Saturday, December 13, 2014

Looking for Peace

Looking For Peace
Isaiah 40:1-11[1]
For some of us, the search for peace takes us no farther than our own family, our friends, our community of faith, and our home. For some of us peace is as close to us as our hearts. But there are many who have a much more difficult time finding peace--true peace, lasting peace. Whether due to a significant loss, deep-seated problems that just won’t go away, or a major disappointment, there are those among us who have a very difficult time finding any peace. Especially at this time of year. All the hustle and bustle going on around people whose lives have seemed to come to a standstill can leave them feeling left out and alone. Anything but joyful. Anything but peaceful. It’s a time of year not to celebrate, but to survive.
And yet the offer of a true and lasting peace is just what the prophet of our lesson for this morning is talking about. The cry “Comfort, O comfort my people” introduces a major shift in the book of Isaiah.[2] Prior to this, the message of Isaiah mostly concerns a rebuke of the people’s sins and a call to repentance.[3] But now, there is something new at work. The God who finally gave the people over to the consequences of their sins and allowed them to go into exile now announces that he will comfort those who have suffered for so long.
Ironically, again the prophet gives voice to the doubts and fears of a people who have struggled to endure the long years of their exile. He calls out, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass” (Isa. 40:6-7). In other words, they think they have about as much chance surviving the exile as the grass does surviving a severe drought. For a people who have lost everything, and have had to put forth every ounce of effort just to survive in exile, the promise that God was coming to comfort them seemed an empty one.[4] During their exile there were many false prophets who had gotten their hopes up for a speedy release. Now, when this prophet announces in the name of the Lord that the time for their restoration has finally come, it would seem that some of them had no more faith to give to promises.[5]
And yet, one of the themes of this section of Isaiah is that God’s word does not fail. Here, the answer to the cry of despair, “surely the people are grass” is that, while grass may wither, “the word of our God will stand forever” (40:8).[6] While some might apply this to Scripture in general, in this setting it is a promise that God will not leave his promises of salvation, restoration, and renewal unfulfilled. In another passage, Isaiah puts it this way: “as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace” (Isa. 55:10-12).  The prophet declared in the name of the Lord that “the word of God” does not return empty, but accomplishes what it was intended for—to bring comfort and peace to a weary people.[7]
In the book of the prophet Isaiah, the good news of Advent is that God comes to reconcile and to heal and to restore all people, along with all creation.  That’s why Isaiah could speak of God’s coming like a shepherd who gently carries the lambs who are either too weak to make it back to safety or who perhaps have been injured (Isa. 40:11).  And the prophet’s message of restoration fills the whole book of Isaiah—with promises of the end of violence and warfare (Isa. 2:4), of the end of suffering and oppression (Isa. 25:8); a promise of a rich feast set for all peoples (Isa. 25:6), of God coming to set right everything that has gone wrong (Isa. 28:5-6) and to restore and heal those who are weak and injured (Isa. 35:3-6).
As we discussed last week, the season of Advent is a time for examining our hearts and lives. But the season of Advent is also a time to lift up our hearts and our faces and look for the peace that God has promised to bring to his people. In our lesson for today, “preparing the way for the Lord” means that “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (40:4) In other words, the return journey to Jerusalem will be much easier for them than their forced march into Babylon.[8] And the prophet promises that at that time “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together” (40:5). The heart of that glorious display would be God’s restoration for his people, bringing them comfort and peace at last.[9]
Advent is a season when we’re called to look to God in faith. And part of that involves taking a hard look at ourselves. But the season of Advent also calls us to trust in the promises of our God, promises of salvation, restoration, and renewal. Promises that, like a shepherd gently and tenderly cares for sheep who have been injured (Isa. 40:11), God will bring comfort and peace to all those who are suffering.[10] And when God promises to bring comfort and peace, we can trust in those promises because what God promises, God accomplishes.





[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/7/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. K. Baltzer, Deutero-Isaiah: A commentary on Isaiah 40–55, 49: “This sentence sums up everything that DtIsa has to proclaim. It means a real turn of events—a new beginning and yet, at the same time, continuity. God’s fundamental decision in favor of his people has been made.”
