Thursday, April 02, 2009

Eyes That See[1]

Isa. 62:1-12; Gal. 4:4-7; Lk 2:22-40

Our eyes are amazing organs. When you look at a painting by Claude Monet, it seems that you can see an infinite variety of colors—some you never thought existed! When you look at a photograph by Ansel Adams, you see details that could never imagine. Our eyes enable us to see the beauty of nature, the love of a human being, and the miracle of a little child. But our eyes can also “play tricks” on us. How many times have you turned your house upside down looking for a key or a phone or a remote control, only to find that it was right where it was supposed to be all along; you overlooked it half a dozen times because, for whatever reason, you simply didn’t see it.

In our Gospel lesson, Simeon saw the infant Jesus and burst into a Psalm of praise to God. The reason was that he believed he had seen the Lord’s salvation! What did Simeon see that made him respond the way he did? It must have been a very common sight in that day—new parents bringing a child to the Temple to “present” him or her to the Lord. There wasn’t anything special about this family in terms of outward appearance. We know that they were poor because instead of bringing the customary lamb to sacrifice, they brought a dove. So what was it about this particular family that made Simeon conclude that “my eyes have seen your salvation”?

Perhaps we find a clue in that Luke tells us that Simeon was a deeply spiritual person. He says that the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would see “the Lord’s Messiah” before he died (Lk. 2:26). Luke also says that “the Holy Spirit rested” on Simeon (Lk. 2:25), suggesting that he was someone specially gifted by God. Furthermore, Luke tells us that Simeon came to the Temple that day “guided by the Spirit” (Lk. 2:27). All in all, it would seem that Simeon was a pretty spiritual guy. Not religious, mind you; that was for the people who liked to show off their own importance. Rather, Simeon was spiritual.

But perhaps we’re “overlooking” the obvious answer to the question. Maybe Simeon recognized the baby Jesus as the Lord’s salvation because he was looking for him. Notice that Luke also says that Simeon was “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (Lk. 2:25; cf. Isaiah 62:1-12).[2] Is it too obvious to say that Simeon believed he had seen God’s salvation when he met Jesus and Joseph and Mary because he was expecting to see it?

Perhaps this was just a case of Simeon simply seeing something because he wanted to. The other side of how easy it is to miss seeing something right in front of us is that it is just as easy to see what we want to, simply because we want to see it. I guess we could walk away from the story of Simeon at the Temple and say he was just a crazy old fool who convinced himself he had seen something just because he wanted to see it so badly.

In fact, you can pretty much take that approach with just about every aspect of our faith.[3] This is particularly true of the individual dimension of faith. A spiritual conversion experience could be explained as a psychological or emotional phenomenon. What one person sees as the miraculous work of God, another might chalk up to brain chemistry.

The same goes for every other dimension of our faith—from the church, to our beliefs about Jesus, to our views on God. You can choose to view them simply based on appearances. In that case, there’s really nothing about the church that would make you believe that there is a God, let alone that God is at work bringing salvation to us all.

So what would make someone look at the very understated, contradictory, ambiguous reality of the Christian faith and choose to believe that it’s a reflection of the truth? For me, at the end of the day, it’s because in the depth of my being, in my heart and soul, in that place where all pretense is stripped away and it’s only me and reality, the hope and faith that there is a God who loves us all, who is working to restore and renew everything and everyone, simply rings true.[4] I know it like I know that my wife and kids love me. And with that in mind, everything makes sense; without it nothing makes sense.

The reality that we call salvation is one that is amazingly inconspicuous; it does not push it’s way to the front and demand our attention. You can easily miss it if you’re not looking for it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Jesus called it the “Kingdom of God.” When we think of a “kingdom,” we normally think of something powerful, large—something obvious. But Jesus spoke of a different kingdom, one that grows without anyone knowing how.[5]

The point is that God’s work in this world is not obvious. At times it may even be downright invisible. At times it is all to easy to find ourselves caught up in the torrent of turmoil that rushes through our lives and find it impossible to believe that God is doing anything in this corrupt world. But that’s when we need to find the faith to see past the obvious. That’s when we need to remind ourselves that the “salvation of God” is not found in the spectacular buildings or lavish performances of the mega-churches. At least not in the Kingdom Jesus preached. He preached a kingdom that was unlikely, easy to doubt, hidden, and vulnerable. Yes, this makes it harder for us. It means we have to have eyes that see, just like Simeon did.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/28/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX .

