Monday, January 22, 2007

“Remembering Who We Are”

Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22[1]

The animated film “Finding Nemo” is about a clown fish named Marlin. He lives on the Great Barrier Reef with his son Nemo, who has a stunted fin. Because of his own fear of the vast ocean and Nemo’s “handicap”, Marlin is to say the least overprotective. One day, Nemo ventures out too far from the Reef and he winds up in a fish tank in a Dentist’s office in Syndey, Australia. Despite his fears of the ocean, Marlin launches a heroic quest to find and rescue his son. Of course, the tagline for the film is, “There are 3.7 trillion fish in the ocean. They're looking for one.”

Along the way, Marlin the clown fish encounters Sharks in a 12-step program to recover from their addiction to eating fish, sea turtles who surf a great underwater current, and a regal blue tang named Dory who suffers from short-term memory loss. Now, Dory gives meaning to the word “ditzy”! At their first meeting, Dory tells Marlin that she saw a boat go by, and so they take off looking for it, but after a very short time, Dory begins to meander, and suddenly turns and tells him to quit “stalking” her!

They survive dangers and Dory’s chronic forgetfulness and make it to Sydney, only to be told that Nemo has died (don’t worry, he really hadn’t). In his grief, however, Marlin decides to just go off by himself and try to forget Nemo and Dory, and everything else that he’s been through. But Dory pleads with him not to go. “No one's ever stuck with me for so long before. And if you leave... if you leave... I just, I remember things better with you. … It's there, I know it is, because when I look at you, I can feel it. And-and I look at you, and I... and I'm home. Please... I don't want that to go away. I don't want to forget.” Of course, in the end, Nemo and Marlin are reunited and Dory joins them in their home on the Great Barrier Reef.

I think that we in the church are a bit like Dory. We have a kind of spiritual “Attention Deficit Disorder.” We come to church and worship with great hymns and are reminded of the great truths and promises and hopes of our faith, and then we get distracted by traffic, kids, jobs, money, etc. etc. And before long, we have forgotten who we are and what we’re doing.

The prophet of Isaiah addressed a people in a similar situation. Israel had been exiled to Babylon, where they found it too bitter to sing the songs of Zion and to hold out hope that God would redeem them. And right into the midst of that despair, the prophet calls them to remember who they are. They are the children of the God who created them. They are the chosen ones of the God who redeemed them. They are the beloved and precious people of the God who called them. And because that is who they are, the prophet promises them that God will be with them, through floods, through the fire, no matter where they go.

I sometimes think that we, like those forgetful people of old, tend to think that if God promises that we will not be overwhelmed by the flood or burned by the fire, it means we won’t ever have to suffer loss or go through grief or endure hardship. And when we do get overwhelmed and we do get burned, we fall into despair and pass our faith off as childish wishful thinking. At least that’s what I did.

But the promise is not that we will never get burned, it’s that we will not be consumed. When you go through the fire, at least some of your hair is going to be singed. And when you’re in the middle of the flood, you’re going to be overwhelmed with fear and exhaustion. But the promise is that the waters will not take you under for good.

I find it interesting that the story of Jesus’ baptism has a similar connotation. It’s almost as if Jesus needed to be reminded and reassured of who he was and what he was supposed to be doing. All of us who have been baptized have been claimed by the God of the angel armies and the vast reaches of the universe. We were claimed even before our baptism in that the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ sent his son to redeem us through his death on the cross.

I think it’s important to remember who we are and what we’re doing. But if you’re like me and you get distracted like a ditzy regal blue tang fish named Dory, you share my need to be reminded continually. That’s what worship is for. For me, once or twice a week doesn’t cut it. I need to be reminded once or twice a day! Without that, I can easily lose myself, my faith, my confidence in the midst of all the waves that pound me and the flames that sometime surround me on every side.

But when I take the time to remind myself that God created me, God chose me, God called me, God loves me, I go away refreshed and renewed—I feel “home” and I remember better when the flames get turned up.

[1] A sermon preached 1/7/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX

“The Way of Peace”

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79[1]

Peace is on everybody’s mind these days—we want peace in the Middle East mainly so our sons and daughters can come home safely! As we approach the holiday season, it’s impossible not to think of this season as a time of “peace on earth, goodwill to men.” Charlie Brown and Hallmark make sure of that. But it’s precisely at this point that the “Hallmark calendar” contradicts the Christian calendar. The Hallmark calendar tells us to start celebrating Christmas before Halloween. On the other hand, the Christian calendar reminds us that Advent is a time of preparation. It tells us that we can have no peace without doing the work that makes peace possible.