[3] Even in the message of judgment, however, there was a promise of restoring justice for those who had been oppressed by the “powers that be.” Commenting on the series of woes in Isa. 5:11-23, Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12, 66, observes that Isaiah “sees a time coming when all ownership will be accumulated in the hands of a few. The result of this development was bound to be that the inner coherence and legal security of the people of the covenant would collapse. A deep gulf would be opened between the poor and the rich, into which the poor were in danger of sinking.” He says (p. 68), “The divine woe is pronounced over every nation which sets pleasure and profit above the common interest and law.” He concludes (p. 71), “The woes Isaiah pronounces “proclaim with compelling force that all material well-being obtained at the expense of the people as a whole and in defiance of the law is precarious, because God loves what is right.”
[4] Cf. Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 41. Others take this cry in a different way, but he suggests that the prophet’s counter-cry that “all flesh is like grass” reflects the exiles’ “greatest temptation ... to be resigned to thinking of themselves as caught up in the general transience of things, to believing that nothing could be done to halt the extinction of their national existence.”
[5] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 14: “many of the prophet’s contemporaries were asking whether there was any source of comfort left for a people stripped of self-defense, vulnerable before their captors, bitter of soul as they mourned in a foreign land.”
[6] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 10: “What directs all of world history is captured succinctly in the divine word in 46:10, ‘My purpose shall stand, and I will fulfill my intention.’”
[7] Cf. Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 37: “Once Yahweh cried, ‘Comfort my people,’ something was bound to happen. The cry could not return to him empty.” Cf. also Christopher Seitz “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI:338.
[8] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.4:56, where he says, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness—a phrase quoted from Is. 40:3–5 in all four Gospels—is the voice of a messenger of salvation rather than catastrophe.”
[9] Cf. Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 34: “The messenger’s word that turns lamentation into joy has as its counterpart the intervention in history of the God who is lord of history, who exalts the humble and casts down the mighty.” Cf. also Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 10: “Second Isaiah’s message consistently describes how God was about to heal a torn creation and restore a broken community.”
[10] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography, 99-100, where he compares this “promise of the coming kingdom of God and his righteousness and justice for all” with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Waiting For God

Waiting for God
Isaiah 64:1-9[1]
In 1966, the cover of Time magazine asked the question “Is God Dead?”[2] In fact they were not the first to raise that question. Philosophers and Theologians have been debating the issue for at least a couple hundred years, and the debate continues. At various times in history, traumatic events and cultural upheaval, coupled with what can at best be called a superficial faith, have caused many to question whether God exists, or at least whether God still cares. The gas chambers of Auschwitz, the killing fields in Cambodia, the rise of diseases like AIDS and Ebola, natural disasters, and our own personal tragedies all challenge our faith in a God who cares and works in our lives to bring grace and peace and love and new life. It can feel very much like we’re on our own in this world at times.
The people whom the prophet was addressing definitely felt like God had forgotten them. After losing everything at the hands of the Babylonians, they had kept up at least a whiff of faith during their exile with the promise that God would again “let his face shine” (Ps. 80:3) upon them and graciously restore them to their homes and their lives and their land.[3] But when they got back to Judea after their long years of exile, the reality of their “new life” fell far short of what they had hoped. The temple lay in ruins. Even the city of Jerusalem had no walls to protect them. Instead of returning to a “land flowing with milk and honey,” they returned to a land that had been devastated by war and left a wasteland. Their lives were harder than ever, and it seemed that the God of their deliverance was nowhere to be found.[4]
In that situation, the prophet speaks aloud the questions that must have been on the minds of the people. After all they had suffered, he asked “where are your zeal and your might?” (Isa. 63:15) and “will you keep silent?” (64:12). Their circumstances and God’s seeming silence and absence contradicted what they had been told for generations, that God “will never forsake you.”[5] They simply could not comprehend being abandoned by the God who revealed himself time and again as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). And yet there they were crying out to God, asking why God had forsaken them.[6]
The prophet could have given them a lot of different answers. Like many in that day, he could have assured them that God would shortly make all their hopes come true. But that is not what this prophet does.[7] This prophet moves from lamenting God’s silence and absence to the confession of sin. In the name of the people, he confesses “We have all become like one who is unclean” (Isa. 64:6). The prophet omits no one from his heart-wrenching confession: “we all” echoes throughout the passage like a bell tolling: we all, we all, we all.[8] Regardless of their situation, “we all” leaves no one out. The people had forsaken their God, time after time for centuries. No one could protest, “but I never did anything wrong.”
