Saturday, May 19, 2007

“Healing the Nations”

Psalm 67; Rev. 21:10, 21:22-22:5[1]

Another tragic distortion of the Christian faith is the notion that the whole drama of redemption through Jesus’ death and resurrection occurs just so that “we” can be blessed and healed with new life. It’s the perspective that “it’s all about me.” It makes Christianity and the church exclusive and suspicious of outsiders, so that we retreat into the safety of our own “group.”

The problem with this perspective is that it turns the whole Christian faith upside down and inside out. If there’s one thing that the book of Revelation teaches us, it’s that biblical faith has always been a matter of serving others, not being served. From the biblical perspective, the ultimate question is not “will I go to heaven when I die” but rather “how can I share the new life of God’s kingdom with those around me?” The psalmist makes this connection; and it is one that is fundamental to the whole Bible: God blesses us not just so that we can be blessed, but so that all people may come to know the blessing![2] The whole reason for our experience of blessing is “that your way may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations” (Ps. 67:2)!

From the biblical perspective, our faith is not all about me at all! It’s also not about you! What it’s about is God’s work of redemption that is “making all things new.” God’s purpose is not about choosing a select few who can enjoy the benefits of new life while the vast majority of humankind go down the drain! It never has been! It always has been and always will be all-inclusive, all-embracing. When God called Abram, he promised that through Abram’s descendants, “all the families of the earth” would be blessed (Gen. 12: 3). The Christian faith is about joining with God in the project of redeeming other people, not taking something and hoarding it and hiding from them.

The same perspective is found in Revelation. When John gets down to the end of his fantastic vision, he describes the new city of God as one in which God dwells and his glory enlightens, and he says, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Rev. 21:24). He also describes a new Garden of Eden, with the river of the water of life flowing from the throne of God, and the tree of life in the midst. And tucked away in the midst of all these visions of beauty, he says, “and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2)!

The whole purpose of the renewal of creation is that all the nations may enjoy the warmth and light of God’s life shining on them! The whole purpose of the beautiful new life flowing like a river and flourishing like a great tree is for “the healing of the nations.” In other words, God blesses us with life and love and joy and hope in order that we might lead others into that same blessing of life and love and joy and hope. In a very real sense, our faith constitutes a call to invest our lives for the sake of others and for the sake of the kingdom of God![3]

The recent film “Freedom Writers” is based on the real life story of a young, idealistic teacher named Erin who dares to invest herself in the lives of a group of teenagers in Long Beach living on the edge of violence. Though they come from different ethnic groups, they have all been thrown together into one classroom because they have all been classified as “unteachable.”

In the process, she transforms them into a group of kids who dare to make a difference. It’s a tremendous testimony to the power of her love. The transformation they undergo is a dramatic evidence of the power of the freedom she gave them in her classroom. It is a kind of parable of the power of life that sets them free from almost certain death due to gang violence and enables them to tap into their creative potential.

The interesting thing about the story is that, for all their differences, they really do have a lot in common. Most of them live in an area where people are regularly killed on the street. In one moving class exercise, she has the students play the “Line Game” to find out how much they have in common. What they all have in common is that they have all lost friends due to violence. Over time, they forge a community in their classroom where they all feel safe because they have broken down the walls that had divided them and had threatened them with violence and even death.

All this happens because one person dares to believe that they are worth the time and the energy it takes to invest in a future for them other than death or prison. She takes a great risk for them—if her experiment had failed, I doubt she would have had a job. Their story is a striking example of the way the kingdom of God works—not by keeping the blessing to ourselves, but by sharing the blessing. To invest yourself for the kingdom of God means you have to take a risk, but it’s a matter of losing your life and finding your soul. The path of life in the Kingdom of God is one that leads us to share that life with others.



[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/13/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] J. L. Mays, Psalms, 224-25; cf. J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 147, 152-53, 204-5.

[3] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 195-97, 224; 284-91; 327-38.

