Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Ruler of All

Ruler of All
Revelation 1:4-8, 12-13, 17-18[1]
Like people of all times and place, our notions of power are defined by our experiences in life. Our culture is a pragmatic one: we tend to believe in what “works,” regardless of whether it’s “right” or “true.” Even before President Teddy Roosevelt said that we should “speak softly, and carry a big stick,”[2] we were already caught up in the quest for bigger and better weapons. These days, it would seem that an equally important part of our notion of power is that “money talks.” I think that’s something of an understatement. I think what we really mean is that money backs people into a corner so that they have no choice but to give in. I can’t say I find too much to admire about the “power brokers” of our world.
But I think that even though we have a tendency to be dazzled by big sticks and lots of money, many of us know where power really lies. It’s not found in boardrooms of corporations, but rather in households around the country, where people share the most powerful means of change there is: love. True power is found in what St. Paul calls the “weapons of righteousness” (2 Cor. 6:6-7): kindness, truth, sacrifice, and the power of God. Despite our fascination with what masquerades as power in our world, God’s ways always have been and always will be the true power in this world.
Our lesson from the Book of Revelation for today touches upon that idea. In the first place, it speaks of our God as “the Alpha and the Omega,” the one “who is and who was and who is to come,” and “the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8). This description of God is full of implications, but essentially, it is a reminder that God is the one who sits on the throne of the universe and it is his rule that will ultimately define all things and everyone.[3] It’s a reminder that “Our God is an awesome God; he reigns from heaven above; with wisdom, power, and love; our God is an awesome God.”[4]  
Alongside that image is another one that is equally important. Revelation also speaks of the one who stands at God’s right hand: “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead” (Rev. 1:5). Again, there is a whole theology about Jesus packed into that phrase, and it takes the rest of Revelation to explain. One of the most important images of Jesus in the Book of Revelation is that his is the lamb who was slain and who has triumphed through his death. As in our day, so also in that time, sacrificing one’s life was seen as weakness, not power. But the Scripture contradicts that point of view by proclaiming that, as a result of his death and resurrection, Jesus is “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5).[5]
In the first-century world, Christians had to face alternative visions of what life is all about just like we do.  The ideal in their day was defined by Rome, and it was a dream of power through conquest, exploitation, and domination.[6]  The presence of Roman legions throughout the Mediterranean world constantly reinforced that vision. That posed a significant temptation for the Christians of the day.[7]  Some of them had been excluded from families who could not fathom why anyone would turn their backs on the culture of power and glory, prosperity and success, and its “family values”. In their worship, the central affirmation was: “Jesus is Lord”! And yet, all around them were images that contradicted their faith. 
So the book of Revelation was written to remind those Christians that at the heart of their faith was a very different vision of what life is all about.[8] It is a vision of the one who sits on the throne, who bends everything that happens, both evil and good, toward his purposes.[9] It is also a vision of the lamb who overcame all the so-called “powers” of the world by dying.  And because of his death and resurrection, he alone has the right to rule over all the earth.  And he is the one who will one day make the “kingdom of the world” into the kingdom of our Lord, and “he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15)!
At the heart of the Christian faith is a vision of a reality that is more true than our present world defined by power that takes the form of violence and greed.  What’s more, at the heart of the Christian faith is the conviction that this ultimate reality is already present and working in our lives—it already undermines all the boastful claims of the rich and powerful.[10]   And the promise is that one day this ultimate reality, the reign of Christ, will overthrow all the false powers in our world and all people will beat their swords into ploughshares and the wolf and the lamb will lie down together (Isaiah 2:4; 11:6)!
