Thursday, January 31, 2008

“Far As The Curse is Found”

Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12[1]

My family will attest that there are some definite advantages to living with a theologian. It’s nice to have a Bible/Religion/History answer-man around whenever you need one. But there are also some definite disadvantages. We can tend to be sticklers when celebrating holidays, for example. Anyone who knows me very well knows that I have this thing about the “Wise Men” in the whole Christmas story. I call them “wise guys”! The magi who came to see Jesus were astrologer priests from Babylon, called magicians or diviners in Daniel (cf. Dan. 1:20; 2:27).[2] They studied the movements of the stars because they believed that stars were deities who controlled human destiny.

Over the course of Christian history, these astrologers were turned into “kings” in Christian imagination, probably in no small part due to the influence of today’s lesson from Isaiah. If you trace the history of the “Three Kings” in Christian art, you find an interesting development. In some paintings, the artist renders the “kings” as people who look just like someone who stepped out of medieval Europe. But one of the interesting developments in the image of the magi is that they began to be depicted as men of all three races—representing the peoples of all nations worshipping the newborn Savior.

In a very roundabout way, Christian imagination isn’t far off. The main point of Matthew’s story about the magi seeking Jesus is that even Babylonian astrologers, using the (questionable) faith of their pagan religion, come to worship Jesus as savior.[3] In a very real sense, Matthew depicts what Isaiah predicts: “nations shall come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” The idea that Matthew presents as fulfilled in Jesus is the same one that Isaiah describes as a hope—that the dawn of God’s redemptive work would encompass all the peoples of the earth.

We may think to ourselves that it’s easy to be hopeful when there are all kinds of wonderful and miraculous signs to reassure faith. Unusual stars and visiting dignitaries from foreign countries and choirs of angels could inspire hope in even the most cynical among us. But the reality is that both Matthew and Isaiah proclaimed the hope of God’s redemptive work bringing new life to all peoples precisely at a time when they didn’t have much to be hopeful about![4] In Isaiah’s day, the Jewish people had returned from the Babylonian exile to find Jerusalem in ruins. In the face of power struggles between rival factions in Judea, those who sought to rebuild the city had to do so with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other! And above all, the temple had not been rebuilt. The hope of God’s redemptive light shining through the covenant people probably seemed delusional!

But that was precisely the hope that Isaiah called the covenant people to remember. And Isaiah’s hope spoke to a variety of settings—when the Babylonian invasion loomed on the horizon like a threatening storm, when the people were living out the days of their exile in a foreign land, and when the remnant returned to find that the fulfillment of the promise of restoration didn’t even come close to living up to their expectations. In all of those hard times, Isaiah’s hope continued to inspire the people of God to devote their lives to faithfully serving God’s purposes in the world.

We live in a time when it seems like there is much to discourage the hope that the light of God’s new life might overcome the darkness in our world. Millions flock to self-help gurus—some of whom use mega-churches for their platform—while churches everywhere seem unable to prevent decline. What possible good can come of dreamy idealism about God bringing life and joy and peace to this world? It may seem foolish, but then Paul acknowledged that his preaching seemed foolish at times (1 Corinthians 1:18). Yet at other times he insisted that the gospel was the means by which God was transforming all things (Ephesians 3:8-10).[5] And he also insisted that no faithful service to God’s redemptive purpose in the world ultimately goes in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

As we celebrate epiphany in the coming weeks, we are celebrating the unveiling of Jesus as the Christ who has come to make all things new. We are celebrating the promise that God is already transforming this world, that the light of new life has already dawned and is dispelling the darkness. As the hymn text puts it, “he comes to make his blessing flow far as the curse is found.” As far as the curse of death and despair and violence is found, Jesus the Christ brings God’s new life and hope and peace.[6] That’s why, even when times are hard and the church seems to be struggling, we too can dedicate our lives in the work of the gospel, flinging wide the prison doors and binding up the broken-hearted.

[1] © 2008, Alan Brehm. A Sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/6/2008 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] See Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 26.

[3] Hagner, 27, 31.

[4] See Paul Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 219-21; C. Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 297, 308.

[5] Compare Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 276-77.

[6] See Declaration of Faith, 1977, 2.2; 10:1-2; Study Catechism, 1998, qq. 14, 85; compare similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, 250-55; see also John Paul II’s encyclicals Redemptoris Mater 7.1 and Redemptoris Missio 9-10. See J. M. Miller, CSB, The Encyclicals of John Paul II, 359, 501-502.

