Exodus 3:1-15 ; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Ordinary 22A; Proper 17
Look. See. Hear. Show. Listen. Observe.
Both Moses and God do a lot of looking, seeing, hearing and listening in the story of the burning bush. Moses looked; the Lord saw Moses had turned to see. Then the Lord spoke. Further, Jesus began to show his disciples, after Peter’s declaration, that Jerusalem and all its suffering is inevitable. Even if Peter didn’t like what Jesus was showing and telling him, the message in that intimate, heated exchange was clear. Paying attention is critical if one is to recognize God at work in our midst, especially since God’s ways are not our ways and therefore almost always counter to our instincts, imaginings, plans and perhaps even our hopes. (See Peter’s response, and Moses’ too.)
The parenetic text from Romans requires attending to as well because we will never hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good if we aren’t intentional about discerning which is which. We certainly won’t bless those who persecute us without watching our own responses closely. The entire list of “marks of a true Christian” (as my NRSV Bible labels this section) go against our sinful nature and thus demand us to pay close attention to our thoughts, words and deeds. Living as a “true Christian” means looking, listening, watching for the new things God is doing and that means a sustained focus that doesn’t come easy in our clicking, swiping, beeping world.
Such attending is exhausting, frankly.
I’d rather go with my gut, shoot from the hip, talk off the top of my head, answer off the cuff, carpe diem. Such impromptu living allows me to plead ignorance. I just wasn’t thinking, the saying goes. I can ask forgiveness for my ill-advised Facebook comment because I typed it “in the moment” and “without thinking.” (I have done that, both posted the comment and asked for mercy.) To be fair, everyone, from time to time, regrets something they have said or done in the heat of emotion or frustration or fatigue or whatever. There is a daily role for repentance and for forgiveness. However, those of us who follow Jesus Christ are also called to vigilance, alertness, wakefulness, awareness, attentiveness, discernment. We can’t plead ignorance because Jesus has told us – no, shown us – what is demanded of his followers. Most of it we don’t want to hear or see, because it goes against our gut, our self-preserving instincts, our self-serving sinfulness, our pride and our sense of fairness (which somehow always means what’s good for us).
That’s why we must pay attention: to the bush burning but not consumed, the beauty and power of creation, the cries of the oppressed, the rebuke from our brother or sister, upheaval evident on our newsfeed, and especially the admonishment of Scripture, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
It would be easier if this weren’t so.
I could beg forgiveness rather than ask permission.
I could walk quickly by both the bush and the person in the ditch.
I could seek revenge rather than reconciliation.
I could hold fast to what works for me and forget about weeping with those who weep.
I could stop with a proclamation of Jesus’ Messiahship with no need of rebuke or expectation that I will follow him to the cross.
If I had not seen and heard the Word of the Lord – the Word that says: “I have observed the misery of my people. I have heard their cries and, oh, by the way, I am sending you to break the rod of their oppressor” – then I could go about my business watching my father-in-law’s flocks. The pay isn’t great and the work often dull, but at least I am not in Pharaoh’s crosshairs out in the field (and the people aren’t looking to me for leadership).
If Jesus hadn’t shown me what is required of me – to deny myself, take up my cross and follow, to wash feet, to tend and feed his flock, to forgive seventy times seven, and to pray for those who persecute me and rejoice with those who rejoice – then I could imagine that my only concern is me and mine. I could be content knowing that I work hard and I am not a bad person and I am not racist and I have never personally oppressed anyone; so my gut tells me, and I am just talking off-the-cuff here and throwing this out there, I am all good, right?
Lord, forbid it that you should suffer, sacrifice yourself for the sake of the world, and go into the dangerous, deadly fray of Jerusalem and forbid it, too, that I should follow you there.
“Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus says again and again to those of us who put our minds not on divine but on human things. Jesus rebukes those of us who put our heads in the sand, or sit on our hands, or harden our hearts and fail to attend to what God is showing us in burning torches, candle light vigils, ugly chants, protest slogans, spiritual songs, political speeches, solar eclipses and every encounter of each and every day.
The Lord has spoken. God has told us: I have observed the misery of my people. I am sending you to stand up to their oppressor. I will be with you.
The Lord has spoken. Jesus has told us: Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me to Jerusalem where there will be angry crowds, people lined up on different sides, soldiers standing guard and leaders, religious and political, anxious to keep their power no matter the means. I will be with you.
If we are paying attention, looking, listening, seeing, hearing, watching and staying awake and attentive to the Word that God is showing and telling, we can’t go back to keeping Jethro’s flock or fishing or collecting taxes. The misery is too obvious. The cries of God’s people too loud. The flames of the Holy Spirit too revealing and hot to ignore. And we know it. God told us. Jesus showed us. We can’t go with our gut and call it all well and good. We must obey the law that has been written on our hearts, counter as it is to the voice in our head that wants to scream: Lord, forbid it!
Moses and Peter were right to respond with shock and indignation. The Word of the Lord goes against our instincts. Who wants to sign up to go to Pharaoh or the cross? Who wants the responsibility of leadership in these troubling times of relentless, ubiquitous comments, complaints and criticism? Who wants to weep with those who weep or even rejoice with those who rejoice? Who wants to hold fast to what is good in a world so bent on what is evil? No one in their right mind. But for those of us who’ve seen and heard the Word, those who’ve been shown what the Lord endures and who the Lord loves, those who know in their heart of hearts that the Lord loves them, despite all that spews forth when they shoot from the hip, well, they are compelled to look and follow.
Are you paying attention?
- Go through the Exodus text and underline every verb that has to do with seeing or hearing. Notice at what point in the story God speaks to Moses. Do we need to stop and notice before God speaks? Are there other biblical stories that demonstrate or counter this sequence?
- In Matthew’s version of this encounter with Peter, Jesus “shows” the disciples what he will have to endure. How is “showing” them different than telling them?
- How do we attend to what God is doing, saying, communicating to us?
- Is it more difficult to focus in our current context of cell phones and social media? How do we hone our ability to pay attention not just to God, but to the world and those around us? Why is this important?
- Read aloud the Romans text. Are there particular traits of a Christian listed in this passage that you find particularly difficult? How might you practice them this week?
- What does it mean to “take up your cross”?
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