’s power, which comes from the God of Israel. Elisha can only cure Naaman because of the God of Israel. Jesus cures the lepers by power and authority from God. Paul and all followers of Christ are empowered to live, preach, teach, and spread the gospel only by the grace and sustenance of the Holy Spirit.

Another theme is that the genuine witness in these narratives comes from those on society’s margins—the captive girl, the healed leper, even Naaman’s servants. What could this suggest about the spaces where we listen for God’s activity? These characters believed in the healing power of God and in God’s desire to heal (Mark 1:40). How do we recognize, call on, and anticipate God’s power—and God’s willingness to use such power to transform our own lives, both personally and publicly? In a world full of crisis, who most needs to hear the psalmist’s praise of a God who does not leave us in our suffering? God hears human distress and is capable of delivering us of our varied afflictions.

A third theme is the responsibility God’s power places on those who follow God. To run the race in such a way that we may receive the prize (1 Corinthians 9:24-27) largely means to train ourselves in the disciplines of the spiritual life. It is only by such disciplines that we might be able to proclaim the good news to all people as God intends it—not just with words, but by how we physically enter into one another’s pain and suffering.

[ February 19 ]
Passing the Baton
2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6;
2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

It is fascinating that in a political culture like ours, where various leaders of questionable character are vying for our attention and trust, we rarely talk about how we groom and nurture future leaders. Unfortunately, it’s often the same in faith communities. Where are Christian leaders focusing on transferring spiritual wisdom and insight to the next generation? Who are the future prophets? Who are the present prophets, for that matter? These texts remind us of our ongoing need to be faithful stewards of our knowledge of God’s presence and power, as well as realizing that God effects power in those whom God calls to leadership. Yet preparing good and faithful leaders also means preparing them for the long haul, for when things get rough and discipline and commitment are required more than ever.

God’s address in Psalm 50 is a beautiful and convicting word about divine agency and human responsibility. “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice” (verse 5). God is the primary and initiating agent in history. God enters the world, speaks into the world, and expects creation to listen and respond with faithful worship and action. When Jesus takes the three disciples up the mountain to witness the transfiguration, he is grooming them for discipleship. He is exposing them to God’s power and presence, and preparing them for the days to come. Jesus has yet to reach the cross. The time will come, after the resurrection, when the disciples will further reap the fruit of this training and bear witness to the light that has come into the world (Mark 9:9). Likewise, the way that we witness to our own encounters with God is part of proclaiming light in the darkness, pointing to Christ amidst false gods. We too need to remember that life with Christ is not all mountaintop experiences. How are we seeking to stay focused and committed when the going gets tough or when we are called to new roles of challenging leadership? Elisha asked his mentor Elijah for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, perhaps because Elisha knew that the journey with and called by God was not easy (2 Kings 2:1-12).

[ February 26 ]
God’s Promises Prevail
Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10;
1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

It is the first Sunday in Lent, the season of journeying with Jesus through the wilderness and contemplating the cost of discipleship. What better way to begin than by receiving the powerful words God offers to creation, in Genesis 9? God has made an everlasting covenant with creation that transcends time and space. Before we begin our Lenten journey, we are reminded that God is always present with us and that God’s promises will prevail. Jesus receives a similar word of affirmation and blessing before beginning his difficult ministry. God’s Spirit claims Jesus as God’s own (Mark 1:11). What could be more sustaining than that, especially since Jesus believed that God was who God claimed to be?

Yet, powerful as the words are, we all know that life’s journey is painful and, at times, deeply lonely. In the coming weeks, Jesus will learn more of this. The epistle of 1 Peter is a word of grace to us who still walk the trials of life. First, we are joined to Christ in baptism. God claims us just as God claimed Jesus. Second, God in Christ knows personally of trial, suffering, and injustice. Third, read with Genesis and Mark’s gospel, the epistle mercifully reminds us that God has endured the worst of it on our behalf. We then can dwell on Psalm 25 with renewed vigor, hope, belief, trust, and dependence on God. Those who trust in and wait on God will not be put to shame. God is merciful and steadfast in love. As God keeps God’s covenantal promise, we are called to bear our own weight by seeking to know God’s ways, be led in truth and obedience, and live as though we trust that “all the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness for those who keep his covenant and decrees” (Psalm 25:10).

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

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