Monday, February 08, 2016

A Better Way

A Better Way
1 Corinthians 13:1-13[1]
Most pastors have a way of developing routines or habits in the way they go about their ministries. For example, when I lead a wedding rehearsal, I try to take a light-hearted approach. I go through the elements of the service and say, “Now I’m reading Scripture, blah, blah, blah.” “Now I’m praying, blah, blah, blah.” Well, as many of you know, I recently performed the wedding service for my son Michael and his new wife Jaime in Canada. And I did my usual routine with the rehearsal. But as I was actually reading this scripture, 1 Corinthians 13, during the wedding, my adorable 5-year-old granddaughter Helen started saying “blah, blah, blah.” Right in the middle of the service. Out loud. I guess I may have to re-think my approach to wedding rehearsals.
But, as they say, often times “from the mouth of babes” comes truth we’d rather not hear. I wonder if, because of the fact that we’ve heard this passage so many times, we’ve gotten to the place that all we really hear is “blah, blah, blah.” I’m afraid that can be true for a lot of us. We’ve heard familiar passages from the Bible so many times that, while we may have warm feelings from hearing favorite verses, I wonder if we really hear the message. Unfortunately, time and familiarity have dulled the edge those Scriptures were originally meant to have.
One of the most helpful ways to try to get around this over-familiarity is to take a closer look at what’s actually going on behind the scenes. In the case of our lesson from 1 Corinthians for today, St. Paul was addressing a congregation that was troubled and torn by factions and divisiveness. He has spent most of his effort in the previous 12 chapters trying to sort out the issues that were causing problems. At this point, he’s dealing with “spiritual gifts.” These were the various abilities that Paul said the Holy Spirit had given to the members of the church in order to build it up, gifts like preaching, teaching, leadership, service, and others.
One of the gifts practiced in the church at Corinth was “speaking in tongues.” While there has been some confusion about what this means, it would seem that it was some kind of non-rational prayer language. Though this may look strange to people who value clear communication, Paul validated it as a genuine gift of the Spirit. He even admitted that he himself had “spoken in tongues.” Unfortunately, those who practiced this gift at Corinth seemed to have developed the attitude that because they could speak a “heavenly” language, they were on a higher spiritual plane than others.
As you can imagine, it didn’t set well with folks in the church at Corinth that there was a group that basically saw themselves as spiritually superior to the rest of them. And part of what St. Paul was trying to accomplish with them was to bring some balance to the congregation by pointing out that all of the gifts are important for the welfare of the church.[2] He used the analogy of the parts of the body to try to help them understand that everyone in the church has something of value to contribute.
In the passage for today, Paul says he is showing them “a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31). The “better way” that Paul advocates is the way of practicing the gifts of the Spirit with an attitude of love for one another. In fact, he goes to some effort to make it clear that even the most impressive spiritual gifts are essentially useless if they are not practiced in an attitude of love for others.[3] And so he describes the kind of attitude he has in mind when he says, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (1 Cor. 13:4-5). It would seem, in fact, that he is speaking rather bluntly to them here. Earlier in the letter, Paul has already called them out on the fact that they were being envious and boastful towards each other. Here he makes it clear that is not the “better way.”[4]
On the contrary, I think the “better way” that he wants them to practice is the way of Jesus Christ.[5] It is the way of God’s love for us. Paul describes it this way, love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). He’s not talking about love as a feeling, but rather love as a way of life, love as a basic attitude toward others, love as a commitment to follow Jesus’ example. It is a love that sacrifices for the sake of others; it is a love that is essentially unselfish and giving and generous; it is a love that bears with others with all their flaws and shortcomings.[6] This is the “better way” according to Paul.
This passage of Scripture wasn’t written primarily for married people. Paul is addressing the whole church about the way we are to live in the community of faith. I would hardly say that this church is one that is torn by factions and divisions. But the reality is that the kind of love the Bible teaches us to practice towards one another requires a great deal of us, and we don’t always live up to it. Let’s face it: sometimes it’s not easy to love one another in the church. Sometimes people in the church can rub each other the wrong way. And yet it is the love that we maintain for one another that sets the church apart from any other civic organization. Since we can all fall short, I think it’s important for us to see that the love that St. Paul says “never ends” is God’s love for us.[7] That is, after all, what enables us to keep trying to love one another.[8] It is the love that God shows us day by day, and the love that Jesus taught us by his life and death, that call us all to keep seeking “the better way.”

