Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Embracing Restoration

Embracing Restoration
Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-55[1]
After all my “confessions” this Advent season, some of you may be convinced that I am a cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch! You may have wondered, “Is there anything about Christmas he does like?” Well, you’re in for a treat today, because that’s exactly what I want to talk about—what I do like about the way we celebrate Christmas. The one aspect of how we as a people “celebrate Christmas” that I like is the fact that we make it a time for family. We scheme with our families how to surprise other family members with just the right presents. We gather with families around the table and the Christmas tree. We worship with our families at the altars of our churches. It is a time for reunion and reconciliation, for embracing and entertaining, for sharing and supporting one another.
I guess I have to add another “confession”—I haven’t always enjoyed this dimension of Christmas. Truth be told, it’s one of the parts of the way we “celebrate Christmas” that many people dread! For many people, Christmas becomes a time when you have to endure your relatives, whether you want to or not. It becomes a time of fighting and re-opening old wounds, a time for throwing discretion to the wind and behaving in ways that are embarrassing and offensive—toward the members of our own family! Christmas is a time when the gaping holes in the fabric of our “family ties” become painfully apparent. It is a time when we desperately need restoration and healing in those most basic human relationships.
Advent is a time when we focus our attention on God’s work in this broken world. It is a time of waiting in silence, a time of looking for the salvation that God has promised, and a time of singing for joy over God’s presence among us. I think it’s tragic that in the midst of all this Gospel talk, many people in our society find themselves more depressed than at any other time of the year. I would venture to say that one of the main reasons for that is that it is a time when we become painfully aware how broken this world is—particularly our own families.
One of the themes in the lessons for this Fourth Sunday of Advent is that it is a time to celebrate the work of restoration God is carrying out in the human family—the whole human family. Take the lesson from Micah. At first glance, one might think that the prophet Micah was no different from many of his contemporaries. In virtually the same breath that he speaks about the coming of the Prince of Peace who will restore and reunite the people, it seems that he looks forward to the domination and oppression of their enemies! And yet, the prophet Micah may very well be an exception to the pattern of looking for restoration for Israel in terms of punishment for their enemies.[2] Like Isaiah, the future Micah envisions is one of “beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks” (Mic. 4:1-4). And in our lesson for today, that restoration includes the reunion of the divided Jewish family. Think of it—Micah looked forward to the coming one who would heal the bitter enmity between Judah and the tribes of Israel and bring them together in one family for the first time in 200 years!
We think of reunions as happy and joyful, but the reality is that sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren’t. In Mary’s Magnificat, we hear that one of the ways God’s work of restoration would come about is through the “Great Reversal”: the proud humbled, the powerful pulled down from their thrones, those who are stuffed will go away empty-handed, while those who are disempowered will be lifted up and those who are hungry will be filled with good things (Luke 1:51-53). [3] Mary describes the overturning of the current system of consumption and oppression and violence by the norms of God’s kingdom: mercy, justice, and love.[4] I think many of us saw a little of that in action yesterday as we distributed food to needy families.
There’s just no way to avoid the fact that there is a barb in the good news that God is working to restore the human family. That barb is this—those among us who flourish on the backs of others, those who get rich by the poverty of the many, those who wield power through violence of any kind will be impoverished, overthrown, and overturned.[5] And yet, even here there is good news—the restoration that God promises is one in which some of us will suffer loss, but in the end we will all gain immeasurably more than we lose. The future Micah and Mary looked forward to is a vision of the restoration of the whole human family. They saw in the birth of the coming one the establishment of the justice that makes it possible for all people to thrive, to reach their God-given potential, to experience the joy and the vibrancy that God intends for all creation.
Advent is a time for waiting in anticipation. It is a time of looking for the fulfillment that promised salvation, and a time of singing for joy over God’s presence in our midst. It is also a time to embrace the restoration and healing God has promised to the whole human family in our families. Tread lightly this year, instead of taking up the challenge to engage in bickering. Do whatever you need to show a little extra consideration to your family—after all, we’re all stressed out during this time of the year. And after all we’ve been doing, many of us are frankly exhausted. Try to say the kind word, do the kind thing; extend your arms to the one who aggravates you and embrace the restoration that God is bringing to us all! Now that’s the way to celebrate Christmas!

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/20/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Randall J. Pannell, in “The Politics of the Messiah,” Perspectives in Religious Studies (1988): 131-143 argues that it’s possible that Micah actually contrasts the Prince of Peace who will bring restoration to the people with the way in which Israel would seek it’s own restoration—through violent means. For a broader look at the issue in Hebrew Scripture, see Hans Walter Wolff, “Swords into Ploughshares: Misuse of a Word of Prophecy?,” Currents in Theology and Mission 12 (June, 1985): 133-147. He states plainly (p. 137), “Biblical faith decisively rejects all that has to do with war.”
[3] Cf. the article by my friend and fellow seminarian Ruth Ann Foster, “Mary’s Hymn of Praise in Luke 1:46-55,” Review and Expositor 100 (2003):451-463. She says (p. 458), “Mary acknowledges God's mercy and love for the lowly and a radical reversal of normal human values in the coming messianic kingdom.”
[4] Cf. Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge: A Shortened Version of On Being A Christian, 89: in the light of the Kingdom of God, “all existing systems, all ordinances, institutions, structures and indeed all differences between the mighty and the powerless, between rich and poor, appear from the very beginning to be relatively unimportant: the norms of this kingdom must be applied even now.”
[5] Cf. Foster, “Mary’s Hymn,” 458: “even though Mary has been often ‘regarded as the comforter of the disturbed .. . she [or at least her song] is far more accurately the disturber of the comfortable’” (quoting Doris Donnelly). Cf. similarly Letty M. Russell, “God’s Great Reversal,” The Christian Century (Nov. 20, 1991): 1089. She says, “God's great reversal may come too close to home as we hear that Christmas is about lifting up the ‘lowly,’ filling ‘the hungry with good things’ and ‘sending the rich away empty.’ Yet it is by joining in the their desire and work for deliverance that we find out the meaning of the good news of great joy.”

