Tuesday, April 08, 2008

“Unto Death”

Isaiah 50:4-9; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 27:11-54[1]

The 1998 film Saving Private Ryan is about a platoon of men who carry out a strange mission.[2] After surviving the maelstrom of Omaha Beach on D-Day, Captain John Miller is ordered to take his platoon and find Private James Ryan, a paratrooper who was part of the Normandy invasion. Ryan’s three brothers were all killed in various battles on D-Day, and the Army had decided to send him home in gratitude to his mother for the sacrifices she had already made.

Miller and his platoon are baffled by the order. They are battle-hardened troops, having already survived the invasion of Italy before D-Day. In their minds it is a foolish waste of manpower and resources. They complain constantly as they scour the French countryside to find a “needle in a haystack” amongst the confusion of misplaced and displaced combat units. At one point, Captain Miller actually has to quell a mutiny among his troops!

But they follow orders—at first reluctantly and even grudgingly. But in the midst of the mutiny, Captain Miller reclaims the humanity that had been stripped from him by the brutality of war. Miller decides that it is after all worthwhile to find and save Private Ryan, if for no other reason that it’s the humane thing to do in the midst of a world gone insane with violence.

When Miller and his platoon finally find Private Ryan, they are caught up in a battle for a bridge in an abandoned town. Captain Miller and most of his platoon die in the process of obeying their orders, but they do in fact save Private Ryan. Of course, there are many such stories of soldiers who obeyed orders even though it cost them their lives.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he says that Jesus was “obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:8). That phrase may not make much sense to many of us. We have gotten used to thinking that obedience leads us to blessing or to success; but our Scripture texts for today make it clear that is not the case. The fact is that we can actually expect to suffer when we determine to follow God’s will and God’s way in our lives.

We see this connection between obedience and suffering reflected in the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah. It’s not at all clear who the servant is, whether Israel, or a prophet, or a character in the future. What is clear, however, is that the servant’s role is to suffer on behalf of those who have strayed from God’s way. Notice what the servant says in our lesson for today: as a result of determining not to rebel against God’s call but rather to obey, the servant was beaten, insulted, and humiliated:

I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. (Isaiah 50:5)

The question inevitably comes to mind as to why the servant had to suffer like this. Did God want the servant to be beaten? Is God some ultimate sadist who enjoys the pain of others?

That’s not the point at all, though you may hear those very objections to the whole idea of a savior who dies for us. But the purpose is this—the servant is called to suffer on behalf of the wayward because God suffers on their behalf. The God of the Bible is not some cosmic bully who enjoys inflicting pain on us. The God of the Bible is a God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” The God of the Bible is the one who is completely faithful, which means that God never gives up on relationships.[3] The God of the Bible is a God of justice, which means that God works to make everything and everyone right again.[4] The God of the Bible is a God of mercy, which means that God loves us in such a way that promotes the well-being of all life. And the God of the Bible is a God who never quits loving us this way. [5] God suffers on behalf of sinful people like you and me because the only real way to break the power of evil is to absorb it; the only way to set someone free from suffering is to take it on oneself.[6] And that is exactly what God does.[7]

That is why the servant of God suffers. God’s servant is called to suffer because it is the only way to truly fulfill God’s purposes in a world of sorrow and pain, of suffering and injustice, of sin and death. We may never know the real identity of the “Suffering Servant” Isaiah spoke of so eloquently. But we can know what Christians have known from the very beginning—Jesus is the one who most fully completes the task of the servant.[8] In Jesus the Christ, God is revealed as the redeemer of the despised, as the savior of the hopeless, as the one who chooses the unwanted.[9] Jesus fulfilled God’s suffering love for us all by embracing it on the cross. [10] He was called to give his life for the sake of others—and he obeyed that call. His obedience cost him his very life, but it made it possible for us to truly live.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/16/2008 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] See the review by Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat at http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/ films.php?id=1600

[3] Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 134; Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 112-120, 143-148: “God is the same God all the way from promise to fulfillment” (115).

[4] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 139; Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 121; cf. also Stephen Shoemaker, GodStories, 217–18;

[5] Berkhof, 128.

[6] Cf. PC (USA) Study Catechism, q. 45: “An abyss of suffering” has been “swallowed up by the suffering of divine love.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 91, 95; Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 246, 277.