We really do live in a “fast food nation.” Everything it seems is determined by how long it takes to drive up to McDonald’s and get a meal. The same is true with the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ. We seem to think it can be achieved by hanging some greenery and some lights and singing some familiar songs and sending out some e-cards! But as our nation is learning, peace doesn’t just materialize out of thin air! It takes work.

John the Baptist’s mission was to prepare a people for the Lord to come and bring peace to them. His “preparation” for them was to call them to repentance. Not just feeling sad or sorry for the fact that they may have said something they would later regret, but rather real, heartfelt, life-changing repentance. The kind of change that is like purifying precious metals.

I think repentance is like trying to change a bad habit. Perhaps none of you has ever had any bad habits to change, but I have. And I can tell you that it rarely happens overnight. In some cases, it takes months and years of concerted effort to change our behaviors. Those other less than perfect people out there among you who have had bad habits to change know what I’m talking about!

Throughout history, those who considered themselves “God’s people” have looked to God to make things right, to establish his peace and justice, and to bless them with salvation. But time and time again, God’s answer has been “the way of peace they do not know” (Is. 59:8).

The “way of peace” is not an easy path. It is a hard road that takes humility, the will to change, and the strength to persevere. For there to be peace in any relationship, both parties have to humble themselves enough to acknowledge their contribution to the conflict. Peace starts by our being willing to look at ourselves—to take a good hard long look at our sins: self-centeredness, self-indulgence, the need to control others, the aggression toward others that really amounts to a kind of violence. But the “way of peace” Goes further than just recognizing our sins; it also takes us to the point of being willing to do something about them. We have to choose, in so far as it is humanly possible, to change and to return to the way of peace. And then, in order to preserve peace, we have to put forth the effort—sometimes time and time again—to maintain peace. The “way of peace” is not an easy road!

According to Zechariah, that was precisely the role John the Baptist would fulfill—he would guide people back to the way of peace. I wonder of that is a message anyone in our culture has any interest in hearing at this festive time of year. In 1999 Pope John Paul II toured this country. In a message he gave in St. Louis, he lamented that ours is a “culture of death.” That may be a little hard for us to swallow. But think for a moment about our “throw away” culture—we throw everything away: energy, water, animals, children, the old, the sick, the mentally ill. If you doubt that we live in a culture of death, take a look at the games our children play and at the films we watch for entertainment. We play death on video games, we watch death for entertainment.

John Paul II did not just issue a lament. He challenged the American people to turn from the culture of death back to the way of peace. He said:

“If you want peace, work for justice. If you want justice, defend life. It you want life, embrace the truth–the truth revealed by God.”[2]

He called us to repent!

As we look toward Christmas, I want to remind us that Advent is a time of preparation. It is a time of self-examination. It is a time to resolve to change. It is a time to return to the “way of peace.”

The way of peace is:

a way of giving, not hoarding

a way of losing your life, not saving it

a way of speaking for those with no voice

a way of resisting the oppressors

a way of renouncing violence

a way of standing against abuse in all its forms, including our abuse of creation and the goods it provides us. What that amounts to is making good on our promise to follow the one we call Christ.[3]

May God grant us the courage to turn from the way of death and return to the way of peace as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Prince of peace.

[1] A sermon preached 12/10/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] John Paul II, Homily at Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, January 27, 1999.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 287-88.


Micah 5:2-5; Luke 1:39-55[1]

At this time of year, it seems that many of us are concerned with surprises. We want once again to surprise those we love with gifts that convey our love, and we want to be surprised again with gifts from them that convey their love. I’m not very good at surprising people. I’m too predictable. I find it amazingly challenging to try to understand a woman’s heart and mind, and then try to figure out what I can give her that will really surprise her. I think I’m not alone in that dilemma.