[2] Cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, 421-22, 427; cf. also Brevard Childs, Isaiah, 511.

[3] Cf. Richard B. Hays, “Salvation by Trust,” The Christian Century (Feb 26, 1997): 218-223.

[4] Keith Ward, God: A Guide for the Perplexed, 204, speaks of faith in terms of “passionate inwardness coupled with objective uncertainty”; cf. also ibid., 185, 190, 194-95, 197-98, 209-216; cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 33: faith always “needs to be sustained from moment to moment, from decision to decision, by the renewal, reinvention, and repetition of faith”; cf. also ibid., 8, 7-16, 19, 23-34, 53; see further Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember, 29-30.

[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 98: the kingdom of God “is a controversial rule, veiled in antagonism.”

God Comes to Effect Mercy[1]

Ps 89:1-14, Lk 1:46b-55

The theme of our celebration of Advent this year is the promise that God is coming. We’ve seen that the “Good News According to Isaiah” is that God is the one who is always coming to us; approaching us, moving toward us.[2] We’ve seen that God comes to bring comfort, to fulfill the promises that stand forever, promises of peace and joy and life and love. We’ve heard that God comes to set things right so that all people can thrive, along with all creation.

This week we shift gears a little, but not much. Instead of the gospel of Isaiah, we have a word from the “Good News According to Mary.” Mary’s “Magnificat” is a beatitude toward the God who comes to restore the people and fufill the promises.[3] And the operative word in this particular hymn to God’ s coming is mercy. Mary’s hope and faith is that God comes to effect mercy. To some extent, that would mean a “reversal” in which the “first will be last and the last first.” The way Mary puts it is like this: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty (Lk. 1:52-53). That might not seem very merciful—especially to the “powerful” and the “rich.”

Once again, as with some of the other significant terms we’ve looked at, I’m not sure we really get the meaning of the word “mercy.” When we think of “mercy,” I think the image of Florence Nightingale or Mother Teresa comes to mind. Now, of course, the care of those who are suffering is part of what the word “mercy” signifies—but that’s not all. In the Hebrew Bible, “mercy” represents one of the essential qualities of God’s character. The word in Hebrew (ḥesed) is often translated “steadfast love.” The primary idea is that God’s “mercy” means that God loves us with a love that will not let us go.[4] Of course, along with this goes what we have already learned about the image of God in the Hebrew Bible: God is faithful—which means that God never gives up on relationships; God is righteous—which means that God works to make everything and everyone right again; God is just—which means that God promotes the well-being of all life. All of this is wrapped up in the idea that God’s essential character is defined by “mercy” or “steadfast love.” God never quits loving any of us this way.[5]

I’ve said before that this is the way God is described time and time again throughout the Bible: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exod. 34:6-7).

On the surface, this might seem to suggest that God’s steadfast love depends upon how well God’s people maintaining the covenant relationship by obeying the commands. That’s the way Mary puts it: “God’s mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (Lk. 1:50). But that’s not the way it happens. At the very outset of the covenant, on Mt. Sinai, God enters a relationship with the very ones who had promised to obey all of God’s commands but who immediately worshipped the golden calf and sank to the depths of debauchery. Those are the people to whom God acted from the very beginning as a merciful and gracious God, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.[6] I don’t think it’s a coincidence that while God’s “judgment” extends to the third and the fourth generations, God’s “steadfast love” continues for a thousand generations!

In fact, as Psalm 89 shows, it’s impossible for the Psalmist even to think of God without God’s faithfulness and steadfast love (Ps. 89:1-2, 14).[7] They surround God. They go before God. They define God’s very being. The promises of steadfast love and faithfulness are the very essence of God’s identity. For God to fail to carry out these promises would be for God to fail to be God.

And if you pay attention to the Scripture, you’ll find that never changes. Whether it’s disobedient Israel or godless, ruthless Nineveh, God’s steadfast love prevails. God reaches out to those who promise to obey but who disobey instead. God forgives those who seem to have no interest in God in the first place. God loves those who are hostile toward God—yes, even toward enemies. That’s the nature of God’s love. And God loves us like this without any reference to how well we love God in return.