[7] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets II:9: “The disparity between God and the world is overcome in God, not man.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 82-83, 117-19.

[8] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I.2: 89; cf. Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, 509.

[9] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 94: “Through his forsakenness Jesus has brought God to the Godforsaken.” Cf. also Moltmann, Crucified God, 242-43.

[10] Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 172-78.

“New Life”

Isaiah 61:1-4, 10-11; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:17-45[1]

It seems that everyone is interested in “spirituality” these days. Unfortunately, a very brief survey of the way our culture defines this shows that “spirituality” means everything—from teenage witches to angels and from vampires to psychics. I think people are genuinely confused about what in the world “spirituality” means, if anything! In contrast to this confusion, the Bible speaks in a surprisingly concrete way about what “spirit” means. The gospel that the Scriptures proclaim is that God is in the process of transforming everything and everyone—in a very tangible way.[2] We have a preview of the Kingdom of God in the life and love and joy and hope we have right now.[3] And this happens in our lives through the work of God’s Spirit.

All that God promises us in the way of new life comes about in our lives through the presence and power of the Spirit of God. But it is not some kind of vague or intangible thing. It is a very solid, specific, clear-cut, well-defined, observable change of life. It is through the Spirit of God that we experience the wonders of salvation, and that is something hard to wrap your thoughts around. But the effects of the Spirit in human life are not. Like the resurrection of Jesus, the work of God’s Spirit in our lives is a preview of God’s promise to one day make all things new.[4]

I like the way Gene Peterson puts it in The Message:

It stands to reason, doesn't it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he'll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ's! (Romans 8:11, The Message)[5]

Everything that characterizes the gift of salvation—new life, love, hope, joy, freedom from everything that binds us, reconciliation—is the work of the Spirit of God. And it is nothing short of new life.

I think the Apostle Paul knew something of this new life from the Spirit of God. He himself was a personal witness to the new life of the crucified Messiah who was raised again. But he was also a personal witness to the new life created in the lives of people like you and me by the Spirit of God. Paul had seen new life springing up over and over again in the lives of the people he served.

As my favorite theologian puts it, “The Spirit of God makes the impossible possible; he creates faith where there is nothing left to believe in; he creates love where there is nothing lovable; he creates hope where there is nothing to hope for. … He makes enslaved creation live and fills everything with the powers of the new creation.”[6] I think what he’s saying is that when the Spirit of God works in our lives, we too become personal witnesses to new life—in every sphere of life.[7]

For most of us these days, talk of the “Spirit” or talk of “spirituality” is perhaps even more difficult than talking about God. Many of us can conceive of a God who created all things. It’s a lot harder to conceive of a “Spirit” who changes our lives. But the good news of the Gospel is that, whether we can understand the Spirit of God or not, as we walk the path of Christian discipleship, God’s spirit has a noticeable effect on our lives. Jesus said it was like the wind. You don’t see the wind, but you can see what it does (John 3:8). In the same way, you can see what the Spirit of God does—bringing new life to us and those around us.

What this means is that where the hope of the kingdom of God is present, there is the presence of the Spirit granting new life. Where the fellowship of love and the sacrificial service is found, there is the presence of the Spirit bring­ing redemption. Where there is reconciliation, there is the presence of the Spirit renewing relationships. Where Christ’s liberating power is found among believers, there is the presence of the Spirit bestowing salvation. Where the people of Christ display obedience to God that comes from the heart, there is the presence of the Spirit making all things new. Where God is worshipped in spirit and in truth, there is the presence of the Spirit calling us to our true home.

We’re only scratching the surface of what it means to experience the Spirit of God bringing us new life. What that means in the specifics of your life is something only you can discover as you walk the path of Christian discipleship. And what a surprising and wonderfully unpredictable adventure the Spirit of God gives us as we walk that path!

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/9/2008 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

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

[3] Moltmann, Way of Jesus, 220, 254; Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning: The Life of Hope, 87.

[4] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 98-99, 294-95.

[5] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 204-5; Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 296; Emil Brunner, Dogmatics III:15; J. L. Mays, Psalms, 336-37.

[6] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 191; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 35, 57, 82, 84, 95, 177, 212.