[1] © 2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/31/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, 221: “The purpose of chapter 13 is to portray love as the sine qua non of the Christian life and to insist that love must govern the exercise of all the gifts of the Spirit. … Paul is trying to reform the Corinthians’ understanding and practice of spiritual manifestations in worship.”
[3] Cf. J. Paul Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” New Interpreters Bible X:952, where he says, “no matter how magnificent the accomplishment, power, or action, when love is missing the exercise in question becomes vain, selfish, fruitless, and individualistic.”
[4] Cf. Hays, First Corinthians, 222, where he quotes John Calvin as saying, “I have no doubt that Paul intended it [1 Corinthians 13] to reprimand the Corinthians in an indirect way, by confronting them with a situation quite the reverse of their own….” Hays himself says (p. 227), “the Corinthians will surely have gotten the picture: Paul is implying that everything about their behavior contradicts the character of love.”
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:330, where he says of this chapter, “which we shall best understand if for the concept ‘love’ we simply insert the name Jesus Christ.”
[6] Cf. Hays, First Corinthians, 232: Where he says, “Love is not just a matter of feelings: feelings come and go, while love abides.” He continues by insisting that the actions that define love “are learned patterns of behavior that must be cultivated over time in the context of a community that models and supports such behavior. We must learn patience, we must be taught not to keep score of wrongs done against us.”
[7] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:372, where he says, “Paul expressly says of love in 1 Cor. 13:8 that it οὐδέποτε πίπτει [never fails]. He means that it will still apply to the being and activity of the redeemed in the world to come.” Cf. also Hays, First Corinthians, 231: “Love is the greatest of the three because—unlike the revelatory gifts and even unlike faith and hope—it will endure eternally when the love of God is all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). It is also the greatest because, even in the present time, it undergirds everything else and gives meaning to an otherwise unintelligible world….”
[8] Cf. Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” NIB X:955: “Faith, hope, and love endure; gifts do not. Gifts are finite; they are given to persons who employ them for a period within the community. Love is the matrix of the life of faith; God’s love for people becomes the force that enables them to love others.”

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Scandalous Grace

Scandalous Grace
Luke 4:14-21[1]
It doesn’t take much to be able to see that prejudice is alive and well in our world today. Segregation may no longer be legal, but it still defines our world in ways that are subtle and others that are not so subtle. As Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, racism is just as real in other parts of the country as it ever was in the “Deep South.” If you doubt the fact that prejudice is still alive and well, all you have to do is listen to the political rhetoric coming not only from our country but also from other world leaders.[2] The sad truth is that what drives the prejudices that they promote is fear, plain and simple. Unfortunately, there have always been those who have no qualms about using fear to gain power.
But the really hard truth about prejudice is that it has a way of taking root in the soil of our faith. I have heard with my own ears a member of a Presbyterian church say that there are some people he wants to go to hell! While I don’t think most of us would be so crass as to actually say that, I’m afraid we may feel that way about certain people we find offensive. At least we don’t want them going to church with us! The problem with this is that it becomes incredibly easy to assume that those we dislike are also outside God’s favor. We can all fall into the pattern of excluding those we deem unworthy of God’s grace.
This may sound like a very negative way to introduce our Gospel lesson for today. It is a message of amazing good news. Jesus appears in the synagogue at Nazareth, his home town, and announces a message full of hope and promise: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk. 4:18-19). It is a wonderfully upbeat message: Jesus was announcing that in him God was going to bring freedom and renewal to all who had been beaten down by the injustice and cruelty of this world.[3]
It is a message that found deep resonance with the audience at the synagogue on that day in Nazareth. I think when it says that “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him” (Lk. 4:20) after he read the scripture, it may be a bit of an understatement. You could probably say that everybody in the room was sitting on the edge of their seats. It was one of those situations in which it was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. They had suffered under Roman and Greek military occupation for centuries. They had seen their land taken away by the wealthy among their own people who took advantage of the political situation to enrich themselves. They were tired of it and longed to be set free.
