Tuesday, April 15, 2014

No Shame

No Shame
Matthew 27:11-54; Isaiah 50:7-9[1]      
  Humility is a good thing. From ancient times, it has been regarded as a virtue by almost every religion and philosophy known to humankind. Humiliation  is another thing altogether. We may grow stronger from humiliation, as we can by undergoing any kind of hardship, but I would not say that humiliation is a good thing. Unfortunately, most of us experience humiliation at some point in our lives.  Our deepest secret is exposed to our friends and family. Our worst nightmare comes true, and everyone in our lives knows about it. The embarrassment can be unending. Even more tragically, some of us suffer the pain of humiliation so much in our lives that we begin to believe that we are less than and unworthy and unlovable. We become so accustomed to the sting of humiliation it turns into shame, which means we believe that we are somehow defective.
  But shame is never the final verdict for any of us. It cannot be the last word about us if the God we serve is truly a God of grace, mercy, and love. If God is the one we believe him to be based on the Scriptures, then the final truth about us is that we are good enough because we were created “very good.”  We are accepted and loved simply because God chooses to accept and love us. We are worthy, because God deems us worthy--so worthy that he sent his only Son to die for us! No matter what anyone else may say to us or about us, that remains the ultimate truth about us all. God’s unflinching love for us means that no shame has any real hold over us.
  This perspective is found throughout the Psalms. In one Psalm after another, the faithful expressed their confidence that, no matter what their circumstances, in the end they would not be put to shame.[2] The reason for that confidence was their faith in God. They trusted that God would be a refuge to them, and would protect them no matter what hardships they had to experience in life. They believed that God would be faithful and true to his promise of steadfast love.[3] They held onto their conviction that, ultimately if not immediately, God would take their side and defend them, and he would overturn the “verdict” of those who had humiliated them.
  Our Gospel lesson tells us, perhaps in more detail than we’d like to hear, the story of Jesus’ humiliation. I think it is important for us to understand this dimension of what Jesus endured on our behalf: he was thoroughly and publicly humiliated.  He was dragged before the religious leaders of his people, slandered by false witnesses, and ultimately accused of blasphemy (Matt. 26:57-65)--the one who spend his whole life doing the Father’s will was accused of blasphemy! Then they sent him to Pilate, the Roman Governor, who offered to release him, but the crowd that was stirred up by some of Jesus’ enemies demanded he be crucified (27:11-26).
  Pilate had him literally beaten to within an inch of his life, and then handed him over to be crucified.[4] The soldiers who took over dressed him up in a robe and a crown of thorns and mocked him and even spat on him (27:27-31).  Some of the people in the crowd--perhaps some of the same people who had cried out “Hosanna” when he entered Jerusalem--now hurled insults at him (27:39-40). The Jewish leaders who sought to have him executed went so far as to mock him for his faith in God (27:41-43)!  Even the criminals who were crucified with him taunted him (27:44). 
  I’m not sure about you , but it seems difficult for me to imagine a more thorough humiliation than what Jesus endured.[5] Stripped of his clothing, helpless from the beating and from the fact that he was literally having to fight for every breath, he was completely at the mercy of those around him. His weakness before his opponents, his apparent helplessness to prevent his execution, and the mocking all contribute to the ultimate humiliation: how could one who was so seemingly powerless claim to be the Son of God? It seems for all intents and purposes to contradict his claim to be the Messiah who was establishing the kingdom of God.[6] 
  Those of you who have some experience with humiliation may very well be asking the same question I am: what could enable any person to endure such complete and total humiliation?  All I can say is that his faith was much stronger than mine! I think the other Scripture lessons for today suggest that he must have been inspired by the faith expressed in the Psalms that no matter what happened to him in this life, in the end he would not be put to shame (cf. Isa. 50:7).[7] It’s not easy to maintain that kind of faith in the face of humiliation and shame. But as one Apostle puts it, Jesus did so to leave us an example to follow (cf. 1 Pet. 2:21-23).