[7] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 295, 299, 316, 332, 334, 340; cf. Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 143.

“Now I See”

Isaiah 45:18-23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41[1]

Anyone who is over 40 has very likely spent hours watching episodes of television shows from the 1950’s like “Andy Griffith” and “Leave it to Beaver.” Those wonderful shows were a feature of many of our lives. But I think it is appropriate that they are in black & white. It reminds us that the characters and the stories, like the photography, aren’t quite true to life. Ward Cleaver is always wise and understanding and June Cleaver always manages to have her hair and clothes “just so.” Even Wallie is pretty much the “perfect” kid. When you look at life through the lenses of a show like “Leave it to Beaver,” it creates some pretty serious problems—what do you do with people who aren’t “perfect”? What happens when your problems are serious enough that they cannot be resolved in the space of a 30-minute sit-com?

That’s the premise of the 1998 film Pleasantville. In it, two teenagers from the 90’s, David and Jennifer, are transported back into a 1950’s television show called “Pleasantville.” They land smack dab in the world where everything is just like “Leave it to Beaver,” including the lack of color—the people, the scenery, everything is literally in black & white! “Pleasantville” is a place where everything is “pleasant,” and sickeningly so! [2] Wives stay home to make sure they have dinner ready just when their husbands walk through the door, teenagers do what their parents tell them and actually enjoy school, firefighters spend their days rescuing cats, and the basketball team never loses. Everything is always right with the world.

But the problem with this superficially ideal place is that there is no color to life. No one has the courage to stand up for what’s right. No one would dare to “color outside the lines” in order to achieve something they’ve always dreamed of doing. No one wants to do anything any differently from what they’re doing and how everybody else does it. There’s no inspiration, no enthusiasm, no freedom, no joy. It’s a world without color.

Well, not surprisingly, David and Jennifer “infect” Pleasantville with color. Not at first. And when they do it’s only gradually. Ironically Jennifer does it by trying out the promiscuous ways she used in the 90’s to avoid the realities of her life. David does it by coming out of his own protective shell and treating people like individuals who have hopes and dreams. Slowly, over time, color comes into the world of Pleasantville, even into the lives of those who tried to resist it. And in the process, David and Jennifer are changed as well—when they return to the 90’s, they have given up their self-protective ways that were undermining their own chances for happiness.

In a very real sense, that kind of transformation is what the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ is all about. It’s about finding our way from emptiness to enthusiasm, from boring monotony to freedom, from complacency and conformity to risk-taking and boldness. That’s what the Apostle Paul was talking about in his letter to the Christians of Asia Minor. He called them to leave behind the lifestyle that once kept them imprisoned in death, delusion, and darkness—a life that he says was “without God and without hope in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Because of what Jesus did for us all, Paul says that we can now choose a new life, a life of grace, peace, truth, love, and light.[3] From Paul’s perspective, we are like sleepers who have been awakened, and now that the sun has risen and our eyes are open we can never go back to the darkness that once kept us bound. And so he calls to us all, using what may have been words from an ancient Christian hymn sung in their worship, saying “Awake, sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (5:14)!

The prophet Isaiah issued a similar invitation. Initially, Isaiah had promised salvation for the people of Israel. It was a salvation that would completely transform their lives just like Paul said—from darkness to light. But Isaiah also proclaimed an invitation to all the peoples from the ends of earth to “turn to me and be saved” (Isaiah 45:22). Isaiah proclaimed that God’s purpose is that every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess him as the only Savior and God (Isaiah 45:23).

As in the story of Pleasantville, however, not everyone wants to be set free. When it becomes plain to the mayor of Pleasantville that things are getting out of hand, he convenes a meeting in the bowling alley, one of the remaining fixtures that haven’t yet turned to color. He says, “Up until now everything around here has been, well, pleasant. Recently certain things have become unpleasant. Now, it seems to me that the first thing we have to do is to separate out the things that are pleasant from the things that are unpleasant.” But as Roger Ebert reminds us all in his review of the movie, life may have seemed simpler in a 1950’s world where there weren’t as many choices, but the reality is that “things were wrong that I didn't even know the words for.”[4]

Jesus encountered this kind of attitude when he healed the blind man. Because he did it on the Sabbath, the religious leaders were sure that he was nothing but a sinner, and they tried every kind of “spin” they could come up with to discredit either Jesus, or the blind man, or even his parents. In response, the blind man replies to their silly questions with an exasperated, “one thing I know, once I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25). But the religious “pillars” refused to accept that they were also blind, in a different manner of speaking. And because of that Jesus sadly declared that they remained in their blindness (John 9:39-41). They chose to remain in the darkness.

