Sunday, August 13, 2017

What can we say come September 3? 13th after Pentecost

     For us, Labor Day weekend attendance sags – and I hate it for the people, as we are treated this week to not one but two of the most fantastic texts in all of Scripture: Exodus 3:1-15, and Matthew 16:21-28.  I am startled by the way these 2 texts coincide and perhaps mark the revelatory turning point in both testaments respectively – sheer luck, evidently, as the lectionary is plodding through Exodus and Matthew.  Maybe God is good after all…

     In The Beauty of the Word and everything else I’ve written on preaching, I try to remind myself and others that sermons are to be about God, and then about us only secondarily.  These two texts make this clear.  We see with striking brilliance who God is; so preachers, focus first on God and don’t rush quickly to moralisms or takeaways, which in these cases can be as silly and trite as “If you see a bush on fire, take off your shoes.”

     Exodus 3 reveals to us a God who hears, who cares, who calls, who comes down to save – and not merely pie in the sky afterlife saving, but real, physical, socio-economic saving.  The Israelites’ need for saving is so fitting for Labor Day.  Our taskmasters are gentler than Egypt’s, but no less impersonal and depersonalizing.  Walter Brueggemann, in his jewel of a book, Sabbath as Resistance, shows how labor/economic systems look like pyramids, with the insecure potentate at the top, and all other subservient to his whims, existing only to produce for him.

     God asks Moses to go down (could your choir or somebody sing “Go Down, Moses”? – which, incidentally, originated during slavery; Harriet Tubman was nicknamed Moses for her leadership in the Underground Railroad, which went way down to let people go).  The pattern of Moses’ call is typical of Scripture – and of our lives.  God appears, usually uninvited, surprisingly invading someone’s space.  God asks for something huge.  The mere mortal responds with reasons why it’s not going to happen: Moses can’t speak, Jeremiah was too young, Mary hadn’t been with a man, Isaiah was unholy, Jonah loathed the would-be recipients of God’s mercy.  But God counters with a sign, with divine reassurance. 
Gerhard von Rad pointed out that “Neither previous faith nor any other personal endowment had the slightest part to play in preparing a man who was called to stand before Yahweh for his vocation.”

     A helpful preaching tactic can be to say God isn’t looking for ability, but for avail-ability.  Oddly, this is a key preaching point, as we do spiritual gifts inventories and strength finders – yet in Scripture God just picks people, usually and apparently precisely because they don’t have the gifts or native abilities!  The preacher may well want to explore these matters – but in a way that continues to hammer home the truth that it’s about God, not us.  As long as I’m the center of things, even the sermon, I’ll never discover that mere availability can be the entrée to the miraculous.

     This text is about God, and God is what our lives are to be about.  Here we see that God will save – for what purpose?  “So that you will worship me on this mountain.”  We exist to praise, notice, admire, be in awe of and simple be astounded by God.  An expansive mind, blown wide open by such a God, isn’t baffled by questions like Moses’ – how a bush could burn but not really. 
There are naturalistic explanations: the Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna explained that the bush in question was the prickly rubus sanctus, which grows beside wadis, with lowers resembling small roses.  Was it a common bush that moved Moses somehow?  Doesn’t the story suggest something far weirder?  I’ve quoted it, but would ask preachers not to resort to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Lee” (unless you’re making my point here…), which closes with this:

   Earth’s crammed with heaven
   And every common bush afire with God;
   But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
   The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries…

God could use any common bush, or God could dazzle briefly; the point isn’t the bush, but that God got Moses’ attention when he is far from Egypt, deliberately avoiding the place where his destiny would play out.  The early rabbis, interestingly, saw in the bush an allegory of Israel’s life, sorely oppressed but not consumed.  Allegory is despised by modern scholarship – but as Augustine, Aquinas and Luther were great allegorizers, I’m sure God wouldn’t mind if a preacher saw the church in this bush – under fire yet not destroyed.

     That this text is about God is reiterated when Moses asks, with naïve innocence I think, What is your name?  God’s answer is – evasive? teasing Moses and us into a deep mystery? Or is the name and hence the divine nature just too overwhelming for a mere Hebrew word?  Jews rightly omit the pronunciation of the name, which must be something like Yahweh (which seminarians utter with total abandon, gleeful in their thin knowledge of Hebrew, discounting the historic Jewish reverence for the name!). 
What can it mean, even if shrouded in mystery, this “he who must not be named” (and yes, as a Harry Potter fan I’ll probably play off Voldemort…)?  

     Yahweh looks like a verb.  I like this a lot.  God isn’t a static thing, but an action, a movement, a happening.  The vowels intimate that this verbal form is causative:  God is the one who causes things to happen.  So God happens; and God makes things happen.  Thirdly, this verb’s y prefix implies a future, an as-yet-incomplete action.  God is the one who above all else will be.  What was Jesus’ parting promise?  “I will be with you always.”  Whatever future we envision, God will be there; it will be about God, and for God.  2 Corinthians 5:7 says we “walk by faith, not by sight”; Hebrews 11:1 describes faith as “the conviction of things not seen.”  What is unseen?  Not invisible things, but future things.