I guess the question we have to answer is whether this vision is more convincing than what pretends to be power in our world. Things haven’t changed much—we can be just as deceived by grandiose displays as the people of that day. But the real question we have to address here is where we place our faith. If we place our faith in “chariots,” the Scripture reminds us that they will “collapse and fall” (Ps. 20:7-8). If we place our faith in “mortals,” no matter how powerful they may seem, we find that in them “there is no help” (Ps. 146:3). The Scriptures call us to place our faith in the God who is working right now to establish his kingdom and his justice, peace, and freedom for all peoples everywhere.[11] They call us to place our faith in Christ as our Lord, the one who exposed the sham of those who pretend to have power in this world by his death and resurrection. They call us to place our faith in our Savior who lives and reigns for all time. And one day he will be acknowledged by all creation as the “ruler of all."

[1] © 2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/22/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt: An Autobiography, 522
[3] Cf. Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 27, regarding the designations “First and Last” and “Alpha and Omega,” says, “God precedes all things, as their Creator, and he will bring all things to eschatological fulfillment. He is the origin and goal of all history. He has the first word, in creation, and the last word, in new creation.” Cf. Eugene M. Boring, Revelation, 75: “God is named as the one whose being and whose acts embrace all time.”
[4] Rich Mullins, “Our God is an Awesome God,” 1988, BMG Songs, Inc. Even though I take issue with the theology expressed in the verses of this popular song, I think the refrain is a sound expression of what the book of Revelation was seeking to convey.
[5] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 73, “Fundamental to Revelation’s whole understanding of the way in which Christ establishes God’s kingdom on earth is the conviction that in his death and resurrection Christ has already won his decisive victory over evil.”  Cf. also Boring, Revelation, 76, where he says that this phrase “attributes to Jesus the title claimed by the Roman Caesars, whose claim to sovereignty John wants his readers to see as a false caricature of the real lordship of Christ.”
[6] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 34, “The Roman Empire, like most political powers in the ancient world, represented and propagated its power in religious terms. … In this way it absolutized its power, claiming for itself the ultimate, divine sovereignty over the world.” I would say that all empires throughout history, even those in the present day, engage in this propaganda to some extent.
[7] Cf. Boring, Revelation, 8-23, where he summarizes the challenges faced by Christian communities in the Roman Empire, including being caught up in Roman wars, social and economic discrimination, and the pressure to take part in the worship of the Emperor as a test of loyalty.
[8] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 7: “The effect of John’s visions, one might say, is to expand his readers’ world, both spatially (into heaven) and temporally (into the eschatological future), or, to put it another way, to open their world to divine transcendence. The bounds which Roman power and ideology set to the readers’ world are broken open and that world is seen as open to the greater purpose of its transcendent Creator and Lord.” Contrast Christopher C. Rowland, “The Book Of Revelation,” New Interpreters Bible XII: “Apocalypse demands a break from our present way of looking at things. It offers an alternative perspective—though not the authoritative, definitive statement for which we crave—that requires the recipient who understands to bear witness.”
[9] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 31, where he says that the “vision of God’s sovereignty in heaven” is what “makes it possible for John to enlarge his readers’ perspective on their own situation by setting it within the broader context of God’s universal purpose of overcoming all opposition to his rule and establishing his kingdom in the world.” This reign of God is “the true reality which must in the end also prevail on earth.” Thus Bauckham can also say, (ibid., 40), “The whole of Revelation could be regarded as a vision of the fulfilment of the first three petitions of the Lord’s prayer: ‘Your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:9-10).”
[10] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 99: “with Jesus’ resurrection from the dead the power of death and all the domination built up on the threat of death have already been overthrown and their end is already in sight.” Cf. also ibid., 190-91.
[11] Cf. Shirley C. Guthrie, Always Being Reformed, 69-70, where he insists that confessing Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life,” means that “he is the expression of God’s love not just for Christian believers but for all humanity, on one in whom God was at work to reconcile the whole world to himself. He came not to give his followers everything they wanted to be happy, successful, and secure now and forever, but to announce and usher in the worldwide reign of God’s justice and compassion for everyone.”