  We all have times in our lives when we have to face humiliation. It’s not pleasant, but it’s a part of life. When humiliation becomes our “normal” experience, it can turn into shame. We start believing we are unworthy or unwanted or unloved. That can be unbearable, especially when we believe it so much we tell ourselves that it’s our truth. But that kind of shame is never God’s truth. God’s truth about us is that we are more than good enough.  We are accepted and loved simply because God chooses to accept and love us. We are worthy, because God deems us worthy--so worthy that he sent his only Son to die for us! No matter what anyone else may say, God’s love for us means that shame need not have any real hold over us. We can choose to believe, as people of faith have believed for centuries, that “The Lord God helps me, so I will not be ashamed” (Isa. 50:7, NCV).



[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/13/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Ps. 22:5; 25:2, 3, 20; Ps. 31:1, 17, 19; 71;1, 21; 119:6, 31, 46, 80, 116.
[3] This perspective is particularly found in Psalm 31, from which Jesus took the cry, “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” This is a prayer not of resignation but of trust, of confidence in the “faithful God” (Ps. 31:5). The Psalmist trusts in “the God who can be relied on and believed in because [God] is true to himself.”  Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 143; cf. also H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 363; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:459-60: (p. 459) “We can trust Him because His essence is trustworthiness.”
[4] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:488 points out that the severity of Roman flogging was sometimes fatal.
[5] But cf. Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible V:440, where he points out that Jesus’ crucifixion “was neither the worst nor was it even remotely a singular event in its time; many were such executions in his day.”
[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 123: the question is “how the dead Jesus became the living, the crucified the resurrected and the humiliated the exalted.” He says (p. 124) the answer lies in “the faithfulness of God.” Nevertheless, the “scandal and folly of the cross” remains “the basic problem and starting point of Christology” (p. 125).
[7] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 140-41, where he says that “the abuse and shame heaped upon the Servant loses its power over him, thanks to his knowledge that ‘he who vindicates me is near.’” In Isa. 50:9, the “Servant of the Lord” goes on to express the confidence that “It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?”

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Nothing Lost

Nothing Lost
Ezekiel 37:1-14[1]
  At some point in life, many of us will lose hope.  We will find that, whether due to our choices, or due to circumstances beyond our control, the ground has given way beneath our feet, and we have been swept away to a place where we feel completely and hopelessly lost. From the days of Homer’s Odyssey, this theme has been the subject of poetry, novels, plays, and even films.[2] The experience of being lost is part of life.  I think it can feel so hopeless because when you feel lost, really lost in life, it can seem like you will never find your way again.  It’s hard to hope when fear, sadness, and pain are your constant companions, and you wonder whether you’ll ever find joy, peace, and love again.
  It would seem that the people of Israel felt that way in exile. They were a whole world away from everything that was “home” to them.  I’m sure after spending not only years but decades in a place that was very foreign to them, it was difficult for them not to feel lost and hopeless. In fact, that was the whole reason for Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones.[3]  As the Lord speaks to the prophet, he says that the vision of new life was intended to address the fact that “the whole house of Israel” was saying “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (Ezek. 37:11).  We don’t really know how long they had been in exile when the prophet received this vision, but it’s likely that they had been there for perhaps 15 to 20 years![4]  They had felt lost for so long many of them had probably begun to forget what it was like to be “home.”  It’s no wonder they had given up hope!
  Into this despair, the message that the Lord had for Israel is that nothing and no one is ever beyond hope!  Think about the lesson for today: what could be more hopeless than dried-out bones. How can bones come back to life again? It would seem that there was nothing left to which God could give new life. And yet, before Ezekiel’s eyes, he sees new life come to those lifeless bones. And the message that God has for the people is that “ I will open your graves of exile and cause you to rise again.” (Ezek. 37:12, NLT). It was a dramatic demonstration that nothing and no one is beyond the hope of new life--not even those who have felt lost so long they’ve forgotten what it’s like to be home. [5]
  If there was ever anyone who deserved to feel lost, I think it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer immediately began to oppose their propaganda, even though he put himself at great risk to do so.  He took part in forming an underground community known as the Confessing Church, and illegally ran a seminary that was closed and relocated several times. Although he had two different opportunities to leave Germany, Bonhoeffer decided that he had to share the fate of the church in Germany if he were going to have a role in rebuilding it after the war.[6]  And as a result of his work with the German resistance movement, he was arrested on April 5, 1943, and was held in prison without trial until his execution on April 9, 1945.