And yet, though the confession of sin at this point might seem only to make matters worse, it is precisely the way to recover hope. After pouring out his heart in confession, the prophet returns to the faith that they who had stumbled badly still remained God’s people. He recalls that “you are our Father,” and he calls on God to act accordingly (64:8). Just as “we all” had turned away from God, the prophet reminds both God and God’s people that “we all” are your people (64:9). The prophet points out to God that their lives and their lands remained in ruins, and asks, “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” (64:12).[9]
It would seem that when it feels like God is absent and all hope is lost, one path to restoring our hope takes us through confession and repentance. In this season, I’m not sure we want to hear about confession and repentance. We’re ramping up for the festivities of shopping and cooking and gathering and celebrating. The last thing on our minds is confession and repentance. And yet that is precisely what the season of Advent is: a time to “prepare the way for the Lord” by examining our own hearts and lives. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that, like the people of Judah, “we all” have fallen.
The season of Advent is a time when we’re called to look to God in faith. And part of that involves taking a hard look at ourselves, whether we want to or not. If you look at our society, it seems that more and more we as a people are living as if God were dead. So many in our culture are disillusioned and seem to be just fine living what can seem almost a God-forsaken existence. Even for those of us who still look to God, the feeling of having been abandoned by a God who seems absent and silent can provoke feelings from guilt and shame to fear and even anger. But the season of Advent calls us all to confess that we have fallen short, and in doing so to entrust our lives again to the God who remains our Father no matter what.[10] Advent is a discipline that calls us to wait in repentance and faith for the only one who can restore us: God our savior.[11]




                        


[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/30/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Time Magazine, April 8, 1966.
[3] Cf. Isa. 35:1-10; cf. also Isa. 2:1-4; 11:6-10; 49:5-13.
[4] Cf. Roy W. Howard, “Isaiah 64:1-9,” Interpretation 62 (Oct  2008): 418: “With great expectation and hope the exiles headed home to reestablish their distinctive way of life as God's people, seen chiefly in the reconstruction of the temple. However, a crisis arises because of the contrast between the lavish promises recounted in Second Isaiah and the reality they encounter in Jerusalem. The burning question now is "Where are you, God?" What has become of the promises for restoration proclaimed in exile?”
[5] Cf. Deuteronomy 31:6, 8; Psalm 37:28; 94:14; Isaiah 41:17; 42:16.
[6] Cf. Christopher Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI: 531: “How hard it is to genuinely recall God’s pure love and goodness when these are absent, and when distress is the governing condition. How much easier it is to assume that we were led astray by descriptions of God’s character, or that the good God has done for us in the past was not really divine goodness at all, but a stroke of fate. Yet Israel’s hope is genuinely grounded in God’s character as God. ... Whatever confusion or distress we may feel under the hand of God, God remains truly God and truly good. We must interpret God’s absence as a request, a demand, that we come to terms with God as God is.”
[7] Cf. Richard Nysse, “The Dark Side of God: Considerations for Preaching and Teaching,” Word & World 17 (Fall 1997): 442: “The dark side of God is not explained away; rather, it is prayed against with questions that God must address and with imperatives that God must carry out. ... False prophets announced a hopeful future that claimed exemption from the dark side of God .... The hope of which the canonical prophets spoke was grounded in the reality of human sin and consequent exile and judgment .... It was a word that needed to be authorized by God because only God could bring it about. ... The canonical prophets were able to let the hard questions linger in the air until God answered.”
[8] Cf. J. D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34–66, 906. Cf. also Howard, “Isaiah 64:1-9,” 419: “Everything must be laid bare with language that leaves no one unexposed to the untamable God who will not be assuaged by false piety or illusions of moral righteousness. Everyone is unclean. The community’s standard for righteousness has itself become toxic.”