Full Assurance of Faith

Full Assurance of Faith
Hebrews 10:14-25[1]
In a recent sermon I quoted one who observed that if we cannot trust that Jesus is presently working on our behalf, the church is left with a faith that “consists of believing in an extraordinary past and an extraordinary future.”[2] In fact, that has been one of the main criticisms of the Christian faith: that we’re either stuck in a fabled past or we’re dreaming of an incredible future. It’s not too hard to look around and find various religious groups who look like they are still living in some past era. Their clothing, their culture, even their hairstyles look out of place. And on the other hand, Karl Marx was famous for saying that the Christian faith only encourages people to avoid the harsh realities of life by promising them pie in the sky by and by.[3] Either way, the claim is that Christians avoid real life in the here and the now with all its struggles and injustices and pain.
While there are some Christian teachers and preachers who could be guilty of sugar-coating our faith, I would insist that the Bible’s message does no such thing. In the first place, we follow a Savior whose life and teachings resulted in his being executed in a most appalling manner.[4] But, more than that, the Apostles and Prophets of Scripture teach us consistently that those who seek to follow God’s ways in this world will suffer for it. The reason for that is the values of “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God” run so directly contrary to the values of our world. And yet, suffering is never God’s last word for us. Ever!
In our lesson from Hebrews for today, I think the Scripture addresses the question of what our faith does for us in the challenges we face in our everyday lives. It assures us that “we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place” because “by his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way.” (Heb. 10:19-20, NLT).  Therefore we can go “right into the presence of God” (Heb. 10:22, NLT). I think the point is that God has not left us to try to find our way through the maze on our own. We have an open door to God’s grace and mercy and love any time we need it. In fact, whether we realize it or not, that open door has flooded our world and our lives with God’s grace, mercy, and love. There is no challenge we will ever have to face alone. There is no hardship or injustice or pain that we can undergo without the presence of the living God who created all the heavens and the earth right there with us, supporting us every step of the way.[5]
The letter to the Hebrews has already presented the message that Jesus died to break the power of everything that keeps us from the life God intends for us. And the Preacher of Hebrews has reminded us that Jesus became a human being in order to demonstrate that God loves us enough to enter our struggles, and his love is powerful enough to transform them into new life. And we have seen that the point of all that Jesus did is that God is working to make this new life a reality for us all: a life of freedom, peace, and beauty.
In our lesson for today, the Scripture defines that new life by taking it one step further. It tells us that Jesus also died to open the way to a relationship with God that is meaningful and fulfilling.  An important part of the biblical idea of sin is that we have broken our relationship with God by our willfulness, our resistance, our pride, and our selfishness.  But the good news is that God takes the initiative to heal that breach.  God holds no grudges against us; God does not need to be softened up toward us.  God already loves us unconditionally and irrevocably.[6] And so it is that, through Jesus, God seeks us out like a shepherd searching for a lost sheep. And once we are found, he never lets us go!
I think that’s what our Scripture lesson means when it speaks of a “new and living way” opened to us by Jesus the Christ.  It is new in that it is completely different from other ways people have taken to reach God. In this new way, there are no rituals you have to follow in order to enter God’s loving presence.[7] And this way is a “living” one in that it truly leads to a life that is new and different from the same old routine. As our Psalm for today puts it, “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy” (Ps. 16:11). That’s the kind of new life we can have in the presence of God—right here and right now.
And the good news is that this way is open for anyone and everyone. There is no gate-keeper who has the authority to keep out those who don’t belong. There is no special password you have to learn. Jesus has already opened the way so that anyone and everyone can have the kind of relationship God has always intended for us to have—a life of lasting peace, and heart-felt joy, and love that sustains us even in our darkest moments.[8]
When we look at the sometimes harsh realities of life, we may wonder what good it does to spend our time coming to church.[9] We may wonder what real benefit there is from holding onto our faith despite the challenges we may face. I think the answer is found in our lesson for today. We have the “full assurance of faith” that God has opened the way for us to experience peace in the midst of turmoil, and joy in the midst of heartbreak, and love in the midst of hardship. We have the “full assurance of faith” that we can come right into God’s presence any time we need to, and when we do we will find God’s welcome embrace and his powerful helping hand.[10] We have the “full assurance of faith” that in everything we encounter in this life—both for better and for worse—we are surrounded and filled and sustained by the real presence of the God who will never fail us or forsake us.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/15/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Fred B. Craddock, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” New Interpreters Bible XII:95.
