Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Save Forever
Heb. 5:1-10; Mk. 10:35-45[1]
I think it’s fair to say that one of the major factors shaping our culture is advertising. What you may not realize is that it’s actually not a recent development. Formal advertising began with the advent of printing. The first ads appeared in European newspapers in the 17th and 18th Centuries. “Advertising” as a separate business really came into its own in the 1920’s. Ever since that day, and certainly since the radio and television era began, “marketing” has been a primary element in sales, and to some extent in business. With the “decline” of many churches, I guess it should be no surprise that we have turned to marketing to rescue us. But the problem with marketing is that you have to promise more than you can deliver in order to get anybody to listen. Think about it—does “new and improved” really mean anything anymore? How much attention do you really pay to commercials? Most people recognize that they’re a “necessary evil,” but if you have a DVR, you simply fast-forward through them. In other words, we have learned to ignore marketing, because it usually means nothing.
Some years ago, major magazines began to study the phenomenon they called “marketing Jesus.” It seems to me putting it that way sets in stark relief the incompatibility between marketing and the Christian faith. Think of it—do we really believe we have to “market” Jesus? How about marketing “grace”? Or let’s get downright ludicrous: how would you go about “selling” eternal life? It seems to me the questions answer themselves. And yet the church marketing business goes on cranking out ads for everything from “our handsome young pastor and his beautiful wife” to “we have more services to offer you and your children” to “we have the biggest cross in town”! I guess I would have to say that if we really think we have to “sell” salvation, we’ve lost the essence of what it means!
I think our discussion of the incarnation might help us here as well. You see, in the New Testament the idea that Jesus incarnated God not only means that Jesus really and truly shows us what God is like. And it not only means Jesus shows us that God really and truly understands what it is like to be fully human. The incarnation also means that by fully entering our reality and fully sharing our humanity, God has done all that needs to be done to really and truly redeem us all. Jesus said it this way: “Son of Man came not to serve but to be served and to give his life as a ransom for the many” (Mk 10:45). “A ransom for the many” is an allusion to Isaiah 53, and there “the many” basically means “everybody.” The book of Hebrews puts it this way: through what he suffered, Jesus has become the source of “eternal salvation.” (Heb. 5:9)
The incarnation is not only about who God is, it’s also about what God is doing—God is in the process of restoring all things. Throughout the ages many have raised questions about the incarnation. One question they’ve asked is, “Why go to all this trouble?” Some might wonder why God doesn’t just give us the information and let us pull ourselves out of our own mess. And the answer is that a restoration of this magnitude is something only God can accomplish.[2] We cannot do it for ourselves. Others have asked why would go to all the trouble of fully entering and sharing our experience. Why not just “say the word” and make everything right again? Because that’s the only way to actually restore our experience of human life—all of it.[3] It can only be restored from within—by God entering it and pouring out the love that can change us all. The good news of the Gospel is that Jesus did just that—he went into the abyss of human suffering in order to redeem all of us who have been trapped there.[4][5] There is no depth of suffering in human experience that Jesus did not reach. And the profound love he poured out for us all at the cross changes everything!
But there is another dimension to this. Jesus also restores all human life by pouring new life into it. Through his life and death—and the resurrection that follows it, Jesus also effectively “plants” the “new life” of the resurrection in this world.[6] In one of his parables, Jesus compared the new life of the Kingdom implanted in this world to mustard seed. If you’ve ever worked any property, you know that mustard is a weed that people try to get rid of, but it spreads like crazy. It’s ineradicable. That’s the kind of new life Jesus has implanted in this world. It spreads like Kudzu! And this new life is not merely a return to its original state, but rather it is a transformation of life that points to a completely new creation.[7] The new life Jesus “implanted” in this world changes everything.
Throughout the ages, scholars have debated these matters, while people from all walks of life have doubted them. When the book of Hebrews talks about sacrifices and cleansing, and scholars talk about propitiation and expiation, I don’t think that really does much for most of us these days. [8] What we need is the strength to change our lives that comes from being truly loved. And what we need is the courage that comes from having faith and hope that there is something more to this life than just the endless return of “the way things are.” In Jesus, God acts to give us those gifts. In Jesus, God pours out a love that is able to change even the most stubborn sinner! In Jesus, God injects life into this world that can create in even the most confirmed skeptic the faith and the hope that there truly is something to live for. Faith, hope and love—St. Paul says that they abide when everything else fails. Maybe that’s one reason why the Scripture says Jesus can “save forever” those who trust in him.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/18/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Jürgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today’s World, 41: “In the Bible it is always God himself who ‘carries’ the people’s sins, and in this way brings about reconciliation. God himself is the atoning God.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 178.
[3] Moltmann, The Crucified God, 185, says that it was “Through his suffering and death” that “the risen Christ brings righteousness and life to the unrighteous and the dying.”
[4] cf. Study Catechism, q. 45; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 91.
[5] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 95 Moltmann, Crucified God, 246, 277.
[6] Moltmann, Crucified God, 180-86, argues that “the cross of the risen Christ points not to an expiatory sacrifice but to the anticipation of the coming reign of God and indeed in some respects “the incarnation of the coming God in our flesh.” Cf. also pp. 168-71, 175-76.
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 188-89; cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV. 1:13, 110.
[8] Cf. Tom Long, “Bold in the Presence of God: Atonement in Hebrews,” Interpretation 52 (Jan, 1998): 55: the book of Hebrews was addressing people “worn down by a religion that does not seem to heal; fatigued by the burdens of a conscience that will not be cleansed; exhausted by a Jesus who appears unable to help.” In addition, they needed “the gift of the peace of God, the inner conviction, … that one’s life has meaning, purpose, and divine validation.” (p. 59).

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