Readings for the Third Sunday of Lent Reflection:
Exodus 3: 1–8a, 13–15
1 Corinthian 10: 1–6, 10–12
Luke 13: 1–9
The readings today made me think about our language a bit.
We use the expression “Acts of God” to describe events like hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and floods. Even insurance companies use the expression when writing policies.
In the name of God, we have fought wars, practiced torture, and committed acts of brutal destruction and violence.
And we have fallen back upon “it is the will of God” when we confront the death of a child, are informed about a cancer growth, or are dealing with some other manner of hardship.
Thinking that we know what God is doing or willing can lead to complacency about how we might act or can avoid acting. After all, if it’s God’s will, why oppose it or resist it?
Who is the God we believe in? We know that many of our fellow humans do not believe in God, perhaps even people who are close to us have no faith in God. For those of us who do believe God exists, we still have to reflect upon who God is for each of us.
In today’s reading from Exodus we come across one of the most significant passages in the entire Bible. Remember Moses fled Egypt because he killed an Egyptian and was living in the land of his father-in-law, in what we now call the Sinai desert. Mount Horeb is simply Mount Sinai by a different name in different traditions that make up the Exodus narrative. So, in this passage at Horeb, God’s name is revealed, and later on in the book of Exodus we will read that at Sinai the commandment was given warning about taking God’s name in vain.
First, Moses is told, I am the God of your ancestors, the same God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, so Moses is assured of God’s ongoing presence in the life of the people of whom he is a part.
Then Moses asks the question, “What is your name, who are you?” and we are told the divine name: I am who am. There is much commentary about the name YHWH, we are not even sure how to pronounce it because we are unsure of the vowels that should be added. The name of God, Yahweh, is rarely spoken in Hebrew. Even today many pious Jews instead use Adonai, the Lord, rather than presume to address God directly by Yahweh.
The name of God is a verb, not a noun. It is linked with “to be.” This God of his ancestors is revealed to Moses as I am who am, or maybe even, I will be who I will be. This is a God who is not easily defined and put into a neat category.
And yet we are told that this God not only is, but also how this God is for us. This God is for liberation, for justice, for mercy. This God loves the poor and suffering. This God hears the cry of the enslaved people who were chosen to be in covenant with God. The Exodus reading is a great moment in the Bible when God reaffirms that the vocation of Abraham and Sarah and all the ancestors of Moses, is still the vocation of the Hebrew people; they are Yahweh’s chosen people.
But the call or vocation is not the same thing as salvation, as Paul shows. There is need for an ongoing response by Moses and Israel to God’s call in order to truly be God’s people. Paul is dealing here with the overconfidence of the Corinthians, he warns them that though Israel was chosen, look at what happened to them: they wandered in the desert, they were punished, the generation that left Egypt did not enter the Promised Land. Paul is telling the Corinthians not to be so cocky about their calling as Christians. The call to be God’s people is not the end of the story, and more is to come.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus suggests not to be so quick to assign a role to God. Instead, reform your life. Don’t think because you are not a victim in one of the local disasters he refers to, then you must be less of a sinner than those who died. Instead, you must repent. He says it two times. It is the same message as Paul in Corinth. Don’t be complacent. Don’t think you are off the hook, putting distance between yourself and victims who have been killed suddenly and without warning. Those people did not deserve death more than you who are my listeners, says Jesus. Don’t hide behind thinking that you know why they died and you did not, that it was God’s will.
In the brief parable Jesus tells in Luke, the barren fig tree gets one more chance. God’s benevolence and mercy may lead to an extension for the tree. Yet, as the martyred German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned, God’s grace is not “cheap grace,” asking nothing of us. We must be responsible with God’s gifts and we will be held accountable. Like Moses and the ancient Hebrews, like Paul and the Corinthian community, we are responsible for how we live out our calling; there are no guarantees. You and I have a vocation, to be disciples of Jesus, to be the body of Christ. But we have to live out that calling. That God is patient and merciful does not mean we have no responsibility and that we will not be held accountable for the quality of our response to God’s call. Lent is a time to shake off our complacency about our calling as Christians and to take seriously what it means to be a believer in the God of Moses and the Father of Jesus. As good Pope John XXIII once said: Time is God’s gift to us; what we do with it is our gift to God.