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Can We Start Again?by Walter Brueggemann
It is by the power of God that we may begin anew. Everyone knows about being mired down, fatigued, discouraged, or even immobilized. Everyone in such a state knows that one cannot be a self-starter and lift one by one’s own effort. We are not and cannot be that self-sufficient! These readings are studies of exemplars of faith who have begun again by the power of God.
Father Abraham is in a state of hopelessness, because he and his wife Sarah are barren and have no heir. And then God intervenes and addresses Abraham and Sarah. God commands them to go in obedience, and promises them a radical, durable newness if they go. And they go! They receive a new land and eventually they receive a son who will be their heir. They had a future opened for them. Their story is all about the power of God’s promise. Paul’s exposition in Romans 4 takes Abraham as a carrier of the newness that is to be initiated again by God’s grace so that all can begin again, not by merit or worth, but by God’s ready power. Indeed, not only human persons can begin again. But so it is even with the world. For the creator God calls worlds into being that do not exist, even as the Lord of life “gives life to the dead” (Romans 4:17).
John’s gospel concerns the case study of Nicodemus, the Jewish teacher. He is invited by Jesus to begin again, to be born “from above” (3:3). He does not quite get it, and so he disappears from the text. But the point is clear enough. The God who loves the world is the God who gives new life to those in it, because God’s spirit-wind blows freely where it will (John 3:8). It is the wind of love, the offer of new life that is inexplicable and quite beyond our control.
Both the Abraham text and the Nicodemus text entail going where we have not yet been ... into God’s new life. For that reason Psalm 121 is a fitting companion piece. That psalm is about a journey, being safe on the way even if the route is dangerous. Thus we can imagine father Abraham being one for whom God will “neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4), and Nicodemus being invited to be kept by God in his “going out and [his] coming in” (verse 8). The journey is to God’s newness again; we may be safe in God’s care as we travel.
Walter Brueggemann was a Sojourners contributing editor and professor emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, when this article appeared.
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