The Power of Life

“The Power of Life”
Revelation 21:1-8[1]
One of the most striking illustrations I’ve seen in a film about the power of new life to transform us all is in a dark film called The Children of Men.[2] The story is set in England in the year 2027. The tagline is, "The world has collapsed; only Britain soldiers on.” And “soldier on” is the right word for it, because the country is under martial law. Terrorists are planting bombs in public places, and all foreigners are suspects. Immigrants have become the scapegoats for all kinds of social ills. They are treated like vermin, kept in open air cages like wild animals, beaten or executed. The city streets are filled with garbage, and buildings destroyed by bombs have not been rebuilt.
What precipitated this world-wide collapse of civilization is the end of new life. Women all over the world have not been able to give birth since a flu epidemic in 2009. No one knows the reason for this infertility although a group of scientists called “The Human Project” are trying to figure it out.
Theo, a man so disillusioned that he carries a bottle of booze and a pack of cigarettes with him everywhere he goes is “kidnapped” by terrorists. In fact, what they want is for him to get transit papers for Kee, a young black illegal immigrant they are trying to smuggle out of the country. You see, Kee is the first woman to get pregnant in almost 20 years! Her pregnancy is both a sign of new hope and a threat to the “powers that be.” When it turns out that the terrorists are only trying to use Kee to overthrow the British government, Theo decides to smuggle her out of the country himself and try to get her to “The Human Project,” where she’ll be safe.
Toward the end of the movie, in a savage battle between the military and the terrorists, Theo struggles to rescue Kee from the terrorists and get her out with her now new-born child. But with all the shelling and gunfire, the baby is terrified and begins crying. Slowly, everyone within earshot stops what they are doing, whether it’s firing a gun or hiding from gunfire, to gaze in wonder at the miracle of new life. Even when Theo and Kee are confronted with ranks of soldiers armed to the teeth, they all stop firing in awe of the miracle of new life, the first baby born in the world in almost 20 years.
In the midst of a pitched battle where each side is bent on annihilating the other, where hatred and violence and death rule supreme, the appearance of new life over-rules everything else; the beauty and wonder and joy of new life silences all the raging of the powers of evil.
When you look at the “powers that be” in this world, it seems that only death reigns—and that it reigns supremely![3] I think it speaks volumes for our view of reality that is no problem for us to envision a world that The Children of Men portrays—one where all semblance of civilization and order have collapsed, but somehow we cannot bring ourselves to envision a renewed world with a renewed humanity enjoying God’s everlasting new life. Somehow, the promise eternal life in God’s presence seems too good to be true. In our very mind’s eye, hatred and violence and death are more real and more powerful than God’s love and life!
Call me naïve, but I refuse to allow death and destruction to be more real than God’s love and life. The simple truth is that the Christian faith in the power of God’s love and life to renew all things is essentially connected with the belief that our lives have some sort of meaning. We really cannot have it both ways. If we finally reject the idea that there is an ultimate reality that transcends what we see around us, that we can “hope for more than we have yet seen,”[4] then we have consigned ourselves to a world of despair in which nothing new can ever break the vicious cycles of death and destruction.[5]
But if we are prepared to hope against all hope that there is an ultimate reality where God’s mercy and goodness and love and justice prevail, where God’s life defines everything and everyone, then we must recognize that faith leads us inevitably to the hope that we are headed somewhere better than the total breakdown of human community. We are headed for the new creation of all things, which was the goal of creation from the start. We are headed for the Kingdom of God, where all creation participates in “the unbounded fullness of the divine life” through the life-giving presence of the Spirit.[6]
The reason why we celebrate Easter is because the NT tells us that it was a preview of all this.[7] This is not based on some magical, fairy-tale thinking. It is the outcome of God’s love expressed in his willingness to suffer with us, and that love changes everything and everyone.[8] It is the outcome of the presence of God’s life—which is eternal life—a life that was injected into this world. Like a great infusion of healing medicine, it brings life to the whole body as it works its way through all creation![9] We see the power of that love and that life reflected in the lives of those around us in many ways already. And the good news of the gospel is that there is nothing that can stop it from “making all things new”—not hatred, not violence, not even death itself.[10] The good news of Easter is that “the risen Christ … draws the whole of humanity out of the world of death” into the transformed world of new life.[11]



[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/6/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.
[2] See the review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat at http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/films.php?id=16389.
[3] J. Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 38; he defines “the powers that be” as “the unjust structures in political and economic life which despoil life and disseminate death.” Cf. also W. Wink, The Powers that Be, 39, calls them “the Domination System.”
[4] A Declaration of Faith, 10.1, 1977.
[5] J. Moltmann, God in Creation, 163; cf. also J. Moltmann, In the End—the Beginning, 93; J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 22-26
[6] Moltmann, God in Creation, 9, 14, 67-69, 91, 96, 212-13, 258, 270.
[7] J. Moltmann, Way of Jesus, 182; Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 197; Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics II:97-98; Emil Brunner, Dogmatics III:346, 366; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.1, 311-12
[8] The Study Catechism, Q. 132, 1998, says it this way, “there is … a depth of love which is deeper than our despair, and that this love … will finally swallow up forever all that would now seem to defeat it.”
[9] J. Moltmann, In the End—the Beginning, 64, says, “Jesus’ vital power was to an extraordinary degree infectious life: it was vita vivificans—life that gives life.” Cf. also ibid., 149, where he quotes an Orthodox liturgy of the resurrection, “Everything is now filled with light, heaven and earth and the realm of death.”
[10] Moltmann, In the End, 149, 163; Moltmann, God in Creation, 93.
[11] Moltmann, In the End, 48; cf. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 85, 88; cf. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 256.

“Living Hope”

Revelation 5:11-14[1]

It’s hard to know what you can hope for these days. The hopes that have inspired and encouraged people in the past seem to have worn thin in our day. The promise of progress that my parents and grandparents believed in has shown itself to be a pipe dream. The idea that if you play by the rules and go the extra mile you’ll inevitably reap the rewards runs head-long into the fact that those who cheat get ahead. The hope that our children will have a better life than we did has shattered on the rocks of economic realities.

Of course, many of us invest our lives in leaving behind a legacy that is lasting. But then a child whom you’ve nurtured and guided goes off the deep end and you’re helpless to stop him and you’re left feeling hopeless and lost. I think “lost” is a good word for our world. We feel out of control, helpless, and lost; and the world just keeps spinning faster and faster. Hope is a fragile commodity these days. Instead of the image of bedrock, hope seems more like a vapor that evaporates under the light of scrutiny. Hope seems to hang by a thread constantly.

