The Common Good
March 2014

God's Dangerous Promises

by Joy J. Moore | March 2014

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle A

INVITATIONS COME. Yet an expressed desire for your presence does not guarantee your willingness to show up. Invitations require a response. Some responses indicate significant commitment beyond “just showing up.” A summons may first entail an RSVP indicating a commitment to actually take an active part in the opportunity.

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Such is the case for the people of God. Invitations arrived inviting God’s people to be witnesses to the power and presence of a particular God and to become a people who practice justice and favor kindness—peculiar expectations for an ancient culture, for any culture. A requirement of this sort unsettles the status quo of cultural mores where religion represents polytheistic attributions to a type of celestial Santa Claus or divine ATM, or where religion has been privatized—set aside from public prophetic witness to meditative reflection in the privacy of our own homes with occasional festive gatherings. Such genie-worship and privatization results in a deafening silence among the people of God. As Pope Francis put it recently, “a privatized lifestyle can lead Christians to take refuge in some false forms of spirituality.”

The promises that God calls us to are promises that Michael Frost, in Exiles, calls dangerous. They accompany dangerous memories that make a dangerous critique of society.

Over the next five weeks, the invitations extended in these texts indicate more than increasing the head count of seekers of spirituality. They require a response that signifies a commitment to participating in a community whose primary purpose is to expose the dangerous promise of God.

Joy J. Moore is associate dean for African-American church studies and assistant professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.

[ MARCH 2 ]
Eyewitnesses to Glory
Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

ENCOUNTERING GOD provokes an air of astonishment that is awe-filled and awful (Psalm 2:11). Responding to such an encounter with faithful service takes time, time with God (Exodus 24:18). Elizabeth Achtemeier notes this Exodus episode, when Moses goes up the mount and into the cloud of God, has been chosen for Transfiguration Sunday “because it speaks of the glory of the Lord descending on Mount Sinai ‘like a devouring fire.’” Jesus invites three of the 12 disciples up a “high mountain apart” (Matthew 17:1) where they will experience something evocative of what the Israelites witnessed when their leader ascended the mountain into the presence of God (Exodus 24:13, 16). When the chosen of God set time aside to be with God, the environmental “cloud cover” changes are noticeable (Exodus 24:15), alerting them to the reality of the divine transcendence. There is a god—and this God is awe-inspiring. For Peter, no doubt remembering the psalmist’s instruction to “serve the Lord with trembling” (Psalm 2:11), this is indeed a good moment, a moment to make into a dangerous memory, because “we were eyewitnesses” to the glory of God (2 Peter 1:16).

When was the last time your community experienced a corporate encounter with God—one that made you know both that “it is good for us to be here” (Matthew 17:4) and that required an entirely new set of practices (“the law and the commandment”) to honor the magnitude of the encounter (Exodus 24:12)?

[ MARCH 9 ]
Whom to Trust?
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

PURPOSE AND TRUST balance the texts for this week. Consider how Romans 5 supplies the idea that the consequences of one act of doubt negated the invitation for many to embody their purpose, while one act of trust reconciled many to righteousness (verse 19). The happiness we seek, says the psalmist, exists in trusting God’s forgiveness rather than the groans of deceit (Psalm 32:3).

Samuel Wells exhorts, “Genesis, chapter 2, tells us that God gave Adam and Eve ‘three Ps’—purpose, permission, and prohibition.” In chapter 3, Wells continues, we get “a definition of sin—it’s the substitution of knowledge and experience for trust and memory.”

When tempted, the first couple failed to remember that being made in the image of God was a trustworthy promise that they indeed were like God (Genesis 3). Without that memory, they forgot their purpose to embody God’s goodness and sought an experience beyond the invitation granted by the Creator. When Jesus encountered a similar temptation from Satan in the wilderness (Matthew 4), his memory permitted him to trust that his status before God could only be nullified by disobedience but never by interrogation.