That’s what was so scandalous about Jesus. Like Isaiah, Jesus proclaimed the coming of the God of faithfulness, righteousness, justice and mercy, the God who loves us all with a love that never lets us go. Like Mary, Jesus declared that God was coming to effect mercy—meaning that God was coming to establish life on this planet along the lines of God’s love for all people and all things.

As you know, I was a Baptist minister before I found my way to my Presbyterian home. I must say I found it quite difficult in the former days to get very excited about the “good news” that everybody like me was “going to heaven” while the others were going to be “left behind.” But when I discovered the real “good news” of the Scriptures, I found it hard to contain my enthusiasm. That good news is what we celebrate this Advent—that God is the one who is always coming to us; God comes to bring comfort, fulfilling the promises of peace and joy and life and love; God comes to set things right so that all people can thrive, along with all creation; and God comes to establish life in keeping with God’s love for all people and all things.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/21/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 9-17.

[3] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, 358-62, calls attention to the fact that the specifics of the Magnificat reflect a general tenor of praise for God’s deliverance on behalf of the “humble” that may be found in various other Psalms of praise, including the “Song of Hannah” in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 and the canonical Psalms.

[4] Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 128; cf. James L. Mays, Psalms 328, 420.

[5] Cf. Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments, 373-74.

[6] Katharine Doob Sakenfield, “Love (OT),” Anchor Bible Dictionary, IV:378-79; cf. also Brevard Childs, The Book of Exodus, 612: “The God who now makes himself known through his name as the God of mercy and judgment makes good his claim by forgiving his sinful people.”

[7] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 284-85; cf. also, ibid., 33.

God Comes to Set Things Right[1]

Isa 61:1-11

The theme of our celebration of Advent this year is the promise that God is coming. In our text for this week, the prophet Isaiah reminds us that God comes to bring righteousness and justice. At first glance, we might not see that as good news. We tend to miss the Bible’s very robust message about righteousness and justice. For us righteousness is something abstract—something that has to do with God’s holiness or with human “saintly” character. We think of justice in terms of judgment, which means punishment and condemnation.

But the Bible has a very different idea of righteousness and justice. Righteousness is what makes it possible for all people to thrive. Justice is what creates the conditions for righteousness.[2] In the Bible, God’s “righteousness” is what “sets right” everything and everyone.[3] God’s justice is the compassion and kindness that creates the conditions in which all people can thrive, especially the most vulnerable.[4] In essence, when the prophet Isaiah proclaimed the good news that God was coming to bring righteousness and justice, what he was looking forward to was God’s coming to set right everything that has gone wrong.

To some extent, God’s coming to bring righteousness and justice involves an element of “judgment.” But it is not what we normally understand as “judgment”; it is not punishment or condemnation. Rather, the judgment involved in God’s coming to establish righteousness and justice is more like a kind of cleansing. We might envision judgment as “preparing the way for the Lord,” as making straight what is crooked in order that it may be redeemed, as purging everything that stands in the way of God’s righteousness and justice.[5]

But God’s justice has always been and always will be a justice of compassion and mercy, and so it also always involves restoration.[6] The prophets looked forward to God’s coming to bring restoration to God’s people, especially the faithful remnant.[7] But that was not something intended just for them; ultimately it was to bring restoration to all humankind.[8]

I think our misunderstanding of this fundamental aspect of the Bible’s message is the reason why we cannot understand why anyone would rejoice over God’s coming to “judge” the earth, as the Psalms for this time of year put it.[9] “Joy to the World” because God is coming to judge us all just doesn’t quite work for us. But God’s coming to judge has nothing to do with punishment or condemnation; it means that God is coming to establish true justice, God’s compassionate justice that restores the helpless and the hopeless and the hurting.[10]

I think this is also why we cannot fathom what Jesus was talking about when he defined the good news in terms of “the kingdom of God is at hand”! Here again, we have problems with the concept of a “kingdom.” God’s kingdom has nothing to do with what we normally associate with a “king”— the abuse of power and the denial of basic human rights.[11] God’s “kingdom” refers to the idea that when God comes, the whole world will follow God’s compassionate justice so that everyone may enjoy life the way it was intended to be.[12] And so another way of praying “Thy kingdom Come,” is to say “The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world.”[13] God’s kingdom is a “commonwealth of peace and freedom.”

