Wednesday, February 09, 2011

The Secret of Happiness

Micah 6:8; Psalm 15; Matthew 5:1-12[1]

A few years ago a film called “The Secret” was all the rage. It purported to reveal an ancient principle that had enabled people for generations to achieve wealth, success and happiness. That principle was called the “Law of Attraction”: all you have to do to get everything you want in life is to simply believe that you will get it, envision your life with it, and speak about it as if it is a reality. This will then “attract” what you want into your life.[2] The more we hear of hucksters like this, the more we tend to be skeptical that there is any such thing as a “secret to happiness.” But I would say that there is a “secret” to happiness that has been recognized throughout human history, and by most of the world’s major religions. The true secret to happiness is not to hold tightly to whatever it is you want and come up with all kinds of schemes for getting it. The true secret to happiness is to let go what you want and accept life as it is. Call it what you will—trusting God, being enlightened, letting go—it is the true secret to happiness.

What does this have to do with our lessons for today? It seems to me that the qualities for living expressed in our Scripture readings today—justice, kindness, integrity, and humility—come from embracing this way of living. There is something about letting go our obsession with getting what we want and accepting what life brings us that opens us up to be able to enjoy the goodness all around us. And in turn it opens us up to relate to those around us with compassion —even those we may or may not “like.” When we can look at another human being—even one who may be an “enemy”—with compassion, we can let go all our fears and our preconceived notions, and just see a human being who is struggling to find happiness. We can be truly kind to those we see in that light, and we can also begin to care about their well-being, which means that we care about their peace and justice and we accept our calling to relate to them with integrity.

One of the reasons why this approach to living remains so elusive to us is that it requires that we accept the fact that we are broken people. We have to accept our basic vulnerability to life in order to let go and embrace life as it is. Most of us find this quite difficult, if not downright impossible. It requires that we experience some measure of brokenness—which is something most of us spend a lot of energy and effort trying to avoid. We have to encounter what Anne Lamott calls the “gift of failure.”[3] Many of us may find that language strange, but failure is a gift in that it enables you to accept the humility of looking foolish, of being broken and flawed. In a very real sense, failure enables you to embrace the vulnerability of being human. And throughout the ages, many have recognized the profound wisdom that it is only through accepting our vulnerability that we find the path to peace, the path to blessedness, the path to life and true happiness.[4]

I think this idea finds expression in our lessons most clearly in the Gospel reading—Jesus’ “Beatitudes.” Many of us may have been raised to hear these verses as an outline of character traits that we as Christians are called to embody. It may be that in a secondary way, but that is not the main point. The main point is that the Kingdom of God turns everything in this world upside down![5] “Blessed are the poor in spirit” first of all says that those whom society has deemed unfortunate are truly blessed in God’s realm. It says that those who have no reason in this world for hope or joy, those who have been deprived of their fair share of goodness and justice—these are the ones for whom God’s Kingdom and God’s justice and God’s peace are incredible gifts.[6]

Part of what makes the Beatitudes so counter-intuitive is that Jesus pronounces God’s blessing on those who expose our vulnerability![7] From that perspective, the secret to happiness—to open yourself and accept life as it is and then to live out of the compassion and integrity of that wholeness—may sound foolish.[8] Our typical approach to life is that success or wealth or power equals happiness. The problem with that is that the more you succeed, the more wealth and power you gain, the more you have to lose, and therefore the more you relate to life in fear and competition. This way of life leads us to think we can only be happy in life by winning, by beating someone else at the game.

As those who seek to follow Jesus Christ we are called to embody a completely different vision of life. We are called to spend our lives working to extend God’s mercy to the left out and beat down in this world, to seek to establish God’s peace and God’s justice for all the dispossessed and disenfranchised of this world. We are called to align our lives with those whom the world despises and rejects—which means that we too will be despised and rejected because of our commitment to God’s mercy and peace and justice. But like those whom the world tramples, when we align our lives in that way we also can rejoice when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.[9] As St. Paul says it, “God has chose what is low and despised in the world” (1 Cor. 1:28).

We may not like those words, but we cannot avoid the truth they confront us with. The only way we can truly embody Jesus’ vision of God’s kingdom and God’s justice and God’s peace is by opening ourselves to accept life as it is and our own vulnerability to the pains and losses and disappointments of life. It is only as we embrace life in this way that we can find true joy, and can open ourselves enough to leave competition behind and instead relate to those around us in compassion and integrity. May God grant us the courage to embark on that path of life—to walk in the light that our savior Jesus the Christ has brought to us, and so find the true secret to blessedness.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/30/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2]Cf. : In their own words, the vendors of “The Secret” say, “Everything is possible, nothing is impossible. There are no limits. Whatever you can dream of can be yours, when you use The Secret.”