[3] Karl Marx, Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Collected Works, v. 3, accessed at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm . He says it this way, “Religion is the general theory of this world, …. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”
[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 7: “In Christianity the cross is the test of everything which deserves to be called Christian.”
[5] Cf. Thomas G. Long, Hebrews, 104: “The undergirding structure of the Preacher’s Christology is what we have called ‘the parabola of salvation’… . Jesus the Son moves down into human history, experienced testing and suffering of every kind, and then swept back up into the heavenly places. Now the Preacher proclaims that this parabolic arc was not only the pathway that Christ traveled, it is also a pilgrim way of grace that we travel, a highway leading into the very presence of God opened up by the ministry of Jesus the great high priest.”
[6] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:88-89: in the act of reconciliation, God “has actually taken us, embraced us, as it were surrounded us, seized us from behind and turned us back again to Himself. We are dealing with the fulfillment of the covenant. God has always kept it but man broke it. It is this breach which is healed in the sovereign act of reconciliation. God was not ready to acquiesce to the fact that while He was for us we were against him. That had to be altered, and in Jesus Christ it has in fact been altered once and for all.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 87: “Jesus, as the suffering Son of man, demonstrated the power of God as prevenient love to the powerless and the outcasts.”
[7] Cf. Craddock, “Letter to the Hebrews,” NIB XII: 120: “The high priestly act of Christ's self-giving does not leave us outside, as the ancient worshipers stood anxiously awaiting the exit of the high priest, but removes all obstacles to our own access to God.”
[8] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:14, where he says that the message of “God with us” includes in it a “We with God,” which means that “we ourselves are directly summoned, that we are lifted up, that we are awakened to our own truest being….” Cf. similarly, ibid., 36-38, where Barth speaks of this in that it is a fulfillment of the covenant promise, “I will be your God and you will be my people,” which means that from the start “God willed to be God for [us].”
[9] Cf. Long, Hebrews, 108: “The disincentives to corporate worship are many. It seems somehow purer to worship God all alone on a deserted beach or in the still beauty of the night under a canopy of stars than in the midst of the rag-tag assembly that shows up for church. Also, we just get tired, tired in worship and tired of worship. … the weariness of worship is a deeper fatigue, a jaded sense than nothing of real significance happens here.” He says that the answer the Preacher offers is that “Things are not what they seem. What looks like leisure turns out in the end to be exhausting, and what appears to be the labor of prayer leads to ‘a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.’”
[10] Cf. Craddock, “Letter to the Hebrews,” NIB XII:121, where he says that our confidence, which is a major theme in the letter, “is grounded, finally, not in the strength of our grasp but in the trustworthiness, the faithfulness of the one who keeps promises.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

All of LIfe

Mark 12:38-44
All of Life[1]
I’ve told many of you about my Grandfather, Harold Brehm, who was born and raised in Talmage. He served both as an elder and a trustee in the Methodist church. When I was a young “preacher boy” studying for the ministry in college, he proudly told me that his minister never once mentioned money from the pulpit.  At the time, that impressed me. Later I realized that the Bible, and especially Jesus, have a lot to say about money. I realized it wasn’t such a good idea never to mention money from the pulpit if I wanted to make the Bible’s message the focus of my preaching.