So perhaps we can understand that they totally misconstrued what Jesus was saying, as the outcome that day at Nazareth makes clear. They heard him promising to bring hope and freedom and renewal to them—to the people of his own home town. The fact that later Jesus rebukes them with the proverb “Physician, heal thyself,” indicates that he knew they were expecting him to perform miracles for “his own kind” just as they had heard he had done for others who were “outsiders” (Lk. 4:23). [4] It would seem that they were more than a little put off by the fact that he had done wonderful things for others, but hadn’t taken care of the home town crowd.
But that was where they got it all wrong. From the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel, the Scripture makes it clear that the marvelous events that were unfolding were not just for the “home town crowd.” They were not even just for the Jewish people. The fact that the news of Jesus’ birth was delivered by the host of angels to shepherds, who were the lowest of outcasts in Jewish society, already demonstrates that what God was doing was going to break through all social barriers. And Simeon made it very clear when Jesus was presented at the temple: he was going to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Lk. 1:32).
That was the message Jesus proclaimed on that day in the synagogue at Nazareth: the good news was for the poor—for all the poor everywhere.[5] Jesus made it clear that God’s “favor” was coming upon those who had been excluded from “proper society” as outcasts.[6] The freedom and release and renewal he said God’s Spirit had empowered him to bring was for those who had been beaten down by the hard-hearted attitudes of some of the very people sitting there in the audience. And when he made it clear to them that God’s grace was for the outcasts they themselves had excluded, it enraged them so much they tried to kill him.[7]
It is an unfortunate truth of human existence that we like to be around people who look like us, who talk like us, who live where we live and shop at the same stores as we do.[8] But in the meanwhile we are very likely unaware that we are living our lives in a closed circle. Our human tendency is to prefer to stay in that closed circle. But the message of Jesus is one that will not let us stay there.[9] It is good news for the outcasts of our day—the people we exclude from our circles, whether consciously or unconsciously. It is a message that breaks down all kinds of walls we build up to protect ourselves from “outsiders.”  Because Jesus proclaimed God’s scandalous grace, he calls us to venture outside our closed circles to put God’s good news of freedom and release into practice for everyone, everywhere.

[1] © 2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/24/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. “Illiberalism: Playing with Fear,” and “Anti-Immigrant Populism: The March of Europe’s little Trumps,” in The Economist, December 12, 2015; accessed at and .
[3] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 62: the message of Isaiah 61, the passage Jesus read in the synagogue, is that “Christ is God’s servant who will bring to reality the longing and hope of the poor, the oppressed, and the imprisoned. The Christ will also usher in the amnesty, the liberation, and the restoration associated with the proclamation of the year of Jubilee.” Cf. also Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke” New Interpreters Bible IX: 106: “Jesus’ ministry signaled that the time for the liberation of the impoverished and oppressed had come, and in that respect at least his work would fulfill the ideal and the social concern of the Jubilee year.”
[4] Cf. Craddock, Luke, 62-63: The fact that Jesus quotes this proverb, along with “no prophet is welcome in the prophet’s home town,” indicates that “Jesus understood the people to be expecting a demonstration of his extraordinary work reported from Capernaum.” He continues by pointing out the problem very likely lay deeper: they were motivated by “resentment that Jesus has taken God’s favor to others beyond Nazareth, especially Capernaum, said to have a heavy non-Jewish population.”  Cf. similarly, Culpepper, “Gospel of Luke,” NIB IX:106. He suggests that they were hoping to “share in the fame of the prophet from Nazareth so that no longer would anyone be able to say (however wrongly) that there were no prophets from Galilee (John 7:52).”
[5] Cf. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 208: where he insists that Jesus takes the initiative throughout this narrative: “at every step in his address at Nazareth he asserts the universal embrace of God’s salvific purpose.” Cf. Culpepper, “Gospel of Luke,” NIB IX:108: “Jesus came announcing deliverance, but it was not a national deliverance but God’s promise of liberation for all the poor and oppressed regardless of nationality, gender, or race.” Cf. similarly Craddock, Luke, 63.