[3] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, 143; she says that failure is a gift in that it “breaks through all that … tension about needing to look good.”

[4] Cf. Peter R. Gathje, “Shalom and a Consistent Ethic of Life,” The Living Pulpit (Oct-Dec 2006): 10-12. Cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. McNeil, 1.1.1 (p. 36), who says it this way, “Indeed, our very poverty better discloses the infinitude of benefits reposing in God.”

[5] Cf. Patricia Farris, “Be Happy (Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12),” The Christian Century (January 26, 2005):18. She says that “the Beatitudes turn the world upside down with their shocking promise of hope to the hopeless, comfort to the bereaved, power to the powerless.” Cf. similarly, Fred B. Craddock, “Hearing God’s Blessing (Matt. 5:1-12)” The Christian Century (January 24, 1990): 74.

[6] Mark Allan Powell, “Matthew’s Beatitudes: Reversals and Rewards of the Kingdom,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 58 (1996):463-470.

[7] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:190-92.

[8] William Willimon, “Looking Like Fools (I Cor. 1-23),” The Christian Century (March 10, 1982):261. He contrasts the “smart ones” who “know that if we work hard, achieve, get advanced degrees, adjust to the way things are, and act sensibly, we shall be in the know” with the “fools” who “see things as they are.”

[9] Ibid., 470-77.

A Little Light to See

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9; Matthew 4:12-17[1]

So I have a confession to make. I’m still kind of afraid of the dark. Well, maybe not afraid. But I do still get a little anxious when I’m walking in a dark place by myself. I’m not sure just what it is about the darkness that provokes that fear. Maybe it’s not being able to see; or maybe it’s not knowing who or what’s there. Or maybe it’s that being alone in the dark feels really alone. There’s something about it that closes in on you and suffocates you. On the other hand, I find it amazing that light, any light, dispels the anxiety darkness provokes. It is comforting just to see a light, even if it’s some distance away. In some respect, it’s like a visible reassurance that there is somebody there, somewhere. And, of course, the closer you get to the light, the less you feel that anxious fear.

Our lessons for today speak of the good news of what God is doing in our world in terms of light in the midst of the deepest darkness (Isa. 9:2). It would seem that the particular form of darkness the people of Israel were living under was oppression.[2] It’s not hard to understand how they might feel that same kind of fear that you and I may feel when we’re enveloped in darkness. But the good news that the prophet Isaiah announced to them was that God was coming to bring light into their darkness. And that wasn’t just some abstract promise. The prophet looked forward to the birth of a king who would bring freedom into their captivity, who would bring justice to set right the injustices, and who would lift the yoke of oppression from them.

Well, there’s no evidence that ever happened in the history of Israel. At least not to the extent that Isaiah envisioned it. So we either have to take it for wishful thinking, or we have to look at the promise in a different way. While the prophet focused his attention on an heir to the throne, I think we should notice that throughout the Hebrew Bible, in a very real sense it is God’s presence that is the light.[3] That’s why the Psalmist could say, “the Lord is my light and my salvation” (Ps. 27:1). God’s very presence among us is what makes the burden not so oppressive, it is the light that dispels the fear of darkness.

The funny thing about light in darkness is that it can still be just as dark around you, but seeing a light—any light—relieves the anxious fear of the darkness. I’m not telling you anything new by saying that fear can influence us in powerful ways. Fear can make us think that whatever we fear is our true reality even when nothing could be further from the truth. It can make us miss the reality of God’s presence, the good news that God’s light is always there to lift our burdens and dispel our fear, that God loves us no matter what may happen and nothing can separate us from that love

So we have to reckon with the fact that light doesn’t always dispel the darkness. But what it does is to dispel the fear of darkness. In the same way, God’s presence doesn’t always change the circumstances of oppression or injustice that create fear—at least not in the way we might anticipate. But God’s presence does lift the fear itself and remind us that whatever we may have to suffer in this life is not the ultimate truth of our lives.