  It’s hard for me to imagine how hard those two years must have been for him.  Yet, even in a Nazi prison, Bonhoeffer was able to maintain his hope.  In a letter in which he described the difficulty of waiting in prison without any prospect of release, he reflects on the words of a German Christmas hymn.  In one verse, the Christ child says to all those who suffer: “Let pass, dear brothers, every pain; what you have missed I’ll bring again.”[7] Bonhoeffer concludes from this “that nothing is lost, that everything is taken up in Christ, .... Christ restores all this as God originally intended for it to be.”[8]
  In a very real sense, many of us have experiences in life that can push our ability to hold onto hope past its limits. Our forms of “exile” can go on so long that we can begin to feel lost; lost to ourselves, lost to life, lost even to God. But one of my favorite themes of Scripture is that those who feel lost are never lost to God.[9] In story after story, somehow, God always finds a way to bring them home again. I believe that still holds true today.[10] There are all kinds of ways we can find ourselves lost in this world. And some of us have to endure that “exile” so long we may lose hope of ever feeling at home again. But the promise of scripture is that no one is ever beyond hope. No one is ever truly lost to God. Even when we may feel lost, we can trust that we are not lost to God. No matter what our circumstances may be, we can hold on to our hope that in his time, and in his way, God will bring new life to us all.[11]



[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/6/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Among others, James Joyce patterned his Ulysses (the latinized version of the Greek name Odysseus) after The Odyssey; Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain bears some similarities and was called an “American Odyssey” by the New York Times; Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions draws on both Ulysses and The Odyssey; and the 2000 film by Joel and Ethan Coen, “O Brother Where Art Thou” is loosely based on The Odyssey.
[3] Cf. Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, “The Book of Ezekiel,” New Interpreters Bible VI:1503: “Their hope has perished; and without hope, they might as well be dead.  The future, ..., seems as barren as the past years and present experience of exile.” Cf. also Walther Eichrodt, Ezekiel, 310-11, “The despair of the exiles meets here with something much more than a mere superficial word of comfort. Ezekiel does not see any less sharply or realistically than the rest of his fellow countrymen the utter ruin to which Israel has been reduced.  He therefore demonstrates to them that under such conditions the sole basis of hope lies in the superhuman and miraculous power of his God, ... .  All that has been said about the way in which such a God will accomplish salvation must be seen against the background of well-justified desperation on the part of man.  That desperation can only admit itself to have been overcome when it meets with the Lord of life in all his mysterious power.” (emphasis added)
[4] On the dating of this oracle, cf. W. Zimmerli, F. M. Cross, F. M., & K. Baltzer, Ezekiel: A commentary on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, 245-46, 258.
[5] Darr, “Ezekiel,” NIB VI:1504: “When we raise our vision to look beyond what our mundane eyes can see, we watch the impossible happen through God’s eyes.”
[6] Cf. Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, 655.
[7] Cf. Peter Frick, Bonhoeffer’s Intellectual Formation: Theology and Philosophy in His Thought, 29. It is Paul Gerhardt’s hymn, “Frölich Soll Mein Herze Springen.”
[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 169.  He also says that this is related to the idea expressed in Ephesians 1:10 of the restoration of all things.
[9] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:771: God’s “omnipotent mercy rules over all without exception, … no matter how lost they are they are not lost to him.” (emphasis added). Cf. also Barth, Church Dogmatics, 2.2:29: “God Himself in His freedom has decided that [man] shall stand, that he shall be saved and not lost, that he shall live and not die.”