[6] Cf. Green, Gospel of Luke, 211, where he points out that the word “poor” was broader that simply either economically poor or spiritually poor. He says, “one’s status in a community was not so much a function of economic realities, but depended on a number of elements, including education, gender, family heritage, religious purity, vocation, economics, and so on.” Therefore, he concludes that the poor included “those who are for any number of socio-religious reasons relegated to positions outside the boundaries of God’s people.” Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 128-29, 175-76; Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 89-90, 112-16, where he points out that what made Jesus’ offer of God’s grace scandalous was the fact that he offered the blessings of God’s Kingdom not just to the “righteous,” but also to “sinners.”
[7] Cf. William Willimon, “Book ‘Em,” The Christian Century (January 27, 2004), 20, where he says that in citing the examples of God’s grace through Elijah and Elisha to those outside of Israel, Jesus “threw the book at them.”  Cf. also Craddock, Luke, 63: “That these two stories were in their own Scriptures and quite familiar perhaps accounts in part for the intensity of their hostility. Anger and violence are the last defense of those who are made to face the truth of their own tradition which they have long defended and embraced. Learning what we already know is often painfully difficult.” He also refers to the story of Jonah, which he says “stands forever as the dramatic embodiment of that capacity in all of us, Jew and Christian alike, to be offended by God’s grace to all those of whom we do not approve.”
[8] Cf. Craddock, Luke, 62, where he remarks suggestively, that “Unfortunately, “The history of the church does not, …, bear unbroken testimony to Jesus’ announcement, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled.’”
[9] Cf. Culpepper, “Gospel of Luke,” NIB IX: 108, where he observes, “God’s grace is never subject to the limitations and boundaries of any nation, church, group, or race. Those who would exclude others thereby exclude themselves.”

Never Ending Love

Never Ending Love
Psalm 36:5-10[1]
I think many of us are people who are searching. We’re searching for the right break or the right person or the right situation or the right place. We seem to believe that if we can only find whatever it is we’re looking for, we’ll finally be happy. We’ll be fulfilled in life. The problem with this approach to life is that we look for that fulfillment in people and things that are finite. By definition, they cannot provide the happiness we seek. Whatever it is we think we’re looking for, when we find it we will inevitably feel let down at some point. Don’t get me wrong—I think we’re meant to find peace and joy in life. But it seems one of the hardest lessons for us to learn is that we cannot look to anyone or anything in this life to provide ultimate fulfillment.[2] There’s only One who can do that.
I think that may be one of the most important lessons the Psalms have to teach us. Repeatedly the Psalmists point us to God as the one who is the source of wellbeing in life, all of life, for all of us. They do it in a wide variety of ways, from reflecting on the experience of God’s presence in worship to the fundamental awareness that God is the one who provides everything that supports us in life—even the sun and the rain. From top to bottom, our lives are constantly in God’s loving care, whether we are aware of it or not.[3]
I believe that is the point of our lesson from Psalm 36 for today. It is one of the classic passages of Scripture affirming God’s unending love and goodness. In an effort to express the ideas behind some of the theologically loaded terms, my translation reads: “Your unfailing love, O Lord, extends to the heavens! Your trustworthiness reaches to the clouds! Your determination to set things right is as firm as the strongest mountains! The healing works of your justice are as vast as the waters of the sea!” (Ps. 36:5-6). I must add, however, that there is probably more going on in these two verses that any translation can adequately express.
In effect, the Psalmist is attempting to summarize God’s character with the words “steadfast love,” “faithfulness,” “righteousness,” and “justice.”[4] I’m afraid, however, that these words are so loaded with significance in the Hebrew Bible it may be hard to grasp all that they’re saying. And yet this description of who God is serves as the basis for just about everything the Scriptures have to say and everything we believe. The Psalmist begins by describing a God of “steadfast love,” a love that never fails and never ends. This is the quality of God’s love: God loves us with a love that will never let us go.[5] That’s where the Psalmist begins in pointing us to the One who is the source of our life: God’s never-failing, never-ending love.
“Faithfulness” is the next affirmation about God. In a world where promises are meant to be broken, we may have difficulty grasping the idea that the God who loves us is absolutely trustworthy. But this is another of those foundational declarations about God: God is the one who never, ever gives up on us.[6] God may let us experience the consequences of our choices, but God will always be there for us. And so this is another basis for looking to God as the source of our life: the promise that God will never give up on us.