What does God’s kingdom look like? It looks like righteousness—the “rightness that makes for life and shalom[14]—springing up from the ground as naturally as wildflowers on the side of the road. What does God’s righteousness look like? It looks like compassionate justice setting everything right. What does God’s justice look like? According to Isaiah it looks like good news to the oppressed, healing for the afflicted, freedom for the captive, comfort for those who mourn.[15]

That’s why Jesus could proclaim “the kingdom of God is at hand” as good news. But the kingdom of God is also something that remains to be seen. And that’s also good news. When the kingdom of God comes in its fullness, it means peace and righteousness, the conditions that make life thrive for all people and all creation.[16] It means the end of violence and death and disease and suffering and sickness and oppression and injustice.[17] It means life that is full and everlasting;[18] it means unimaginable joy for all people and all creation.[19]

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/14/08 at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2]James L. Mays, Psalms, 311, “Righteousness is the rightness that makes for life and shalom; justice is found in decisions and actions according to righteousness,” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 121: “God’s justice and righteousness brings shalom to both his people and land.”

[3] Cf. Romans 1:16-17; 3:21-26; 4:25; 8:3; 2 Corinthians 5:21.

[4] See Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:10, 33; 23:22; 24:22; Numbers 15:29; Deuteronomy 1:16; 24:17, 19, 21; 27:19; Jeremiah 7:6; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:7, 29; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5.

[5] Cf. Christopher R. Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, 192; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, 243-44, 255.

[6] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.1:375-84: “According to the witness of the Old and New Testaments, the love and grace and mercy of God, …, are the demonstration and exercise of the righteousness of God” (384); cf. also Moltmann, Coming, 250

[7] Cf. Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 367, where he points out that “vengeance” in Isa. 61:2 refers to restoration; cf. The Inclusive Translation, “day of vindication.” See also Isaiah 10:20–27; see also Jeremiah 30:1–9; Micah 5:7–15; Zechariah 8:1–8; 12:1–13:6; 14:1–21.

[8] Isaiah 2:2-4; 25:6–10; 45:20-25; 52:7–10; 66:18, 23; see also Micah 4:1-3; Jeremiah 3:17; 16:19.

[9] Cf. Ps. 96:11-13; 98:4-9.

[10] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 139: “God cares about justice because the God of the Bible cares about suffering.”

[11] According to Jürgen Moltmann, Christ as “king” it represents “the most radical reversal of the ideal of rule that can be conceived. Cf. The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 102.

[12] Cf. Shirley C. Guthrie, “The Way, the Truth, and the Life,” Presbyterian Outlook (Feb. 11, 2002); at

[13] From a version of the Lord’s Prayer in "Night Prayer" section of the New Zealand Prayer Book.

[14] Mays, Psalms, 311.

[15] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 224 describes the centrality of Isa. 61 to the biblical message by saying that it “summarizes the heart of the Yahwistic vision of redemption.” Cf. also R. David Kaylor, Jesus the Prophet , 104: “Jesus addressed the poor, the hungry, the discouraged, and the persecuted with the message that God is on their side, supporting them in their struggle, and that God’s just will focuses on their relief.”

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

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

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

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

God Comes to Comfort[1]

Isa 40:1-11

The central theme of Advent is the promise that God is coming. For some of us, that’s very good news; for others, not so much. Some people these days are positively terrified of the prospect of God coming! They are obsessed with end-times speculations, fixated on images of the sun darkened and the moon turned to blood.[2] In their minds, God’s coming can only mean one thing: God comes with fire and brimstone to destroy everything and to severely punish all who don’t “measure up.” From this point of view, God’s coming means weeping and gnashing of teeth, being cast into outer darkness; it means being tormented in unquenchable flame.