“Peace at Last”

Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-13[1]

We all have some sort of “icon” for Christmas. Depending on which generation you grew up with, it may have been Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas,” or Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or Sebastian Cabot in “Miracle on 34th Street.” I’m a Charlie Brown kind of guy, especially when it comes to this time of the year. I grew up on the television special “A Charlie Brown Christmas”! My favorite Christmas tunes come from that show— like “Christmastime is Here.” I have the music on my iPod if anyone’s interested! Of course, for Charlie Brown, the Christmas season is a time when even he and Lucy can see eye-to-eye. Peace on earth prevails for at least a small moment.

Unfortunately, there’s precious little peace on this earth. You don’t have to talk about wars abroad—there are car-jackings in Houston and Mall shootings in Nebraska to demonstrate the absence of peace in our world! But the sad truth is that you don’t even have to turn on your television—all you have to do is venture out from the safety of your home! Between all the noise, the traffic, and the pushy shoppers, I would have to say that the “Christmas” season seems to have even less peace than other times of the year.

The lack of peace in this world is one of the major reasons why our Jewish friends and neighbors have not accepted Jesus as their Messiah. As the prophet Isaiah tells us, when the Messiah comes he will bring with him the justice that makes for peace—he will defend the cause of the poor and needy (Isaiah 11:4). The vision of peace that Isaiah describes is so powerful that it transforms all life—even so-called “natural enemies” in the animal world will live together in peace. In similar fashion, this coming one would be the “signal for the people of all nations to come together” (Isaiah 11:10, CEV). It’s unfortunate that we’re a long way from that kind of world. These days, we even fight when we award the Nobel prize in recognition of peace-making efforts!

I think that it’s important to view the lack of peace in our world as an important dimension to our celebration of advent. Advent is a time of waiting for the coming one. What that means is that there is a future dimension to faith—it’s here but not completely. Jesus is the one who came to bring the justice of God that restores all things and creates true peace in this world. But the work has only begun in his day. We still look forward to the time when he will complete the work of peace. In the meanwhile, there are “signs” of the peace of Christ around us.[2]

I think a striking illustration of that kind of “hidden” peace can be found in a 2003 film called Saints and Soldiers. It’s a story based on actual events—the massacre of American prisoners of war near Malmedy, Belgium in December 1944. The film follows four fictional “survivors” of the massacre who have to try to make it back to safety with only one rifle among them. Fortunately, one of the four, “Deacon” Greer, is a sharpshooter who never misses. At a particular farmhouse, they encounter some German soldiers. “Deacon” shoots at one of them, and the man who never misses actually does miss—not once but twice. When the soldier surrenders, “Deacon” recognizes him as a man named Rudi whom he had befriended when he served as a missionary in Berlin before the war! These two men, who would have ordinarily been trying to kill each other on the battlefield, spend the evening talking about old times and sharing their faith! To the amazement of the other G.I.’s, “Deacon” and Rudi share a faith that transcends the lines of language or nationality or even war.

What those G.I.’s didn’t understand was that their friendship was a sign of the peace that Christ has brought into the world. After their chance encounter, the two soldiers go their own ways—they release Rudi in exchange for information on how to get to safety. But for a few hours, the peace of Jesus the Christ overruled even a war that encompassed the whole world!

The lack of peace around us does not rule out the promise that Christ is the one who is bringing peace to the whole world. As Paul said, Jesus came to confirm the promises to the Jewish people of God and to glorify God among the rest of us by demonstrating his mercy (Romans 15:8-9).[3] As we celebrate the signs of peace that are evident, we look forward in hope to the day when “all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God” (Isaiah 52:10).[4]

The hope of advent is that in Jesus the Christ God has already started reclaiming the world for his own, and he will not stop until he finishes the task. The joy of advent is that the light of God’s new day is already dawning, and we can see the glimmer of peace already peeking through the clouds.[5] The urgency of Advent is that we are called to join with the risen Lord in making this peace a reality[6]—but the “night” is indeed “half-spent,” which means we must invest all that we are in seeking the kingdom of God.

[1] © 2007 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/9/2007 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 84-85, 98-99, 293.

[3] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 138, says it this way: “the church … has to see an expectant and hopeful Israel by its side as its partner” in hoping for the ultimate fulfillment of these promises. Cf. also ibid., 139-144.

[4] Cf. Isa. 11:10; 40:5; see also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 77, 80, 83, 86, 93, 100, 135; cf. further, Jürgen Moltmann, “The God of Hope,” in The Gospel of Liberation, 31: “Paul sighs with the entire waiting creation. How can we then sigh only for ourselves?” Cf. Further, Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:31.