[9] Cf. Kathleen Norris, “Apocalypse Now ,” The Christian Century (Nov 15, 2005):19: “The good news is that we are all in this together. ... How remarkable that God refuses to give up on us.” Cf. also Howard, “Isaiah 64:1-9,” 420: “With this naked faith, he humbly pleads with God to be God (w. 8-9). At the heart of the covenant is the relationship now tenderly evoked: ‘... you are our Father.’ Without the One who begets, Israel is nothing. As clay is to the potter, so the people are to God: utterly dependent, the work of God’s hand.”
[10] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:390, where he describes the righteousness of God in the face of the people’s sin, affirming that “In the process of judging, rejecting and punishing, God does not break but keeps His covenant, and therefore comforts, helps and saves.”
[11] Cf. Will Willimon, “Going Against the Stream,” The Christian Century (Dec 19, 1984):1193, where he says that “The hope for us, says the church in Advent, is that we are out of hope, and we know it.” Therefore he urges that it is a time to “Wait. Wait and see what is to be born among us.” And he prays “God grant us the honesty and the patience to wait long enough to find some real salvation.”  Cf. also Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 240,  “The doubts, the contradictions, the tensions, the pains that have been expressed in the lament are not thereby resolved. But they are lifted up in one final impassioned plea to the only one who can help.” Cf. also Howard, “Isaiah 64:1-9,” 420: “The people pray, yet God is the Holy One of Israel who cannot be tamed and whose actions cannot be guaranteed. All that remains is a people exposed and dependent upon God who is bound to them, no matter what, and them to God, again, no matter what. Odd as it is to our ears, this is astonishingly good news.”

Friday, November 28, 2014

A Boundless Heart

A Boundless Heart
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24;  Matthew 25:31-46[1]
It seems to me that the more diverse our world gets, the harder it is for us to practice compassion toward the people we encounter. When everybody looks like us, talks like us, dresses likes us, thinks like us, we can easily see them as human beings who have feelings and problems just like us. But the more our society changes, the more we encounter people who look different from us, who talk differently, who dress differently, and who think differently. When we are used to being around people who are basically “just like me,” we may find it challenging to show compassion to people who seem different.
I believe our Gospel lesson addresses this problem. The Parable of the Sheep and Goats is one that many of us know. “I was hungry” is a theme that has echoed throughout the centuries. One of the things I think we have to recognize is that this is a parable. It is story told for a purpose, not a lecture outlining what we’re supposed to believe. It’s not a simple prediction of what’s going to happen to “good” and “bad” people at the end of time.[2] And so our task is to try to understand what is the purpose of this story.
One clue that I find interesting is that both the sheep and the goats are surprised at the verdict.  The sheep are commended for being kind and merciful to Jesus, but they are completely unaware of ever having done anything special.  In response he told them when you were kind and merciful to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were being kind and merciful to me. Similarly, the goats are criticized for not having practiced kindness and mercy toward Jesus, but they seem shocked at such a verdict.  They seem to be among those who thought themselves pious and religious because they were devoted to worship at the synagogue or the Temple, or because they were scrupulous about following the Jewish laws about living lives that are “clean,” or because they were pillars of their religious communities.
If that is the case, we might think that surely some mistake must have been made. But it seems to me that Jesus was saying much the same thing that the prophets said centuries earlier. In fact, the passage we heard this morning from the prophet Ezekiel contains a scathing criticism of the leaders of the prophet’s day, who are identified as the “fat sheep” who have failed to care for the “lean sheep.”[3] In fact, they have positively trampled on those they were supposed to be serving. [4]  And like the prophets before him, Jesus reserves some of his harshest words for the religious pillars of his day.
The reason for that is that if there’s one thing Jesus was good at, it’s cutting through the façade of religious pretense.  No amount of put-on piety could change the fact that many of the most “religious” people of his day were essentially unkind toward others.  In another context, Jesus said that they gave a tenth of everything, even their cooking spices, but they neglected “the more important things of the law, like fairness, mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23, NIRV).[5]  At the end of the day, they failed to relate to others with compassion or mercy.  And that is the whole substance of what it means to love God.