While those images can be found in scripture, I submit that they are not the heart of the Bible’s message. What the Bible says to us about God’s coming is that God comes to save, God comes to restore and renew, God comes to comfort.[3] This was Isaiah’s message of hope. Isaiah promised peace to those who are near and peace to those who are far away. But Isaiah was not like the false prophets of an earlier day who promised peace to a disobedient people who had not yet experienced God’s “severe mercy.”[4] What made Isaiah’s message different was the context in which it was delivered: He was speaking to a people who had lost pretty much everything that defined their lives—homes and land, family and identity, even to some extent their religion.[5] After they had been forced into exile in Babylon, I think many of those whom Isaiah addressed could very well believe that all hope was gone, that their life was like dried up grass or withered flowers—it was gone for good, never to return.[6]

At the outset of this encounter with God, it would seem that Isaiah shares this hopeless opinion: the grass withers and the flower fades. What good news could he possibly proclaim to a people who were dried up like grass? But the “word of the Lord” that came to Isaiah was this: the “word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8). It might seem like a strange comfort—what “word” could possibly make a difference to a people enduring complete and total ruin? It would seem the point is that the message of judgment that Isaiah had delivered to a people complacent in their self-made comforts was not the only “word” that came from the Lord. In the midst of warnings of judgment, there were also promises of restoration—a promise of the end of violence and warfare (Isa. 2:4), of the end of suffering and oppression (Isa. 25:8); a promise of a rich feast set for all peoples (Isa. 25:6), of God coming to set right everything that has gone wrong (Isa. 28:5-6) and to restore and heal those who are weak and injured (Isa. 35:3-6).[7]

The “Good News According to the Prophet Isaiah” is that God comes not to destroy and punish, but to restore creation to the way it was meant to be. God comes to renew humankind, along with all nature. God comes to set right everything that is wrong. That’s why Isaiah could speak of God’s coming like a shepherd who gently carries the lambs who are either too weak to make it back to safety or who perhaps have been injured (Isa. 40:11).

And throughout Isaiah’s message, one of the central themes is that “the word of our God will stand forever.” Some may use this to bolster faith in a book or to give a stamp of finality to whatever agenda they happen to be promoting this year. But in the context of Isaiah’s prophetic preaching, the affirmation that “the word of our God will stand forever” is a declaration that God will not leave the promises of salvation, restoration, and renewal unfulfilled.[8] In another passage, Isaiah puts it this way: “as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace” (Isa. 55:10-12). The prophet declared in the name of the Lord that “the word of God” does not return empty, but accomplishes what it was intended for—to bring joy and peace.

That’s why Jesus proclaimed that God’s coming was “good news” (Mark 1:14-15). Jesus also believed that God’s coming didn’t mean destruction and punishment, but rather restoration and healing and renewal (Matt. 11:5). Jesus believed that God’s coming would bring “rest” to those who are “weary and carrying heavy burdens” (Matt. 11:28-29). Jesus believed that God was coming to bring joy and peace to all people—that “all people” would see the “glory of the Lord” (Isa. 40:5), they would experience God’s saving presence and merciful restoration, and everlasting love.[9]

The promise that God comes is not one that we should fear. Rather, like our Savior we can trust that our God comes to bring comfort, that our God comes to fulfill the promises that stand forever, promises of peace and joy and life and love.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/7/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Joel 2:20, 31; Acts 2:20; Rev. 6:12; cf. Isa. 13:10; Mark 13:24.

[3] Paul Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 6.

[4] Hanson, 19-20.

[5] Hanson, 13-14; cf. also James Limburg, “An Exposition of Isaiah 40:1-11,” Interpretation 29 (October, 1975): 406-411.

[6] Hanson, 23; cf. Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 41.

[7] Brevard Childs, Isaiah, 298-301.

[8] Hanson, 10; cf. Westermann, 36-37, 42-43.

[9] Hanson, 8, 22; cf. Westermann, 39; Childs, 299.

God is Coming[1]

Isa 64:1-12

Belief in God comes in many shapes and sizes. I guess it always has. One of the most prevalent versions of “belief” in God is the one that looks for some obvious evidence of God’s reality, some tangible assurance of God’s presence. It’s the version of “belief” in God that Job’s three friends promoted—if God is present and pleased with us, then God will bless us with all good things. Of course, that’s all well and good as long as everything’s going our way. But if we run into hard times or experience loss or failure in any way, then that means that God is not pleased with us and has abandoned us!

It’s a view of God that reminds me of magic—or perhaps the Genie in Aladdin’s lamp! Good times, success, and prosperity mean that God is pleased with us and therefore is present and is blessing us. Hard times, disappointment, or tragedy mean that God is displeased with us and has abandoned us—or even worse, that God is punishing us.