I think our gospel lesson makes a similar point. In a very real sense, it would seem that Matthew wants us to understand that the “light in the darkness” that Jesus brought was the good news of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 4:17). But it is unclear whether Jesus’ message was “the kingdom is here” or “the kingdom is near.” To some extent, I think we should say it was both. Jesus proclaimed the good news that God really and truly is working in this world to bring light and love and peace and freedom and justice and goodness and mercy and grace and joy and life to all people and all things.[4] The Advent joy of “Immanuel,” God with us, is one that we can take with us throughout the year.[5] The light is here, however dark it may still be.

But at the same time, Jesus proclaimed the good news that the kingdom of heaven is “near.” We may wonder why there’s still so much darkness around if God’s light has come. But the good news that the kingdom is near is that God is not finished yet. God will continue working in this world to bring light and love and peace and freedom and justice and goodness and mercy and grace and joy and life to all people and all things until the promise Immanuel is fulfilled. The light will ultimately dispel not only the fear of darkness, but the darkness itself!

So at least part of the good news is that because God is always with us, we need not fear. Sometimes we need to take practical measures to overcome fear. We may need to learn to be more present in the here and now—and to become aware of God’s comforting presence—rather than anxiously looking to a future that may or may not come to pass. But at the end of the day, the promise of the good news is that God is always with us, like a light in the darkness. The darkness may still be all around us, but God’s presence gives us “a little light to see” and that light can displace our fears with faith and hope. [6] It reminds us that the ultimate truth of our lives is that God loves us no matter what may happen and nothing can separate us from that love.[7]

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/23/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Hans Wildberger, Isaiah 1-12, 395, where he suggests they even may have felt like they were living in what they would have considered hell on earth, in that all that was good in the world had been taken away from them.

[3] Cf. Wildberger, 395: “ ‘Light’ is a symbol for the saving presence of God.” He continues, “whoever ‘sees a great light’ ought to have confidence even in the darkness, in the realm of the dead, to know that the protecting and saving presence of Yahweh is there.” Cf. also H. Berkouwer, General Revelation, 232-34; and H.-J. Kraus, Theology of the Book of Psalms, 39.

[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.3.434, where he says that Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom reinforces the faith that “God Himself undertakes to speak and act and give His help on earth, to be God for and with the man who lives on earth.”

[5] Wildberger, 408, points out that the present passage in Isaiah represents an extension of the “Immanuel” promise.

[6] The phrase is from Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, 100. She says the reason she takes her son Sam to church (despite his objections) is that she wants him to have a “path” in life and “a little light to see.”

[7] Cf. H.-J. Kraus, Psalm 1-59, 337; he calls to mind Paul’s affirmation of faith in Romans 8:33-39 and says, “those who are threatened with death still are sure that nothing can separate them from God.”


Isaiah 42:1-7, Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:15[1]

We live in a place where it’s important to pay attention to foundations. You know, the things our homes and businesses and churches are built on. The fourth largest metropolitan area in the US is built on land that is affectionately known in the construction industry as “gumbo.” When it gets wet it heaves, and when it dries out it settles. And all that instability makes it very important to pay attention to foundations. We also live in a time when it’s important to pay attention to foundations. The ones our lives are built on, that is. In earlier times, there were cultural, moral, and spiritual values that most people shared, and that served as common ground for people’s lives. In these days, we really don’t have much of a shared foundation for living.

I think it was about foundations that St. Peter was speaking in our lesson from the book of Acts. He was preaching to a group of Gentiles and that challenged some of the cherished ideals that defined his people—primarily that the Jewish people were special in God’s eyes. And in response he turned to the foundations of his life and faith to make sense out of it all. St. Peter saw Jesus as the fulfillment of the hopes articulated by the prophet Isaiah. Those hopes had also been articulated in a time when foundations seemed to be crumbling. Isaiah pointed the people toward a coming servant of God who would establish justice for all peoples. One of the Christian’s central convictions was that Jesus of Nazareth was the one sent by God to bring the peace and justice and freedom they had been looking for. And throughout the book of Acts, the apostles go back again and again to that foundation.

What would that peace and justice and freedom look like? According to our lesson from Isaiah for today, it would look like empty dungeons and prisons with no prisoners (Isa. 42:7). Now, we probably should recognize that there is a big difference between the system of crime and punishment we know today and the way it was in that day. Nevertheless, I think there is something to be said for the idea that when God’s justice is fully established for all peoples, the prisons will be empty. St. Peter says it a little differently—Jesus came preaching peace, doing good, and setting free those oppressed by the devil. At first glance, that might not look much like the justice the servant in Isaiah is to bring. But from a biblical point of view, justice and peace are integrally related. The kind of peace Peter and the other apostles saw in Jesus’ life and teaching was shalom, a total and all-encompassing kind of well-being and wholeness. And peace is what happens when people get to live in the kind of justice where all people can thrive.