As we come to the celebration of Christmas, we need to be reminded again that we worship a God of surprises. The story of Jesus’ birth is one that is full of surprises—but then, so is the story of his life! The Savior of humankind comes to us not as a Roman aristocrat, but as a Jewish peasant! He is born not in the finest villa but in a cave cut out for livestock! He is worshipped not by the “high and mighty” among his people, but by the down and out, simple shepherds (I think about the guys who stand around at certain convenience stores in our area waiting to be hired for the day; or the guys who sell the Houston Chronicle on street corners 365 days a year, whether it’s pouring down rain or blistering with heat.) Those nobles who do pay homage to him are foreigners; they are astrologer-priests from Babylon whom we call “wise men” but who would have been considered magicians, enchanters, diviners, and sorcerers by the Jewish people (see Daniel!).

The story of Jesus’ birth is the prime illustration of God’s surprising mercy and love. It is a story of grace for sinners and restoration for the outcasts. Jesus reveals to us the God of love “who commits himself unreservedly to [humanity], to their needs and hopes: who does not demand but gives, does not oppress but raises up, does not wound but heals; who spares those who impugn his holy law and consequently himself, who forgives instead of condemning, liberates instead of punishing, leaves grace to rule instead of law.”[2] For some reason, that comes to us again and again as a surprise. But It’s the fundamental revelation of God’s nature: Throughout the Scriptures, God reveals himself as the God of unshakeable, indestructible, inexhaustible, unchangeable, unconditional love.

Perhaps the greatest surprise in the story of Jesus is that he shows us definitively once and for all that God is for us. In all that God does, God is “for us.” “For us” defines God’s essential nature. God has always worked to show himself as “the Father of the forsaken, the God of the godless and the refuge of those without hope.”[3] That’s the nature of God’s love. Whether it’s disobedient Israel or godless, ruthless Nineveh, God’s steadfast love prevails, even through an unwilling prophet like Jonah. He reaches out to those who promise to obey him but who disobey instead. He forgives those who seem to have no interest in God in the first place. He loves those who are hostile toward him—yes, even his enemies. God is the one who has always been “slow to chide and swift to bless.”

As one of my favorite theologians puts it: “The God who makes Himself known to us in His revelation, who above all, discloses His Name to us in the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus Christ, is the God whose whole revelation is one sole movement of gracious condescension to man, and act of saving Mercy.”[4]

The surprising story of Jesus’ birth is the most dramatic part of the ongoing story of God’s surprising way of redeeming us all. God redeems us through suffering shame and rejection, not by taking an earthly throne and winning over the power-mongers. God redeems us without any fanfare whatsoever. As the hymn puts it, “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given”! And yet that is how God always works to redeem us—“so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven”! And God redeems us humbly, by taking his place among us as one of the least, one of the last, one of those cast out and brushed aside. God redeems us not by coming with ten thousands of his angel armies; he does it by taking the form of a helpless infant lying in a feed trough. He does it by becoming God in flesh, God with us, Immanuel.

We must not fail to hear the challenge this surprising story poses to all of us. This surprising story of non-heroes and nobodies, the weak and the foolish, undercuts our traditional values and our pecking orders. But this surprising reversal occurs precisely “so that the integrity and worth of every person, thing, and moment—however lowly—may be defended and become the object of special wonder and delight.”[5] To some this seems absurd, but by this “marvelous absurdity,” we come to see that our God of surprises “opens up the future to a world where everything is possible, including the final setting of things right.”[6]

[1] A sermon preached 12/24/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] Hans Küng, Does God Exist? , 675.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 94.

[4] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, 184

[5] Conrad Hyers, “The Nativity as Divine Comedy” The Christian Century (Dec. 11, 1974): 1168-72;

[6] Glen V. Wilberg, “God’s Surprise” The Christian Century (Dec. 7, 1994), .

“Now and Forever”

Revelation 1:4-8[1]

What would it look like to you if you could say you finally “made it” in life? Our cultural version of the “American Dream” is rather frightening. The MTV show “Cribs” (slang for homes) gives shape to this “dream.” It’s a show where twenty-something instant millionaires take us on a tour of their mansion and show off all their toys. I’m afraid that there are all too many of us who long for that kind of “good life.”

The problem is that your “dream” defines not only your hopes; it also sets the agenda for how you live. We see the “American Dream” in slogans like “money talks,” “time is money,” “never let them see you sweat,” or “you have to go out and take what you want because nobody will give it to you.” All of this sends us the message that you have to be forceful, be egotistical, be greedy, and be aggressive to be happy.