I think one of the main purposes for this parable was to remind us that the best measure for the genuineness of our compassion is how we treat “the least of these.”[6] And I think Jesus was trying to point out the hypocrisy of those who were up to their necks in religious devotion but who, when it came right down to it, were incredibly unkind to the people around them. I think what he was trying to do was to make it clear that that when your religion keeps you from practicing basic human kindness and compassion, it becomes a gigantic exercise in missing the point!
In the kingdom where Jesus reigns, what counts is mercy.  That’s what Jesus said when the religious leaders criticized him for hanging out with the wrong kind of people, the “different” people of his day.  He said, “Go and learn what the Scriptures mean when they say, ‘Instead of offering sacrifices to me, I want you to be merciful to others’” (Matt. 9:13, CEV, quoting Hos. 6:6).[7]  The whole point of true religious devotion is to inspire us to be people who are kind and compassionate to others—especially “the least of these.” We cannot escape the fact that, from Genesis to Revelation, God calls us to practice compassion and mercy toward the least and the lost and the left out.
Now, admittedly, kindness and compassion can be difficult—especially when it comes to people who may seem different from us. But no matter how much the people we encounter may challenge us, we are commanded by our Lord and Savior to cultivate genuine love toward our neighbors, all our neighbors.[8] And it seems to me that starts by treating people with basic kindness and compassion, regardless of who they are, or where they come from, or how different they may be from us.
In order to do this, I think we need a heart that is basically open to all people. We need what one teacher called a “boundless heart” to relate to others with kindness and mercy.[9] From my perspective, that means trying to see the people around us--all the people around us--especially those who seem most different from us--as human beings who have feelings and problems just like we do.[10] In fact, the Scriptures call us to see Jesus in the people around us, especially the least and the lost and the left out.[11] When we can do that, then we can freely and joyful feed those who are hungry and clothe those who are naked and welcome those who are strangers to us. Then we can practice the mercy and compassion that come from a boundless heart.





[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/23/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, In the End, the Beginning, 71: “The point is not the judgement in accordance with good or bad works. It is the identification of the coming Son of man with the hungry and thirsty, the strangers, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned.” Cf. also Ulrich Luz, Matthew 21-28: A Commentary on Matthew 21-28, 282, where he points out that the focus of the passage is on the pronouncements in Mt. 25:40, 45, “which in their repetitions of the works of charity emphasize the standard by which people will be judged.”
[3] Cf. Joseph Blenkinsopp, Ezekiel, 159, where he says that the context of this passage is the “economic and political exploitation” that occurred in “the upheaval following the Babylonian conquest.” He points out that the language here is similar to that in Matthew 25:31-46, “Disconcertingly, perhaps, the criteria for discrimination is not religious orthodoxy or orthopraxy but care for the weak and disadvantaged--the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the prisoner and the stranger.” 
[4] Ezekiel says, “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost” (Ezek. 34:4).
[5] Cf. S. Westerholm, “Clean and Unclean,” in J. B. Green & S. McKnight (Eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 131; Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 670.
[6] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 3.2:507-508, where he identifies the “least of these” as “the world for which [Jesus] died and rose again, with which He has made Himself supremely one, and declared Himself in solidarity.” Many scholars believe that “the least of these” is a specific reference to itinerant Christians who went about without any visible means of support in obedience to Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 10:5-10.  See, for example, Luz, Matthew 21-28, 280-81 and Hagner, Matthew 14-28, 744-45. I find this interpretation overly specific. It seems to me that all of the “least of these” are included, not just specifically Christians or specifically Christian teachers. Besides those cited explicitly in the notes, other advocates of this “universal” interpretation include Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:890-92;  Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, 152–55; Kazoh Kitamori, Theology and the Pain of God, 98–104; Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation, 194, 200–203; Leonardo Boff, Jesus Christ Liberator, 71–72; and Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Christian Theology, 266–267.
[7] Cf. Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 239: “Mercy is a better way of obedience.” Cf. also Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20: A Commentary on Matthew 8-20, 34.