And so Peter and the others came to the conviction through the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth that he was the “servant” who had come to effect God’s justice and peace and freedom. I wonder what it was that convinced them. We might think it was the result of some magical or superstitious thinking on the part of those “unlearned” fishermen. When we look at the account of the baptism of Jesus in the Gospels, it seems pretty far-fetched. Visions of heavenly doves and voices from heaven aren’t part of our normal experience. But I don’t know that we have to take the account literally as the report of an event that any bystander could have witnessed—as if they would also have seen the dove and heard the voice. Perhaps it was some kind of spiritual experience that the apostles later held on to as an expression of their conviction that Jesus evidenced a unique presence of God—as St. Peter puts it, “God was with him.”[2]

I think, though, that we’re putting the cart before the horse if we think that their faith and ours rests primarily upon miraculous events like that. In a very real sense, I think their faith and ours rests primarily upon who Jesus was and what he did. I think they believed he was the servant whom Isaiah had spoken of because they believed he was one who uniquely effected the peace and justice and freedom that God has always promised would come to all people. I think they believed Jesus was the one whom they had been looking forward to because—as Peter insists—they personally witnessed it. And they used the language of their day to express this conviction—language that sounds magical to us. But according to Jesus, the point of it all was to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). We might miss the connection here as well if we don’t know that righteousness and justice are also integrally related in the Bible. Jesus’ insistence on being baptized signifies his commitment to God’s justice defining life in this world rather than the injustice that is so prevalent.[3] It would seem that Jesus was going back to the foundations too.

We live in a time when people seem to be ignoring foundations. In fact, some are positively obsessed with getting rid of anything and everything that looks or sounds traditional. To some extent, that’s natural; some traditions probably need to go by the wayside. But there are some convictions that serve as the very foundations for our faith and our life. We don’t have to endorse a magical or view of the world or become naïve fundamentalist clinging to every literal word in the Bible. But we must hold on to the essence of our faith. In this day and age, we need to return to our foundations as well—looking to Jesus of Nazareth and to the peace, justice and freedom that he gave his life to establish for us all.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/9/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Barbara Lemmel, “Rare Sightings (Is. 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matt. 3:13-17),” The Christian Century (Dec 23-30, 1998): 1245, who observes, “Epiphanies, both large and small, tend to be private events. Trying to share the details with another is fraught with complications: the words are never quite right, and even the most sympathetic listener cannot fully bridge the gap between description and being there. No wonder most folks keep their personal experiences of the Holy to themselves. Who would believe it? And who would really understand?.”

[3] Brad Ronnell Braxton, “Ready for Revolution (Matthew 3:13-17),” The Christian Century (January 2-9, 2002): 18, says it this way: “Righteousness also signifies God’s saving action in the world. … righteousness encapsulates God’s passionate commitment to set right the things that are wrong.” So in this act, “Jesus says, ‘Through this baptism, I take up arms with you, John, and join this revolution whereby God’s justice will be manifest in the world.’”

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Looking Forward

Isa. 35:10; Ps. 146; Mt. 11:5; Mt. 1:23[1]

This really is the season of “looking forward.” Whether we like it or not, our whole society revolves around a time of holiday celebration between December 24 and January 1. For many of us, this time of year is a time of looking forward to all that celebrating—the food, the gifts, the friends and family. From the way we act at in December, you’d think that the rest of the year our lives are completely humdrum and devoid of meaning! But that’s not the case at all. It’s simply that we feel the need to gather together and celebrate more keenly than at other times.

While most of us have lives that are pretty full and meaningful all year around, there are many for whom that is not the case. For many people in our world, life is pain, life is loss, life is doing without, life is being forgotten and shunned. Many millions suffer from wars and famines and floods and plagues—as well as from corruption and greed and cruelty. Maybe we should make that many tens of millions, or even many hundreds of millions! And in the midst of all that suffering, the message of Advent calls us to look forward to the time when God will set all of this right. It is the good news that those who suffer “shall obtain joy and gladness and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isa. 35:10)![2]

Well, that sounds pretty good on the surface of things. But if you’re like me you may wonder how this miracle takes place. I think Psalm 146 spells it out pretty clearly: It is when God comes to set things right—to execute justice, to feed the hungry, to set captives free, to lift up the burdened, and watch over the immigrants (Ps. 146:7-9).[3] When God comes to set things right, it means that the hungry are fed, the prisoners are set free, the blind receive their sight, those who are bowed down are lifted up, the “strangers” or resident immigrants have someone to watch over them, and the widows and orphans are supported. God’s work of setting things right consists of concrete steps for those who live on the margins of social power and privilege to make their lot in life better. [4] What God is doing in our world is about mercy that is tangible, compassion in action. It is about creating justice—that way of life that makes it possible for everyone to thrive equally. It is about generosity and kindness, not just in spirit but also in practice.

