Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Corrective Steps


Corrective Steps
Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79[1]
I’m told that when I was born, both of my feet were turned to the right. In the early 60’s, the solution the doctors recommended was to have me wear two left shoes. What they did not know is the effect that would have on my body. All of my life, I’ve had problems with my right ankle and knee. Any sports that involved running were a challenge for me. I must add that the “corrective steps” the doctors applied to my feet must have done some good. They did enable me to walk! I have had to take further “corrective steps” as an adult. As a serious bicyclist, I found it helped to get fitted for custom orthotics. These days, my practice of yoga has benefited me greatly. The stances we do in yoga have probably helped the most in strengthening my right leg.
At some point in our lives, most of us will be advised to take corrective steps with some facet of our health. Some of those measures bring relief. Others may be a nuisance, or even downright unpleasant. Many of us know that some corrective steps doctors recommend can actually debilitate the patient. The treatment for cancer can be like that. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments are meant to kill the cancer, but they don’t have the ability to discriminate between malignant and healthy cells. The treatment for some diseases can be quite burdensome. Although the goal is to heal the body, the steps taken can be quite painful.
Our Scripture lessons for today address “corrective steps” that were needed among the people of Israel. In this respect, they don’t seem to fit the season of Advent. More than that they seem to be in tension with each another. Malachi speaks of one who will prepare the way for the Lord in fearful tones, warning of judgment. The song of Zechariah in Luke’s Gospel joyfully welcomes the birth of John the Baptizer as the one to go before the Lord. If you find yourself puzzled, you’re probably not alone. A pastor friend of mine mentioned to me this week that these were not her favorite texts to preach! How does judgment go together with salvation?
The prophet Malachi addresses the people of Judah at a time of disillusionment and complacency. It was some time after the exile in Babylon, and they were weak, poor, and relatively disorganized. That their commitment to God was failing can be seen from some of the practices that Malachi criticizes. It would seem that they had placed all their hopes in God to intervene. And so Malachi promised that God would indeed send a messenger to prepare for him to come to the people.
Although this was the focus of their hope, they thought of the Lord’s coming solely in terms of their deliverance. But Malachi speaks pointedly about some things that needed to be corrected in order for that deliverance to take place. He warns that God would come to judge those who were faithless, those who broke the bonds of fidelity, those who distorted the truth. He would come to judge “those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice” (Mal. 3:5). All of these practices directly contradicted specific instructions God had given his people in the Torah. The fact that failed to obey these instructions demonstrated, according to Malachi, that they did not truly honor the Lord with their lives. And so Malachi speaks of the one who would come in ominous tones, asking “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (Mal. 3:2).
This seems quite a contrast to the joyful song of Zechariah about his son, John the Baptizer. Zechariah viewed his son as one who would prepare the way for the Lord in that he would “give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins” (Lk. 1:77). He saw the birth of John as the dawn of the “tender mercy of our God” that would bring light to those in darkness and guide the people to walk in “the way of peace” (Lk. 1:78-79). On the surface of things, it seems difficult if not impossible to reconcile these two visions of the one who would prepare the people for the Lord’s coming.
And yet, when you look at John’s ministry, you find that he sounds more like the messenger of judgment Malachi describes than the bringer of salvation and forgiveness. Luke’s Gospel tells us elsewhere that when John saw the crowds coming to be baptized by him, he turned them away, calling them a “brood of vipers” (Luke 3:7)! In order for them to experience the salvation of the Lord they would have to “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Lk. 3:8) by making some of the very same corrections that Malachi addressed in his day. How could this message of judgment and the call for a radical change of life have anything to do with salvation? In the words Luke quotes from the prophet Isaiah, for the people to experience God’s salvation, first that which was crooked must be made straight (Lk 3:5-6). The corrective steps that might sound harsh were intended to lead the people to once again love the Lord their God with all their hearts. Then they would know the salvation for which they had hoped so long.
As we celebrate our Lord’s coming to live among us on that first Christmas long ago, so we can also look forward to his coming again to complete the work of salvation. But we must remember that in order to experience God’s salvation, all of us will have to undergo some kind of correction. That which is crooked within us must be straightened out. The ways in which we live our lives that do not honor God will have to be purged, and that may be painful. There are “corrective steps” that we all need to take in order to truly love the Lord our God with all our hearts and truly love our neighbors as ourselves. But the end result of these corrective steps is that, on that final day, “all flesh will see the salvation of God!”