     This business of naming God correctly fascinates me.  We pray “in Jesus’ name,” but what is his name?  Jesus, yeshua, means “Lord, help!”  Did Mary cry these words during her labor pains?  Isn’t Jesus the one who cries out for help with and for us, and simultaneously the one who is our help?  Of course, this “I am” tease by God in response to Moses’ query drives the Christian forward toward Jesus’ way of speaking in John’s Gospel – which clearly is playing on this passage. 

     Everything in our nature and in society drives us into the self, to ask Who am I?  The riddle is only answered by learning the answer to Who is God?  Shortly before his death, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote, “Who am I? This or the other?” – taking note of his cheerful disposition he presented to his jailers, while knowing inside he was impotent and weak.  The only way he could resolve the dissonance, and the struggle to be in horrific circumstances, came like this: “Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.”

     Brevard Childs, in his definitive commentary on Exodus, summarized what Exodus 3 is about: “Revelation is not information about God and his nature, but an invitation to trust in the one whose self-disclosure is a foretaste of the promised inheritance.  The future for the community of faith is not an unknown leap into the dark, because the Coming One accompanies the faithful toward that end.”

     The God who hears, cares, and then comes down takes on flesh in Jesus – and this dramatic hearing, caring and going down is nowhere more puzzling or wonderful than in Matthew 16:21-28.  
Years ago I stumbled upon an audio recording of Henri Nouwen’s A Spirituality of Waiting (which I can’t commend highly enough… just hearing his voice…)  In it, he expanded upon the work of W.H. Vanstone’s profound book called The Stature of Waiting, in which he directs our attention to the peculiar plot of the Gospels.  In the opening chapters of each Gospel, Jesus is in control, he is an actor on the stage of history, dashing off miracles, wowing the multitudes.  Then, in the middle of the story, everything changes.  At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus has ventured far to the north, then turns his face toward Jerusalem, explaining he will be “handed over” and suffer and die.  From this point forward, Jesus is pretty much passive, with only a minor miracle left to do, one now acted upon, no dazzling (except by the powerful vision of compassionate, suffering love).

     This stuns Vanstone and Lewis (and me too) – as we think life’s plot should be toward increasing control, independence – and we loathe any turn toward dependence.  I had a close friend with colon cancer.  A few years back, on the week I was preparing to preach on this text, he told me with immense sorrow, “Today they handed me over to hospice.”  We shudder; we pity – but Jesus invites us to respect and relish this backwards plot to our lives, for it was the plot of his life.  Jesus was amazing in his first weeks of ministry.  But the real glory came when he let himself be betrayed, beaten, tried unjustly, when he “never said a-mumblin’ word,” when he refused to come down from the cross or strike his enemies dead but instead forgave them.  Even his resurrection was passive:  he didn’t bolt from the tomb and knock the guards aside; God raised him.

     Everything in us, especially as can-do Americans who cherish our independence above all else, rebels against and shrinks back from this.  But this is God.  Peter, like us, chides Jesus for even thinking of such a path.  But Jesus says “Get behind me” – which, ironically, is precisely where we need to be.  We follow Jesus – and you can only follow from behind.

     Exodus 3 and Matthew 16 both benefit from listening to Philippians 2 as background music.  Paul explains God’s ultimate nature:  “Though he was in the form of God, he emptied himself” – and I concur with those who translate this not as although he was God he did this humbling thing, but rather because he was in the form of God, he emptied himself.  Jesus isn’t play-acting or pretending for a short time to be humble, vulnerable, and suffering.  Jesus shows us the very heart of God, God’s truest, most core nature when he turns his face to Jerusalem and gets mocked and gruesomely killed.

     You see, Jesus uttered these words about turning his face to Jerusalem to be passive, vulnerable, and to die, not in a church or with a beautiful sunset in the background.  He was in Caesarea Philippi, a place sacred to pagan deities for centuries, then more recently dedicated to the emperor, who was increasingly viewed and treated as a deity strutting the earth.  This artist's depiction of the city in Jesus' day shows temples to the Greek gods, to the emperor, affixed to the cave dedicated to the nature god Pan - which was also believed to be the entrance to the underworld ("and the gates of hell shall not prevail...").  Painting the physical place might help in a sermon; and the theology of the clash between the world's gods and the humility of the true God must be clarified.

   {the images are Rouault's "Mocking of Christ," and an artist's rendition of Caesarea Philippi during the time of Jesus}

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   ** My newest book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, is available.  My forthcoming book, Weak Enough to Lead: What the Bible Tells Us About Powerful Leadership, will appear before too long.


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