The reality is that our attitude toward our possessions—including our money—is a very important part of our lives. And that includes our spiritual lives. How we relate to the things of this world reveals a great deal about our relationship to God, our convictions about the meaning of life, and what really determines the choices we make.[2] I’m not sure that we are always aware of this fact. Our culture encourages us to measure our worth as a person by the kind of car we drive, or which designer’s name is on our clothes and accessories, or by the size of our financial portfolio. The Bible makes it clear, however, that the quality of our lives comes from what’s in our hearts, not the labels we wear on our clothes.
In our lesson from the Gospel of Mark for today, Jesus addresses this issue. It would seem that there were religious leaders who were so driven by their own conceit that they made a great show with their beautiful robes and their “presence” in worship.[3] 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.[4] But the fact that their real agenda was about themselves was revealed by the indictment Jesus made that they “devour widows’ houses”![5] In scripture, widows, like orphans and resident immigrants, came under God’s special care.[6] But these “spiritual leaders” were somehow 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.[7]
The light of Jesus’ words exposed not only the religious leaders, but the prominent people in the community as well. The Gospel lesson tells about an episode when he was at the Temple, watching the crowd making their contributions. We don’t know exactly what kind of mechanism they used for this, but apparently it was something that was very public.[8] And there were “many rich people” who “put in large sums” (Mk. 12:41). Now, in that day and time, contributions were made in coins, and so it would have been obvious to all present that these “pillars of the community” were contributing large amounts of money.
Jesus doesn’t actually say anything directly about these people or their gifts. He doesn’t necessarily say that they were giving large contributions just to gain attention. But he contrasts their substantial gifts with the seemingly insignificant contribution of a poor widow. The conversion of ancient currency into modern equivalents is not exactly precise, but I think the translation captures the situation: she “put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny” (Mk. 12:42). What is not spelled out is that these contributions were given to support the Temple, which was a magnificent structure even by the standards of our time. And it supported a rather elaborate structure of priests and other attendants who served in the Temple. Someone could easily ask what difference her meager contribution could possibly have made to such a massive institution.[9]
But Jesus takes a different approach. He doesn’t consider what percent of the Temple’s budget her two coins supported. He focuses on what her contribution represented in terms of her personal wealth. As it turns out, these two small coins were all she had to live on! By contrast, the “large sums” given by leading members of the community were offerings that they could spare! Jesus said it this way: “For 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).
I must confess that it’s hard to understand what would motivate someone who had so little to give everything she had as an offering to the Temple. But perhaps there are a couple of clues here. First, these two coins represented a fraction of what it would cost to even feed herself for one day. And second, the Greek word that is translated “what she had to live on” also means “her life.”[10] It may be that 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.
It’s funny how we wait to do that until we are in dire straits. When we lack for nothing, we can forget that all that we have and all that we are comes from God’s hand as a gift. But I think Jesus’ reflections about this widow’s offering serves as a dramatic reminder of the truth that our attitudes about our possessions reveal the true nature of our relationship with God. Those who gave what they could spare may very well have felt satisfied with themselves. But they hadn’t offered themselves completely to God as the widow did. That’s the real meaning of stewardship. Whether you give what you can spare or all that you have, the point is that we pledge our gifts as a way of reflecting our commitment to dedicate all of life to God.[11]

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/8/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 88-89, where he discusses stewardship under the heading of the discipline of “simplicity.” He says that it is an inner attitude that becomes an outward way of life, and he defines this attitude in three ways: “to receive what we have as a gift from God”; “to know that it is God’s business, not ours, to care for what we have”; and “to have our goods available to others.” Cf. also Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 200-201, where he discusses stewardship under the heading of the doctrine of creation. He says, “To say that we are God’s creatures is to emphasize our total dependence on God. … Acknowledgement of total dependence—with thanksgiving—is the first characteristic of a right relationship with God.” He goes on to say (p. 201) that we are also creatures whom “God has equipped and empowered to be God’s partners and to participate in Gods’ own work in and for the world.”
