Wednesday, December 01, 2010

These are the Days

2 Tim. 3:14-17; Jer 31:31-34; Lk 18:1-8[1]

If you watch any TV at all, you are well aware that we have a whole bunch of elections just around the corner. You may be tired of hearing about it. And if you are following any of this, you know that candidates from all sides of the political field are promising to change things. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that we’ve been promised so many changes, I’ve stopped believing all of them. What’s more, it’s easy for me to want to just give up on the whole sorry mess. But you know as well as I do that giving up isn’t the answer. For one reason or another, we keep trying to work for change, year in and year out, even though it sometimes seems like nothing ever changes in the way this world works.

Last week we talked about how we can count on God to always be there for us as a supportive presence. But if you’re like me, in times like these you may want more than a “supportive presence” from our God—you may want change, real change, change we can see in the world around us and in our own lives. Unfortunately, the notion of God actually intervening in our lives is complicated. Some people believe God is always working in miraculous and supernatural ways. Others believe that God isn’t capable of changing anything in our world. We see this view reflected especially in people who have suffered unspeakable atrocities, people like Elie Wiesel. And because they have suffered so much, we must always remind ourselves to treat them with utmost respect—especially when it comes to their loss of faith. Elie Wiesel was studying the Talmud and Kabbalah when he began his journey through the horror of the Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Buchenwald. As a result, Wiesel concluded that God is impotent, helpless, unable to prevent injustice and violence, unable to really make a difference for those who place their faith in God.[2]

I think it’s likely at least some of the people Jeremiah addressed must have felt that way. Everything that meant anything to them was gone. I could imagine they were asking whether God was anything more to them than a “supportive” but ultimately powerless presence. And Jeremiah looked at the people in exile, with all their doubts and discouragement, and said to them in the name of the Lord, “the days are coming.” Days of restoration—to their homeland and the lives they had left behind. Days of rebuilding—homes and families and communities. Days of returning—returning to hope and faith and joy.

But more than just giving them their lives back, Jeremiah’s message was that God had in store something hard to imagine: a whole new relationship with God. Instead of an arrangement where God’s actions on their behalf depended to some degree on their fidelity and obedience, Jeremiah said to them in the name of the Lord that “the days are coming” when God would make a whole new arrangement—one that depends solely upon God’s unfailing love and unshakeable faithfulness. This relationship would be one in which God would actually make some changes—beginning with transforming the people of faith into people who want nothing more than love God with all their hearts and to honor God with their lives. Jeremiah, in the name of the Lord, promised a whole new way of understanding “I will be their God and they will be my people” (Jer. 31:33).[3]

How could this happen? What magic would be able to take these people—flawed and fallible people like you and me; in fact probably just like you and me—and turn them into “instant saints”? Well, in some contexts, the prophets and apostles spoke of it as a transformation by the Spirit, something intangible and even to some extent perhaps even hard to trace.[4] In our NT lesson for today, St. Paul takes a more “pragmatic” approach: He suggests that it is the Scriptures themselves that are the tool God uses to make us “wise for salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15); they are the means by which we are trained in “righteousness” and become “competent” for the work we are called to fulfill.

Whatever the means—more tangible or more spiritual—it’s clear that prophets and apostles and saints throughout the ages have looked to God for more than just a “supportive presence” in answer to all that is so troubling about our world. And they have been bold to promise in the name of the Lord that the “days are coming” when God’s presence will transform the people of faith, along with all humankind and the whole of creation. In fact, in many cases they have been bold to declare that “these are the days” when God is fulfilling the promise to fill the whole earth with the life-giving knowledge of God, with God’s saving justice that makes it possible for everyone to thrive together, with God’s shalom that brings life.

With this in mind, we can take the lesson of Jesus’ parable to heart—we can find the faith not to lose heart in the face of all that is wrong with our world. We can face it confidently, knowing that God is in the process of changing things. In the parable Jesus calls it “giving vindication” (Lk. 18:7-8). But that’s not punishment or vengeance, but rather God’s gracious work of setting things right again. Restoring the land and their lives, rebuilding homes and families and communities, returning us all to hope and faith, renewing the joy of living. We can return to the task of working for change in our world inspired by the vision that there will come a time when God’s “commonwealth of peace and freedom” will be more than just a hope and a dream; it will define all life on the face of the earth. It may seem hard to imagine, let alone believe,[5] but we can take comfort in the assurance these are the days when God is changing everything. And God is beginning that process of renewal by transforming us.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/17/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] See Elie Wiesel, Night, where he recounts his horrific experience.

[3] R. E. Clements, Jeremiah, 191: “what is promised is not so much a radically different covenant but a renewed form of the earlier, broken covenant.”

[4] Clements, Jeremiah, 190: “Although the word ‘spirit’ is not used, the implication is certainly that God’s Spirit will move the hearts of Israel to be obedient to the divine law.” Compare Ezekiel 36:24-28.

[5] Tillich, “Behold, I Am Doing a New Thing” in The Shaking of the Foundations, 182: “The new being is born in us, just when we least believe in it.”

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