Walter Brueggemann is a prophet in our time.
A connecting thread through his life’s calling as a scholar of the Hebrew Bible and Christian testament is the holy task of unmasking domineering powers through millennia of human history.
Carrying his woven theme of reality, grief and hope from the study to the classroom to the pulpit also makes him a clear voice in contemporary culture. See his 2014 work, Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks.
Empires have come and gone. The cycle of ascendancy and decline is what historians record and power seekers – whether political, financial, cultural – forcefully deny. In the sweep of time, we see that the careful historians prevail. Empires fail and fall.
The failure of empires – historians remind us – is implosion. Metaphorically, the legs of any empire ultimately cannot bear the weight of what it promises but cannot deliver. Tinny claims of superiority and exceptionalism corrode and crumble.
In the rubble of failed empires, we discover what endures. Time and again, authentic hope (not wishful thinking) provides the energy to rebuild, to renovate and to renew.
In this third week of Lent in 2021, we have the chance to hear again the authentic hope of Paul as he engaged a recalcitrant community in Corinth that was wavering between a pursuit of manipulative power to control and the redemptive impact of wisdom that creates a compassionate community.
The Corinthians knew about the rise and fall of empires. They knew, too, of the power of wisdom and were heirs to the Greece’s history of great minds, great armies and the greatness of Hellenism.
In Paul’s day, too, Corinth was aspiring to new greatness under an emerging empire: Rome. All of the power, wisdom and might of the Greco-Roman world should inform how we read and understand Paul’s shocking claims in the Corinthian correspondence.
We need go no further than 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 to glimpse paradox amid power. The paradox of the cross, Paul asserts, challenges us to reverse our understanding of foolishness and wisdom.
The vulnerability of the cross shatters every notion of invincibility. In the end, “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (verse 25).
Lent is a season for reversals.
In the northern hemisphere, Lent unfolds as the world around us in the process awakening from the darkness of winter and eagerly moving toward – by steps – the reawakening of living things. Reawakening of the world around us reminds us that all of creation struggles.
The weeks ahead of us will be filled with reminders that hope for renewal includes an awareness of vulnerability.
Eager gardeners have prepared seed beds, carefully watching for signs of germination and taking steps to protect seedlings from getting damaged by cold weather or inadequate watering.
Already the wrens and bluebirds in Georgia are building nests. Soon we will see eggs in those nests and marvel at the cooperative attentiveness of avian-parents-to-be. When the hatchlings appear, we will mark new steps along the journey from darkness to light and from torpidity toward vivacity.
The Lenten journey is personal and communal. Christians metaphorically follow the steps of Jesus of Nazareth who we confess to be the Christ.
It is a long journey and, as we go, we have a growing sense of foreboding because we know what awaits us when we get to Jerusalem. Some of the final steps of the journey will take us again to Golgotha where the foolishness of God will once again be on display for all to see.
Our inclinations are to take a peek ahead to follow those faithful women who hurried to the tomb in the first light of the first day of the week to pay last respects to Jesus.
If we want to run ahead, someone needs to remind us that the women did not go to the tomb in anticipation of seeing the resurrected Jesus. He was dead.
Paul reminds us that to “proclaim Christ crucified [is] a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (verse 23).
Let us then stumble ahead on our journey harboring the hope that Paul is right.
Somehow the foolishness of God has eclipsed the human wisdom. Somehow the weakness of God has been proved to stronger than human strength.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series for the Lenten season. An article reflecting on the lectionary texts for each Sunday during Lent will appear weekly. The previous articles in the series are:
Sneaking Off to Mass and Returning with a Face Tattoo | Jessica McDougald
Do God’s Promises Extend to Savlanut, Sarah and Tseba? | Meredith Stone
Why You Should Enter the Shadow of Lent | Fran Pratt
Professor emeritus of religion in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. He served as chair of the department of religion from 2000-2021.