The Psalmist also praises God for his “righteousness” and “justice.” Again, these concepts are full of meaning in the Scriptures. God’s “righteousness” is what “sets right” everything and everyone.[7] Theologians call it “salvation” or “justification,” but what it boils down to is that God gives us life! The idea of God’s “justice” may give us more difficulty.  We have difficulty getting past the notion that “justice” equals punishment or condemnation. But in the Hebrew Bible, God’s justice sets out to rescue the helpless and the hurting. Even when it comes to those who may be in the wrong, God’s justice comes to them as grace and mercy rather than condemnation. God’s justice makes us whole! God’s justice gives us life![8]
And so in affirming God’s righteousness and justice the Psalmist affirms that it is God’s intention to give us life. And that intention is as strong and immovable as the tallest mountains. It is as deep and strong and vast as the oceans.[9] In other words, nothing can stop God from carrying out his plan to give us life. And nothing limits God’s plan—it extends to all people and even to all life. As the Psalmist puts it, “you save humans and animals alike, O Lord” (Ps. 36:6). And for those who may doubt that God really is this kind of God, the Psalmist insists: “All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light” (Ps. 36:7-9).[10]
This is where the Psalms point us in our quest to find fulfillment in life. They point us to the God who loves us with a never-ending love, to the God who never gives up on us, and to the God who is determined to give us life that is full and free and joyful. But the Psalmist is aware that life doesn’t always reflect God’s purposes. In fact, the setting of these verses is a prayer for deliverance from enemies who threaten to harm him. Yet the Psalmist knows something that I think we may sometimes forget. No matter what threats we may face, God’s grace will have the last word.[11] Because of that, as we continue our search for a life that will be filled with peace and joy, we can trust that there is a place where we can find it. We find it as we turn continually, day after day, to God’s never ending love.

[1] © 2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/17/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 125, where he speaks of “the limitations of human relationships”: “When we are lonely and look for someone to take our loneliness away, we are quickly disillusioned. The other, who for a while may have offered us an experience of wholeness and inner peace, soon proves incapable of giving us lasting happiness and instead of taking away our loneliness only reveals to us its depth.” He says that the answer to this problem is that we must recognize continually that (p. 136) “We are God’s beloved daughters and sons, not because we have proven ourselves worthy of God’s love, but because God freely chose us.” Cf. also Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 25:  “The only true joy on earth is to … enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings … in the core of our own souls.”
[3] There is some discussion about whether the safety and the refuge the Psalmist experiences takes place in the context of the Temple. See, for example, H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 398. It would seem, however, that the all-inclusive language of Ps. 36:7-9 would argue against that interpretation.
[4] Cf. H.-J. Kraus, Theology of the Psalms, 42-46; James L. Mays, Psalms, 33, 311.
[5] Cf. James L Mays, Psalms, 157, where he discusses the Hebrew word hesed, which is translated as “lovingkindness” or “steadfast love” or “mercy.” He says, “God’s hesed is manifest in the way in which humankind depend on God’s saving help: he provides shelter (v. 7b), food (v. 8a), and drink (v. 8b), and so is the source of life (v. 9). Cf. also Kraus, Theology of the Book of Psalms, 44, where he indicates that hesed refers to “unexpected and amazing goodness and kindness” that are not simply spontaneous but result from faithfulness of God’s commitment to Israel.
[6] Cf. Kraus, Theology of the Book of Psalms, 45, where he says that God’s faithfulness refers to God’s “dependability,” in which “his hesed is demonstrated and validated”; he summarizes: “it is a matter of dependability in all that Yahweh says and does.” Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 112-120, 143-148: “God is the same God all the way from promise to fulfillment” (115).
[7] Cf.  Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.1:375-84: “According to the witness of the Old and New Testaments, the love and grace and mercy of God, …, are the demonstration and exercise of the righteousness of God” (384); cf. also Jürgen Moltman, Theology of Hope, 204: “The ‘righteousness of God’ is God’s faithful love directed toward the goal of setting all humans right with God, with themselves, with each other, and with the whole of creation; thus it refers to God’s redemptive purpose to bring about a new creation.” H. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 135, where he points out that God’s “righteousness” in Paul’s theology “definitely refers to salvation and redemption.” He continues, “the element of judgment is not absent,” yet “this judgment is turned into grace through Christ’s reconciling death” and “precisely in this way God’s righteousness triumphs.”  
