Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Crossing Over

Crossing Over
Gen 15:1-12, 17-18; Phil 3:17-4:1[1]
As I mentioned last week, the spiritual life is a pilgrimage for us all. I think we are all ultimately on the same journey, but our paths can lead us in very different directions. Some of us seem to make a beeline for God. For others, I think that the journey can be a very long one. For many people in this world, the spiritual path is difficult and painful. They seem to be on a path that will only let them believe what they can see. Unfortunately, when that is the case, people can find themselves locked in the despair “vicious circles” of shame and violence and death that seem to dominate this life.[2]
And yet many of those who are on this path seek to break out of the bondage of these vicious circles through individual effort—whether by seeking to achieve and build up, or by asserting the freedom to corrupt and tear down. In particular, it seems that our culture delights in what Paul could call “glorying in their shame” (Philippians 3:19). As a people, we have taken that phrase to new depths; we invent new ways to “glory in our shame.” But we don’t stop there—we seem to be “hell-bent” on spreading our degradation, humiliation, and shame throughout the human race. The end result of the path that only believes what can be seen is a picture of disgrace that is bleak and utterly devoid of hope.
As we consider the Scripture lesson from Genesis this week, I think it is impossible for us to fully appreciate the disgrace of barrenness in the world of Sarah and Abraham. They had set out on what must have seemed to their friends and family to be a “fool’s errand” based only on a promise from God. After many years had passed, God appears to Abraham to remind him of the promise, but it seems that the years have taken their toll on his faith. Abraham says, “Sovereign Lord, what good will your reward do me, since I have no children? (Genesis 15:2, TEV). To him it would seem that he and Sarah were stuck in what was to them a vicious circle of barrenness and mortality, which meant that they had no real future and therefore no real hope. In some way, however, God was able to break through Abraham’s fears and doubts and shame, and Abraham crossed over to faith.
I think the story of Abraham gives us an excellent example of the role of faith in our salvation. As we mentioned last week, Paul said that we must confess “Jesus is Lord” and “believe in our hearts” that God raised him from the dead. We talked about the first dimension last week. But why is it so important for us to have faith in order to experience God’s salvation? Well, I think at least part of the answer is that faith enables us to move out of the essential hopelessness of a world that believes only what it can see and that consists of the eternal return of the same thing.[3]
We don’t really know what happened to Abraham on that starry night that enabled him to take the step of faith. Did the sight of the beautiful night sky with its vast array of lights somehow reassure him that God “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17) and therefore that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:21)? [4] It’s hard to say for sure. But somehow, God was able to break through Abraham’s shame and doubt and fear and lead him to “trust God’s future” even in the midst of everything that contradicts it here and now.[5]
Essentially, God intrudes on Abraham’s shame and hopelessness with a promise—an outlandish promise that had no possible way of being fulfilled from a human point of view. But this promise enables Abraham to look past his hopeless barrenness to a different future.[6] In the same way, the promise of the God who keeps all promises can lead us to a faith is able to see through the vicious circles that seek to dominate our lives to the truth that hopelessness is where God works best.[7]
This is something of what Paul has to say when he addresses those who were “glorying in their shame” in his day and time. In contrast to those whose “god is their belly,” Paul insists that the transformation God instigated through Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection to new life is one that is changing us all.[8] As he says elsewhere, “Everybody dies in Adam; everybody comes alive in Christ.” (1 Cor. 15:22, MSG). Paul can speak of this transformation as if we all had died with Jesus on that cross and we were all raised with him to new life on that first Easter.[9]
Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have all crossed over—from shame, and death to freedom and life! And that means we have crossed over from shame and despair to hope. So if that’s true, why is it so important for us to take the step of faith? Because it enables us to actually make the journey from hopelessness to the freedom that comes from “trusting God’s future.” Faith enables us to move beyond believing only what we can see to believing that God is a God who brings hope out of hopelessness and new life out of death.[10] Faith enables us to move out of the essential hopelessness of our world and to step into the “glorious liberty” that God is bringing to the whole creation through Jesus.[11]
It is a different path, a whole new way of life that sees the possibility of new life in every death, sees the light shining in the deepest darkness, and sees hope in the midst of despair. It is not naïve about the vicious circles that are so prevalent in this world, but it recognizes that their power is a broken one, and that their days are numbered

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/28/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 293-94, 317-18, 329-32; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 87-89
[3] Cf. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, 116: “Barrenness is the way of human history. It is an effective metaphor for hopelessness. There is no foreseeable future. There is no human power to invent a future.”
[4] Brueggemann, Genesis, 143. He defines faith as “a certitude that is based not on human reason but on a primal awareness that God is God.” With reference to Abraham, he continues, “The same God who gives the promise is the one who makes it believable” through “the new awareness that God really is God.”
[5] Brueggemann, Genesis, 145: faith means “to trust God’s future and to live assured of that future even in the deathly present.” Cf. also ibid., 118, where he points out that Just as Sarah and Abraham had to leave the world they knew for a country they didn’t know, so for us “such departure from securities is the only way out of barrenness. … To stay in safety is to remain barren; to leave in risk is to have hope.”
[6] Brueggemann, Genesis, 117. He says that the promise “asserts the freedom and power of God to work his will among the hopeless.”
[7] Cf. Brueggemann, Genesis, 116: “barrenness is the arena of God’s life-giving action.”
[8] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 3.2:187; Cf. Declaration of Faith, 4.5, which says, “His resurrection is a decisive victory over the powers that deform and destroy human life.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 26-27, 28, 30, 32-33, 182, 188-89, 220, 223, 254, 256; Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 33-34, 85, 88; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 98-99, 191, 197.
[9] I would argue that Phil. 3:21 is not just about the physical transformation of our bodies from mortal to immortal, but about the total life transformation that is underway even now. Cf. James D. G. Dunn, “1 Corinthians 15:45—Last Adam, Life-Giving Spirit,” in The Christ and the Spirit, vol. 1, 263; Lucien Cerfaux, The Christian In The Theology Of St. Paul, 178-89, 228-29. With all due respect to John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries XXI:110; Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 382-83; and Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, Philippians, rev. ed., 233.
[10] Cf. The Study Catechism, question 81.
[11] Cf. Declaration of Faith, 8.2. Cf. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 31-34: “the spell of the dogma of hopelessness—ex nihilo nihil fit (nothing comes from nothing)—is broken where he who raises the dead is recognized to be God. Where in faith and hope we begin to live in the light of the possibilities and promises of this God, the whole fullness of life discloses itself as … a life to be loved” by embracing all things and all people with this love that effects a “creative transformation” of all things.

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