Lent is a time for us to examine the ways that we have been blind to the darkness in our own lives. It is a time to once again acknowledge God as our only Lord and Savior. It is a time to heed the call to wake up from our slumbers so that Christ may shine on us and we may live the life that he came to give us—a life that consists of what is “good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:9).[5]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/2/2008 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] See Linda A. Mercadante, “The God Behind the Screen: Pleasantville & The Truman Show,” Journal of Religion and Film vol. 5, no. 2 (October 2001); accessed at http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/truman.htm.

[3] See Ephesians 2:5, 17; 3:10; 4:15, 24; 5:1-2, 9. Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3, 510: the awareness of God that comes to us through the process of illumination “is not mere apprehension and understanding of God’s being and action … . It is the claiming not only of [our] thinking but also of [our] willing and action, of the whole [person], for God. It is [our] refashioning to be a theatre, witness, and instrument of His acts.”

[4] Roger Ebert, Review of Pleasantville, Chicago Sun-Times, October 1, 1998; accessed at http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19981001 /REVIEWS/810010301/1023 .

[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3, 512-13: as Christians we have “a Lord who to [our] salvation will not leave [us] in peace but constantly summons [us] to wake up again.”

“Journey to Healing”

Isaiah 57:14-19; Romans 5:1-11; John 4:5-42[1]

Heinrich Harrer was a true celebrity in his day. He was young, handsome, and successful. But Heinrich was also an arrogant, conceited, and selfish young man—like many young men of his day, he joined the Nazi party in the late 1930’s. Ironically it was his pride that took him on the journey that ultimately saved his life. In 1939, he left behind a pregnant wife to join an expedition setting out to climb Nanga Parbat, one of the Himalayan Mountains in Kashmir. When their ascent was interrupted due to an injury, Harrer and his party returned to find that World War II had broken out, and they were in British-occupied India. They were immediately sent to an interment camp as “enemy aliens” and spent several years there.

In 1944, Harrer and his friend Peter Aufschnaiter escaped from the interment camp and made their way in fits and starts to the city of Lhasa in Tibet. There they befriended the people of the city. By this time they were changed men from the arrogant young Austrians who set out to conquer the ninth tallest mountain in the world. Lhasa was a rather primitive city in those days, and they set about putting their various skills to working helping people where ever they could. Heinrich even became a close friend and something of an advisor to the young Dalai Lama. As they later witnessed the invasion and “annexation” of Tibet by Chinese soldiers, Heinrich realized that he had been just like them at one time. But Heinrich Harrer had taken two journeys—one that consisted of thousands of miles, and crossed cultures and time zones. But the even greater journey he took was the one from arrogance to humility and from selfishness to compassion.[2] It’s a journey toward wholeness and healing that stands in front of us all.

The scriptures consistently speak of God as the one who both embodies perfect holiness and who also sets out to have mercy on the wayward.[3] For example, Isaiah speaks of God as “the high and lofty one” who “inhabits eternity” and whose essential character is holiness (Isaiah 57:15). But in virtually the same breath he also says that God is the one who dwells with the contrite and the lowly![4] And God dwells with the “poor in spirit” precisely to “revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite.” According to Isaiah, God is the one who has seen all the ways of fallen humankind and nevertheless declares in no uncertain terms, “I will heal them” (Isaiah 57:18). Isaiah tells us about a God who is ready to heal. But unfortunately, Isaiah says, our sins get in the way (Isaiah 59:1-2).

In remarkable conformity with Isaiah, the Apostle Paul speaks about a God who offers peace, hope, and life to us all. Not because of anything we could possibly do to deserve it, but precisely in the context in which we are undeserving. In fact, Paul talks about a God who sent his Son to die for us precisely when we were helpless and even antagonistic. As Gene Peterson translates Romans 5:6 in The Message, “Christ arrives right on time to make this happen. He didn't, and doesn't, wait for us to get ready.” Paul says that at just the right time, Christ died for the sinners and the ungodly—and in Paul’s mind that includes us all! He doesn’t talk this way to browbeat us for our fallen condition, but to bring us to the place where we can avail ourselves of the peace and hope and life that God offers us all. In part, Paul is trying to help us take the journey to healing and wholeness.