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Singing For Joy

Singing For Joy
Zeph 3:14-20; Isa 12:2-6; Phil 4:4-7[1]
I must confess that I approach this sermon with some degree of “fear and trembling.” With all my “confessions” about how I’m not a big fan of the way we “celebrate Christmas,” I’m afraid that one more might get me tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail! After all, who doesn’t like Christmas?!? But then, of course, I do have my tongue firmly implanted in my cheek with all these “confessions.” So I’ll risk just one more “confession”—I’m not a big fan of the whole decorating thing at Christmas.
You know the routine: you climb into the attic or rummage through the garage to find all those dusty boxes you packed away last January. And since it’s been a while since you packed them away, you have to really rummage around to find them all—which means you get covered in dust and cobwebs. Then there’s the fear—the nagging fear that you may have misplaced Grandpa’s antique Christmas tree ornaments with the colored water that bubbles or Great-Grandma’s hand-made Christmas stockings. Once you find everything, then you have to go through all the lights to find the one bulb that’s keeping the whole string from not lighting. Then you have to climb up and down the ladder to get them hung on your house. Of course, you have to make at least 2 trips to the local hardware store to replace missing items. And when you finish, you stand back to admire your work and notice that once again this year your neighbor has managed to outdo you!
Then you move indoors to—the tree. And of course, once again this year you have to revisit the debate about a live tree versus a fake one. And then there’s the debate about size—five feet, seven feet, or nine feet. And then you have to search through your (still mostly dusty) boxes to find all the tree ornaments that didn’t get lost or broken last year. And when you’re done, you stand back to admire your work, and you notice out of the corner of your eye—yep, you got it: once again this year your neighbor has a taller, fuller, more handsomely decorated tree in the middle of the huge picture window right out front. So yeah, I’m not a big fan of the whole decorating thing at Christmas. Now, again, I realize that for many of you decorating is one of things you like best about Christmastime. There’s just something about all the color and the light of decorations that brings a little happiness to us all! But there is a difference between happiness and joy. I know, it’s become a cliché to say it, but I think it may be a useful cliché. Happiness lasts as long as whatever it is that makes you happy lasts. Maybe a little longer, but not indefinitely. Joy, on the other hand, is something that lasts no matter what the circumstances may be.[2]
I’ve already made it clear that I am a big fan of Advent. One of the things I like about Advent is that it’s the season of joy. As I’ve already said, it is a time for waiting in stillness, and it is a time of looking for the fulfillment of the promised salvation. But it’s also a time of “singing for joy”! The prophets looked forward to the day of the Lord’s coming as a time of great joy. Yes, many of them, like Zephaniah, also envisioned it as a time of widespread devastation and judgment. But even Zephaniah, who has been called the “gloomiest” of the prophets, did not give devastation and judgment the last word.[3] Even Zephaniah kept the last word for joy—joy over the Lord’s presence, joy over renewal and restoration, joy over coming home (Zeph. 3:14-20).[4] That’s one of the things I love about the message of the prophet Isaiah. While Isaiah does have some “gloom and doom,” as a whole he looks forward to the Lord’s advent as a time for joyfully shouting, “Surely God is my salvation” (Isa. 12:2)! Isaiah looks forward to the Lord’s coming as a day when the people would drink their fill of salvation like someone drawing fresh water from a well. It would be a day of great rejoicing.
I think it was this very hope that made it possible for the Apostle Paul to write the words we heard from his letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). If you knew something of Paul’s circumstances when he wrote that letter, you would probably be surprised that he could express such joy. To say that he was not in a place that you would think conducive to happiness would be an understatement. At best, he was confined under house arrest. I’m not sure we’re capable of imagining what the worst case may have been for someone like him sitting in a Roman jail.[5] And yet, St. Paul could say, “Rejoice!” You may wonder what he had to rejoice about in that situation. Well, he tells us—he rejoiced over the assurance that “the Lord is near.” I think there’s a dual meaning in that: Paul rejoiced because he looked forward to the Lord’s coming, but he also rejoiced because the Lord is always “near.” [6] And I think Paul had experienced the Lord’s constant presence in his imprisonment. And so he could say, “Rejoice!” I think in a very real sense, the Apostle Paul carried the joy of Advent with him wherever he went—even in a Roman jail.
Advent is the season of joy. It is a time for waiting in anticipation. It is a time of looking for the coming of the Lord, for the fulfillment of God’s promised restoration, for the peace that overcomes all violence and the love that makes all our hatreds evaporate like the morning mist. You might think that focusing our attention on what we long for but do not yet have might be a cause for discouragement rather than joy. But in my opinion it is that very act of watching and waiting and looking for the coming of God that inspires great joy. It inspires us to “Shout aloud and sing for joy, … for great in your midst is the Holy One” (Isa. 12:6).