But the hope that the Christian faith offers us something different altogether. Some might think of it as just sanctified “wishful thinking,” but I would have to say that’s not the case. The hope of the Christian faith is of an entirely different order. It is no “pie in the sky” illusion that serves as the “opiate of the masses.” The hope that the Christian faith offers us rests on the resurrection of the crucified one.

The Easter message is not that a sitting monarch was “assumed” to heavenly glory. Rather it is that one who was rejected and despised, one who was tortured and broken, one who was condemned to a horrible death, was raised again to life and vindicated and exalted to the right hand of God. The scene of worship around the throne of God in Revelation is framed by the fact that the risen Lord is “the Lamb who was slaughtered.” This scene encapsulates the Easter message: “The Lamb, who knows what it’s like to suffer, to bleed, and to die, now rules with God, as God, at the center of a great shout of acclamation.”[2]

The hope of Easter faith is that the power to vindicate one who was rejected as a sinner and condemned as a criminal, the power to raise to life one who was imprisoned in death, is a power that can transform everything and everyone. And it will. Our hope is in the future of the risen Christ—in the conviction that “he who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heaven be one.” We hold this hope in the assurance that if death could not stop him, then nothing can. And it creates in us the confident expectation that he will one day succeed in transforming this god-forsaken world of death into God’s new creation. The resurrection is a promise; a promise that the new reality that came into being on that Easter morning will one day transform everything and everyone.[3]

The Easter faith means that the Lamb who was slaughtered wins the victory, and is truly worthy to receive praise and honor and glory and blessing. Even though we see precious little of that victory realized here and now, there is nothing that can prevent him from completing the redeeming work he set out to do—to restore and renew all creation.

Our hope does not sugar-coat the realities of this life. Life is hard. It can be tragic at times. There is no justice, oftentimes there is no rhyme or reason to the burdens we have to bear. Jesus, as “the lamb who was slaughtered,” shared that reality with us. He suffered the depth of our pain. He submitted himself to the powers of cruelty and violence and greed, and ultimately surrendered himself to the power of death itself. But death could not hold him!

The resurrection of Jesus is an anticipation of the new creation. “In the midst of the history of death, the future of the new creation and the glory of God has already dawned in this one person.”[4] That’s what the scene in Revelation around the throne of God shows us—“a glimpse, a foretaste, a peek into the future”; it shows us “a world still being born.”[5] The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the dawn of new life that will one day embrace all things! The new day of Jesus’ resurrection reveals the light of God’s new creation already breaking into this world.[6]

The good news of Easter is that the eternal life that Jesus brought into this world through his death and resurrection not only broke open the doors of Hades, but it is working its way through out this whole groaning world, and it will not stop until every knee bows and every tongue joins in the chorus of worship, “worthy is the Lamb”! That’s something to hope for!



[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/22/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] William Willimon, “A Song to Shake the World,” a sermon preached 4/26/1998; accessed at http://www.chapel.duke.edu/worship/sunday/viewsermon.aspx?id=70 .

[3] J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 85, 88; cf. J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 256.

[4] J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 98-99; Moltmann, Way of Jesus, 220, 254; J. Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning: The Life of Hope, 87.

[5] Willimon, “A Song.”

[6]Moltmann, Way of Jesus, 182; Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 197; Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics II:97-98; Emil Brunner, Dogmatics III:346, 366; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.1, 311-12.

“Imagine”

Revelation 7:9-17[1]

One of the great curses of our time is that we have become so accustomed to watching someone else’s imagination portrayed for us electronically that we have lost the capacity to exercise our own imagination. That’s the lesson of M. Night Shyamalan’s recent film, The Lady in the Water. The film is primarily not about the “lady in the water” or the incredible fairy tale her appearance invokes. It’s about a very ordinary guy named Cleveland Heep. Cleveland is the maintenance man for an apartment complex in Philadelphia called The Cove. He had once been a doctor, but gave it up when his wife and kids were murdered. That tragedy not only means the loss of Cleveland’s enthusiasm for living. It also means that he has lost the capacity to imagine anything more to life. He just slogs his way through each day, going from one tenant “crisis” to another, completely lifeless and bored. He’s hiding from the world and from himself.

One night, he hears a splash in the pool outside. He discovers, much to his amazement, that there is a beautiful young lady in the water. She is “Story,” and she comes from a completely different world, the “Blue World” under the ocean. She has come to our world on a special mission, to find a writer and inspire an awakening that will enable him or her to change the world that has become so embroiled in violence. The writer is a young man living in the complex who is struggling to write a book about that very thing. After she meets him and “awakens” him, she is ready to go back to her world. But there are menacing wolf-like monsters that are trying to stop her. In order to make it back she needs the help of several special people to get there: a guardian, an interpreter, and a guild. And one other—a healer, who is characterized as a person “so full of hope that he or she can awaken the life force in all things.”