So how do we avail ourselves of the amazing grace that the Scriptures tell us God is offering us all through Jesus the Christ? I think the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well helps us at this point. If you read this story superficially, it could seem that Jesus was rather harsh her. After all, if she had five husbands it meant that five different men had divorced her, since women in ancient Israel did not have the right to divorce their husbands. So why would Jesus confront her about the condition of her life? I don’t think he did it to shame or humiliate her. I think he confronted her in order to enable her to understand that he offered her acceptance and forgiveness and healing right where she was. He held up her life to her in order to help her get started on the journey to wholeness and to new life.

Why is it that we have to come to the point where we can acknowledge our fallenness in order to avail ourselves of the grace that God offers us all so freely? Because we cannot simply sit back, do nothing, and expect God to just shower us with grace and mercy![5] That’s what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”! Why must we admit our failings, our sin? Because the only way to start the journey toward healing is to recognize that we have a problem.[6] Why is it that we have to come to the place where we realize that we can’t save ourselves in order to put our faith in Jesus as our savior? Because repentance and faith go hand in hand—you can’t have one without the other.[7]

The season of Lent is a time for us to come to terms with who we are—we are all fallen and in need of the wholeness and life that God offers us all through Jesus Christ. The season of Lent is a time for us to get past the pride that keeps us from acknowledging our sin, so that we can avail ourselves of God’s saving grace. It is a time to learn again the lesson of repentance and faith in the Savior so that we can begin the journey toward peace and hope and new life.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/24/2008 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] See Heinrich Harrer, Seven Years in Tibet, for the first-hand account.

[3] See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.1:375-84; Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 130-31, 133-137.

[4] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, II.39.

[5] See Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics II:296-97, 301, 305, 339.

[6] See Paul Tillich, “Salvation” in The Eternal Now, 115, 117-18

[7] Cf. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 433: “Without repentance all the notes of the Christian faith are off-key or silent”; cf. also Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics II:345.


Isaiah 6:1-12; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17[1]

Isaiah’s vision of the holy God is unusual in comparison to other prophetic visions. Isaiah does not calmly negotiate the fate of the city, like Abraham did with God over Sodom and Gomorrah. He doesn’t offer a heartfelt plea to God to forgive the people, like Moses did on Mt. Sinai. And he doesn’t simply call down curses on a sinful people as Hosea or Amos did. No, when Isaiah has a vision of the holy God exalted in the temple, he becomes keenly aware not only that his people are unclean but that he himself is unclean as well. Isaiah’s vision reminds us that a genuine encounter with God makes us aware, among other things, that we are all unclean.[2] The word that the prophets of these latter days use for that awareness is “fallen.” When we recognize God’s holiness, we must also recognize that we are fallen—all of us.

That reality is powerfully portrayed in the 2003 film The Human Stain. It’s a story about three people who are irrevocably stained by their past. Coleman Silk is the powerful dean of Athena College who was forced out over an alleged racial slur. But he has carried a secret with him for his entire adult life—though he has passed himself off as a white man, he was in fact born to black parents. His “stain” is his shame over his identity and his fear at being discovered. Faunia Farley is a beautiful young woman half his age with whom the dean enters into an affair. She is bitter over her own past and she masks it by flirting with and seducing older men. Her secret is that she fled from her wealthy home as a teenager to escape the sexual abuse of her step-father. And her “stain” is that she blames herself for the death of her children in a fire. Lester Farley is a Vietnam Vet who is Faunia’s estranged husband. His secret is that he did what he was told to do in the war, things that were too horrible for him to mention even years later. His “stain” is the uncontrollable anger he carries with him from that experience and that makes him still a vicious killer.