[8] Cf. Kraus, Theology of the Book of Psalms, 43, where he points out that “in the execution of justice and the process of judgment” God demonstrates his “righteousness” and “his salvation, his grace.” Cf. also Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 76: “in the Bible justice is the social form of love.”
[9] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 156: the “attributes of the LORD are said to be cosmic in dimension. Heavens and clouds mark  the upper limit of the world; mountains of God and the great deep are terms of immensity.” Cf. similarly, Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 399, where he says that the “range” of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness “corresponds to the reality of God.”
[10] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 156: the psalmist speaks of the attributes of God’s character, steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice, “as manifest in God’s salvation of all living things—man and beast—and by salvation means God’s ongoing providential care by which he preserves life.” Cf. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 399: the Psalmist sees “the help of Yahweh … stretched out to its full extent over the world of human beings and animals … . The effect of the ‘goodness’ is universal.”
[11] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 158: “In the face of the threatening shape that evil takes in the character of the wicked, this prayer rehearses and renews the vision of existence as a great system of grace. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not put it out.”

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Through It All

Through It All
Isaiah 43:1-7[1]
If you’re like me, when “all’s right with the world” it seems to be a lot easier to trust in God. When life is relatively stable, when the family is whole and healthy, when we find joy and meaning in our daily activities, it’s not hard at all to see God’s hand of blessing at work in our lives. But when you take all that away, it’s also fairly easy to believe that God has abandoned us. When unexpected change hits us squarely in the face, when our family is fractured by the challenges and changes of life, when life itself seems to lose its joy and meaning, we may wonder whether there’s even a God at all. Let alone one who actually cares for us.
This problem isn’t unique to us or to modern life. Throughout the ages, people who have faced tragedy and hardship have questioned the love of God. And many have questioned the very existence of God. For those of us who may have made it through life relatively unscathed, we may have a hard time understanding this. But I would say that most people suffer some kind of heartbreak at some point in their lives. And when we do, it’s a very natural thing to ask the question, “Why?” It’s even a biblical question. From the Psalms to the Prophets to Jesus on the cross, the question “Why?” echoes throughout the Scriptures.
Unfortunately, the Bible never gives us an answer to that question. What it does is to assure us over and over again that, in whatever circumstances we may find ourselves, God’s love for us never fails.[2] That is the message of our Scripture lesson from Isaiah for today. If we look at these verses by themselves, we may find them comforting to some degree. But I think the real impact of any passage like this comes when we understand the situation of the people to whom these words were originally spoken. They were living in forced exile, far from anything familiar. They were people who had lost everything—homes, lives, land, and even in some cases family.  They had gone through the worst catastrophe imaginable.  They had gone through the flood, and felt overwhelmed.  They had gone through the fire and felt burned.[3]
Into this situation of devastation and brokenness, the prophet declared God’s unfailing love. This is no mere glib promise. The language of the Scripture lesson makes it clear that God’s love for his suffering people is set in the context of Creation and Redemption, the actions that define God’s character in the Bible.[4] When the prophet says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isa. 43:1), he is speaking of the love that constitutes who God is. For him to stop loving them would mean that God would stop being true to himself. For him to stop loving them would mean that God would have to stop being God.[5]
This is the basis for the prophet’s assurance to the people: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isa. 43:2). Now, I think we sometimes have a tendency to read too much into promises like this. From a real-life perspective, you can’t go through a flood without getting soaked through.  And you can’t go through a fire without at least smelling like smoke, and maybe even getting singed.  But the promise is not that we will never suffer, but rather that these hardships will not consume us. And the reason for that is that God promises to be with us and to sustain us with his unfailing love.[6]
And in case there is any doubt about whether this promise has any teeth to it, God stakes his reputation on it. Through the prophet, God makes it clear that the basis for the promise of his unfailing love is the essential nature of who God is: “I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isa. 43:3).[7] No matter what might come their way, God assured the people that they would always be surrounded by his loving presence: He says, “Do not fear, for I am with you” (Isa. 43:5). That, too, is an admonition that echoes throughout the Bible. From Moses to Revelation God is continually reassuring his people that they do not need to be afraid of what life may bring their way, because He is with us through it all.[8] And he always will be.