[8] Cf. Desmond and Mpho Tutu, Made For Goodness, 142-43, where they suggest envisioning those we have difficulty being kind toward as children who are themselves vulnerable.
[9] “Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.” Cf. “Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness” (Snp 1.8), trans. by The Amaravati Sangha, Access to Insight, 14 (June 2010); accessed at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.1.08.amar.html .
[10] Cf. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, 41: “Compassion is born when we discover in the center of our own existence not only that God is God and man is man, but also that our neighbor is really our fellow man. ... This compassion pulls people away from the fearful clique into the large world where they can see that every human face is the face of a neighbor.”
[11] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 127, where he observes that this passage has often been treated ethically, “with somewhat colourless talk about ‘love of our neighbor’.” He continues,  “But it is not only love that is demanded. It is in the first place faith, the faith, namely, that the least of the brethren are waiting in Christ’s stead for the deeds of the just man. It is not that the wretched are the object of Christian love or the fulfilment of a moral duty; they are the latent presence of the coming Saviour and Judge of the world, the touchstone which determines salvation and damnation.” He concludes (p. 129), “the question is not how people or happenings outside the church respond to the church, but how the church responds to the presence of Christ in those who are ‘outside’, hungry, thirsty, sick, naked and imprisoned.” Cf. also Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:658.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Good Fight

The Good Fight
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11[1]
Like many of you, I still remember one of my first plane trips. I was 17, and I flew from Corpus Christi to Dallas to see my Great Aunt. I had received a neck injury in a car accident, and she was an orthopedic surgeon, so she insisted that she treat me. That flight was very relaxed. It seems that the airlines went out of their way to make people feel comfortable. The plane was only about half full. The whole experience made me think that this was the only way to travel. In fact, I remember thinking that to myself.
As many of you know, I recently flew to Calgary, Alberta, to visit my son Michael and his fiancée and her family. I can’t say those flights were particularly pleasant. These days the airports are jammed with people. It feels like you just about have to strip down to your skivvies to get through security. And then they pack you into the planes like sardines. Nothing like the relaxed and pleasant experience flying used to be. I can certainly understand why people who have to travel for their jobs are called “road warriors.” It seems like you have to fight for food, you have to fight for a seat on the plane, and then you have to fight for what little space you have. I’m glad I don’t have to do that much travelling!
I think many of us would say that life itself is a battle these days, not just travel. We fight to make ends meet. We fight to find a job, and then sometimes we have to fight to keep that job. We struggle with relationships to find the right person to spend our lives with, and then sometimes we have to fight to keep that relationship together. We fight to make a better future for our children, and then sometimes we have to fight to keep them headed in the right direction. And just about the time we think we’ve got it made, everything changes, the ground we’re standing on falls away from us, and we find ourselves fighting just to hold on until life settles into a new “normal.”
I think St. Paul knew how hard life can be. He had been through countless hardships, mostly because of his commitment to follow Christ and to proclaim the good news. Part of the message he proclaimed was the promise that one day Christ would return and finish the work of redemption. One day he would set right all the wrongs in this world. One day he would make all creation new again, as it was at the beginning. As you can imagine, that hope was something the early Christians clung to for dear life. In fact, they held onto it so tightly, some of them got their priorities confused and became almost obsessed with the idea that Jesus would return any day.