[10] Cf. Darr, “Ezekiel,” NIB VI:1504 where she quotes Elie Wiesel to the effect that “every generation needs to hear in its own time that these bones can live again.”
[11] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 209: This is a new promise of life, for it is no longer attached to the condition of a possible repentance, but promises a creative act of Yahweh upon his people beyond the bounds of the temporal and the possible .  Cf. also Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans, 134: “Only when the power of sin, ..., has been overcome by the greater power of God’s Spirit, working through his Son, can people trapped in that life be free to pursue another kind of life. ... But once the Spirit, working through Christ, has broken that power, a new world is born and a new life is possible (vv. 9, 11a).”

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Healing Light

Healing Light
Ephesians 5:8-14[1]
  Another popular misunderstanding about the Christian faith is that if you just give your heart to Jesus, then you will immediately find your life transformed.  To be sure, many people experience the release of surrendering  control of their lives into the hands of one whom they trust.  Many experience the euphoria of their new-found way of life and their new extended family of faith.  But, all too often, without proper guidance, many of these new believers cannot be found anywhere near a church within a year.  Sometimes less!  The truth of the Christian life is that lasting change takes place over time.  And despite stories of miraculous transformations, the reality is that it takes concerted effort for most of us to experience genuine change.[2]
  I’m not proposing here that finding the joy and peace and love of the new life is some kind of massive self-help project.  It always has been and always will be the work of God’s Spirit.[3]  But we do have to “work out our own salvation,” as confusing as that may sound to us.  I think at least part of what that means is that we have to do the kinds of things that make our hearts and minds available to God’s Spirit.  The changes that lead us to the joy and peace and love of God’s kingdom come as the result of a definite decision on our part to take a different direction in our lives.[4]
  I think that this is something of what St. Paul was trying to convey in his letter to the Ephesians.  Many of the Christians in that area had converted from the worship of local idols, and they were still surrounded by constant reminders of their former life.  Even the local Jewish Christians must have experienced the tension of being surrounded by vivid images that Caesar was “Lord,” or Zeus was “Lord.”  And so the Apostle was writing to teach them how to reinforce their new faith by making changes to their behavior (Eph. 4:17-24).  These changes were specific, including speaking truth, dealing with anger in healthy ways, doing honest work, avoiding slander and gossip, practicing kindness, and showing God’s love to one another (Eph. 4:25-5:2).[5] There was a lot about their former lives that was incompatible with their new faith.[6]
  I find it interesting that in our lesson for today, St. Paul tells them that the way they could make these changes was to expose their former way of living to the light of Christ.  He likens the promiscuity, depravity, and corruption of their former lives to living in darkness.  Using images from Easter, he speaks of the living Christ as a light that has shined upon them.[7]  And he observes that whenever the light shines on what is in the darkness, it reveals the true nature of what is going on, whether good or bad. 
  But more than that, Paul speaks of the light of Christ as a healing light, a light that effects change.  He says, “everything exposed by the light becomes visible” and continues by saying, “everything that becomes visible is light” (Eph. 5:13-14).  I think what he is saying is that when we open our hearts and our lives to the light of Christ, it changes us[8].  It transforms us from where ever we’ve come and from whatever we’ve been into people who reflect the very same light in our lives.[9]  And so Paul calls us all to open ourselves to the healing light of Christ.
  Part of how we do that is by moving our lives in a different direction.  We have to change how we respond to what comes our way if we want to change how we experience life. [10]  I think St. Paul was hinting at what he had said earlier about re-directing their behavior when he says that “the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Eph. 5:9).  It seems to me that “all that is good and right and true” is a pretty good summary of what the Christian life is about.[11]  If you want to know what changes God’s Spirit will make in your life when you turn to the healing light of Christ, I would say it will be “all that is good and right and true.”  That was the goal that St. Paul had for the converts he was encouraging.[12]
  I think his instructions for the Christian life still have value for us as well. There is much about our world that is different from St. Paul’s.  But there is also much that is very similar.  This world surely can feel like a dark place sometimes.  And it can seem like an impossible task for us to keep from succumbing to the darkness, or at least being deeply affected by it.  I think we need his words now more than ever.  If we want to live in an authentically Christian way, if we want to experience genuine change, if we want to learn to practice “all that is good and right and true,” then we too need to open our lives to the healing light of Christ.  When we do, it might be painful at first, as all healing is.  But the outcome will be joy and peace and love as we reflect his healing light in our lives.