Our text from the prophet Isaiah seems to sustain that version of “belief” in God. Like other prophets and psalmists, Isaiah seems to be giving voice to questions the Jewish people felt as a result of their experience in exile. Their time in exile led them to question God’s faithfulness, God’s presence, and God’s love for them. And yet, the central concept to their faith in God was that God loved them with a love that would never let them go. So their experience of defeat at the hand of their enemies and exile to a place far away from home created what we might call “cognitive dissonance.” They couldn’t see how it was possible that God would ever stop loving them, but they couldn’t understand their experience of exile in any other way than that God had abandoned them.[2]

And so Isaiah expresses the deep yearning of a people longing for God to come down from the heavens and once again demonstrate God’s powerful presence, as God had done in the days of the Exodus. Yet, I submit to you that is not an expression of faith, but one of anxiety.[3] The desire for some obvious proof or some tangible evidence is the opposite of faith. What’s more, it is not the usual pattern for the God of the Bible to provide such concrete demonstrations of God’s reality and presence. God is much more “hidden,” much more quiet. But that never means that God is absent.

In fact, the reason why I would say that the cry for God to “come down” and be revealed is the opposite of faith is because it misses one of the central truths of our faith: “he will never forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6, 8; cf. Psalm 37:28; 94:14; Isaiah 41:17; 42:16). It’s the central truth about the God of the Bible: God is the one who is completely faithful.[4] It’s the “revelation” that came to Moses in the cleft of the rock: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7). That refrain echoes again and again throughout the Psalms and prophets. One of the psalmists puts it this way: “All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps. 25:10).

This is not a hypothetical premise; it’s not just wishful thinking or some elaborate means of avoiding the hard truths of life. The conviction of God’s faithfulness emerges from the experience of God’s steadfast love in the midst of all the changes of life.[5] It’s a conviction based on the experience that God never gives up on relationships, that God continually works to make everything and everyone right again.

As Paul reminds us, God is the one who is faithful. God always has been faithful, and God always will be faithful. As Paul tells us, God is faithful to see us through to the final end—whatever that may look like. Jesus reminds us that we do not know and we cannot know exactly what that end will look like. The Bible gives us some clues: promises like “I will wipe away every tear” (Isa. 25:8; Rev. 21:4), and “they will all know me, from the greatest to the least” (Jer. 31:34), and “they will beat their swords into ploughshares” (Isa. 2:4), and “I am making the whole of creation new” (Rev. 21:5). What we can know is this: God “will never fail you nor forsake you.”

The season of advent is a time for us to remember what God has done, and what God has not yet done. It is a time of waiting—not the mad rush toward “Christmas” in our society. Advent is a time to remind ourselves that we are always waiting for God to come. Yet in the OT, the term “wait” is a word of faith. To “wait” for the Lord refers over and over again to trusting God’s steadfast and faithful love.[6]

This time of waiting during advent is when we learn that God is faithful. That’s when we learn that God is the coming one—God is the one who is always coming to us; approaching us, moving toward us, drawing us; God is always “coming.” No matter what happens in this life, we can remember that God is never farther away from us than a father teaching a toddler to walk (Hosea 11:3), or a mother gently nursing an infant (Isaiah 49:15). God is always as close to us as the air we are breathing.[7] Wherever we are, God is there, loving us, nurturing us, drawing us into the joy of God’s life and love.[8] Wherever we go, whatever may befall us, God will never forsake us.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/30/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] cf. Psalms 44, 89. See also Brevard Childs, Isaiah, 525: Israel “has been isolated to such an extent as to question whether in truth it ever was under God’s care and sovereignty.”

[3] Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 398 points to the questions in Isaiah 64:12 (“After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?”) as an example of their anxiety.

[4] 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).

[5] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 106, 117, 119.

[6] Ps. 27:14; 31:24; 37:7, 9; 62:1, 5; 130:5; James L. Mays, Psalms, 407 (on Ps. 130).

[7]Jürgen Moltmann Trinity and the Kingdom, 39, 104-5; Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 9; Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 161. See further, Paul Tillich, “Spiritual Presence,” in The Eternal Now, 86-87.

[8] Moltmann, God in Creation, 9-17.