Entering the season of Lent invites the church to remember: We are the promise. We are the called-out people of God who bear witness to the faithfulness of God to reconcile the world as demonstrated in Jesus Christ. When tempted to negate our task to be divine image bearers in a fallen world, choose a good conversation partner (Psalm 32:8).

[ MARCH 16 ]
New Laws or Hearts?
Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; Matthew 17:1-9

THIS SECOND SUNDAY in Lent follows the account of humanity responding to divine opportunity. In the context of rebellion (Genesis 3), family feuds (Genesis 4), and global disaster (Genesis 7), the masses seek to build a tower “so that we may make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4) other than God’s. Like the opening of a movie mystery, the next scene focuses the narrative on a particular protagonist. The nation born of Abraham and Sarah embodies the promise God makes on behalf of the scattered nations of Genesis 11 to call into existence things that seem no longer to exist: collaboration, unity, prosperity, and confidence in one’s heritage.

After the efforts to gain knowledge and build edifices that bear our name, the Jesus communities in ancient Rome are reminded to have faith in order to be released from the tyranny of the law. Glen Stassen reminds us “that passing civil rights laws and changing attitudes was not enough.” By choosing faith (trust) over the law, we are reminded that in Christ we have a confidence that God can use our ordinary everyday lives to give the world a glimpse of God’s glory (Matthew 17). This is the promise to Abraham and Sarah—that every nation would be blessed when God’s people were blessed. The benefits of living as if God reigns are not only for the Jews or the ancients. Today it means not making laws that disenfranchise segments of society. Such faith trusts that abundant life comes from God’s provision rather than human production.

[ March 23 ]
Risky Business
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42

ANSWERING A CALL is risky business. Moses is asked to be the leader among leaders of a quarrelsome bunch. Once they get beyond the city limits of their enemies, it doesn’t take long to complain that their route avoids their favorite beverage franchise. In focusing on their discontent and Moses’ difficult task to calm the community, we might miss the fact that they mark their encounter with God (Exodus 17:7) by calling “the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the faultfinding of the children of Israel” (Massah and Meribah are Hebrew words for “testing” and “quarreling”).

For Christians, the invitation to leadership—as individuals or as a trend-setting community—requires marking all the places where we encounter God. Not only the places of abundance and peace, but also the detours that expose our doubt, test our faith, and give rise to our complaint. Only then can we rejoice in our suffering (Romans 5:3), which produces endurance.

Poets and musicians seem to be the true philosophers of the common folks. A peek at Israel’s iPod playlist finds the psalmist (Psalm 95:8-11) recording these trials and tribulations. The rhythm and lyrics of lament have long given voice to suffering. Today, we too often abandon genuine lament. Nancy C. Lee writes, “So common is human suffering around the globe that where one lament goes unheard or disappears, seven more are sure to take its place.” Not so easily found are markers of our encounters with God, especially those that arise from moments when God criticizes God’s people. Take the risk during this season of Lent.

[ MARCH 30 ]
Lament for a Loser
1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

LONG AFTER SAUL had proven the deficiency of a human political leader, the prophet Samuel continued to grieve. I’ve often read this text merely as a pretext for the anointing of Israel’s next king, but Lent is a good time to pause in its lament. Loss of hope born when disappointed by those we deemed powerful, prestigious, and promising can open our ears to God—if we begin with lament. Samuel is not described here as angry, vengeful, or gloating. After we learn of Saul’s rise and fall, Samuel is presented again as a true leader; one who grieves at the loss of possibility. The text provides a description of the voice of God reaching out to Samuel’s grief.

Lament and listening to the voice of God enable Samuel to rise again as the prophet of God. He will have the privilege of anointing the next king. The anointing of Jesse’s youngest son, David, will not be an in-your-face act against Saul but rather an act of obedience, cloaked in patience, as the people wait for God to remove Saul from power. Samuel is careful not to appear ready to disparage the sitting king. His obedience requires finding out what is pleasing to God—and in taking “no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead [exposing] them” (Ephesians 5:11). 

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

Image: Electric lighting effect, Ase / Shutterstock.com

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