[3] Cf. Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:681. She says, “Although not all scribes would be in the position to indulge in ostentatious display of this sort, those who were retainers of the wealthy high priestly families around Jerusalem might have taken on the trappings of wealth and power.” For example, the scribes in Galilee appear to be somewhere in the middle of the social scale, and would not have been able to make such a show. From a different perspective, Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16, 852, says that the “stole” in Jewish usage was associated with priests, therefore, Marcus concludes that “the NT scribes were probably priests and Levites” (cf. further ibid., 855-56). Nevertheless, Perkins, “Mark,” NIB VIII:682 acknowledges that “The story of the wise scribe (12:28-34) makes it clear that this description of the scribes should not be treated as being stereotypical of all scribes in the Jewish community. It describes the rich and powerful at their worst.” Cf. similarly Marcus, Mark 8-16, 852.
[4] Cf. Marcus, Mark 8-16, 854: “In the honor-conscious Greco-Roman society, such distinctions would have been important signs of status, but in the Markan context they fall under the judgment that in God’s end-time dominion, the first (protoi) will become last (cf. 10:31).”
[5] Cf. Marcus, Mark 8-16, 855, where he says that this was probably related to actions taken by the scribes after a woman’s husband has died and bequeathed her the estate. He cites Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, 1318, who suggests that “the scribe, acting as a probate lawyer, has cheated the widow out of the estate by overcharging for his services.” Marcus suggests (Mark 8-16, 856), “Another possibility is that the passage has in view the forcible seizure of property by the priests, who are also scribes, for nonpayment of tithes.” He cites  Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.206 in support.
[6] Cf. Marcus, Mark 8-16, 855: “Widows, along with orphans, resident aliens, and the poor in general are often mentioned in the OT as objects of special concern to God since they are without the usual social support systems. Their well-being, therefore, is a sacred trust, and to violate it, for example by defrauding them, is an especially heinous crime (see, e.g., Jer 7:6-7; Ezek 22:7; Zech 7:10-14; Mal 3:5).”
[7] Cf. Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark, 233, where he observes that in this passage the greed of the religious leaders is exposed, “its ugliness compounded by the hypocrisy of trying to hide their avarice behind ostentatious piety.”
[8] See Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” NIB VIII:682. Contrast Marcus, Mark 8-16, 857-59, where he offers the opinion that this story is a “historicized parable.”
[9] Cf. Williamson, Mark, 234, where he observes the irony that “She gave this to the Temple, the extravagance and imminent destruction of which will be the subject of the very next verses.”
[10] Cf. Marcus, Mark 8-16, 858.
[11] Cf. The Book of Confessions, “The Heidelberg Catechism” 4.086 (p. 58), which asks the question why we are called to good works in general if we are redeemed by grace. The answer could also provide a motivation for stewardship as a specific type of “good work”: “Because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, is also restoring us by his Spirit into his image, so that with our whole lives we may show that we are thankful to God for his benefits, so that he may be praised through us, so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ.”  Cf. also  The Book of Order 2015-2017 W-7.5003 (p.149): “As stewards of God’s creation who hold the earth in trust, the people of God are called to a. use the earth’s resources responsibly without plundering, polluting, or destroying, b. develop technological methods and processes that work together with the earth’s environment to preserve and enhance life, c. produce and consume in ways that make available to all people what is sufficient for life, d. work for responsible attitudes and practices in procreation and reproduction, e. use and shape earth’s goods to create beauty, order, health, and peace in ways that reflect God’s love for all creatures.” On the basis of this very full and specific statement, the paragraph concludes, “In gratitude for the gifts of creation, the faithful bring material goods to God in worship as a means of expressing praise, as a symbol of their self-offering, and as a token of their commitment to share earth’s goods.”