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/13/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Surprised by Joy,” The Living Pulpit (Oct-Dec 1995):17. She says it is in the “wilderness, in that empty-handed I-give-up surrender that joy is most likely to occur.”
[3] Joanna M. Adams, “Toward Home,” The Christian Century (Dec 12, 2006): 18.
[4] Taylor, 17, says, “Joy happens when God is present and people know it.”
[5] Cf. L. Gregory Bloomquist, “Subverted by Joy: Suffering and Joy in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians,” Interpretation 61 (July, 2007):274-75.
[6] Cf. Huston Smith, “Reasons for Joy,” The Christian Century (Oct. 4, 2005):10-11. He says, “As Kierkegaard noted, if at every moment both present and future I were certain that nothing has happened or can ever happen that would separate me from the infinite love of the Infinite, that would be clearest reason there is for joy.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Merton on the Illusion of Pride

Merton warns against the selfish pride that tends to imagine we can only be fully human by "asserting [our] own desires and ambitions and appetites." Those who take this path to "find themselves" thing the only way to achieve it is to build "a barrier of contrast and distinction between themselves and [others]." Their pride manifests itself in thinking, "I have what you have not. I am what you are not. ... Therefore you suffer and I am happy, ... you are nothing and I am something, and I am all the more something because you are nothing."

Merton observes that this tendency is most dangerous when it becomes spiritual pride--thinking that my good deeds constitute a "sweet distinction" in me "from the common run of sinners in this world." Merton describes it as "the complacency of a will that loves its own excellence," to "burn with self-admiration" and think it is one's love for God, to relish "acts that make [us] admirable in [our] own eyes" and think our satisfaction is "the unction of the Holy Spirit." In short, Merton says such a person "thinks his own pride is the Holy Ghost"!

It seems that the antidote for this temptation may lie in Merton's observation that "I must look for my identity, somehow, not only in God but in [others]. I will never be able to find myself if I isolate myself from the rest of [humankind] as if I were a different kind of being." New Seeds of Contemplation, 47-51.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Looking For Salvation

Looking for Salvation
Mal. 3:1-4; Lk. 1:68-79; 3:1-6[1]
I believe I mentioned last week that I’m not a big fan of the way we “celebrate Christmas.” One of the things I dislike about it is “the search.” You know, the search for the right present—just the right present. I know, I know—that’s what many of you like the most about Christmas. But I have another confession to make—I’m not a big fan of shopping. (I wonder if all these confessions are going to cause a scandal!) I cannot tell a lie—I don’t like having to go looking for something—especially in a store! I do my looking in the comfort of my home on my laptop over the internet. I compare prices, find what seems to be the best price, and then I buy it. So I’m not a big fan of the whole shopping thing at Christmas.
But, as you may have guessed, I am a big fan of Advent. I love the whole package of Advent—songs of longing, lighting candles, sprigs of greenery here and there. I especially like Advent because it is a time for reminding ourselves that we live by promises—which means we live by faith and hope. In a very real sense, then, Advent is a time for—well, for looking![2] I know, I know—it’s incredibly ironic. One of the things I dislike most about the Christmas season is looking for presents, but one of the things I like most about Advent is looking for the fulfillment of God’s promises. I would like to make at least a feeble attempt to argue that looking for redemption is a whole different thing from looking for presents. (I hope you noticed that I did use the word feeble!)
Zechariah was a man who was looking for the fulfillment of God’s promise. He lived his life in faith and hope—faith in the promises made to the ancestors and hope that God would be faithful to fulfill them. And when his son was born and his tongue was loosed, Zechariah sang a song of praise to God for fulfilling those promises. The specific way in which Zachariah saw this promise fulfilled was in the birth of his son John as a messenger to “prepare the way for the Lord.”
Now I dare say that when we think of John the Baptist, we probably don’t think of promises of salvation. In the lesson from Malachi, we see a similar promise, but from the way it’s worded it would seem that it is not really a promise but a warning. The Lord’s messenger will come as a refiner’s fire and as a launderer’s soap to purge the people and make them pure. It is an image of judgment that one wouldn’t really be looking for.
But in Zechariah’s song there is a different emphasis— in the birth of John the Baptist, Zechariah saw the fulfillment of God’s promise to redeem Israel.[3] In a very real sense, Zechariah was looking forward to redemption, mercy, salvation, and forgiveness. In Zechariah’s song, the messenger of the coming Lord will bring “knowledge of salvation … by the forgiveness of their sins” (Lk. 1:77). The messenger will effect “the dawn from on high” through the “tender mercy of our God” that will bring light to those who are in darkness as well as “straightening their feet” into the way of peace (Lk. 1:78-79).
Now if you’re confused, don’t feel bad. We don’t normally think of judgment in connection with salvation. Usually those two concepts are seen as diametrically opposed. So how is it that the messenger who will prepare the way for the Lord is a messenger of judgment and a messenger of salvation? Well, I think we have to remember that God’s judgment was always intended to lead to salvation.[4] And so Zechariah sees the birth of his son John as the messenger who will “prepare the way for the Lord” in terms of the promise that the Lord’s coming will set things right. While that does imply a sense of purification and correction, the ultimate goal is to create peace and freedom for “all the families of the earth” and ultimately for all creation. Zechariah was looking for the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation.
The season of Advent is a time for looking—a time of looking for the salvation promised long ago. But I would remind you that “looking” is something that requires your full attention. Looking is the active part of waiting. During Advent, we look forward in hope to the day when “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Lk. 3:6).[5] We look for the promise that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together” (Isaiah 40:5).[6] We look for God to fulfill the hope that “The valley of the shadow of death will be filled; it will be lifted up. The mountains of struggle, pain and poverty will be made low.”[7] Advent is a time for living in faith and hope, like Zechariah—faith in the promises of salvation made long ago and hope that God will be faithful to fulfill them. It is the season for looking!