[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/30/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Tara Brach, True Refuge: Finding Peace and Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart, 151: “the phrase, ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together’ says it well: When we repeatedly direct our minds toward thoughts and memories that evoke feelings of love (or safety or strength), the very structure of our brains is altered.’  This perspective is the basis of a whole field of scientific research into how the brain works, from the connections between our thoughts and our feelings and our bodies to how to retrain a person who is learning to use a prosthetic limb.  Cf. also Margaret M. Polski, Wired for Survival; and Norman Doige, The Brain that Changes Itself.
[3] Cf. Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, 41-42, “God does not love us if we change, God loves us so that we can change.  Only love effects true inner transformation, not duress, guilt, shunning, or social pressure.”  But as he later adds (p. 52), “it is a lot of work to get out of the way and allow that grace to fully operate and liberate”!  Cf. also Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossian, and Philemon, 65.
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.3:512-13, saying of the believer, “ What makes him a Christian is that he has a Lord who to his salvation will not leave him in peace but constantly summons him to wake up again.”
[5] Cf. Martin, Ephesians, Colossian, and Philemon, 60-61, where he attributes these new “down-to-earth behavior patterns” to “living in the network of new social relationships,” and more importantly to their “being-in-Christ,” or their “faith-union with Christ” (p. 58).  On the latter idea, see A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians, 327, where he says that the believers “have become identified with the light because of their identification with Christ.”
[6] Cf. Pheme Perkins, “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:437, where she recalls the “ridicule and abuse” suffered by new Christians in the Mediterranean world as described in 1 Peter 4:3-5.  She goes on to point out that while they are to dissociate from their former behaviors, they are nowhere instructed to dissociate from their former acquaintances. However, in contrast to the approach I am taking to the passage, she suggests that the “exposure” is to take place as Christians call out the behavior of those outside the church.  Cf. Similarly, Lincoln, Ephesians, 330.  This difference of interpretation is reflected in English translations: for the idea that the light transforms us, see the TEV: “anything that is clearly revealed becomes light” (cf. also TNIV, CEB, and ESV).  For the idea that the light exposes the deeds of others, see NLT: “And where your light shines, it will expose their evil deeds” (cf. also MSG, CSB, NIV, NIRV, CEV).  It seems to me that Paul’s focus in this passage is primarily on the effect the light has on believers, and so I opt for that interpretation despite the fact that there are many who take the other view.
[7] Cf. Martin, Ephesians, Colossian, and Philemon, 63, where he also points out that Eph. 5:14 is a reminder of baptism (which in the days of the early church was typically observed in connection with Easter).  Cf. also Lincoln, Ephesians, 326, 332.
[8] Cf. Rohr, Breathing Under Water, 39, “you cannot heal what you do not acknowledge, and what you do not consciously acknowledge will remain in control of you from within.”
[9] Cf. Brach, Finding Refuge, 151; see also Tara Brach, “Opening the Gateway of Love,” The Huffington Post 12/3/2012; accessed at http://www.huffington post.com/tara-brach/love-healing_b_2192030.html. While I would agree that we can change our outlook, our emotions, and even our lifestyle by focusing our attention on what we want to become, I would say there’s more than that going on in the mind of St. Paul (no pun intended!).