As you can imagine, Cleveland has a hard time believing any of this at first. One day, he’s trudging his way through his dreary life, and the next he finds himself in the midst of a great adventure of enormous proportions! But the greatest surprise is the role he has to play in this adventure. When Story is injured by the monsters, he assembles tenants from the complex he had thought were supposed to be there to heal her. But the moral of the fairy tale is that “no one is ever told who they are.” As one character puts it, “this world is about finding your purpose, right? … Finding one’s purpose is a profound thing; sometimes it isn’t always what it seems.”

At the crucial moment, Cleveland discovers that he is a healer. Throughout the film, in spite of his fear and his attempts to hide in a mundane world, it becomes obvious that Cleveland is a person who cannot help caring for people. But in order to fulfill his identity as a healer, he has to break through his fear and open himself again to the world of flawed people around him. As Story finally makes her way back to her world, a whole new vista for living opens up for him—one that he thought was closed forever. Cleveland’s amazing experience restores his capacity to imagine something more for himself than a humdrum existence at The Cove.

The book of Revelation has a similar function. In a world that is dominated by images of the “powers that be” in this world, it offers images of God’s power that is already at work making all things new. But it does so in an almost frustrating way. It really doesn’t answer all the questions we have. Rather than “revealing” what we want to know about our destiny, the book of Revelation teases us with hints and clues of the new world that is already breaking into this one.[2] In a very real sense, it serves to provoke our imagination.

Revelation speaks to us of a great adventure that truly has enormous proportions. There is drama; there is tragedy; there is suspense. But ultimately, the story is a comedy because it has a happy ending—the happiest ending of all! This is not just wishful thinking or “whistling in the dark.” It is a hope that is founded squarely on the resurrection of Jesus Christ to new life. The resurrection of Jesus points us to the new life that came into being on that Easter morning and will one day transform everything and everyone.[3] And the scenes in Revelation provide us with a kind of stimulus to regain the capacity to imagine a world in which God’s new creation is complete.

It is all too easy to get caught up in the mundaneness of our lives. We can very easily become just like Cleveland Heep, trudging our way from one tiresome task to another, our boredom robbing us of the ability to imagine anything more interesting or exciting. Revelation calls us to imagine something more for ourselves—the world as it was meant to be, people living and loving like they were meant to live and love. Can you see it in your mind’s eye?

But the Revelation also calls us to fulfill our roles in making this new world a reality. As incredible as it may sound, our lives, our faithful service, our obedience are not inconsequential in the kingdom of God! In fact, one could argue that our lives of faith and service play a crucial role in realizing the hope of the new creation that God is bringing about.[4] So I want you to take a moment and try to imagine with me this new world. Now I want you to imagine the role you have to play in making it a reality. May the beauty and joy of God’s new creation give us all courage to break through our fears and open ourselves to fulfill it!



[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/29/07 at First Presbyterian Church Dickinson, TX

[2]Moltmann, Way of Jesus, 182; Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 197; Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics II:97-98; Emil Brunner, Dogmatics III:346, 366; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.1, 311-12.

[3] J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 85, 88; cf. J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 256.

[4] Tucked away amidst the strange symbols is a little statement that speaks volumes: the kingdom of God comes after Satan, the “deceiver of the whole world,” is thrown down because the followers of Christ “have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:10)!

“Living Hope”

Revelation 5:11-14[1]

It’s hard to know what you can hope for these days. The hopes that have inspired and encouraged people in the past seem to have worn thin in our day. The promise of progress that my parents and grandparents believed in has shown itself to be a pipe dream. The idea that if you play by the rules and go the extra mile you’ll inevitably reap the rewards runs head-long into the fact that those who cheat get ahead. The hope that our children will have a better life than we did has shattered on the rocks of economic realities.

Of course, many of us invest our lives in leaving behind a legacy that is lasting. But then a child whom you’ve nurtured and guided goes off the deep end and you’re helpless to stop him and you’re left feeling hopeless and lost. I think “lost” is a good word for our world. We feel out of control, helpless, and lost; and the world just keeps spinning faster and faster. Hope is a fragile commodity these days. Instead of the image of bedrock, hope seems more like a vapor that evaporates under the light of scrutiny. Hope seems to hang by a thread constantly.

But the hope that the Christian faith offers us something different altogether. Some might think of it as just sanctified “wishful thinking,” but I would have to say that’s not the case. The hope of the Christian faith is of an entirely different order. It is no “pie in the sky” illusion that serves as the “opiate of the masses.” The hope that the Christian faith offers us rests on the resurrection of the crucified one.

The Easter message is not that a sitting monarch was “assumed” to heavenly glory. Rather it is that one who was rejected and despised, one who was tortured and broken, one who was condemned to a horrible death, was raised again to life and vindicated and exalted to the right hand of God. The scene of worship around the throne of God in Revelation is framed by the fact that the risen Lord is “the Lamb who was slaughtered.” This scene encapsulates the Easter message: “The Lamb, who knows what it’s like to suffer, to bleed, and to die, now rules with God, as God, at the center of a great shout of acclamation.”[2]

The hope of Easter faith is that the power to vindicate one who was rejected as a sinner and condemned as a criminal, the power to raise to life one who was imprisoned in death, is a power that can transform everything and everyone. And it will. Our hope is in the future of the risen Christ—in the conviction that “he who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heaven be one.” We hold this hope in the assurance that if death could not stop him, then nothing can. And it creates in us the confident expectation that he will one day succeed in transforming this god-forsaken world of death into God’s new creation. The resurrection is a promise; a promise that the new reality that came into being on that Easter morning will one day transform everything and everyone.[3]

The Easter faith means that the Lamb who was slaughtered wins the victory, and is truly worthy to receive praise and honor and glory and blessing. Even though we see precious little of that victory realized here and now, there is nothing that can prevent him from completing the redeeming work he set out to do—to restore and renew all creation.