Now, that may not seem like much comfort—after all, “God” seems profoundly absent in this world—even at this time of year when the most convinced skeptics allow themselves a stray religious feeling. But the good news at the heart of our faith is that in Jesus, God has come into this world and has become “Immanuel”, literally in Hebrew, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). In Jesus, God has begun the work of making all things new, of setting right the wrongs and lifting the burdens.

Jesus himself said this in his answer to John the Baptist’s question whether they should look for somebody else. In reply, he said: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:5).[5] That answer would have been an incredibly cruel prank to pull on a man who was basically waiting to be executed if it were not straightforward. I don’t think Jesus was just telling John what he wanted to hear to comfort him in his hour of desperation. I think we would have to say that Jesus believed that was actually the case—that God had begun working in this world to set things right, to bring that “something better” they all had been looking forward to. [6]

We have been talking about Advent as a time of looking forward. In Advent we’re looking forward to something better than the injustice and violence and suffering all around us. We’re looking forward to someone better who will set things right—for everybody. We are looking forward to the kindness and generosity and compassion of our God being fulfilled for all the peoples of the world. It is not folly to look forward to God’s new world—God’s something better. Looking forward to “peace on earth, and mercy mild” is the heart and soul of our faith. Our faith still rests on the good news that in Jesus the Christ that God has entered this world definitively to set everything right and to make all things new.[7] That in Jesus the Christ God has come into this world and has become “Immanuel,” God with us.[8] And that in and through this marvelous event, “light and life to all he brings.” This hope, this faith, is what gives us energy to sustain our love as we seek to contribute to God’s “something better” by transforming our corner of the world.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/12/10 at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Gene M. Tucker, “The Book Of Isaiah 1–39,” New Interpreters Bible, VI:283, points out the “dark and troubling realities” behind this text.” He adds, “That fact helps explain the longing, the need for hope, for the end to sighing and sorrow, if not in this world then in the world to come.”

[3] J. Clinton Mccann, Jr, “The Book Of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible, IV:1264: these verses portray “a God who cares about human hurt and who acts on behalf of the afflicted and the oppressed.” He adds that they constitute “a policy statement for the kingdom of God. The sovereign God stands for and works for justice, not simply as an abstract principle but as an embodied reality—provision for basic human needs, liberation from oppression, empowerment for the disenfranchised and dispossessed.”

[4] Cf. Robert W. Wall, “Where Wisdom is Found,” Christian Ethics 2009, 31: “The care of poor and powerless believers is a hallmark of God’s covenant-keeping people (cf. Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 24:17-21; Psalm 146:9; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 5:28; Acts 2:45; 4:32-35; 6:1-7; 9:36-42).”

[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.2, 460.

[6] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 95-96: “God’s present, liberating and healing activity points beyond itself to the kingdom of freedom and salvation. But through God’s lordship, the coming kingdom already throws its light ahead of itself into this history of struggle.”

[7] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.2, 460-61

[8] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel Of Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:138, where he points out that this opening episode in Matthew’s Gospel makes it clear that “for Matthew, the story of Jesus is a way of talking about God. In Jesus and his story, God is with us.”

Choosing Sides

Matt. 3:1-12[1]

Our lives are filled with choices. From one perspective, you could say everything we do is a choice. Those everyday, mundane choices don’t seem to faze us much. It’s the Robert Frost, “two-roads-in-a-wood” kind of choices that can stump us. We want to know where each road leads before we make such a momentous decision. Whether we like it or not, the message of Advent presents us with precisely that kind of choice: whether we will align our lives with what God is doing in our world, or whether we will simply go along with the way things are.

We have been talking about Advent as a time of looking forward. In Advent we’re looking forward to something better than the injustice and violence and suffering all around us. We’re looking forward to someone better who will set things right—for everybody. And we talked last week about how that makes a difference in us. When we look forward to the kindness and generosity and compassion of our God being fulfilled for all the peoples of the world, we have to take a look at whether the kind of people we choose to be contributes to that coming new world.