Monday, November 09, 2015

Better Hope

Better Hope
Hebrews 7:18-28[1]
Throughout the ages, the human family has been aware of a gap between themselves and their “gods.” Almost all religious rituals from the beginning of time involved some kind of sacrifice. The sacrifices had many meanings across the centuries.[2] Sometimes they were meant to appease the anger of the gods. Sometimes they were meant to purify the people, or to otherwise prepare them to meet their gods. But at the heart of the human understanding of the gods was that one could only approach them with the proper sacrifice. To do otherwise would be to court disaster. And so, from the very beginning, religious rites of all kinds reinforced a fearful approach to the divine—we humans who are flawed and weak must continually make an effort to please our gods. The only hope for a life that could be happy and prosperous was to ensure that one offered the right sacrifice at the right time and in the right way.
Into this age-long tradition, the Christian faith introduced a radically different understanding about God. Our relationship with God, and the blessings that come from it, are not dependent on us. Rather, God himself takes the initiative and acts on our behalf through Jesus Christ. And the outcome of this revolutionary understanding of God was that salvation is a gift that we could never earn no matter how hard we tried. Fortunately, we don’t have to. All that goes along with the promise of salvation—peace with God, peace with ourselves, peace with others—is ours not because we’ve obtained it through the right rituals, but rather because God has chosen to give it to us through Jesus Christ.
This is the main point of our lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews for today. The language of the Scripture reading may be confusing to us, because the author uses an analogy for salvation that may not be familiar to us: the sacrificial system of the Hebrew Bible. [3]  However, he contrasts the sacrifices of the Jewish system with the sacrifice of Jesus in terms of their effectiveness.  He makes two main points: the sacrifices were not permanent, and the priests were just as flawed as anyone else.[4]  By contrast, Jesus’ death on the cross is presented as a sacrifice that is both perfect and complete.  It is perfect in that it effects permanently what the other sacrifices could not—free and full access to God.  And it is complete in that it never needs to be repeated; because he lives forever “he is able, now and always, to save those who come to God through him” (Heb. 7:25, TEV).[5]
This analogy and the finely tuned logic that supports it in the Letter to the Hebrews may not make much sense to us in our day and time. In fact, it is interesting to note that since the beginning of our faith Christian theologians have used a variety of analogies to explain what Jesus’ death on the cross means for us. The “official” view that most people live by today was developed by Anselm in the 11th Century.[6]  Anselm used the analogy of the medieval feudal system to explain the meaning of salvation.  In this system, common people swore allegiance to a lord in order to have the opportunity to work his land and live under his protection. Anselm said that human sin was like breaking that oath and therefore offending God’s honor, and that the only way for God’s offended honor to be satisfied was for a penalty to be paid.  Anselm went on to say that Jesus paid the penalty for us so that we would not have to.
I don’t know about you, but this analogy doesn’t do much for me. Talk about the offended honor of a feudal lord that is satisfied by a penalty being paid may have worked a thousand years ago, but today it carries some implications that don’t fit the Gospel.[7]  It suggests an image of God as strict, exacting, and punitive; a God who keeps track of every little mistake we make and refuses to forgive even the slightest failing without extracting a “pound of flesh” from us. For me it doesn’t communicate the meaning of the Gospel any more effectively than the intricacies of the Jewish sacrificial system.
In all fairness to the author of Hebrews, however, there are some interesting clues that there is more to “salvation” than just some kind of heavenly balance sheet.  He speaks of true freedom (Heb. 2:15) and lasting rest (Heb. 4:9-10).  He says (Heb. 8:8-12) that Jesus brings the better covenant of Jeremiah 31, where the prophet promises that God will change the people’s hearts and forgive their sins. And in our lesson for today, he speaks of the ability to “come near to God” that is granted to us through Jesus’ death on the cross. And so it is that through Jesus we are promised a “better hope” (Heb. 7:19).