Our hope does not sugar-coat the realities of this life. Life is hard. It can be tragic at times. There is no justice, oftentimes there is no rhyme or reason to the burdens we have to bear. Jesus, as “the lamb who was slaughtered,” shared that reality with us. He suffered the depth of our pain. He submitted himself to the powers of cruelty and violence and greed, and ultimately surrendered himself to the power of death itself. But death could not hold him!

The resurrection of Jesus is an anticipation of the new creation. “In the midst of the history of death, the future of the new creation and the glory of God has already dawned in this one person.”[4] That’s what the scene in Revelation around the throne of God shows us—“a glimpse, a foretaste, a peek into the future”; it shows us “a world still being born.”[5] The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the dawn of new life that will one day embrace all things! The new day of Jesus’ resurrection reveals the light of God’s new creation already breaking into this world.[6]

The good news of Easter is that the eternal life that Jesus brought into this world through his death and resurrection not only broke open the doors of Hades, but it is working its way through out this whole groaning world, and it will not stop until every knee bows and every tongue joins in the chorus of worship, “worthy is the Lamb”! That’s something to hope for!



[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/22/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] William Willimon, “A Song to Shake the World,” a sermon preached 4/26/1998; accessed at http://www.chapel.duke.edu/worship/sunday/viewsermon.aspx?id=70 .

[3] J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 85, 88; cf. J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 256.

[4] J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 98-99; Moltmann, Way of Jesus, 220, 254; J. Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning: The Life of Hope, 87.

[5] Willimon, “A Song.”

[6]Moltmann, Way of Jesus, 182; Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 197; Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics II:97-98; Emil Brunner, Dogmatics III:346, 366; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.1, 311-12.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

“Time to Reset”

Phil. 3:17-4:1; Luke 4:1-13[1]

I don’t know if any of you have ever been lost in the wilderness, but I have. Twice. The first time was when I attended the 1975 Boy Scout World Jamboree in Scandinavia. Our campsite was in Lillehammer, Norway, where the winter Olympics would later be held. Part of the jamboree experience is to mingle with scouts from other countries. Some Scouter got the bright idea that they should have us all go on a hike in the wilderness. Not with our own patrols and troops, but in “international” patrols made up of scouts from different countries. My patrol—like all of them—was led by a Scandinavian scout. There were a couple of us Americans, a German, and I think a couple of French scouts. And none of us all spoke the same language! It’s no wonder we got lost! Obviously, we found our way!

If you’ve never tried the sport called “orienteering,” let me tell you that it’s not as easy as you might think. And when you put it all in the wilderness, and you are forced to find your own way, it’s even more challenging! You may or may not know that all compasses are a little “off.” The reason for this is that magnetic north is not quite the same as “true north.” So if you’re trying to find your way in the wilderness with nothing but a compass and a map, depending on where you are in the world you have to make sure to adjust your compass to the “declination” of that area. It can vary from 0 degrees to as much as 40 degrees. A declination of 1 degree will probably not get you lost in the wilderness—but 10 degrees surely will! Many’s the eager hiker who, forgetting to take that important step to reset the compass, wound up getting lost in some wilderness!

It may seem strange for a protestant congregation in the Reformed tradition to observe Lent. When I grew up as a Methodist kid in a small town in South Texas, Lent meant that we had fish in the cafeteria on Fridays—for some strange reason. John Calvin positively rails against those in his day who sought to imitate Jesus’ 40-day fast. He calls it “a wicked and abominable mockery of Christ,” and “an intolerable outrage” against God, Christ, and the Gospel![2] Of course, what Calvin objected to was not the fasting itself, but the Roman Catholic Church and just about everything it stood for!

Jesus’ temptation gives us some clues as to why we do things like observe Lent. In a very real sense, observing Lent is about reminding ourselves that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” and that we are to “worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” The temptations Jesus faced, in and of themselves, don’t seem to be all that bad. What’s wrong with turning stones to bread, especially if you haven’t eaten for over a month! That was the temptation of “do it yourself.” And what is wrong with taking a pragmatic approach to spirituality? Instead of all the mess of the cross and the ambiguity of spirituality, Jesus (supposedly) could have taken a short cut. “Why not set up a real kingdom of God on earth?”[3] That was the temptation of “don’t wait.” And then there was the “leap of faith” that Jesus was to take, citing chapter and verse from Psalm 91 all the way down! What’s wrong with demonstrating to one and all that “the Lord indeed is God” like Elijah did (1 Kg. 18:39)? What does it matter if it really boils down to trying to prove ourselves, not God? In each case, Jesus was presented with something that might in seem harmless. But in each case, what it amounted to was violating God’s purpose.[4]