Paul reminded them, as Jesus had said before him, that their attitude toward that great day of restoration was to be one of watchfulness. He contrasts that with the observation that most of the people in his world were living as if they were either asleep or drunk. They had no sense that their life choices were self-destructive. They had no awareness whatsoever that there could be anything different or better than the life of satisfying their own selfish desires. When you think about it, it doesn’t sound like much has changed. It seems like many people in our world today are simply hurtling head-long from one day to the next, hardly giving any thought to what they’re doing or where they’re headed or what their future may be. And as a result, their lives consist of one tragic misstep after another. And they go on living that way, seeming not to notice the warning signs on the path they’ve chosen. They’re sleepwalking through their lives.[2]
The Apostle calls those of us who follow Christ to wake up from the fog and the haze of living like that, a life that he says is lived essentially in darkness. He says it this way, “for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (1 Thess 5:-6). Essentially, I think, what it takes for us to wake up and be watchful is to pay attention.[3] We are called to live intentionally. And throughout the ages, spiritual teachers have reminded us that one of the most important ways of doing that is to develop a discipline of prayer.[4]
But St. Paul also calls believers to wage the battle of life in a different way than most people do. It seems that aggressiveness, demanding our way, being assertive or even pushy, having a competitive edge, are all part and parcel of what we think it means to win the battle that life has become. Paul had a different idea about all that. He told the believers of his day to “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (1 Thess. 5:8). The Apostle knew that you can’t fight “the good fight,” you can’t wage the battle for God’s purposes in the world without using “the weapons of righteousness” (2 Cor. 6:6-7).[5] 
And here he returns to what seems to be the foundation for all Christian living: faith, hope, and love. We can invest our lives for God’s purposes only as we have the faith to trust that God will fulfill his promises of a new world.[6] We can fight the good fight only as we hold onto the hope that one day that new world will become a reality, and in fact it already is dawning in our lives today.[7] Only when we hold onto faith and hope can we take the risk of loving those around us, all those around us, even those who are difficult to love, especially those who are seemingly “unlovable.”[8] When we have the clarity to see through the haze so many in our culture are sleepwalking through and determine to live our lives in the way of faith, hope and love, then we’ll be “fighting the good fight.”





[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/16/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, In the End--the Beginning: The Life of Hope, 82. He characterizes the “sleeping” that Paul refers to by saying “Our eyes are open but we don’t see; our ears are open but we don’t hear.”  He continues, “we no longer perceive the real world. We see only our dreams and think that our wishful thinking about reality is reality itself. But this again means that we don’t live wakefully in reality; we are asleep in the agreeable dreams of our fantasy world.”
[3] Cf. Moltmann, In the End, The Beginning, 84. He says, “The early Christians prayed standing, looking up, with arms outstretched and eye wide-open, ready to walk or to leap forward. We can see this from the pictures in the catacombs in Rome. Their posture reflects tense expectation, not quiet heart-searching. It says: we are living in God’s Advent. We are on the watch, in expectation of the One who is coming, and with tense attentiveness we are going to meet the coming God.”
[4] Cf. Moltmann, In the End, The Beginning, 83: “When we pray, what we are seeking is not our own wishes; we are seeking the reality of God, and are breaking out of the Hall of Mirrors of our own illusory wishes, in which we have been imprisoned.” See also Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, 43: “Spiritual wakefulness demands only the habitual awareness of him which surrounds all our actions in a spiritual atmosphere ....”; and Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 68-69, where he says that is the “discipline of prayer” that helps us to come back again and again to “the active presence of God at the center of [our] living.” 
[5] Paul lists them as “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love,  truthful speech, and the power of God” (2 Cor. 6:6-7).  Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.4:7: he says that “the armour ... which the Christian is to take and put on is a freedom and power which is neither proper nor available to man by nature, which surpasses him in all its aspects” but it is nevertheless “appropriated to him as a freedom and power” which we must take up. He continues, “What a man puts on when he becomes a Christian is according to Col. 3:10 and Eph. 4:24 no more and no less than—after the putting off of the old—the new man who is created κατὰ θεόν* (according to God) or κατʼ εἰκόνα τοῦ κτίσαντος αὐτόν* (according to the image of the one who created him)” (translations added).
[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 337: “The expectation of the promised future of the kingdom of God, which is coming to man and to the world to set them right and create life, makes us ready to expend ourselves unrestrainedly and unreservedly in love and in the work of reconciliation of the world with God and his future.”
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 107-109, where he discusses the idea that Paul “sets salvation ‘in the mode of hope’” by pointing forward to the resurrection of the death and the annihilation of death itself, but also sees the signs of this hope already in the healing ministry of Jesus.
[8] Cf. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 338: “Faith can expend itself in the pain of love, ..., because it is upheld by the assurance of hope” in God’s promised future. Cf. also Paul Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, 209: “As Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.--and the Buddha and Jesus long before them--realized, our best ‘weapon’ for changing the hearts of our oppressors or enemies is to love them. ... Only in this way will liberation come not just for the oppressed but also for the oppressors.”