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/6/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: He says that our faith is about “a dramatic affirmation that there is light on the other side of darkness,” which puts us in the mode of looking.
[3] Luke calls the promise “the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham” (Lk. 1:73). As you may remember, that oath included blessing all the families of the earth (cf. Gen. 12:3).
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.4:56: The “righteousness” that John the Baptist preached was what Karl Barth called God’s “rectifying and hence redeeming righteousness.” He adds that the voice the one crying in the wilderness “is the voice of a messenger of salvation rather than catastrophe.”
[5] Cf. Isa. 11:10; 52:10; see Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 77, 80, 83, 86, 93, 100, 135. Cf. Barth, Dogmatics 4.1:31.
[6] Walter Brueggemann, “Expository Article: Luke 3:1-4,” Interpretation 30 (Oct 1976): 409. He says, “The glory finally to be shown is not some religious epiphany. It is the power of liberation, born by this poor man turned loose in history.”
[7] Elizabeth Myer Boulton, “Living By the Word,” The Christian Century (Dec. 1, 2009):21
Merton on Seeking God

Another jewel from Merton: to "seek God perfectly" means, among other things, "to rest in humility and to find peace in withdrawal from conflict and competition with [others]; to turn aside from controversy and put away heavy loads of judgment and censorship and criticism and the whole burden of opinions I have no obligation to carry" and "to gather all that I am, and have all that I can possibly suffer or do or be, and abandon them all to God in the resignation of a perfect love and blind faith and pure trust in God, to do his will." New Seeds of Contemplation, 46.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Thomas Merton on "Salvation": "To Live in God"

In New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 37-38, Merton contrasts the "vapid" and "hackneyed" concept of salvation that is so prevalent with "the beautiful Christian metaphor." He says that "salvation" means to "be full of [God's] actuality and find Him everywhere in myself." When that happens, Merton says, "I shall be lost in Him," but what that really means is that "I shall find myself." That is what it means to be "saved."

He contrasts this with being immersed "in the common, the nondescript, the trivial, the sordid, the evanescent."

He summarizes: "To be 'lost' is to be left to the arbitrariness and pretenses of the contingent ego, the smoke-self that must inevitably vanish. To be 'saved' is to return to one's inviolate and eternal reality and to live in God."

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Lift Up Your Heads

Lift Up Your Heads
Jer. 33:14-16; Lk. 21:25-36[1]
I have a confession to make—I’m not a big fan of Christmas. You could say that I’m something of a cross between Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch. Well, almost—I wouldn’t steal Christmas from anybody, and many of you know that I can’t turn away anyone I believe to be truly needy. But I am pretty cynical about Christmas. Or at least the way we as a culture "celebrate Christmas." Kristi likes to tell the story of my first Christmas with her family. Now, in order to appreciate it, you have to understand that in Kristi’s family Christmas wish lists are serious business! But that had not been my experience. So when I made my first list for Kristi’s family, I came up with three items—three. And come Christmas day, much to my surprise, I got all three of them! That also had not been my experience! Needless to say, my Christmas lists in recent years have grown.
So while I do enjoy the whole family gift-giving at Christmas much more than I ever did, I remain fairly cynical about the way we as a culture “celebrate Christmas.” On average, we as a people have spent $900 per person on Christmas gifts over the last ten years. Now, that’s the average—and when you factor in people like you and me who spend more like $50 to $100 per person, it boggles the mind what some people spend! Even though economists estimate that the average this year will probably be about half that, we’re still talking about spending, as a people, over $150 billion—just on Christmas presents. All totaled, we will spend about as much “celebrating Christmas” as we will give to all charities all year long. That includes charities that fund “artistic” endeavors as well as those that help people with their basic needs. So I’m somewhat cynical about the way we “celebrate Christmas.”
Having confessed that, I hasten to add that I’m not cynical about the message of Christmas. It is the message of God’s unconditional love for all people. It is the hope that God’s reign will set things right and create peace and freedom for all creation. It is the good news that, “When we least expect it, and when there is no evidence for it, God's power comes into this godless world in ways the world itself could never predict or foresee.”[2] It is the promise that “I will wipe away every tear,” and “they will beat their swords into ploughshares,” and “I am making the whole of creation new.” The message of Christmas is something I passionately believe.
Ironically, I think that part of the reason why we seem to be so oblivious to the message of Christmas is because it’s not the language of doubt and cynicism, to which we are so accustomed, but the language of promise and hope. I think the message of Christmas gets lost to us because Biblical faith is a faith that is very much defined by promise.[3] Take the words of the prophet Jeremiah: in the face of a siege by the unstoppable Babylonian army, Jeremiah obeys God’s command to buy a piece of land as a tangible reminder that God would bring the people back and restore their fortunes (Jeremiah 32:43-45). And so “just when the future appeared darkest,” Jeremiah spoke in the name of Lord: “the days are surely coming when I will fulfill the promise I made to Israel.”[4] It was a promise of “a future of justice, freedom, reconciliation and wholeness.”[5] And the people of Jeremiah’s day didn’t get that message any more than the people of our day get it. But make no mistake—the message of Christmas is a promise—the promise of a future of justice, freedom, reconciliation and wholeness.
I think one of the things we don’t like about all that is that it requires watchfulness, as Luke reminds us. Or perhaps a better word for it would be “waiting.” Like it or not, “waiting” is the essence of our faith: “we wait for what God has promised: new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will be at home” (2 Peter 3:13-14, TEV). You simply cannot take away the dimension of promise from the Christian faith. And that means you cannot take away the element of waiting.
But waiting for a promise to be fulfilled is not an easy task. Traditionally, the season of Advent is a time of waiting in stillness, being silent in the darkness as we await the coming of the light. But we don’t like waiting in stillness—it is uncomfortable. We want to fill the silence with chatter, or at least clear a throat. We fidget and shuffle papers—anything not to have to wait in stillness and silence. And yet there is a reason for the waiting; the stillness serves a purpose. It serves to focus our hopes on the heart of our faith—that God is in the process of creating for us all a future of justice, freedom, reconciliation and wholeness. And the stillness of Advent serves to prepare us for the real celebration of Christmas—not packages and parties, but the good news that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, whom we call Christ and Savior and Lord, God began the process of fulfilling that promise.[6]
So I think observing the season of Advent—before we “celebrate Christmas”—may be one of the most important ways we can bear witness to our faith.[7] I think it is perhaps more important than ever, in the midst of all that we do to “celebrate Christmas,” that we observe Advent in a way that is consistent with the hope that God is in the process of creating a future for us all that consists of justice, freedom, reconciliation and wholeness. During this time of year it is the case that, as it is the rest of the year, we bear the most powerful witness to our faith and hope with what we do.[8] So I would encourage you to find ways to create room in your life for stillness—as uncomfortable as that may be—and to let the stillness move you to “lift up your heads, for your redemption draws near!”

