postmodern preaching

Third Sunday in Lent Year B

  • Exodus 20: 1-17

Having spectacularly and miraculously rescued the chosen from slavery in Egypt, God now gives the rules that will  prevent God’s people from reverting to slavery and from falling into the ways of injustice of their larger, more powerful neighbors.  These commandments show how to practice justice to God and justice to one another.  God’s identity is reaffirmed as the One “Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”  God is clear that no other gods nor their images will be tolerated in this relationship.  God makes no apologies for being “jealous,” which can mean God’s anger to the “third generation and with the fourth,” or, conversely, “kindness to the thousandth generation….”  God knows who are “My friends;” “Those who keep my commandments.”  God’s name is not to be taken in “vain;” the sabbath is to be honored.  The next commandments regard justice to others: honor parents; do not cheat on your spouse; steal; nor “bear false witness;” nor “covet” your neighbor’s family nor belongings.

  • Psalm 19

C.S. Lewis regards this psalm as “the greatest in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”  He also concludes that its structure is quite comparable with “most modern poetry, because it leaps from one concern– creation– to another– the Law– to a third– personal confession– allowing/causing the reader to make associations and connections.”  (Reflections on the Psalms, p. 63)  After celebrating the splendor of each day with its beginning spectacle of sunrise, the psalmist understands that the Law has a similar renewing, life-giving brilliance, but concludes by acknowledging his own dark failures.

  • I Corinthians 1: 18-25

In Pauls’ imagination, there are two dominant, venerable world views– Greco-Roman and Jewish.  Each has centuries of accumulated texts, sophisticated systems of wisdom, literature, poetry, ritual and piety.  People live and die according to these two world views.  They are re-enforced by politics, mores and conventional wisdom.  They are the foundations upon which personal and public life are built.  Therefore, Paul also understands the shock of the announcement of the gospel: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a tumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

  • John 2: 13-22

Whereas the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) place Jesus not going “up to Jerusalem” until the final week of his life, John’s narrative places an earlier visit to the Holy City right at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  On this occasion, Jesus plaits a whip, marches into the Temple precincts, turns over the tables of the moneychangers and retailers of pigeons for sacrifice, spills their money on the floor and drives them out.  “The Jews” ask Jesus what is the meaning of his violent action.  Jesus gives an answer that makes no sense to those who do not grasp who he is and what he is doing, but is clear to his followers, who recall “After he was raised from the dead,” what he said on that unforgettable occasion.  What they remembered he said was, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.”  Then John explains, “he was speaking of [another ‘temple’] the Temple of his body.”  It is through the destruction and raising up of this “temple” that many, Jews and Gentiles, will find a new sign of God’s beneficent love.

When God gave the commandments to Moses that were to preserve God’s people, it was a terrifying event, shrouded in smoke and fire.  “[T]he whole mountain quaked greatly,” trumpets sounded, accompanied by the kettle-drums of thunder. (Ex. 19: 18-19) Although God’s commandments are a gift that, as the psalmist waxes, are perfect and just, making and restoring personal and corporate living, their arrival in the world was accompanied by piercing sound and dazzling light.  While the other gospel writers place Jesus’ violent confrontation with the religious status quo just before his execution, John places this event right at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, suggesting that although the content and purpose of that ministry was the expansion of God’s love to the whole world, he would inevitably conflict with existing human power structures.  And, of course, his earthly ministry will end in even more gore and violence, perpetrated by a self-serving alliance of political and religious authorities.  

God’s revelation disrupts, it challenges, it levels our most venerable assumptions, it turns the tables.  Citing von Balthasar’s Theo-Drama 4, Kevin Mongrain surmises: “God is the immanent non-other (non-aliud) to the world, the Other who is fully present in self-giving to human creatures but always alludes the grasp of explanatory theories that pretend to see God and world together in one inclusive perspective.”  (The Systematic Thought of Hans urs von Balthasar, p. 82) 

At the most practical level, Paul experienced first-hand the conflict between God’s newest revelation in the Christ –“the power and wisdom of God”– and the dominant human institutions, understanding and practices. 

But is our reality that much different than those who failed in the past to grasp God’s revelation? 

Jean-Luc Marion considers God’s past revelation and extrapolates its meaning today:

“Whether it be a question of crossing the Red Sea [or, we can add, the gift of the decalogue, or the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, or of the conquest of the Promised Land, ‘the memorial of the Messiah, son of David your servant and the memorial of your people’, the event remains less a past fact than a pledge given in the past in  order, today still, to appeal to a future– an advent–, that of the Messiah– that does not cease to govern this day from beginning to end.”  “The past determines the reality of the present–better, the present is understood as a today to which alone the memorial, as an actual pledge, gives meaning and reality.”  (God Without Being, pp 172-173)

These past promises and declarations, when regarded,  never loose their power to challenge common wisdom with “the power and Wisdom of God.”

Those who hear these biblical revelations from the past (and even more those who preach them!) are engaging with something that is notoriously unmanageable.  It  shakes up our well-established assumptions.  It subverts our comfortable arrangements.  It over-turns more than tables.  It does “violence” to what we hold sacred.  Why?  Because God is “the immanent non-other… the Other who is fully present in self-giving to human creatures but always alludes” our grasp.  Anytime God reveals God’s-Self, there is a collision with human wants and expectations.  A certain amount of violence seems unavoidable.  

The generous God of creation, who declared it all good, very good, is also the God of salvation, whose love always exceeds human understanding and leaves our imaginations reeling.  That love was made even more immediate in Jesus, the Christ.  To most, this is “foolish,” but to those who believe, it is “the power and wisdom of God.”


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