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.”