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/29/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] James F. Kay, “Redemption Draws Near,” The Christian Century (Nov. 12, 1997): 1033. He continues, “If the future were not the promise of Jesus Christ but the predictable outcome of present trends, despair would overwhelm us. No trend points to the permanence of what we call heaven and earth. If trends predict anything, it is that death and dissolution bring an end to every human heart and hope.”
[3] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 20: “Hope is nothing else than the expectation of those things which faith has believed to have been truly promised by God” (quoting John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.2.42 ); cf. also 16, 30-32, 40-44, 85-89, 102-54, 190-229.
[4] William Dyrness, “In Distress,” The Christian Century (Nov. 16, 1994): 1073. He adds, “Often in scripture the promises of God come in the most difficult circumstances, as if God intends that we not live by the certainties we see and know.”
[5] John C. Morris, “Anticipation,” The Christian Century (Nov. 22, 2000):1214.
[6] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 26-27, 28, 30, 32-33.
[7] Joanna M. Adams, “Light the Candles,” The Christian Century (Nov. 28, 2006): 18: Advent is a time for “holding on for dear life to the reassurance that God intends to make the world right again.”
[8] Cf. Leonardo Boff, Passion of Christ, Passion of the World; quoted in Living Pulpit (Oct-Dec 1997): 38: “The reign of God, the eschatological liberation of the world, is already in process …. It takes shape in concrete modifications of actual life.”

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

World Without End
Ps. 93; Rev. 1:4-8; Mk. 13:24-37[1]
“End of the World” scenarios have been around for a long time—probably from the time people began recording history! In our day, the threat of nuclear weapons, the ecological crisis, and overpopulation have fueled fears that the world is coming to an end sooner rather than later. Anybody remember the “Doomsday Clock” that stood only a few minutes before midnight? Then there’s Nostradamus, the medieval “prophet” whose predictions are just vague enough to give anybody with an active imagination a means of envisioning the end. And in recent days, there’s the idea that the Mayans predicted the end of the world in 2012.
Today is the day set aside in the Church Calendar to celebrate the “reign of Christ,” but I’m afraid it’s not much of a celebration for us! Talk of the “reign of Christ” puts us firmly in the realm of those “things that are not seen” that belong to our faith. And it inevitably points us toward the end of all things—with all the confusion and misinformation that brings. If we’re really honest about it, talk of a “reign of Christ” is about as foreign to us as talk of the end times.
Perhaps we should start unraveling this tangle by talking about the concept of “reigning,” especially as it relates to God. In our Psalm text for today, we see the idea expressed in dramatic terms—God reigns over all things, and that means that God “has established the world; it shall never be moved” (Ps. 93:1). Among other things, I think that means because God is sovereign over even the most awe-inspiring forces of nature, we can rest assured that the ground under our feet will not give way, the stars will not fall from the sky, and the sun will come up tomorrow. It’s the promise of the rainbow in Genesis—God will never again destroy the world (Genesis 8:21-22; 9:8-17). God’s reign is the power that keeps this old world turning, that keeps the rain falling, and that keeps the seasons returning—it is an expression of God’s faithful and everlasting love.[2]
Well, so far so good. No need to worry about bomb-sized meteorites crashing into the earth, or huge chunks of continents simply falling away, or a giant tsunami washing over the Himalayan Mountains and the rest of the world on December 21, 2012 (with all due respect to the Mayan calendar and Hollywood!). But then Jesus comes along in our Gospel lesson and says, “Heaven and earth will pass away” (Mk. 13:31)! Granted, that statement is in the context of the assurance that “but my words will not pass away.” The main point seems to be a reference to the upheaval that marks the end of history and the beginning of the kingdom of God on earth. Most people are curious about when it’s all going to happen. But you guys know me well enough by now that you won’t be surprised if my response to “Heaven and earth will pass away” is “Say what?!?”
What I want to know is how you can possibly reconcile the idea that God’s reign means that creation is firmly established with the idea that God’s reign means that creation will be destroyed![3] We see this contradiction in those who are obsessed with all things “end times”: they seem to take a perverse delight in the destruction of nature, the animal kingdom, and the vast majority of humankind! I cannot see how such a vast annihilation of creation can be construed other than “the annihilation of Yahweh’s faithfulness.”[4] And with it, the annihilation of all meaning and purpose in human life[5] as well as our faith!
Well, I think that at least part of the answer is that the “passing away” that Jesus and the Apostles expected refers to the “form of this world” (1 Cor. 7:31). They’re talking about the structures of the present world order.[6] What will pass away is the “godless fetters of this world” that lead people astray and keep them away from God’s grace and peace and love.[7] The writer of Hebrews envisions everything that rests on that kind of shaky ground being shaken and falling into ruins (Heb. 12:26-29). I think that’s what Jesus means when he says “heaven and earth will pass away”—he’s saying that even the most exalted human institutions, even the most apparently solid structures in “the present world order” will vanish, not that God’s good creation will be destroyed.
I think another part of the answer comes from the reading from Revelation. There, God is named “the one who is and who was and who is to come” and “the Alpha and the Omega.” Now, you will understand the connection between these two affirmations, since Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. God is the one who is “First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” It’s an affirmation that, as millions of Christians sing every Sunday morning, “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen! Amen!” God will act no differently at the end of all things than at the beginning of all things!
So, from this perspective, what can we say about God? Well, God is the one who created all things in the first place as an act of self-giving love, and always has and always will rule this world in a manner entirely consistent with that act.[8] Jesus the Christ is the one who gave his life as an act of self-giving love and who now lives and reigns in a manner entirely consistent with that act.[9] The Spirit of Life is the one who was brooding over all things at Creation’s beginning, and who rules over all things at the present time in a manner entirely consistent with that—watching carefully over this vast and wondrous world of nature and humanity to ensure that we all wind up where we’re intended to be.[10] This God is the one who is “First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”[11] This is what it means to believe that God will act no differently at the end of all things than at the beginning of all things; this is what it means to joyfully affirm that “as it was in the beginning”, so it is now, and so it “ever shall be, world without end, Amen! Amen!”

