Saturday, January 16, 2010

Over All the Earth

Over All the Earth
Isa. 43:1-7; Ps 29; Lk. 3:21-22[1]
If you’ve been around me any length of time, you’ve noticed that I open my sermons with the prayer, “Make us to know your ways.” I spent some time last year during Lent looking at what it means for us all to pray that prayer. You may have also noticed that I use another prayer in conjunction with my sermons. Like the opening prayer, the closing prayer I use is taken from the Psalms: “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let your glory be over all the earth” (Ps. 57:5, 11). I use that prayer for a very specific reason, one that is closely related to the celebration of Epiphany.
Now, I realize the season of Epiphany is probably one of the most overlooked observances in the Christian calendar, so I’m aware that just by mentioning the word “Epiphany” I risk losing you for the rest of the sermon. But “Epiphany” is an important concept in our faith, even though our use of the word usually means a realization that dawns on us fairly dramatically, or a disclosure that is potentially embarrassing. Neither of those ideas really gets at the meaning of Epiphany for our faith. The essence of our observance of Epiphany is the idea that in Jesus God’s intention to make all things new had its “big debut.”
Epiphany is about the unveiling of what Advent promises: that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Lk. 3:6); that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together” (Isaiah 40:5). Of course, that probably makes it about as clear as mud! To say that Epiphany is the season when we celebrate God’s glory revealed to all people runs a double risk of losing your attention. Talking about the “glory of God” with most people these days at best evokes a yawn and at worst a blank stare! So what in the world does it mean to celebrate God’s glory revealed over all the earth?
Let’s start with our lesson from the Psalms for today. Psalm 29 calls the “heavenly beings” to ascribe to God “glory and strength” (Ps. 29:1). I think this may point us toward our first clue. The idea that God’s glory is revealed over all the earth suggests that there will come a time when all people everywhere acknowledge God—as creator and sustainer, as redeemer and liberator, as the one who gives us all new life through God’s abiding presence.[2] It’s the vision that seems to have motivated St. Paul, who looked forward to the day when every tongue would confess “Jesus is Lord” to the glory of God (Phil. 2:10-11).
But that also points us to what I think may be our second clue as to what it means to celebrate God’s glory revealed over all the earth. There is a definite sense in which God’s glory is revealed when people experience and are transformed by God’s great redeeming works. Our lesson from Isaiah for today points us in this direction. The prophet Isaiah had warned the Jewish people that their arrogance and injustice would be their downfall. Into the devastation that engulfed the Jewish exiles in Babylon, the prophet of Isaiah 40-55 took up where his predecessor left off, and promised in the name of the Lord that after exile would come restoration. In our lesson for today, the prophet describes God’s redemptive work in terms of gathering the scattered Jewish people as a sign that their sins had been forgiven and they had been restored. In one verse, the prophet talks about God gathering “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory” (Isa. 43:7). Now in one sense, the point of that is that God would gather and restore the chosen Jewish people. But in another sense, in the context of the book of Isaiah as a whole, it points toward the restoration of all humanity,[3] for there are none who are not “called by God’s name” and “created for God’s glory”!
So the second dimension to celebrating God’s glory revealed over all the earth is the Good news that God intends to gather the “people created for God’s glory,” to renew and restore and liberate all people and all creation. It is the good news that in Jesus God has begun to fulfill what was God’s intention from the very beginning—that all people and indeed all creation might be filled with God’s love, God’s freedom, God’s joy, God’s life.[4]
The glory of God is finally revealed “over all the earth” not in some religious setting but in God’s dwelling with all people in such a way as to enable them all to experience all the freedom and joy and love that define God’s very being.[5] The good news of Epiphany is that in Jesus God has already turned loose that “glory,” that power of liberation, that new life. We may only see glimmers of it now, but for the now the glimmers are enough. One day we will all walk, run, skip, and dance into the full light of God’s new day. Until then, we continue to look forward to it and bear witness to it in joyful faith, praying, “Let your glory be over all the earth.”

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/10/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2]Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 197, for this description of the “economic Trinity,” or God’s character as revealed by God’s works.
[3] Cf. Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah, 326: he says that this promise is focused on Israel, but it extends to a “covenant relationship with the nations.” Cf. further ibid., 332, 335. Cf. also Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology II:243: “Second Isaiah’s” message in a nutshell is that God is coming not only to reveal himself to Israel but also to reveal his glory to the whole world. Cf. also ibid., 248-49.
[4] This is a theme in Jürgen Moltmann’s theology. He says that when the glory of God is revealed over all the earth, all humankind and all creation will be drawn into “the life stream of the triune God,” where they experience “boundless freedom, exuberant joy, and inexhaustible love,” which is what God intended for creation in the first place. See Moltmann, Trinity, 124, 126, 161, 178, 212, 222. Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 183-84; Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 145.
[5] Walter Brueggemann, “Expository Article: Luke 3:1-4,” Interpretation 30 (Oct 1976): 409