All three of these people are fallen. They are irrevocably wounded. They all carry a “stain” that leads them to choices and actions that have tragic consequences.[3] The one ray of hope in this dark film is that in the end, Coleman and Faunia bare their soles and share their secret stains with each other. And as a result, despite all that separates them—age, education, culture—they experience a moment in which they accept one another unconditionally. For both of them it is probably the first time in their lives that they have known the unconditional love and acceptance of another human being. And the tragedy of the film is that it will be the only time. There isn’t much hope in this story. It is a story about how the sinfulness that affects us all leads us into moral dead ends and also tragically undermines even our best efforts at finding meaning and happiness in life.

But then that’s part of the tragedy of human life. When we look only at ourselves to solve the problem of our existence, there really isn’t much hope. The liberators become oppressors; the fortunate become callous; the powerful become corrupt; and the influential sell out. Why is it that despite our best efforts, humanity seems tragically incapable of escaping this dismal fate? It is because we are all fallen.[4] There is something broken at the core of our being. In fact, some of the most famous philosophers of our time have declared in no uncertain terms that our lives are pathetically meaningless, and the best we can do is accept that and go on to find whatever shreds of happiness we can!

But the good news of the gospel is that God is not willing to leave us in the quagmire of our sin! In fact, the Apostle Paul elaborates the lengths to which God is willing to go in order to reclaim us and restore us to life the way God intended for it to be! And the underlying conviction that serves as the foundation for the hope of the gospel that Paul preaches is that at heart, God is essentially “the one who justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5). That is not something God does just because God has no other choice. It’s not a last resort or a half-hearted stepping out of God’s “comfort zone” to do what God would really rather not do. No, according to Paul this is God’s essential character. God is by definition the one who “declares the guilty to be innocent” (Romans 4:5, TEV) and who “accepts sinners” (CEV).

The good news of the gospel is that there is no stain so deep that God cannot cleanse it. There is no uncleanness that God cannot purge. There is no sin that God cannot forgive and no guilt that God cannot amend. And it’s not a matter of God making an exception—that’s who God is.[5] God is the one who sent his son into the world not “to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

The season of Lent is a time for us to come to terms with our fallenness. It is a time to come to terms with the stains that we bear personally. But we face these uncomfortable realities not to somehow diminish our worth or our dignity. We face the truth that we are all unclean so that we may bring it to “the one who justifies the ungodly,” and there we find mercy and wholeness and life.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/17/2008 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Brevard Childs, Isaiah, 55-56.

[3] See the review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat at http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/films.php?id=6736 .

[4] Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 211-14; see also Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, II: 38-41, 44-47.

[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:70-71 reminds us that God demonstrates this through the free act of loving “the world” even when it stood in hostility toward God.

“The Way of the Lord”

Isaiah 5:1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11[1]

I don’t know how many of you are now or ever have been into gardening. For a while in Fort Worth, I actually took care of a garden. I had bought a house from a woman who worked for one of the Bass families—they inherited the Sid Richardson fortune. And every year the family she worked for bought a whole new bunch of expensive rose bushes and cleared out the old ones. So my garden in Fort Worth was planted with a variety of rose bushes—approximately 70 to be exact! Well, in Fort Worth rose bushes do pretty well, except when it’s a rainy year. Then you have to fight a disease called “black spot.” And the aphids. And keep them pruned and trimmed. You get the idea. It was a never ending job. I wasn’t sad to leave those rose bushes when I moved away.

If you’ve ever done any serious gardening, you have some insight into our lesson from Isaiah for today. Isaiah laments that God had done everything that could have been done to make his “garden” thrive. But instead of bearing good fruit, it bore only bad fruit. Instead of walking in the way of the Lord, the way of justice and peace that makes life thrive for all, the people of Israel had chosen the way of violence and greed and injustice, a way which would inevitably lead to their destruction.[2] And it broke Isaiah’s heart to think of how much it broke God’s heart. Isaiah lamented the disobedience of his people not because he prized conformity or status quo, but because he knew that the only way they would thrive as a people was to follow the ways of the Lord.

For centuries there has been a great deal of confusion over what interest, if any, Christians should have the issue of obedience to the ways of the Lord. At the end of the middle ages, a young German monk named Martin Luther was struggling with his belief that God was a demanding God, a God of justice but not mercy. He tried every way he knew to make himself live up to the expectations of this severe God—even literally beating himself at times. Finally he studied the book of Romans and discovered that salvation was by grace alone, by faith alone. He viewed the NT in terms of “gospel” that saves and the demands of the OT he called “law”—with the implication that it only has the power to condemn.