Lent helps us to make sure that our compasses point toward “true north.” There is a sense in which our discipleship is like a compass—we are all a little off. So we always have to reset our bearings to account for the fact of “drift” in our discipleship! Observing Lent helps us do that. It adjusts our focus. It helps us to see through the temptations that lead us off the path—like the compromises that seem harmless but violate God’s purpose, the lies we want to be true so badly that we believe them, or the gods we have made out of things that cannot give life. Just like a real compass, just a few degrees off can lead us far astray! Abstaining from something that we have become used to is a way of “resetting the compass of our discipleship.”[5]

William Willimon, retired Dean of the Duke University Chapel, says that one of the challenges we face as Christians is to continually orient our lives to the stories and hopes and faith of scripture, rather than the failed ideologies of our time.[6] Lent helps us do that. It helps us to reorient our lives toward the ultimate story that defines us all—the transformation of all things through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ! The Apostle Paul speaks of this in his letter to the Philippians. He reminds the Philippians that we have our citizenship in “heaven,” which means that our lives are oriented in a different direction than the one all the lies and false gods point toward.

The second time I got lost was on a family camping trip about 15 years ago. We were at Bastrop State Park, and we took a path that basically ran out in the middle of nowhere. I had a crude map of the park, but I wished I had a more accurate one. It didn’t take me long to recognize that we were lost. What I did know was my directions (based on the position of the Sun), and that if we kept the Sun to our right we would wind up on a main road not far from our campsite. We had to make our way through some not-so-smooth terrain, but we finally found the road and made it back to camp. Observing Lent reminds us that it is all too easy for us to lose our way, especially if we’re relying on faulty maps or directions. I challenge you all to take the opportunity to reset your compasses over the next few weeks.



[1] A Sermon preached 3/4/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, on Matt. 4:1; accessed at http://www.ccel.org/c/calvin/comment3/comm_vol31/htm/ix.xxxi.htm.

[3] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1, 261.

[4] Barth, CD IV.1, 260-63

[5] Stephen Cottrell, I Thirst: The Cross—The Great Triumph of Love, 12.

[6] William Willimon, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, 99-101.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Living Hope

“Living Hope”
Revelation 5:11-14[1]
It’s hard to know what you can hope for these days. The hopes that have inspired and encouraged people in the past seem to have worn thin in our day. The promise of progress that my parents and grandparents believed in has shown itself to be a pipe dream. The idea that if you play by the rules and go the extra mile you’ll inevitably reap the rewards runs head-long into the fact that those who cheat get ahead. The hope that our children will have a better life than we did has shattered on the rocks of economic realities.
Of course, many of us invest our lives in leaving behind a legacy that is lasting. But then a child whom you’ve nurtured and guided goes off the deep end and you’re helpless to stop him and you’re left feeling hopeless and lost. I think “lost” is a good word for our world. We feel out of control, helpless, and lost; and the world just keeps spinning faster and faster. Hope is a fragile commodity these days. Instead of the image of bedrock, hope seems more like a vapor that evaporates under the light of scrutiny. Hope seems to hang by a thread constantly.
But the hope that the Christian faith offers us something different altogether. Some might think of it as just sanctified “wishful thinking,” but I would have to say that’s not the case. The hope of the Christian faith is of an entirely different order. It is no “pie in the sky” illusion that serves as the “opiate of the masses.” The hope that the Christian faith offers us rests on the resurrection of the crucified one.
The Easter message is not that a sitting monarch was “assumed” to heavenly glory. Rather it is that one who was rejected and despised, one who was tortured and broken, one who was condemned to a horrible death, was raised again to life and vindicated and exalted to the right hand of God. The scene of worship around the throne of God in Revelation is framed by the fact that the risen Lord is “the Lamb who was slaughtered.” This scene encapsulates the Easter message: “The Lamb, who knows what it’s like to suffer, to bleed, and to die, now rules with God, as God, at the center of a great shout of acclamation.”[2]
The hope of Easter faith is that the power to vindicate one who was rejected as a sinner and condemned as a criminal, the power to raise to life one who was imprisoned in death, is a power that can transform everything and everyone. And it will. Our hope is in the future of the risen Christ—in the conviction that “he who died shall be satisfied, and earth and heaven be one.” We hold this hope in the assurance that if death could not stop him, then nothing can. And it creates in us the confident expectation that he will one day succeed in transforming this god-forsaken world of death into God’s new creation. The resurrection is a promise; a promise that the new reality that came into being on that Easter morning will one day transform everything and everyone.[3]
The Easter faith means that the Lamb who was slaughtered wins the victory, and is truly worthy to receive praise and honor and glory and blessing. Even though we see precious little of that victory realized here and now, there is nothing that can prevent him from completing the redeeming work he set out to do—to restore and renew all creation.
Our hope does not sugar-coat the realities of this life. Life is hard. It can be tragic at times. There is no justice, oftentimes there is no rhyme or reason to the burdens we have to bear. Jesus, as “the lamb who was slaughtered,” shared that reality with us. He suffered the depth of our pain. He submitted himself to the powers of cruelty and violence and greed, and ultimately surrendered himself to the power of death itself. But death could not hold him!
The resurrection of Jesus is an anticipation of the new creation. “In the midst of the history of death, the future of the new creation and the glory of God has already dawned in this one person.”[4] That’s what the scene in Revelation around the throne of God shows us—“a glimpse, a foretaste, a peek into the future”; it shows us “a world still being born.”[5] The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the dawn of new life that will one day embrace all things! The new day of Jesus’ resurrection reveals the light of God’s new creation already breaking into this world.[6]
The good news of Easter is that the eternal life that Jesus brought into this world through his death and resurrection not only broke open the doors of Hades, but it is working its way through out this whole groaning world, and it will not stop until every knee bows and every tongue joins in the chorus of worship, “worthy is the Lamb”! That’s something to hope for!