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Holding On for Life

Holding On for Life
Isa. 40:5; Ps 148; Lk. 3:6[1]
Over the course of the last few weeks we have learned that Advent is a time for waiting in anticipation. It is a time of looking for the fulfillment of the promised salvation. It is also a time to embrace the restoration and healing God has promised to the whole human family. During Advent, we have looked forward in hope to the day when “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Lk. 3:6) and “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together” (Isaiah 40:5). We have joyfully anticipated the coming of the Lord.
And now that we are in the full swing of Christmastime, at least according to the ecclesial calendar, we’re all celebrating the joy of the coming of the Lord—right? Probably not. Christmas has come and gone for most of us, even though it is only the “Third day of Christmas.” For most of us, this is a time not for celebrating the fulfillment of God’s promises in the birth of the Christ child, but rather a time for recovering from all the ways we’ve avoided the waiting of Advent. For most of us, it’s a time to return gifts that either don’t fit, or aren’t quite right, or that we simply don’t want. Then there’s the rush to take down all our decorations so that our household can “get back to normal.” For many of us, these days are the beginning the long, gray, dreary experience of January. It’s a time for riding out the winter weather until springtime comes around. Truth be told, we are now entering what is for most of us the least favorite time of year.
I think part of the problem may be that many of us build up our expectations of “Christmastime” so high that it is inevitable that we will be disappointed. And when we return to the dull routines of January, it’s no wonder that the joy and anticipation and celebration of Advent and Christmas have vanished into thin air. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, focusing our attention on what we long for but do not yet have can be a cause for discouragement—and it frequently is for many of us who struggle with faith. And yet the Prophets and the Apostles who looked for the coming of the Lord did so with great eagerness and excitement (cf. Isa. 40:5; 52:7-10; Phil. 4:4-7). In one of our lessons for today, the Psalmist looks forward to the coming of God’s peace and justice with enthusiasm that can hardly be contained (Psalm 148).
So how do we turn that act of waiting from discouragement into enthusiasm? I think it’s a matter of how you frame it. If you frame the “Day of the Lord” in terms of having to frantically avoid being “Left Behind,” then I doubt that it will generate much enthusiasm for you. But I think it’s a different thing altogether if you frame the Lord’s coming in terms of looking forward to the time when “I will wipe away every tear,” and “they will beat their swords into ploughshares,” and “I am making the whole of creation new.” That’s something to look forward to! I think we could actually get excited about that. I think we could even find joy in looking forward to the day when God comes to give peace and freedom to “all the families of the earth”—and ultimately all creation.[2] That’s why we pray, “Thy kingdom Come”; another way to say it is to pray, “Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.”[3]
One of the lessons our observance of the waiting and anticipation of Advent has to teach us is that Advent is not the only season for waiting. In a very real sense, the waiting and looking of Advent is a preparation for the life of faith. As I said a couple of weeks ago, the waiting and stillness of Advent 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. But God’s work in this world is not obvious; that’s why the life of faith means waiting in anticipation. Faith means looking for the coming of the Lord. Faith means hoping for the peace that overcomes all violence and the love that makes all our hatreds evaporate.
That is both the burden of faith and the blessing. It is a burden because we’ve already determined how much we all like to wait—NOT! But it is also a blessing, because just as the waiting of Advent helps refocus our attention in the midst of all the distractions of the way we “celebrate Christmas,” so in a very real sense the waiting of the life of faith re-focuses our sight so that all we see isn’t just the death and destruction in the world around us, or the injustice of the wealthy and powerful who oppress the powerless, or the crass and mindless consumption of the few who take an inordinate share and leave many millions in want. Faith enables us to look beyond all the despair and the seeming futility of life to “a future of justice, freedom, reconciliation and wholeness.”[4] It is the revealing of the Glory of God, as the Psalmist puts it. But the glory to be revealed “is not some religious epiphany” but rather “it is the power of liberation” that God has “turned loose in history” in the person of Jesus.[5] In a very real sense, what one contemporary prophet said about Advent applies to the life of faith as a whole: it’s a matter of “holding on for dear life to the reassurance that God intends to make the world right again.”[6]
It is not a vision that makes much sense in terms of the way things actually are. Talking about peace and freedom for all people makes about as much sense as talking of soldiers taking a break from war to celebrate Christmas together. But that’s exactly what happened in 1914, among a group of soldiers from Scotland, France, and Germany, facing each other in trenches only yards apart. The story was dramatized in the 2005 film, Joyeux Nöel. On Christmas Eve, those three groups of soldiers who were taught from early childhood to hate each other started singing Christmas carols together across the trenches. The officers called a truce for Christmas Day, and these three groups of warriors joined together for 24 hours, trading stories of home and families. And in the course of that day they came face-to-face with the reality that they really weren’t different from each other at all. And after truce expired, the troops had to be withdrawn because they no longer had the heart to kill their newly made friends.
That’s what we’re looking forward to—a world where hatred is erased and replaced with the bonds of friendship. A world where all people and all creation can thrive. A world where there is no more violence or death or suffering or oppression. A world where all people can enjoy a life that is full of unimaginable joy. That’s something to look forward to! That’s something to hold on to for dear life. That’s something that can inspire a lifetime of faith.

[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/27/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 121; James L. Mays, Psalms, 311.
[3] From a version of the Lord’s Prayer in "Night Prayer" section of the New Zealand Prayer Book.
[4] John C. Morris, “Anticipation,” The Christian Century (Nov. 22, 2000):1214.
[5] Walter Brueggemann, “Expository Article: Luke 3:1-4,” Interpretation 30 (Oct 1976): 409
[6] Joanna M. Adams, “Light the Candles,” The Christian Century (Nov. 28, 2006): 18