Around here we mouth the words fairly often in prayer to God “through Jesus Christ our Lord, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever”. I wonder if they mean anything to us in terms of what our lives are all about. The book of Revelation would seem to be the last place to go for a dream of what the meaning of life is. Visions of total annihilation and strange monsters pasted together from body parts of different animals aren’t very compelling to us today. At least not as compelling as a mansion with 25 rooms and 6 brand new cars parked out front!

But Revelation isn’t about the weird beasts and the gruesome battles. It’s about the one who sits on the throne—the one who is, and who was, and who is to come. 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.”[2] And it’s about the one who stands at his right hand—the faithful witness, the lamb who was slain and who has triumphed.

You see, in the first-century world, Christians had to face alternative visions of what life is all about just like we do. Except the ideal in their day was defined by Rome, and it was a dream of power through conquest, exploitation, and domination. The presence of Roman legions throughout the Mediterranean world constantly reinforced that vision.

I would think that vision of reality posed a significant temptation for the Christians of that day. Some of them had lost their jobs and their businesses because they would no longer participate in the obligatory sacrifices to various idols. 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”.

As they made their way early on Sunday morning to a home for worship, they might see a patrol of Roman soldiers with their golden standards walking through the streets. They might walk past one of the ancient world’s beautiful temples to Zeus or Aphrodite or another deity. And they then would come to worship and the central affirmation they would hear and say was: “Jesus is Lord”! All around them, however, were images that contradicted that statement.

The book of Revelation was written to remind those Christians that at the heart of their faith was an alternate vision of what life is all about. It was a vision of the one who sits on the throne, who bends everything that happens, both evil and good, toward love and peace and justice and beauty.[3]

It was also a vision of the lamb who overcame all the so-called “powers” of the world by dying. He is the one who alone has the right to sit in judgment over the kings of the earth. 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 ultimately true; it is more true than this reality defined by violence and greed and lust. 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 subverts all the boastful claims of the rich and powerful.[4] One day it will overthrow them all for the kingdom of peace and justice, where all people will beat their swords into ploughshares and the wolf and the lamb will lie down together (Isaiah 2:4; 11:6)!

Do we find this “dream” at all compelling today? Our Confession of 1967 puts it this way: “It is the will of God that his purpose for human life shall be fulfilled under the rule of Christ and all evil be banished from his creation.” But we don’t have to wait from here to eternity for some kind of pie in the sky utopia. In the reign of Christ as Lord and King, God is already working to heal the wounds and to right the wrongs. God is already working to overcome violence with peace, to end all forms of oppression, and to expose all the lies. God is already working to establish his reign, which will bring “justice and compassion for all people, everywhere.”[5]

When we affirm our faith in the reign of Christ as Lord “now and forever,” we affirm that this vision is what defines the meaning of our lives. We affirm that it’s the dream we long for, and it sets the agenda for how we live our lives! It is a dream that cries out to be realized in and through us.[6]

[1] A Sermon preached 11/26/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Rich Mullins, “Our God is an Awesome God,” 1988, BMG Songs, Inc.

[3] Stephen Shoemaker, GodStories, 67-68.

[4] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 99, 190-91, 254.

[5] Shirley C. Guthrie, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life,” Presbyterian Outlook (Feb. 11, 2002); at Cf. also Emil Brunner, Dogmatics, vol. 2: The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, 299.

[6] Henri J. M. Nouwen, in Bread for the Journey, quoted at

“Promises to Keep”

Psalm 25; Jeremiah 33:14-16[1]

It seems to me that we are a people for whom promises don’t mean much. There may have been a time when your word was your bond, but these days their lawyers want to talk to our lawyers and everybody else’s lawyers to make sure none of lawyers are pulling a fast one!

If you’re like me, you may feel a bit jaded by too many promises broken. Political campaigns have become comical for the outlandish promises candidates will make just to get your vote—of course, with no intention of ever fulfilling them. The sad thing isn’t that we know they have no intention of ever fulfilling all their promises; it’s that they know we know, and they make the promises anyway!