[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/22/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.
[2] William Willimon, “A Song to Shake the World,” a sermon preached 4/26/1998; accessed at http://www.chapel.duke.edu/worship/sunday/viewsermon.aspx?id=70 .
[3] J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 85, 88; cf. J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 256.
[4] J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 98-99; Moltmann, Way of Jesus, 220, 254; J. Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning: The Life of Hope, 87.
[5] Willimon, “A Song.”
[6]Moltmann, Way of Jesus, 182; Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 197; Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics II:97-98; Emil Brunner, Dogmatics III:346, 366; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.1, 311-12.

“A New Day”

1 Corinthians 15:19-28[1]

I know you’ve heard me say this before, but it never ceases to amaze me how the Gospel of hope and salvation has been turned into its very opposite by the church. If you ask about what the Christian faith says about human destiny, I think it’s a fair bet that many would repeat the scenario of the “Left Behind” series with all its terrifying catastrophes and horrible suffering. It seems that people are fascinated with fire and brimstone—as if Sodom and Gomorrah represent what we have to look forward to! All I can say is that has never been the heart of the Christian Gospel!

In fact, a very strong case can be made that those ideas came from outside the Christian faith! Many of the ancient religions believed that destiny of humankind was something fearful.[2] But in contrast to all that fear and horror, the prophet we know as Isaiah declares in the name of the Lord that God is in the process of creating a new heavens and a new earth (Isa. 65:17)! For him, the future of humankind was something to rejoice over, not something to fear!

And yet, somehow, the Christian church became enamored with images of horrific destruction. Fire and blood and pain became the normal way of envisioning our fate. Of course, the average medieval person “believed” in these fiery depictions of the end time because they had no choice but to accept what was told them. And I realize that is why many people still believe in them today—some more firmly than they seem to believe in Jesus Christ![3] Again, that has never been the heart of the Christian Gospel! But I fail to grasp how it is that the violent images religions have drawn of human destiny continue to persuade anyone when compared the faith of our crucified and risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christf!

In the New Testament, the heart of the Christian faith is Easter faith. Paul emphasizes this clearly in his letter to the Corinthians. He makes it clear to them that the Gospel that Jesus died for us and rose again was something “of first importance,” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). In fact, Paul is so convinced that Christian faith is resurrection faith, that he tells the Corinthians without this faith and this hope, “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19)!

But make no mistake—for Paul, the resurrection of Jesus Christ meant the dawn of a new day.[4] Paul tells the Corinthians that Jesus’ resurrection is like the ancient Jewish practice of “first fruits,” the offering of the first of the crop that signified one’s acknowledgement that the whole harvest belonged to God. When applied to Easter faith, it means that the resurrection serves as the dawn of new life that one day will embrace all things! Paul says, “as all die in Adam, all will be made alive in Christ.” As the effects of sin are universal, so the salvation effected through the resurrection is universal. [5] Paul’s image of human destiny is one of hope and joy, where nothing—neither human willfulness nor even death itself—can limit the salvation that Christ now freely offers to all.[6]

The new day of Jesus’ resurrection rolls back the clouds of fear and death that have overshadowed our lives and reveals the light of God’s new creation already breaking into this world.[7] The light of God’s new day that dawned on that first Easter points us to the final day when death will no longer be our “inevitable destiny.”[8] It points us to the end of the despair that says death means that everything we think is meaningful comes to a pathetic end. The light of God’s new day points us to the time when everything that once separated us from God will be removed.

Paul says that the new day of the resurrection points us to the time when God will be “all in all”: “when … the God who has created everything and redeemed everything will so indwell his creation” that God fills everything and everyone with his life and his beauty and his love.[9] The Christian faith looks more like the Garden of Eden renewed than some horrible fire and brimstone day of reckoning! The Christian faith is about the good news of the Gospel of new life! With the dawn of that first new day of Easter came a faith and a hope in the God who creates, redeems, and gives new life to all things! Christ is Risen! Alleluia! Amen!



[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/8/07 at First Presbyterian Church Dickinson, TX.

[2]See Alan E. Bernstein, The Formation of Hell, 1-18; see also J. Moltmann, In the End, The Beginning, 140-41.

[3] Moltmann, In the End, 146-47, rather bluntly states that these notions are positively not Christian ideas, even if Christian churches have taken them over! Cf. Emil Brunner, Dogmatics III:344-45, 350: “time-bound apocalyptic” statements in the Bible do not take away from faith in Christ, for “Jesus Christ is Himself in His Person the promise of eternal life.”