[10] Cf. Brach, Finding Refuge, 118, where she points out that our earliest hurts in life often shape our assumptions and experiences as adults.  She says, “As the saying goes, ‘Our memories are Velcro for painful experiences and Teflon for pleasant ones!’ We are very inclined toward building our core beliefs out of experiences of hurt and fear, and holding on to them (and the underlying fears) for dear life.”  Cf. also Tara Brach, “Loosening the Grip of Core and Limiting Beliefs,” The Huffington Post 11/29/2012; accessed at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tara-brach/core-beliefs_b_2204891.html.
[11] Cf. Rohr, Breathing Under Water, 62, “there are ways of living and relating that are honest and sustainable and fair, and there are utterly dishonest ways of living and relating to life.  This is our real, de facto, and operative ‘truth,’ no matter whose theories or theologies we believe.”
[12] Cf. Rohr, Breathing Under Water, 31, “the goal is actually not the perfect avoidance of all sin, which is not possible anyway ..., but the struggle itself, and the encounter and wisdom that comes from it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Soft Hearts

Soft Hearts
Psalm 95[1]
  We live in a world where it can be risky to have a soft heart.  People with soft hearts often get their hearts broken, or trampled on, or pierced with betrayal.  Most of us learn to harden our hearts early on, even in grade school.  If you don’t, it’s too easy for your feelings to get hurt by the taunts of your schoolmates.  And as adults, we assume that we can’t open up and really be honest about what we think and feel.  If we do, somebody’s sure to come along and shoot us down.  So we keep our mouths shut and we close off our hearts.  It seems the only way to survive this world is to harden your heart against the slings and barbs that it throws at you.
  But hard hearts tend to fossilize over time.  They get harder and harder, until it seems impossible for anyone or anything to get through.  Hard hearts will have nothing to do with the sweeping changes the Spirit wants to bring in order to give us new life.  When our hearts are hard, we close off to protect ourselves from having to admit that we may be in the wrong, or we may need to change.[2]  Hard hearts are hearts that are defensive and defended, closed to those around us, closed even to the life-giving presence of God.
  One of the themes that gets repeated over and over in the story of Israel’s history is that their hearts were hard.  The prophets continually rebuked the people for being hard-hearted in their willful disobedience to God and in their continually going their own way.[3]  The prophets repeatedly called the people to open their hearts to God and return to him.[4] It seems to me that in order to do that, you have to admit that you’re going the wrong way and soften your heart to what God is trying to do in your life.
  The Psalmist was reflecting on this aspect of Israel’s experience in our lesson for today.  He was particularly talking about the wilderness wanderings, when the people complained seemingly incessantly about Moses and about God.  They didn’t like being in the wilderness, and they made it clear every chance they got!  They weren’t happy with the way things were going in their lives, and they rarely missed a chance to blame God, or Moses, or both.  Unfortunately, it would seem that it never even occurred to them that the root of their bitterness was within themselves, not in someone else.  They simply quarreled with Moses and “tested” God (Exod. 17:2, 3).  The question at the center of their quarrel was significant: “Is the Lord among us or not? (Exod. 17:7).[5] 
  I would offer the suggestion that they were not the first, and certainly not the last, to “test” God.  The Psalmist defines it as demanding that God prove himself to be trustworthy (Ps. 95:9).[6]  Ironically, there are numerous stories where individuals asked God for a sign or for an answer using various “tests.”  But it would seem that there’s a difference between trying to discern our direction and demanding that God give us assurances that we will get out of life whatever it is that we want.  One of the problems with that approach to faith is that you can never get enough proof.  You always need one more test to be sure you can “really” trust God.
  The Psalmist says that the people responded to God in this way because they had “hardened” their hearts (Ps. 95:8).  They had closed themselves off in such a way that faith was essentially impossible.  And so the Psalmist, speaking to later generations, warns them (and us) to avoid hardened hearts.  How then do we follow this warning?  Well, it seems to me that it starts where the Psalmist does.  He calls to all those who would hear, saying “ O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!  For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (Ps. 95:6-7). It seems to me that the place where we begin to soften our hearts so that we may “listen to his voice” (Ps. 95:7) is when we’re able to humble ourselves enough to kneel before our Maker.[7] 
  That kind of humility doesn’t come easily for those of us who have been schooled in a dog-eat-dog world.  And yet, over and over again, the Scriptures call us to soften our hearts so that we can open them to the life-giving presence of God.  And over and over again, the way the Scriptures instruct us to begin is by humbling ourselves.[8]  We have to humble ourselves to recognize with St. Paul that we were “weak” and “ungodly” when Christ died for us (Rom. 5:6).[9]  It took humility for the woman at the well to admit to Jesus that “I have no husband,” (Jn. 4:17)![10]  And it takes humility for us to open our hearts to God.