Biblical faith is a faith that is very much defined by promise.[2] From the days of ancient Israel to today, there have been prophets who promised that better things were in store for those who wait in faith. Was this just manipulation? In some cases, I’m sure that has been a factor

For some, the divine promises in Scripture become a tangible key that unlocks not only the mysteries of the Christian life, but also the details of the future. About 20 years ago, a man named Edgar Whisenant wrote a booklet called “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Come in 1988.” He sent it to pastors of various denominations. In it, he claimed not only to be able to predict the return of Christ, but also all of the events that would occur over the next 1,000 years! I would say placing one’s faith in that kind of thing is just about as foolish as believing the promises most politicians make these days!

What basis do we have for believing that the biblical promises are more than just religious campaign promises? In the first place, we view them from the perspective of God’s character. The idea that God is faithful is one that echoes throughout Scripture. The first true “revelation” of who God is comes to Moses in the cleft of the rock: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7). That refrain echoes again and again throughout the Psalms and prophets. Our Psalm text for today puts it this way: “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps. 25:10).[3]

Even in the presence of the Babylonian siege, Jeremiah obeys God’s command to buy his cousin’s field. The field stands as a tangible reminder that “Fields shall be bought in this land,” because God promised he would bring the people back and restore their fortunes (Jeremiah 32:43-45). God promised: “I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah” and make a branch from the house of David arise to bring new justice to the people (Jer. 33:14-16)

Why would Jeremiah or anyone else believe this? It was the experience of God’s faithfulness in the midst of the hardships of life that gave them confidence. It was the assurance that: “See, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me?” (Jer. 32:27). It was the same assurance that enable Paul, at the end of a ministry that encompassed countless sufferings, to say, “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day” (2 Tim. 1:12).

The conviction of God’s faithfulness emerges from the experience of God’s steadfast love in the midst of all the changes of life.[4] That’s what leads the biblical prophets to affirm that the essence of God’s being is fidelity. That’s why biblical faith cannot fathom a God who breaks promises. Rather, biblical faith views God’s promises from the stand point of Isaiah 55: “as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose” (Isa. 55:10-11).

The other reason for believing biblical promises like this is that they point toward a future with hope and meaning.[5] One contemporary prophet has called it “God’s particular future.”[6] It consists of promises like “I will wipe away every tear,” and “they will all know me, from the greatest to the least,” and “they will beat their swords into ploughshares,” and “I am making the whole of creation new.”

Christian faith is at heart the hope that the coming God will redeem this world, and that God has begun to do just that through Jesus Christ.[7] But the very act of speaking those words calls our attention to the fact that those promises have not been fulfilled. And so there is a tension to biblical faith in the promise of God.[8] It is like the Jewish messianic hope that recognizes that this world and those of us in it are still in a very real sense fundamentally unredeemed. The Christian faith is one that “must often be expressed against all outward evidence.”[9]

This season of Advent is a time not only for looking backward joyfully to the birth of the Christ child, but also looking forward longingly to the coming of the Risen Lord. We are still a people who wait for promises to be kept.

[1] A sermon preached 12/3/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 16, 20, 30-32, 40-44, 85-89, 102-229.

[3] Moltmann, 115: “God is the same God all the way from promise to fulfillment.”

[4] Moltmann, 106, 117, 119.

[5] Moltmann, 24-25.

[6] Peter Gomes, Strength for the Journey, 182.

[7] J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 26-27, 28, 30, 32-33.

[8] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 104.

[9] William Dyrness, “In Distress” The Christian Century ( Nov 16, 1994), accessed at; cf. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 118.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

“An Open Door”

Hebrews 10:19-25[1]

Religion is not generally known for its openness. To the contrary, it would seem that most religions are defined more by the boundaries they prescribe, or by the barriers and restrictions they impose.

Just about every religion, it seems, has some sort of prescribed ritual for entering the presence of the deity. [2] Only the authorized priests may conduct the ritual, and they must exercise meticulous care to follow the prescribed ritual to the letter. Not only is it forbidden for an ordinary individual to approach God, it is positively dangerous. Sometimes it’s even dangerous for the priests! They and only they can enter the sacred places to conduct the ritual of worship.

All of these boundaries and limits presuppose God as someone or something unapproachable. Many religions developed animal sacrifices in order to resolve this problem of approaching an unapproachable deity. Animal sacrifices were believed to have a kind of magical power to soothe God’s demeanor and render God favorable and gracious toward humanity that falls short and goes astray.