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/22/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 149.
[3] Cf. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2:289, where he reminds us that the biblical view of the end times is couched in symbols that should be taken seriously but cannot be taken literally “because it is not possible for finite minds to comprehend that which transcends and fulfills history. The finite mind can only use symbols and pointers of the character of the eternal.”
[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 129; cf ibid., 114-15, where he expresses the idea that “God is the same God all the way from promise to fulfillment” in terms of the vision that “the whole creation” which was “made good” will “come to its own in his all-embracing lordship, his peace and his righteousness” as the meaning of the promise that “the ancient promise ‘I am Yahweh’ will be fulfilled in the … glory of God, that fulfils [sic] all things.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, 270-72, where he discusses the Reformed Tradition’s insistence on “God’s steadfast faithfulness to his creation” (emphasis original).
[5] Cf. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2:287: “the end as finis is a threat to the end as telos.” In other words, if the end of all things is dissolution rather than fulfillment, then life is meaningless.
[6] Cf. Moltmann, The Coming of God, 270; cf. also Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 375
[7] Cf. The Theological Declaration Barmen, The Book of Confessions 8.14.
[8] Cf. Presbyterian Church in the United States. A Declaration of Faith. 117th General Assembly (1977), reissued by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1991, 1.4, 8.2-3, 10.2, speaks of God’s “just and loving rule” being “manifest throughout the whole creation” as a time when “justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” when “nations will not learn war any more,” when we will “see the end of cruelty and suffering in the world,” and when human fellowship with God and each other will be fulfilled. Cf. also The Study Catechism, 1998 , ques. 128, which describes God’s rule among us “through faith, love, and justice. Cf. further Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics 2:683: “God does not cease to be the Creator” who “in eternity accepts his creation and does not desire to be alone”; therefore “the establishment of the Kingdom is not the annihilation of the creature, but rather its liberation.”
[9] Cf. The Study Catechism, 1998 , ques. 41, which speaks of Christ’s reign in this way: “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.”
[10] Cf. Declaration of Faith, 5.1, which speaks of the Holy Spirit as “ the Lord and Giver of life, the Renewer and Perfecter of God's people, the One who makes real in us what God has done for us.”
[11] Cf. Jeffery Siker, “Revelation 1:4-9,” Interpretation (April 2007): 212-13: Revelation “emphasizes the utter all-encompassing identity of God, who is the Alpha and the Omega, the one ‘who is and who was and who is to come.’ Just as surely as God was present with God’s people in times of old, and just as God remains fully present in the here and now, so God will be faithful to God’s promises in the future also.”