[5] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 77, 192-93, 217-19.

[6] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 65, 83-84, 316; see further 163-189, and 282-88 for concrete implications in all aspects of life.

“Walking in the Light”

Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44[1]

It’s getting harder all the time for me to imagine what life was like before the technological advances we use everyday. What did we do before cell phones and the internet? How about microwave ovens and copy machines? Or personal computers? I simply don’t remember what life was like before the advent of television. Television was invented before I was born. Some of you may be able to remember life before the telephone, or before your house was powered by electricity, or before indoor plumbing. But there are some things none of us alive can remember: life before automobiles, before the printing press, or before Copernicus “discovered” that our planet is not at the center of all creation.

I think it is impossible for us to imagine what life was like before Copernicus. It was an age when people could believe that all that is and ever was has been there just for our sakes. Even philosophers and theologians could still speak of humankind as the crown of God’s creation and the focal point of all God’s works. We were the favored child wearing the coat of many colors. No wonder so many people—even “educated” ones—attacked Copernicus for his discovery that we are not the center of the universe! Of course, we know how much more true that statement is today that probably even Copernicus could imagine!

Now, I want you to shift gears with me and imagine a “Copernican” revolution in the Christian faith. It happened in the 4th century after Christ, when a Roman emperor named Constantine “converted” to Christianity. (In reality, it would seem he was “converted” to the idea that through Christianity he could gain victory in battle and prosperity for his empire!) The complete revision of Christian faith didn’t take place overnight, but soon most people believed that emperors and kings were bringing in God’s kingdom, with the bishops of the church at their side.[2] Of course, this meant that they were using human methods to “produce God’s justice”; and that justified pretty much anything and everything, from conquest to crusade, from inquisition to genocide. They made the fatal mistake of equating the ways of war with the ways of the Lord!

Believe it or not, that wasn’t the worst part for the Christian faith. The worst part was that since people believed that kings and bishops are “bringing in God’s kingdom” by their own means here and now, they had no more need of the hope that God’s kingdom would one day make everything new. Instead of joyfully anticipating the day when God restores all creation to life through his saving justice, the only thing people had to look forward to was their own death and what comes after![3] In that situation, the most pressing question became, “if you died tonight do you know that you would go to heaven?” Heaven or hell became the focus of the gospel, not the new creation of all things at the time of Christ’s return. In fact, with the exception of apocalyptic fanatics constantly predicting the end of the world, the return of Christ was completely displaced as an element of faith![4]

What happened was the reverse of Copernicus’ revolution: Christians quit looking forward to the renewal of the whole universe and began to think of themselves as the sole and solitary focal point of God’s redemptive work! And that has crippled the Christian faith ever since.

I think Advent is a perfect time to recover the biblical vision of what God is doing in this world! It’s not a matter individuals “getting to heaven” when they die, it is about renewing all things, restoring all creation, and reclaiming all people.

The prophet Isaiah envisioned it as a day when all people will come streaming to the Lord’s house to acknowledge and worship their creator. And the purpose of this will be “that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isaiah 2:3). Walking in the Lord’s paths will mean that the nations of the earth will “pound their swords and their spears into rakes and shovels” (Isaiah 2:4, CEV) and abandon the ways of war that they have so foolishly embraced!

The hope of advent is that in Jesus the Christ God has already started reclaiming the world for his own. That is why Jesus called his disciples to be vigilant about watching for his return (Matthew 24:42-44)—so that we will be diligent now about learning his ways and walking in his paths in the midst of the darkness all around us. The joy of advent is that the light of God’s new day is already dawning— and “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out” (John 1:5, TEV). The urgency of Advent is that “the night is far gone and the day is near” (Romans 13:12)! And yet, we still see the effects of the darkness all around us! As Eugene Peterson translates it, “We can’t afford to waste a minute!” (Romans 13:13, The Message).[5]

[1] © 2007 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/2/2007 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, 159-168.

[3] Moltmann, Coming of God, 49-77.

[4] Eugen Weber, Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages, 33, et passim.

[5] See also Theodore J. Wardlaw, “Ethics and Eschatology,” a sermon preached at Austin Presbyterian Seminary 12/2/2004, accessed at http://www.covenant

“What Kind of King?”

Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43 [1]

I think we have a hard time “getting into” today’s commemoration in the church calendar, the festival of Christ the King. How can we actually “celebrate” the reign of Christ as King if we don’t have any positive images of the concept of “king”? From our point of view, kings oppress, they foster tyranny. Kings take away “unalienable rights,” they do not protect them. Kings are those who engage in things like “taxation without representation,” who foster “abuses and usurpations” that are intended to reduce people “under absolute Despotism.” At least, that’s how the Declaration of Independence words it. From that perspective, I think we are more likely to view a king as a despot than a savior!

But, of course, it was not always so in the history of humankind. In many cultures, the rise of a great king signaled the beginning of a golden age. In a number of cases, Kings were responsible for bringing peace to a multitude of warring principalities, as in ancient Rome. Of course, that’s the perspective of those who benefited from the pax romana. I doubt that the peoples they suppressed would take that point of view. The same is true in medieval England. The legend of King Arthur concerns a great king who ruled wisely and who brought peace, stability, and prosperity to the British Isles. At least that’s the view that Thomas Malory takes in his famous epic poem, “L’morte d’Arthur.” There may be a few Irish or Welsh or Scottish folks around who would beg to differ!

With all of that history of human kings behind us, it’s difficult for us to conceive of Christ as king in a way that has any appeal whatsoever in our day and time. But as our study of the parables of Luke has shown us, the Kingdom that Christ brings is different from all other kingdoms. When the kingdom of God comes, it means good news for the poor, release to the captives and recovery of sight for the blind, it means that those who are oppressed are set at liberty (Luke 4:18). When the kingdom of God comes, it means peace and righteousness, the conditions that make life thrive (cf. Colossians 1:20).[2] The kingdom of God means the end of violence and death and disease and suffering and sickness and oppression and injustice.[3] It means that all will know and worship the Lord;[4] it means life that is full and everlasting;[5] it means unimaginable joy.[6]

So why should we celebrate Christ as “king” on this day? We celebrate because Jesus is not a typical king. In fact, from the perspective of the kings of the earth, he looks nothing like a king. Kings execute those who don’t follow the program, they don’t die on their behalf. But Jesus is a king who died in order to invite a criminal to share paradise with him (Luke 23:43)! Kings demand that those who have the privilege of speaking to them follow certain protocols and etiquette. But Jesus is a king who suffered insults and abuse so that all those who have been insulted and abused might be healed.

As the PC (USA) Study Catechism puts it, “He was the Lord who took the form of a servant; he perfected royal power in weakness. With no sword but the sword of righteousness, and no power but the power of love, Christ defeated sin, evil and death by reigning from the cross.”[7] Kings reign from elaborate and ornate thrones and wield power through wealth and weapons. But Jesus is a king who uses the power of love to break through the lovelessness of our world. Kings use the systems and structures of the world to keep things the way they are, but Jesus is a king to sets us free from all the oppressive structures and vicious circles of domination, oppression and subjugation.[8] When we celebrate Christ as “king” it represents “the most radical reversal of the ideal of rule that can be conceived.”[9]

We celebrate Christ as our “king” on this day because the good news of the New Testament is that in Jesus the Christ God has begun to make the blessings of his kingdom available here and now! We celebrate Christ as our “king” because he is the one who exercises all “authority in heaven and on earth” by “emptying himself even to death on a cross.”[10] We celebrate Christ as our “king” because through him we can already have a foretaste of the peace and joy and everlasting life of God’s kingdom.[11]

[1] © 2007 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/25/2007 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Ps 85:10; Isa. 9:7; 52:7; Lk. 2:14; Rom. 14:17; Eph. 2:15.

[3] Isa. 2:1-4; 25:8; Rev. 7:17; 21:4.

[4] Jer. 31:31-34; Isa. 40:5; 49:26; 66:23.

[5] Rom. 5:17, 21; 1 Cor. 15:22; Rev. 21:6.

[6] Isa. 55:17; Rom. 14:17; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, “The Disarming Child,” in The Power of the Powerless, 34.

[7] The Study Catechism, question 41.

[8] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 87-98, 99, 223.

[9] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 102; he elaborates (p. 103), “True dominion does not consist of enslaving others but in becoming a servant of others; not in the exercise of power, but in the exercise of love; not in being served but in freely serving; not in sacrificing the subjugated but in self-sacrifice.”

[10] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 103.

[11] Moltmann, “The Disarming Child,” in The Power of the Powerless, 36.