[4] Moltmann, In the End, 87: “faith is Christian faith when it is Easter faith”; cf. also Brunner, Dogmatics II:365.

[5] Brunner, Dogmatics, II:304, 364; III:343, 371; Moltmann, In the End, 161, 164.

[6] Moltmann, In the End, 149. He adds that the traditional idea of Christ’s descent into Hell means that he fills it with his life! Cf. also Ibid., 163.

[7]J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 182; J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 197; J. Moltmann, The Church In the Power of the Spirit, 98-100; cf. N. T. Wright, Simply Christian, 92; Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics II:97-98; Brunner, Dogmatics III:346, 366; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.1, 311-12.

[8] Moltmann, In the End, 48, 145; cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3:319: we look forward to the day when “the light of life which has appeared in Him will penetrate and fill even the remotest corner of the cosmos.”

[9] Moltmann, In the End, 155, 158.

“By What Right?”

Philippians 2:5-11; Lk. 22:39-46[1]

It may surprise you to know that “human rights” as we understand them are a relatively recent concept. At least if you apply them to all people. There are many precedents for our understanding of human rights throughout history. The Athenians practiced a form of democracy in the days of Socrates, 500 years before Christ. Of course, it didn’t do Socrates a lot of good!

Long before our founding fathers endorsed the idea that “all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain inalienable rights,” King John was forced to sign the Magna Charta in 1215, which among other things granted the right of habeas corpus limiting the authorities’ power to imprison a person and paved the way for the English parliament. None of which prevented King Edward from torturing and executing William Wallace in 1305 and hoisting his head on a pike atop London Bridge!

Even when Thomas Jefferson penned the immortal words of the Declaration of Independence, it’s quite clear that he didn’t share our understanding of human rights. He didn’t believe that all human beings are endowed with inalienable rights. And they probably assumed as well that the rights they so eloquently claimed for themselves did not apply to men who owned no land, or to women, or to children, and of course not to slaves. In fact, the history of the “American Experiment,” is one in which our society has faced internal conflicts and even civil war over the extent to which these “inalienable rights” belonged to slaves, women, and children. The struggle for true justice, equality and liberty goes on!

The point is that “human rights” as we understand them are a relatively recent development. If we transport ourselves back to the day Jesus died, we have to understand that he died as a man who had little or no claim to “human rights.” Jewish law certainly provided for human dignity, but the Romans were in charge, and they had no respect for the conquered peoples they ruled! So we have to understand that, in Judea under Roman rule, there were no civil rights lawyers to whom Mary could go to stop the execution of her son. Habeas corpus wouldn’t exist for another thousand years!

We may ask, “By what right did Pilate have Jesus executed?” And the question would be a fair one. After all, Jesus was not a revolutionary or a criminal. He was not even Pilate’s “enemy.” So by what right did Pilate have Jesus crucified? By the right of every army occupying conquered territory—the right of the sword!

And yet when we look at Jesus, we see a man not frantically clamoring for his rights, shouting about the injustice, screaming for his fellow Jews to riot because their council had falsely accused him! No, we see Jesus resolutely facing his destiny. In fact, Paul defines Jesus’ whole life prior to his death on the cross as an act of continuous humiliation! And Paul says that Jesus embraced this humiliation willingly. He “emptied” himself; he chose this path, Paul implies, from his heavenly home prior to the incarnation.

Luke’s Gospel reminds us that this was not a matter of being oblivious to the horror of crucifixion. The scene in the garden of Gethsemane makes clear that Jesus was filled with anguish at the thought of his impending death.[2] Only Luke includes the statement that Jesus was sweating so profusely as he prayed it was as if someone had opened one of his arteries! But the overriding factor for Jesus on that night in the garden was that he entrusted himself to the living God. He asked to be spared the anguish, but his final answer was, “not my will, but thine be done.”

Perhaps the most amazing factor in Jesus’ death was that at the point of his greatest sacrifice, at the point of his death on the cross as a blasphemer, a criminal, a god-forsaken sinner, Jesus is most at one with the Father’s will.[3] In the experience of god-forsakenness that Jesus undergoes on the cross, it is not simply the case that God abandons him. Jesus’ willing surrender of himself is in reality the completion of God’s self-giving love from all eternity. It is there that Jesus reveals God as a God of love who pours himself out, who takes on all the pain and suffering of the world, in order that we might be set free from pain and sorrow and god-forsakenness to love God.[4] Jesus’ willing surrender to the suffering of the cross is in reality the fulfillment of God’s suffering love for us all.[5]

We’ve been talking about Lent as a time of reorienting our lives toward God. When we see Jesus in Gethsemane, we see a man who shows us what it means to orient our lives completely to God’s will. He surrenders all his rights, he surrenders his very life! That’s why Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane is at the heart of Christian discipleship. When we have learned the lesson of Lent, we too will pray, “not my will but thine be done.”



[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/1/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] J. Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 76-80.

[3] Moltman, Trinity, 82.

[4] Moltmann, Trinity, 82-83, 117-19. Cf. Study Catechism, q. 45: “An abyss of suffering” has been “swallowed up by the suffering of divine love.”

[5] J. Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 172-78.