[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/9/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Standing on the Edge


Standing on the Edge
Jeremiah 33:14-16, Luke 21:27[1]
Promises are powerful words. They can reassure us when we’re feeling afraid or lonely or rejected. They can encourage us when we’re doubting ourselves or wondering whether we are lovable. They can motivate us to act when we question whether anything we do or say matters. Promises are powerful words. Of course, power can be used for good or for evil. Sometimes promises become a means of manipulating people. At times, those promises may stem from good intentions. At times, they may stem from a blatant aim of getting people to do what we want without any thought of fulfilling the promise made. I believe most of us would like to think, however, that we use promises for good. We know that promises are powerful words.
If we take promises seriously, they may leave us standing on the edge of anticipation. After all, a promise points toward the future. Our ability to trust in a promise may rest on past experiences. If we have had promises made to us and broken, it can be hard to trust in any promise at all. When it comes to our faith, essentially we’re trusting in a promise that has not yet come to pass. And when we do so, we’re anticipating an outcome that we hope to see based on the promise made. It can feel a little bit like standing on an edge: the edge of a curb, or the edge of a journey, or the edge of a major life decision. Promises leave us standing on the edge.
I think the promises in our Scripture lessons for Advent function that way: they raise our hopes but they also leave us on the edge of anticipation. In the midst of the brokenness of our world, we greet the promise of something new and better with relief, and joy, and a sense of hope that perhaps all things will, after all, be put right. At the same time, if we are paying attention to the brokenness in our world, these promises create in us a kind of “holy dissatisfaction” with the way things are. They leave us standing on the edge of a whole new world that has been promised, but has not yet fully come to pass. The promises in the Scriptures for Advent raise our hopes, but they also leave us standing on the edge of anticipation.
The promises in the Scriptures for Advent have a different kind of edge to them. They speak of the one who is to come in a way that we may not be able to fully grasp. We seem to want a Savior who will grant to us eternal life and perhaps also the occasional prayer request. But the promised one in our Scriptures for Advent looks different from that. The promise that the Lord says he will “surely fulfill” concerns one who comes to “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” We’re not used to associating a Savior with “justice and righteousness.” But if we pay careful attention, we will find that establishing that which is truly just and right is at the heart of God’s promise.
I think perhaps part of what creates the edge for us here is that we are not used to thinking of salvation in these terms. Salvation concerns eternal life in the hereafter and abundant life now. As it turns out, however, creating the conditions for a life that is truly just and right is actually central to what salvation looks like in the Bible. Part of the “edge” in this promise is that it confronts us all with the ways in which we conduct our lives that are not just and right. It is a promise that contains hints of judgment. When the one God promised comes, he will bring to light all of our shortcomings. In fact, Jesus said that we will all face judgment to the extent of every “careless word” (Mt. 12:36). And yet, we have to remember that it is Jesus who is the one who be setting things right. Nevertheless, that promise has an edge that may leave us all a little unsettled.
There is also a further edge to these promises, in that they point us forward to the hope of the day when the Son of Man will come “with power and great glory.” At this time of the year, we may feel good about welcoming the “baby Jesus.” A baby, as most of us know well, is cute and cuddly and warms our hearts. At least that’s how we like to think of them. Parents, of course, know that babies have their moments that aren’t so cute.
But our Scripture readings speak of a very different person coming. They convey to us the promise of a mighty Savior who will come to establish God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. That may not fit very well with our version of celebrating Christmas. But if we listen carefully to the promises of Scripture, this is the Savior we should be welcoming. He is the one who comes with God’s authority and power to right the wrongs and to bring hope to the hopeless. He comes to fulfill God’s new world.
If we pay close attention, the promises of Advent leave us standing on the edge. They leave us standing on the edge of anticipation. There is something within us all that longs for the love of God that will heal our broken hearts and bring to pass a better world. The promises of Advent leave us standing on the edge of the restoration of what is just and right. As we watch events unfolding all around us, it’s painfully apparent that what is just and right does not always prevail in our world. Perhaps more painful is the realization that we don’t always practice what is just and right in our own lives. Finally, the promises of Advent point us to the coming of a mighty Savior to establish God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. In so doing, the leave us standing on the edge of world we’ve always hoped for but could never quite find. I know this hope is one that is difficult to hold these days, but may the promises of Advent encourage us to live in the hope that our Savior is continually working to bring this new world into our world.