2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19[1]

J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings is one of the great works of English Literature—in my humble opinion, at least. There is much in The Lord of the Rings that gives it an enduring quality. The characters, the struggle between good and evil, the simply fascinating nature of the world Tolkien created. Gandalf the wizard is one of my favorite characters. He serves as a kind of God figure in the book, because he has the ability to influence the affairs of men, and because he is unshakably committed to seeing to it that the cause of men prevails against the cause of evil.

In one particular interchange, Frodo tells Gandalf, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” To which Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.”

There’s a part of what Gandalf says here that implies that the events in the story of the Ring are being directed by a power higher than all the kings of men, higher than Sauron the deceiver, higher even than Gandalf himself.[2] But the main point is the fact that we don’t get to choose the circumstances of our lives; we only get to choose what we do with the circumstances of our lives.

We can view the hardships, challenges, and struggles that come our way as unwelcome intruders, or as guests bearing gifts. If they are intruders, then we must strive to avoid them at all costs, we must do everything we can to keep them out of our lives. But avoiding trouble only means that we let fear rule our lives. [3] On the other hand, if hardships are guests who bear gifts, then we can welcome them, because they offer us an opportunity to grow, to become strong in an area where we may have been weak, and to expand our horizons.

If you look at your life from that perspective, it’s not just possible to see that the struggles you’ve faced have been in fact opportunities to grow and develop into the person you are today—it’s unavoidable to look at them that way.

Jesus told his disciples that if they followed him the future would hold some hardships, some challenges, some struggles. But Jesus was not promoting some kind of end-times mania—the kind of craziness that induced the people in Thessalonica to decide it was time to just “wait around” for the rewards they were expecting.[4] No, Jesus said hardships will come, but that is not the “end.” In fact, he said not to be “led astray” by those who go around proclaiming “the end is near”![5] Instead, Jesus said that all the hardships and catastrophes and dangers “will give you an opportunity to testify” (Luke 21:13). Instead of viewing them as the “end of the world,” Jesus taught his disciples to view their struggles as an opportunity for them to bear witness to God’s redeeming work.[6]

We find a similar perspective in the book of Acts. In the early part of the story of the church, we read about a leader named Stephen. When he confronted some of the Jewish leaders with their hypocrisy, they lynched him, and launched an attack on the church. Because of this, many of the early church leaders were forced to leave Jerusalem. And the book of Acts tells us “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word” (Acts 8:4)! Would they ever have left Jerusalem without the persecutions they faced? I doubt they would. In retrospect, their hardships became an opportunity to promote God’s kingdom among people who would not have had an opportunity to hear the gospel otherwise.

As a congregation we face some challenges—I’m not telling you anything new. This congregation has been facing challenges for years. And I’m sure we will go on facing challenges. All churches do. The question we have to answer is how we are going to respond. Are we going to lament them, complain about them, and fear them as unwanted intruders who threaten us? Or will we welcome new challenges as guests that present us with an opportunity to grow in ways we never have before, to promote God’s kingdom in ways we never could before, and to reach people who might not otherwise have the chance to encounter the gospel?

The promise of scripture is that, if we can take that approach to our struggles, then we have the chance not only to experience God’s work of making everything new in our own lives, but also to share that experience with those around us.[7]

[1] © 2007 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/18/2007 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] Fleming Rutledge, The Battle for Middle-earth: Tolkien's Divine Design in "The Lord of the Rings".

[3] See Jürgen Moltmann, The Gospel of Liberation, 29-30, 56-57, 64-65, 72-73, 86, 102-4. Cf. esp. his comment, “So long as man makes idols out of his life’s environment, then his certainty of life is surrounded by anxiety. That makes him malicious toward others. So long as he prays to the idols, he is not able as a free man to affirm his life and at the same time the life of other men” (p. 102).

[4] See Jürgen Moltmann, “The Return of Christ,” in The Gospel of Liberation, 105-112. See especially pp. 106-7 where he contrasts those whose faith only hopes for themselves but has no love for others with those who have love for others but no faith in what God is doing to redeem them.

[5] Fred R. Anderson, “Soul Crafting,” accessed at view=transcripts&tid=677 .

[6] Moltmann, Gospel of Liberation, 88-89, says, “we should not forget that the reconciliation of the world is created through the bodily death and resurrection of Christ” and follows it with comment that the more seriously we take the “bodily death and suffering” of Jesus, the more thoroughly we will view the freedom of new life through his resurrection transforming our world.

[7] Moltmann, Gospel of Liberation, 30, 32, 40-41, 66, 68-69, 87-89, 92, 102-4, 110-12. He says it this way: “Mere hope without love would be illusion. Mere love without hope would be resignation. True faith is alive in both” (107).