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Perfect Obedience
Mk. 12:28-34[1]
As Christians, we claim to believe that Jesus was more than just an exceptional Jewish Rabbi. We claim to believe that there was something special about him. Through the centuries, scholars have spelled out that something special in terms of what we’ve been discussing over the last few weeks: that Jesus came as one who really and truly shows us what God is like. And he came to show us that God really and truly understands what it is like to be fully human. And he came to show us that God has fully entered our experience and has done all that needs to be done to really and truly redeem us all. As Christians, we claim to believe, and we often recite in worship, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17)
We say that’s what we believe, but I think if you looked at what we actually talk about in church as a measure of whether we believe that, we’d come up with some surprising results. We in Christian churches seem to go through the motions of our faith—until somebody disagrees with us on something really important like the décor in the Sanctuary. You may find it hard to believe, but I would say most religious debates tend to get bogged down in details that are at best tedious and at worst trivial. They essentially boil down to grand adventures in “missing the point.” Now, I think debate can be healthy, and some of the debates in the church have been about important things. Some of the more significant debates in the history of the church include whether the bread and the wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper (isn’t it about experiencing God’s grace?), which text or translation of the Bible is perfect (shouldn’t we be paying more attention to Scripture itself?), and who can and cannot be ministers (is that my place or the Holy Spirit’s?). But it seems to me that even when it comes to debating important issues, our debates still tend to boil down to grand adventures in “missing the point.”
That’s the setting for our Gospel lesson for today. It comes at the end of a debate that the religious leaders have been carrying on with Jesus, hoping to make a fool out of him in front of the people who followed him. One torah scholar asks him a question about the greatest commandment—it may have been a legitimate question because that was the subject of debate among the rabbis of the day.[2] I don’t think it was pure coincidence that Jesus chose love for God and love for neighbor in reply. The “first” commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,” came from the Shema, which was and still is the heart of the Jewish faith. And the “second” commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is part of a summary of the Torah in Leviticus called the “holiness code.” It’s called that because its theme is “you shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2).
We usually think of “holiness” in a Jewish context as determined by avoiding certain foods, but there’s much more to Leviticus. Chapter 19, where Jesus gets the “second” commandment, is a restatement of the Ten Commandments some fairly specific ways. For example, in place of “you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” Leviticus 19 says, “you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God” (Lev. 19:12). It not only says “you shall not steal,” it also says not to withhold a laborers wages and to honest weights and balances in trading with others. It not only says “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” it also says, “you shall love the stranger as yourself” (Lev. 19:34, RSV)!!!
The point is that Jesus was not breaking any new ground with his identification of the two great commandments. He was expressing the ideal of faith found in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s the conviction that we were all created to live in relationship with God, a covenant of trust, devotion, and obedience.[3] God’s original intention for humanity in the first place was to live in relationship with God, loving and serving God by loving and serving others—a life of obedience that creates justice, and freedom, and peace for us all.[4] It is the life that is truly life.
One of the most important truths of the Christian faith is that Jesus came to make that possible for us all by living in constant and perfect obedience to the ideal set forth in Scripture.[5] By his perfect obedience, he opened the way for us all to experience a new reality, a new way of being human that is really a fulfillment what God intended for us in the first place.[6] Paul says it this way: Jesus, by his perfect obedience, completely overturned the effects of sin on humanity. In the place of death and injustice and violence, Jesus’ obedience brought life and justice and peace to all humankind (Rom. 5:12-21).
Unfortunately, if you look around, it’s hard to see many examples of people living that way. It seems that the vast majority of our fellow human beings live as if there is no God, as if there never was a man named Jesus, as if there’s no such thing as a life of freedom and justice and peace. Maybe it’s time for us to quit acting like we have nothing better to do that to squabble with each other over matters that are at best tedious and at worst trivial and realize that we have a job to do. You see, the freedom we have to live a new life in Christ was a gift to all humankind, not just to us.[7] We who have encountered the freedom of this new life, this true life, have this freedom for the purpose of sharing it.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/25/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Jay B. Stern, “Jesus’ Citation Of Dt 6,5 And Lv 19,18 In The Light Of Jewish Tradition,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 28 (1966):312-16.
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1:9: “The ordaining of salvation for man and of man for salvation is the original and basic will of God.” Cf. also ibid., 7, 14-15, 19, 23, 37-38, 42-3, 50-51, 53, 56, 83-84, 138
[4] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:54-66, where he maintains that this has always been God’s intention against all efforts to “break up” this “one covenant” of grace into a series of different “covenants.” He disputes the “federal theology” of Johannes Cocceius, whose ideas are probably best known today in the “Dispensationalism” of Tim LaHaye.
[5] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:66: “God keeps faith in time with Himself and with man, with all men in this one man”; cf. also ibid., 19, 34-35, 48, 68, 132, 138, 159, 198.
[6] In our Book of Order, we call it the “new creation, a new beginning for human life” and “the new reality which God has made available to people in Jesus Christ.” Cf. The Book of Order 2007-2009, G-3.0200, 3.0300(c). Barth defines this “new reality” in light of 2 Cor. 5:19 in terms of becoming “covenant-partners with God who keep the covenant just as faithfully as He Himself [i.e., Jesus] does.” Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:75. Cf. further, ibid., 89-90; cf. esp. 92-122, where he describes this “new being” in some detail in terms of faith, love, and hope.
[7] Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:76-77: therefore we are called to the “ministry of reconciliation.”