[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/2/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman NE.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Gifts


Gifts
Matthew 6:25-35[1]
Thanksgiving is probably one of my favorite holidays. That may be due in large part to the fact that I don’t usually have to work very hard for it! For me, Thanksgiving has all the benefits of being together with those I love without the stress of gift-giving associated with Christmas. More than that, Thanksgiving doesn’t really require much from us in a spiritual sense. We don’t have to engage in the self-reflection of Advent leading up to Christmas or the discipline of sacrifice for Lent leading up to Easter. Thanksgiving is more of a time to simply enjoy the blessings we have received.
As good as that may sound, there may be a twist here. Being “thankful” for blessings we have “received” means we have to acknowledge that our lives are not entirely in our own hands. We have to recognize, perhaps to an extent that makes us feel a bit uneasy, that we really don’t have that much control over our lives. We have to take the risk of trusting that we are in God’s hands, and that all that we are and all that we have comes from him as a gift. In a culture that prizes self-reliance, independence, and “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps,” this can be somewhat unsettling.
In our Gospel lesson, contrary to our faith in our own efforts to build a life for ourselves, we find Jesus saying not to worry about the necessities of life. Of course, that doesn’t mean we’re not to pay attention to them. But there’s a difference between being responsible and worrying. Worrying comes from that notion that we can control our own lives if we try hard enough. And when our lives don’t go the way we want, we worry. We worry because we’re afraid we won’t get what we want out of life.
Instead, Jesus points us to the birds and the lilies as prime witnesses to a different approach to life. He says that God provides them with all they need. In fact, he says that “even Solomon in all his glory” didn’t look as beautiful as a field of lilies. Now, birds and lilies don’t typically rank very high on our list of the most important things in life. And yet Jesus says that the God who created the heavens and the earth cares enough for them to provide for their needs. Of course the implication is clear: how much more does God care for us and how much more can we rely on him to provide for our needs!
Jesus was fully aware that there were people in his day who had a very different outlook on life. He says that “the Gentiles” were those who “strive” for the things they believed they needed. There may have been many then, as there are now, who would have been quick to point out that the promise of a God who cares for us and provides for us has been around for a long time. And yet, there have been many people of faith who have been left wanting. From that point of view, it would seem foolish to go on believing in a God who provides for all our needs. The only appropriate action would be to go out there and “strive” for what we want.
I can just imagine Jesus, perhaps gently shaking his head, asking, “Who’s the fool?” Is it more foolish to believe that we belong to a God of grace and mercy and love, even though sometimes those who believe in God may suffer? Or is it more foolish to believe that we can somehow take our lives into our own hands mold them to suit our desires? Jesus would say you might as well try to add a foot to your height (Matt. 6:27)—it makes about as much sense as trying to control your life! Jesus makes it clear all our efforts to control our lives are the real folly!
Instead, Jesus calls us to a different path. He calls us to “seek first the Kingdom of God.” At the most basic level, “seeking first the Kingdom of God” means aligning our lives with what God is doing in this world. It means promoting God’s justice by sharing with those in need, putting into practice God’s unconditional love for all persons, and extending God’s grace and mercy freely to those around us. It’s a way of life that stems from the faith that all of life is ultimately in God’s hands.
Jesus says that when we cease striving for the things that we think make our lives secure and instead “seek first the Kingdom of God,” we find that “all these things will be given to you as well.” The truth of our lives is that all we need comes to us as a gift from God’s hand. For some of us, that might not sound so good. It can be unnerving. We much prefer to think that our lives are in our own hands. We much prefer to believe that we deserve what we have because we worked hard to get it. But Jesus says that makes about as much sense as believing we can make ourselves taller just by wanting it to be so.
We have the choice:  we can choose to approach life based on the creed that says you’re on your own and your life depends entirely on you. It is a creed that ultimately rests on the fear and worry that Jesus warns against. It is a creed that is defined by striving—striving to control our lives. Or we can choose to approach our lives based on the faith that entrusts all of life into God’s hands, regardless of our specific circumstances. It is a faith that leads us to be thankful for the blessings we have received. It is a faith that humbly recognizes that all that we are and all that we have come to us as gifts from God’s generous grace. As hard as it may be for us, I think that may be the true basis for the celebration of Thanksgiving.