  That kind of humility is difficult for most of us.  But it truly is the first step toward softening our hearts.  When we can let down some of our defenses, and soften our hearts, then maybe we can open ourselves enough to listen, really listen to God’s voice.[11]  That’s what it takes for us to experience the kind of change Jesus was talking about with Nicodemus.  That’s what it takes for us to experience the new life of the Spirit that God wants to give us.  The call to faith is a call to humility, a call to soften our hearts and open them up enough to receive the grace and the love that God wants to pour into our hearts in such quantity that it becomes like “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (Jn. 4:14).



[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/23/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: The Spirituality of the Twelve Steps, xix: “Grace is always a humiliation for the ego, it seems.”
[3] Cf. Isaiah 46:12; Jeremiah 5:23; 9:26; Ezekiel 3:7.
[4] Cf. Jeremiah 24:7; 29:13; 32:39; Ezekiel 11:19; 18:31; 36:26; Joel 2:12.
[5] Cf. J. I. Durham, Exodus, 231: “the dissatisfied people put Yahweh (and Moses) to the test by their complaining, a complaining which posed the unbelievable question, ‘Is Yahweh present with us, or not?’ The scandal of this question of course is that their release and their freedom, their rescue at the sea, their guidance through and sustenance in the wilderness, and their very presence at Rephidim all answered such an inquiry in pointed and unmistakable events.”
[6] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 307: “Putting God to the test is a self-centered demand for signs and wonders ..., as though the signs and wonders of God’s creation and salvation were not enough reason to trust him, and him alone.”
[7] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:1063, where he emphasizes that the Psalm is about the proclamation of God’s reign,  In that context, “God does not coerce obedience; God invites obedience.”  He continues, “The proclamation of God’s reign calls for a decision” and that decision is made in the context of worship: “In worship, we profess who is sovereign, and we actualize today the reality of God’s claim upon us. ... Worship really is a ‘service’ in the sense that we act out our servanthood, our submission to the God whom we profess rules the world and our lives.”
[8] Cf. Exodus 10:3; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Psalm 25:9; Isaiah 57:15; 66:2; Matthew 18:4; 23:12; James 4:10; 1 Peter 5:6; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, 127-130, where he contrasts kneeling in prayer as a subservient position with the position of standing with arms held up, hands open, and heads held high as an expression of the freedom believers receive in the Spirit.
[9] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:771-772.  He says (p. 772), “If [God] loves [man] because he is sinful, being moved to compassion by the fact that He finds him in this weakness, godlessness and hostility, this carries with it the fact that He wills to free him from the necessity of being a sinner.”  He continues, “The sin of the one loved by [God] is a stain which cannot stand against the fact that God loves him and gives Himself for him, but must yield and perish. It is the work of the love of God to cause this stain to yield. This is why we call it the purifying love of God.”
[10] I think this is true because she may have been saying that five different men had married her and then rejected her.  Among NT commentators, it is common to point out that the woman’s five marriages was evidence of her immorality.  Only Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:567, challenges this. She points out (p. 571-72) that the woman is not portrayed as a sinner in this passage, but as a witness! She suggests it’s possible that the woman had been “trapped in the custom of levirate marriage ... and the last male in the family line has refused to marry her.”  Either way, it would take humility on her part to say, “I have no husband”!
[11] Cf. Rohr, Breathing Under Water, 12: “I think your heart needs to be broken, and broken open, at least once to have a heart at all or a heart for others.”