Saturday, February 8, 2020

What can we say August 30? 13th after Pentecost

   Exodus 3:1-15. When I was writing my book on preaching (The Beauty of the Word), I found myself reiterating the way so many sermons are about us, our faith, our struggles, our spirituality – when most Bible texts oddly are actually about God, and I’d love to hear (and preach!) more sermons that are simply about God. This Sunday’s Old Testament and Gospel readings needn’t have little moralisms or take-aways. What would they be? If you see a bush on fire, take off your shoes? Go be crucified to save the world? I hope to focus on God, which inevitably will have implications for my call, the church, and how we live – but our fixed attention will be on God.

     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. And God calls Moses, who stammers with nothing but “Here I am,” which Isaiah would say later, and we sing now in Dan Schutte’s lovely hymn. Not Here are my credentials, or I hope to do things I’m good at for God. Just Here I am. I am not running. God seems to want availability more than ability. 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.”

     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. 

   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.

   Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explores that Moses was afraid to look at God (v. 6). If he (or any one of us) got too close to God, and became like God, he could understand history from heaven’s perspective – and the price of that is too high. “He preferred to fight injustice as he saw it, than to accept it by seeing its role in the script of eternity.” Moses, we should recall, had been a fighter against in justice. When he saw a slave beaten, or two men fighting, or young women being treated roughly by shepherds, he intervened – which is why he was in Midian in the first place. Is God now asking him to keep fighting like this? or to lead in a way that opens the way for God’s redemption, which is large-scale and historic instead of just one at a time?

   Romans 12:9-21. This text should be read slowly, maybe just one phrase a minute, or a week. You really could preach a year’s worth of sermons, lingering over each phrase. I wouldn’t over-explain in a sermon on this. Let Paul’s words just be, and do their own work. Or perhaps I’d take the pictorial dictionary approach. What face, saint, hero’s face comes to mind as you linger over “Be patient in tribulation”? or “ardent in prayer”? Or slowly notice unusual word connections. “Rejoice in hope.” Usually we think simply Have some hope. Or strain to hope. But hope itself brings joy, or you discover joy in the hoping. “Practice hospitality.” It does require practice.

   Matthew 16:21-28. Last week’s blog addressed the situation at Caesarea Philippi, and this remarkable turning point in the overall plot of Jesus’ life – from active to being acted upon, from impressing to embarrassing. Fascinating that Jesus tells him to get behind him – as that’s where followers are supposed to be anyhow! The “taking up your cross” might sound like bearing your burdens, but that’s not it at all. In the Roman world, if you picked up your cross, you were on death row, you were walking that green mile toward your execution. Joel Marcus in his commentary on Mark, wisely refers us to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s thoughts on the gulag: “From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. At the very threshold, you must say to yourself. ‘My life is over, a little early to be sure, but there's nothing to be done about it. I shall never return to freedom. . . I no longer have any property whatsoever. . . Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me.’ Confronted by such a prisoner, the interrogation will tremble. Only the man who has renounced everything can win that victory.”

  My newest book is my favorite (among 20 I've written now!) , fun to have researched, to have written, and to find in print. I hope you might enjoy it - part of the Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for Minstering Well series from Baker: Birth: The Mystery of Being Born. Check it out - and thanks in advance for doing so!

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