Friday, October 30, 2009

Saving Faith
Mk. 10:46-52[1]
I never cease to be amazed at whom and what people put their faith in. I remember the “Heaven’s Gate” cult, a few years ago. They were the folks who believed that there was a spaceship hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet. They thought they had to commit suicide in order to be “transported” to the spaceship and escape this world. It amazes me that anyone in this day and time would believe something so outlandish. What amazes me more is that someone was able to convince them to believe in that. I wonder what kind of person could do that.
I also never cease to be amazed at what people insist is necessary to “faith.” For many people in our culture, in order to be a Christian you have to believe in the existence of Satan and a “literal, burning hell.” Funny, I always thought that the essence of Christian faith is believing in Jesus! I realize that what many of those folks are saying is that if you are willing to believe in the existence of Satan, then you probably take the Bible seriously. But I have a real problem saying I “believe in” Satan or I “believe in” hell. I “believe in” God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his son our lord; and I believe in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life, and in the good news of the new creation. I don’t “believe in” sin and death, violence and evil, Satan and hell. Those things may or may not be “real”, but I refuse to “believe in” them!
In our Gospel lesson for today, we find one of the encounters in which Jesus heals a person who is suffering. The interesting thing about these healings in the Gospels is that when Jesus heals someone, usually with just a simple word and not all the falderal other “healers” used, he insisted that it was their own faith that did it! He said to them, “your faith has made you well.” But the way he said it could also be translated, “your faith has saved you” (cf. Eph. 2:8!). The faith that healed them and the faith that saved them was one and the same. I think to some extent, the reason his did “double duty” was because it was faith in Jesus, the one who really and truly shows us what God is like. And who shows us that God really and truly understands what it is like to be fully human. And who shows us that God has fully entered our experience and has done all that needs to be done to really and truly redeem us all. When they put their faith in Jesus, that’s who they were believing in, whether they were aware of it or not.
Not everybody put their faith in Jesus, to be sure. The religious leaders of his day whose self-serving hypocrisy he exposed didn’t. They saw him for the threat to their position that he was. And the wealthy aristocrats who were oppressing the common people by gobbling up all the land into vast estates didn’t trust him. They saw him for the threat to their prestige that he was.
But the common people seemed to flock to him. They came to him in throngs, and they rejoiced over his message of righting the wrongs, comforting the suffering, delivering the oppressed, and proclaiming the nearness of God. I think there is a built-in appeal to that message, especially for people who are down-trodden. But I also wonder what it was about his person that inspired their faith and trust. Think about the people you trust. I mean really, really trust. We all have friends we trust so much that we will tell them our deepest, darkest secrets. Why do we do that? Because we believe they will not betray our trust. Many of us share our lives with another human being—something that’s not always easy or fun to do! Why do we do that? Because there is something about them that makes it hard for us to imagine life without them.
So what was it about Jesus that inspired the kind of faith and trust that had a healing and saving quality to it? What was this poor, blind beggar’s faith in? Perhaps he had faith that “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all” (Ps. 34:19). In that sense, perhaps his faith in Jesus was really faith in God. Did he know enough to understand that Jesus was the one uniquely chosen by God to serve as the agent of salvation for God’s people Israel, and through them for all the families of the earth? I doubt it. Did he have the faith that somehow Jesus incarnated God, and therefore represented God to us all? I doubt that too.[2]
So what was it about Jesus that called forth this man’s faith?[3] Well, for one thing, he didn’t rebuke the man and try to silence him like the crowds (and possibly some of the disciples?) did. It seems that Jesus was well known for being “approachable.” So I think he must have put his faith Jesus’ reputation for compassion and mercy.[4] And I think Jesus’ reputation as one committed to the justice of God which showed in that compassion and in his own personal integrity would also inspire faith. And I think Jesus’ vision must have been a part of it—the “kingdom of God” which represents the culmination of all God’s efforts at redeeming this world and all life in it. It’s a vision that inspires hope and joy in the midst of a life that can feel very hopeless and joyless. For this poor blind man on the road from Jericho, Jesus represented his one chance for new life. I think anyone who puts their faith in Jesus to that extent cannot help but experience healing and salvation!
But I think there must have been more to it. For one thing, it’s my impression that most truly “holy” men and women have a certain spiritual presence to them.[5] When you are with them, you sense the presence of God in a way you don’t sense at other times. You see God and you see yourself in a clearer light. To some extent I think Jesus own faith in God must have played a part.[6] When you read the Gospels for indications of Jesus’ own faith, you find one who was absolutely committed to God’s will and God’s way, one who when people came to exalt him pointed them humbly back to God, one who so entrusted himself to God that he was willing to lay down even his very life. [7] I think to some degree Jesus’ own faith in God was what inspired the faith of the blind beggar named Bartimaeus, and it continues to inspire our faith today. Like many people, we place our faith in Jesus because he embodied the message of mercy and justice in real life. But I think even more so we put our faith in Jesus because his very presence puts us in touch with the love and the hope and the joy and the life that is at the heart of all things, and therefore calls forth the best within us. We place our faith in Jesus because through him we experience the one thing that is truly necessary—a genuine encounter with God.[8]

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/25/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Contrast Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.2:235-242, where he presents a more positive view of the content of their faith in Jesus.
[3] Cf. Hendrikus Berkhof, The Christian Faith, 284: faith “rests on and is justified by the totality of the image which the person and life of Jesus evoke.” Cf. Emil Brunner, The Mediator, 341: “The Son of God in whom we are able to believe must be such a one that it is possible to mistake him for an ordinary man.” Cf. also J. A. T. Robinson, The Human Face of God, 229: “The Christ is God with a human face.” Cf. further Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, 133, 163, 380, 443, esp. 449-450, where he describes what it means that Jesus was “true man.”
[4] Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Outline for a Book,” in Letters and Papers from Prison, 382, where he refers to Jesus as “the man for others.” Cf. also Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ the Center , 47-48, 62; Berkhof, Christian Faith, 300-302
[5] Cf. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 328: “From Jesus, the Son of God, who is the new man, a wind begins to glow in our life,” the “wind” of the Spirit; cf. also 331: “The Spirit is the name for God himself in his activity among us.” Cf. also Berkhof, Christian Faith, 312-322, where he expresses this idea of God’s “presence” in terms of biblical language of resurrection, glorification, and exaltation to the right hand of God. Cf. also Robinson, Human Face, 123.
[6] Cf. Gerhard Ebeling, “Jesus and Faith,” in Word and Faith, 201-246; cf.also Berkhof, Christian Faith, 286-88.
[7] Cf. Declaration of Faith, 1978 PCUS; adopted by PCUSA in 1991: “Jesus lived with a constant sense of his Father’s presence. He put God’s claim on his life above all else.” Cf. Robinson, Human Face, 189; Küng, On Being a Christian, 443: “it can be said that he, in whom word and deed, teaching and life, being and action, completely coincide, is the embodiment of God’s word and will: God’s word and will in human form.”
[8] Cf. Karl Barth, Word of God and Word of Man, 76, where he asks what it was that drew the men and women of the Bible “out and on to the edge of all experience, thought, and action, to the edge of time and history, and impels them to attempt to leap off into the air, where obviously no [one] can stand.” His answer is their encounter with God