This tension between “law” and “gospel” is still with us today. If we have been saved by grace, why all the fuss about obeying the ways of the Lord? In fact, the tension between obedience and grace goes back to the Bible itself. The people who lived in covenant with God promised to obey God’s every word, but time and time again they ignored the commands. And those who call themselves God’s people still wonder why they should bother with trying to live up to a set of rules when we are saved by God’s grace.[3]

I think the way to move from confusion to understanding is to begin at the beginning. If we’re going to gain some clarity about the place of obedience to God’s commandments in the Christian life, we have to understand the reason for them in the first place. Keeping God’s commands was never a means of gaining or achieving salvation apart from God’s grace.[4] Living in relationship with God has always meant loving him, serving him, and obeying him—living the life that is truly life. To enter into this kind of saving relationship with God has always meant “to commit oneself wholly to God and to God’s way.”[5] The scripture calls this “choosing life” (Deut. 30:19-20).[6] Behind the “law” there has always been “gospel” and “grace.” The point is that a lifestyle of obedience to God is one that promotes life; it is a way of life that makes it possible for all people to thrive. But time and time again, the people who pledged themselves to follow that path instead departed from it at the first opportunity.

In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus is placed in a completely opposite situation. By contrast to God’s “garden” Israel, Jesus was led out into the desolate wastes and placed in a setting where everything that could be done to make him stumble was done to him. And yet, unlike the people of Israel, Jesus chose to hold fast to the life of obedience—to keep walking in the way of the Lord, which leads to life. We can see this in his response to the tempter’s questions. At every turn, the tempter sought to induce Jesus to stray from the path of obedience. And at every turn, Jesus responded by going back to basics—“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”; “Do not put the Lord your God to the test”; and “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”[7] Jesus didn’t debate theology or ethics with the tempter; he simply affirmed and re-affirmed the choice to follow the path of obedience.[8] Why did he do this? In one respect, the temptation struck at the heart of his calling as God’s Suffering Servant.[9] But at another more profound level, the temptation hit him in his fundamental relationship with God—would he follow the path of obedient faith and faithful obedience? Or would he seek to advance his own agenda and like Israel of old abandon the way that leads to life? And Jesus remained firmly committed to his relationship with God.[10]

Lent is a season for us to reflect on our own response to the temptations of this world. Have we followed the path of obedient faith and faithful obedience? Or have we abandoned the way of the Lord and followed our own paths? It’s very likely that we have done some of both. That’s why we observe a Lenten discipline—to gain some clarity about the ways in which we have abandoned the way that leads to life. But there is also “gospel” and grace behind this “law.” As the Apostle Paul reminds us, the faithful obedience/ obedient faith of this one man was powerful enough to overturn the whole history of human disobedience and restore us all to life.[11]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/10/2008 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Cf. Brevard Childs, Isaiah, 44-46, 49.

[3] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 140, is right on target when he says, “we know that one is not saved by keeping the law and can think of no other reason why one should try to do it.”

[4] Cf. Perry Yoder, “Liberated by Law,” Sojourners Magazine, September-October 1999 (Vol. 28, No. 5).

[5] Patrick Miller, Deuteronomy, 213.

[6] Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 141-42, says, “to live within [God’s law] is to live the life that is eternal. To be sure, law is not the source of rightness, but it is forever the course of rightness.”

[7] Respectively, Deuteronomy 8:3; 6:16; and 6:13. Cf. Patricia Ferris, “Bedrock Truths,” The Christian Century (Jan. 30, 2002); http://www.findarticles.com/p/ articles/mi_m1058/is_3_119/ai_83143840.

[8] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Remaining Human,” The Christian Century (Feb. 7, 1996); http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_n5_v113/ai_18023704.

[9] Cf. Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus; he described the temptations in terms of being relevant, spectacular, and powerful. Cf. also Frederick J. Streets, “Clarification,” The Christian Century (Feb. 3, 1993); http://www.findarticles.com/ p/articles/mi_m1058/is_n4_v110/ai_13509819.

[10] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:262-64.

[11] Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:333-35 speaks of the “alteration of the whole human situation” through Jesus’ death and resurrection.