While all of this would seem to run counter to the New Testament lesson for today, the reality is that the Christian religion hasn’t been very different from other religions in this regard. Priests and meticulous rituals and sacred places with boundaries have been a regular part of the Christian religion throughout history.

But the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that they are not a part of the Christian faith. Hebrews offers in place of all that a “new and living way” that has been opened by Jesus the Christ. It is new in that there are no sacrifices you have to meticulously follow in order to enter this way. It is living in that it is a way that truly leads to life (cf. the “path of life” in Ps. 16). Through Jesus’ death on the cross, the path that leads to life is open for anyone and everyone.[3] 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 in order to be allowed to follow Jesus on the path that leads to life.

This message is the heart of the Christian faith, yet it has puzzled humankind for 2000 years. How is it that the death of this Jewish rabbi on a Roman cross in a backwater Mediterranean country makes it possible for us to have an open door to God? Throughout history, there have been many theories proposed to explain just exactly why Jesus died on the cross and what his death accomplished. But through the ages the best theological minds have not been able to explain the cross in a way that has satisfied the whole church so much that we have embraced it in something like the Apostles’ Creed. [4] It is a “truth which cannot be demonstrated but which is not without witnesses.”[5]

I think the best we can do is to stick with what the New Testament does—the Apostles were content to describe the effects of Jesus’ death on the cross without being able to explain all that it involved.

Our Study Catechism puts it well, I think, when in response to the question “Why did Jesus have to suffer as he did?” it says: “Because grace is more abundant — and sin more serious — than we suppose. … The cross in all its severity reveals an abyss of sin swallowed up by the suffering of divine love.”[6] Essentially, Jesus died to break the power of that which keeps humankind from the life God intends for us to have—call it sin, or selfishness, or alienation.[7]

But Jesus also died to open the door to a relationship with God that is meaningful and fulfilling.[8] The biblical idea of sin is not just that our lives are marred, but also that we have broken the relationship God intends for us to share by our willfulness, our resistance, our violence, our pride, and our greed. The good news of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ is that God takes the initiative to heal the breach. We are the offending party, yet we are the ones who need to be reconciled. God holds no grudges against us; God does not need to be softened up toward us. God already loves us unconditionally and irrevocably.[9] God is the one who seeks us out like a shepherd searching for a lost sheep. God does not need to be reconciled to us—we need to be reconciled to God. [10]

But because of the seriousness of the breach, our restoration requires “the cross in all its severity” as our catechism puts it. What that means is that God takes on the consequences of our willfulness and pride and greed. God endures the pain of our sins, but by so doing it becomes a pain that heals us (Isa. 53:4; 1 Pet. 2:24: “by his wounds we are healed”).[11]

I don’t think that we have to endorse a certain theory of atonement that involves some sort of substitution or satisfaction to recognize that Jesus’ death on the cross restores our relationship with God that was broken by human sin. Much of that kind of thinking seems to me to boil down to a return to the belief that a sacrifice involving blood has some special power to soothe God’s demeanor![12]

We don’t have to go there to recognize that Jesus has opened a door so that we can have the kind of relationship God has always intended for us to have—one that leads to life.[13]

[1] A sermon preached 11/19/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Harry Emerson Fosdick, A Guide to Understanding the Bible, 208-210

[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:92.

[4] Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 309. Paul Tillich expresses this idea by saying that the Cross and the Resurrection must be seen as both events and as symbols; Systematic Theology II:150-58.

[5] Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics II:169. He adds: “He who persists at the level of the verifiable will miss the truth which breaks through our untruth, therapeutically lays bare our hybris, and corrects our perversity.”

[6] Study Catechism, q. 45.

[7] J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 181-83; cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:97.

[8] Moltmann, in The Way of Jesus Christ, 188-89, points out that this is not merely a restoration of life to its original state, but rather it is the transformation of life that points to a new creation; cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV. 1:13, 110.

[9] J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 87, 95-96.

[10] A. Ritschl, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation; cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:88-89, 122-23.

[11] Tillich, Systematic Theology II:174-75; cf. also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 86: “man’s sufferings become Christ’s history, and Christ’s freedom becomes man’s history.”

[12] Fosdick, Guide to the Bible, 254.

[13] Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:14, 22, 36, 38, 47, 113