Those analogies speak more to me than talk about penalties and punishments.  The good news is that God is out to make right all that is wrong with humanity.  Whether you call it alienation, fragmentation, or selfishness; violence, greed, or falsehood; there is something about our lives that just doesn’t seem to be right.[8]   It keeps us from being our true selves, it keeps us from relating to others in a healthy way, and it keeps us from the life we were intended to live. But the good news is not that we have to somehow find a way to heal ourselves. Rather the good news is that God is working to set us free from all that binds us now.  God is working to heal the wounds, to right the wrongs, and to restore the beauty of life.[9]  God is working to overcome violence with peace, to end all forms of oppression with true justice, and to expose all the lies with the truth that sets us free. To me, that’s what salvation is about—freedom, peace, beauty, and life.  It’s about having a relationship with God because of what God has done, not what we do. It’s about having a better hope through our Savior Jesus Christ.

[1] © 2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/25/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas 1:258-59, where he summarizes the various meanings of sacrifice among the Greeks, the Hebrews, and Christians, as well as in India.
[3] Cf. Barnabas Lindars, The Theology of the Letter to the Hebrews, 126, where he says that this understanding of Jesus’ death on the cross as the work of a great High Priest who not only effects salvation but also is able to empathize with humanity because he shared their weakness is the unique contribution of Hebrews toward a New Testament understanding of Jesus.
[4] These points are emphasized in earlier in the chapter. Cf. Fred B. Craddock, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” New Interpreters Bible XII:89, where summarizes the argument: “the entire system under which Israel lived would change with the arrival of the ‘different’ priest, the priest after the order of Melchizedek. The inability to perfect the people was the flaw of the entire system and not of the priests themselves. The levitical (Aaronic) priests were called and appointed of God (5:1-4), but they functioned, says the author, in a system that was incomplete, unable to fulfill its adherents.” However, Thomas G. Long, Hebrews, 87, makes an important correction to a common misunderstanding of this argument. He says that when the Preacher says that “the law” “made nothing perfect,” he is “not thinking so much about the law given at Sinai, the Ten Commandments, or the heart of the law, in short, the ‘law’ that Jesus said he came to fulfill (see Matt. 5:17); he is speaking more of the cultic law regarding sacrifices, the law that rests on the Levitical foundation and that ‘the people received … under this priesthood.’”
[5] Cf. Long, Hebrews, 88, “We do not have a priest who gets sick and dies, or who goes on vacation, or falls down on the job, or grows tired of our need, or compromises his office, or takes advantage of us for his own gain; we have a faithful and steadfast great high priest who can be trusted, who ‘always lives to make intercession’ for us (7:25).” Along these lines, see also Craddock, “Letter to the Hebrews,” NIB XII:95: “Without this vital doctrine, the church lives in a barren desert between ‘Christ was here’ and ‘Christ will be here again.’ Meanwhile, back at the church, Christian faith consists of believing in an extraordinary past and an extraordinary future. Christ as intercessor transcends the constraints of time and place and restores ‘today’ to the relationship between God and the believer.”
[6] Cf. Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo (Why God [became] Human). On this, see Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics 2:207-214. Anselm was primarily concerned to show that the incarnation was made necessary by human sin. As Weber notes (p. 211), it was Anselm’s contribution to recognize that sin affects our relationship with God.                                       
[7] Cf. Weber, Foundations 2.213-14. He points out that Anselm’s doctrine is based on a theoretical (“a priori”) necessity related to his own theological presuppositions (p. 213): “God must realize ‘satisfaction’ in the Son. Otherwise he must either cease to be God or he must destroy mankind.” Weber also points out (p. 214) that Anselm’s theory make faith a matter of cognitive knowledge and “in the process loses its personal character” (i.e., as a matter of a relationship) because salvation is turned into an “objective” transaction.
[8] See Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 2, 47-55, where he speaks of sin as “estrangement” under three headings: estrangement from God, estrangement from self and estrangement from others.
[9] Cf. Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge, 120: “God’s cause will prevail in the world. This is the hope that sustains the message of the God’s kingom.” He defines that kingdom by saying that it will be a kingdom “of absolute righteousness, of unsurpassable freedom, of dauntless love, of universal reconciliation, of everlasting peace.”