Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The One who Sets Things Right

Jer 23:1-6[1]

We live in a world where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.[2] We live in a world where money makes the world go around, where might makes right and the race doesn’t always go to the one who deserves it. We live in a world governed by people elected not necessarily because they are the most qualified for the job, but because they have the slickest campaign. We live in a world where billionaires buy off representatives and senators in order to ensure that they keep getting a bigger slice of the pie.[3] And we live in a world where the ones who control the army also get to control aid money worth billions—funds intended to help the ones who have no food, no clean water, and improper sanitation, but that all too often end up enriching those who hold the purse strings.

Most of this is beyond dispute as a description of “the way it is.” My question, as we approach a time of year when we look for something better coming, is simple: why? Why, when the reality of injustice and violence and oppression and suffering is so obvious all around us, do we think we should look for something better? After all, some spiritual leaders will tell you that the only way to successfully manage our lives is to accept reality as it is. Wanting something different from what we have is a prescription for perpetual unhappiness and dissatisfaction. The way to “get along” is to “go along” with the way things are.

But there is a voice deep within us that simply will not let us go there—not without a fight. Not without the gut-wrenching stress of trying to live in denial of what we know to be the truth. Or not without generous doses of chemical anesthetics designed to make us feel nothing at all. The voice within us tells us the way things are is not the way things ought to be. In fact, whether we like it or not, sometimes that voice screams at us to get us to pay attention to what has gone wrong in our world. Down deep inside, we know that we were not made for the injustice and violence and oppression and suffering that define our world.

In a very real sense, I think it was that same voice that drove the prophets of ancient Israel to proclaim so loudly that the injustice that was rampant in the courts of the king would lead to the nation’s downfall. At least part of the reason for that was because the prophets also had one eye on the covenant Israel had made with their God—a covenant that included stipulations for all people to have an equal access to the means of making a living, a covenant that included the command to welcome the immigrant and the wanderers and the strangers, a covenant that included the demand to care for the weakest in society—those who were impoverished, who were forsaken, and who were excluded from the structures of life.[4]

When the prophets looked at the reality of the way the “covenant people” lived, what they saw appalled them. It wasn’t much different from our reality—the wealthy continued to get richer at the expense of the poor. The upper class indulged in conspicuous luxuries while the vast majority of people lacked basic necessities. The powerful took every possible advantage to gain more power, more wealth, and more land, not thinking twice about whom they were exploiting or enslaving or even murdering.

And right in the middle of all of this injustice, all this violence and oppression, all this suffering, sat the King. Now what we have to understand about the Kings of Israel and Judah is that they were intended to be representatives of God’s reign over the people. They were the ones who were supposed to ensure that all people were treated fairly, that they were free from violence and oppression, and that they were able to thrive in their daily living. They were supposed to be “shepherds” to the people—protecting them, caring for them, ensuring they had their needs met. But the reality of the Kings of Israel and Judah is that, more often than not they were complicit in the injustice that wracked the land, if not the very instigators in the first place.

And because the prophets had one eye on the covenant and the justice God intended for the people, and the other eye on the ones who were supposed to promote and maintain that justice but consistently failed to do so, they began to speak of one who was to come.[5] This one would be a true shepherd, not like the false “shepherds” who exploited the flock. This one would enact true justice, not the usurpation of power and wealth that masqueraded as justice. This one would bring true peace, peace that made it possible for all of them to thrive, not just the top 1% of the upper class, the richest of the rich. This one would be called “The Lord is our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6, NRSV), or “Yahweh is our saving justice” (NJB) or “God-Who-Puts-Everything-Right” (The Message)! The prophets were looking for the true king—the one we await during the season of Advent.

I don’t believe that is merely so much wishful thinking, or that it is foolish and positively harmful to look for this one who will set things right. I think looking for something better is wired into us at the very core of our being. Then as now, for those of us who will listen to that voice of conscience within us, it is plain as the nose on your face that the way things are is not the way things ought to be. And that leads us inevitably to look for something better—or perhaps in this case someone better. Someone who will instead oversee all who live and all of creation (no exceptions!) in a way that brings joy and peace and life to us all.[6]

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/21/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Timothy Noah, “The United States of Inequality,” published Sept. 3, 2010 at

[3] Cf. Jane Mayer, “Covert Operations,” The New Yorker Aug. 30, 2010; accessed at

[4] Cf, Patrick D. Miller, “The Book of Jeremiah,” New Interpreters Bible VI:745, where he points out that the benchmark for justice was “the weakest members of the community, the powerless and the marginalized, the economically depressed and the vulnerable.” He adds, by contrast (p. 746), “We tend to turn the matter on its head and assume that the good society is one that allows those with economic means to hold on to them and not worry too much about those who have nothing.”

[5] Cf. Pheme Perkins, “The Magic Kingdom,” The Christian Century Nov. 22, 1989:1083, who says, “The rule of justice and peace will not be created by the political configurations of the present age. They have already been condemned by God for destroying what should be protected.”

[6] Our Confession of 1967 puts it this way: “It is the will of God that his purpose for human life shall be fulfilled under the rule of Christ and all evil be banished from his creation.”

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