In contrast to those who may think that our faith is unrealistic, time and again, the Bible promises us the support of God’s loving presence in the midst of the worst that can happen to us. Our faith is not naïve to the fact that there is a tragic dimension to life.[9] Think of it: at this very moment, how many people on the planet are suffering—suffering the loss of a loved one, suffering the lack of basic necessities, suffering because they have been displaced by disease or war, suffering because of the cruel and inhumane way in which we can treat one another. A faith that promises “everything will be just fine” without taking full account of the hardships of life would be worse than naïve; it would be obscene.[10]
But that is not the nature of our faith. Right in the midst of the worst that life can throw at us, the Scriptures promise us over and over that God’s love for us will never fail. They promise that no matter what may come our way, God will sustain us with his presence. They promise us that even if we have to go through the flood and through the fire, they will not destroy us. And the basis for that assurance is the very nature of who God is: a God whose love for us never fails, a God who is our Savior in all the circumstances of life, a God who is with us no matter what.[11] In all of life, we can trust that God’s love will sustain us and bring us through it all.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/10/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltman, The Crucified God, 243, points above all to God’s presence at the cross, where he says that God “suffers the death of the Son in the infinite grief of love”; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 172-78; cf. also Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, 126: “The God embodied in Jesus suffers not only for the victims of the world; this God suffers like them and with them.”
[3] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 62, where he says that the people “needed a word of assurance, a promise that there was a future beyond the baffling suffering and shame they had suffered.” Cf. also Mary W. Anderson, “Who is Like Thee?” The Christian Century (Jan 26, 2000), 87, where she says, “in the midst of their captivity the people are wondering how their God can be omni-anything when they are so miserable.”
[4] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 61, where he observes that creation and redemption go together in this text: “the Creator God is the God who enters history to establish a relationship with human beings and to heal their brokenness.”
[5] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 61, where he recognizes the tension between the expression of God’s “wrath” in the judgment the people have undergone and the affirmation of God’s love here. He says, “Contradictory as they may seem on the face of things, expressions of divine anger, as genuinely as affirmations of divine steadfastness, reveal the commitment of God to authentic,  reciprocating love.”
[6] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1:39, where he refers to the assurance of the the Heidelberg Catechism (ques. 26) that “whatever evil he sends upon me in this troubled life he will turn to my good, for he is able to do it, being almighty God, and is determined to do it, being a faithful Father” (cf  Book of Confessions 4.026).  Cf. also Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI: 381.
[7] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 64, where he says, “only one word could satisfy the deepest yearning of the fearful heart, a word of assurance that the Creator of all, …, loves radically and unconditionally. The reason this defeated people could hope for a future beyond tragedy is a remarkable promise, a promise filled with the creative power that belongs exclusively … to love.”
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 24-25: “Neither in presumption nor in despair does there lie the power to renew life, but only in the hope that is enduring and sure.” For him, fear is hopelessness that expresses itself either as presumption or despair.
[9] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 118. He says that “the love of God” is distressed by the question raised by that which is “loveless” in this world: “Does anyone know or care that we are here?” He puts it more clearly when he asks (p. 119), “Is there nothing beyond the heartless and unrelenting cosmic rhythms, nothing loving, kind, or fair?” Ultimately while he recognizes that he cannot make this “tragic sense of life” go away, he will not agree that “the tragic is the real truth” of our lives. In fact, he insists that “faith is faith precisely in the face of the facelessness of the anonymous” and is always “haunted” by “this specter of a heartless world of cosmic forces.”
[10] See Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, 61-62: “Anyone who claims to believe in an all-powerful, all-loving God without taking into account this devastat­ing evidence [i.e. the Holocaust] either that God is indifferent or powerless, or that there is no God at all, is playing games. … If Love itself is really at the heart of it all, how can such things happen? What do such things mean?”
[11] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 123, where in the face of the prospect that all that really exists is a heartless, tragic world of anonymous cosmic forces, he affirms, “The name of God is the name of the One who takes a stand with those who suffer, who expresses a divine solidarity with suffering, the One who says no to suffering, to unjust or unwarranted suffering.”