[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/18/2018 at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Hickman NE.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

All We Have


All We Have
Mark 12:38-44[1]
It’s not hard to see how much we as a people are preoccupied with our possessions. Especially at this time of the year. We’re already being bombarded by advertisements that seek to convince us that we don’t already have enough to be content. We need that newer TV, or that nicer car, or the latest and best electronic gadget. It’s the way our economy functions. It thrives when we go out and do our “due diligence” as consumers. That means spending money on more “stuff” at a rate that keeps the economy humming along nicely. We even have an index to measure this behavior: we call it “consumer confidence.” If we are “confident” consumers, we’re going to go out and spend our money on more things.
It seems to me that may be one of obvious ways in which our society fails to understand prosperity. Spending money becomes the measure of how well we’re doing. That we’re spending money on things we very likely don’t need doesn’t come into the picture. Nor does anyone stop to wonder whether all that spending is really a measure of our “confidence,” or a measure of our personal dissatisfaction with our lives. It seems to me that when we’re truly “confident,” we’re content with what we have, and we don’t need to go out and spend a lot of money on things we don’t need and may not even really want!
Our Gospel lesson for today throws the issue of wealth into the spotlight in a way that might seem rather uncomfortable. Jesus criticized some of the religious leaders who were so driven by their own conceit that they made an effort to look impressive with their beautiful robes and their “presence” in worship. He made it clear that it was all for show. He said that their “long prayers” were simply “for the sake of appearance” (Mk.12:40). In other words, they wanted to look like they were spiritual. But the fact that their real agenda was about themselves was revealed by the indictment Jesus made that they were defrauding some of the most vulnerable people in their society. It seems clear where their hearts really were—wrapped up in their own self-interest, their own image, and their own greed.
Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of the prominent people in the community as well. When he was at the Temple, watching the crowd making their contributions to that vast institution, it was apparent that there were “many rich people” who “put in large sums” (Mk. 12:41). He then contrasted the paltry contribution of a poor widow: she “put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny” (Mk. 12:42). But Jesus made the point clear: “all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk. 12:44).
What may not be obvious on the surface of things is that the Greek phrase that is translated “all she had to live on” could also be rendered as “her whole life.” Perhaps she had reached the place where she had exhausted her own resources, and she was offering herself completely to God, trusting him to care for her needs. The irony is that, from Jesus’ perspective, her gift was more substantial than all the “large sums” the others gave. More than that, she embodied the kind of attitude that Jesus sought from all those who would follow him: that we surrender all that we are and all that we have to God.
The Scriptures and the Christian tradition are consistent on this matter: there is something about wealth that has a way of taking over your heart and life. Jesus said it this way: “you cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24). Jesus knew what escapes us so easily: our possessions have a powerful way of “possessing” us. Throughout the ages the antidote to this problem has been to place all we have at the service of God’s kingdom. The traditional term for that attitude toward possessions is “hospitality.” It speaks of a level of generosity that is ready and willing to share all we have with those around us, especially those in need.
While there are lots of practical reasons for giving, I don’t think that’s what Jesus was most concerned about in this setting. It seems to me that he was more concerned with what wealth does to us. From that perspective, giving is a spiritual discipline that enables us to remain fully human in the midst of this world and its goods. Practicing generosity may be the only way for us manage to keep from losing ourselves in our possessions while we live in a world where we have so much wealth. If you wonder whether this may be a problem for you, Richard Foster offers a fairly simple test: select your most cherished possession, and then begin to look for an opportunity to give it away. If that’s doesn’t come easily, I think you’re in good company.
In our society, wealth is not only something we desire, it’s a necessity for retirement! If that’s not difficult enough, our consumer-driven economy makes it almost impossible to avoid the pitfalls of our affluence. If we’re honest I think we all have to admit that we can get quite attached to our “stuff.” And all of this can leave us quite blind to what our wealth does to us and our humanity. The discipline of giving is a means of reminding ourselves that that we are all dependent on God for all of life, just like the widow in our lesson. More than that, we practice the discipline of giving so that we can free ourselves from the fetters of our possessions. And we do that by surrendering all that we have to God.


[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/11/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.