This week we are confronted with the fact that this “something better” that we are looking forward to also affects our “everyday” lives. The Psalmist describes the “something better” that God’s agent will bring into this world in very concrete terms. That one will “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy” (Ps. 72:4). Over and over again the Scriptures bear witness to the faith that what God is doing in our world is about mercy that is tangible, compassion in action. It is about creating justice—that way of life that makes it possible for everyone to thrive equally. It is about those who have more than enough sharing with those who don’t have enough. It is about generosity and kindness, not just in spirit but also in practice. Whether we know or not and whether we like it or not, what God is doing in our world affects the choices we make about the way we live our lives everyday.

To some, that may not be good news. Some of us would prefer to keep what God is doing in the world firmly in the realm of “a nice idea that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside.” We’d rather not have to make the connection between our faith and our daily lives. I think this kind of “disconnect” is what John the Baptist had in mind with his rather harsh condemnation of the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Jewish religious leaders. Now, in the first place, we should recognize that not all the Jewish leaders were antagonistic toward Jesus and the early Church. And we should also recognize that not all the Jewish people were hostile toward them. In fact, the crowds who were coming to John to be baptized in preparation for the advent of God’s messenger of justice were almost exclusively Jewish.[2]

But I wonder what these particular Jewish leaders were doing there. Were they like many religious professionals— there to sneer at the “unenlightened masses” who were so easily “led astray” by a religious fanatic like John? Or were they there as “spies”—gathering information to use against John in order to lock him up at the right time? Or did some of them perhaps get caught up in the spirit of the season—the season of anticipating the coming Messiah? Did some of them actually present themselves to John for baptism—perhaps in the expectation that the more people showed up, the sooner the Messiah would come? It’s hard to say exactly what motivated them.

But one thing seems to be clear from John’s response—they really didn’t have a clue what he was about. John was there to prepare the people for the coming of the Lord—which would be a time when wrongs would be righted, and injustices would be corrected. It would be a time when oppression would come to an end and violence would be no more. And what perhaps many of those who showed up for John’s “revival” apparently failed to connect was that the coming of God’s messiah and God’s kingdom and justice meant they would have to change their ways—to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Matt. 3:8). Because they were all part of an unjust system, they would either have to choose to change their ways, or they would have to choose to ignore what God is doing in the world.

Whether we like it or not, the repentance that God’s justice confronts us with is about choosing sides; it’s about where our allegiance lies.[3] That starts with the kind of people we choose to be, but it also extends to what we actually do. Whether we like it or not, the coming of God’s justice and peace into this world presents us with a “road not taken” kind of choice. If our allegiance is with the coming of God’s justice and peace in this world, then we need to face a hard reality: that choice entails choosing not to continue pursuing the selfish ways of this broken world, even when it’s running around pretending to be Christian by celebrating “Christmas.”

Let’s start this year by trying to find ways we can reduce the amount of money we spend on ourselves—and increasing what we give to those who are in need. Let’s start by teaching our children and grandchildren that they can be just as happy with less as they can with excess—in fact, they can be happier! Let’s make the choices that are consistent with looking forward to the kindness and generosity and compassion of our God being fulfilled for all the peoples of the world. Let’s choose to be on the side of that something better that’s coming to us all.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/5/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Ronald J. Allen, “Removing Anti-Jewish Toxins from Advent Preaching,” The Living Pulpit, 6 (Oct-Dec 1997):16-17.

[3] Cf. Thomas G. Long, “Worship on the Wrong Side of the Fault Line,” The Living Pulpit 11 (Jan-Mar 2002): 14-15.

Living Light

Isa. 2:1-5; Rom. 13:8-14; Mt. 24:36-44[1]

I think it is amazing how powerfully our state of mind can affect our actions. For me, driving on the Gulf Freeway serves as a pretty reliable benchmark for my psychological state. If I’m feeling lousy, I can get angry at the tiniest (perceived) slight from another driver. At the same time, if I’m in a peaceful frame of mind, the whole freeway can be dominated by the rudest and most dangerous drivers, and I can keep my cool and just calmly get out of the way. I think it’s also amazing how quickly our state of mind can change. How many times have you been in the middle of an argument with your significant other, convinced that you’ve been mistreated or misunderstood? Suddenly, a thought comes into your mind that is like flipping a switch and in an instant you realize you were the one in the wrong—and your whole demeanor changes almost instantaneously. You go from being convinced that you have every right to be indignant to being embarrassed with your behavior.

It seems to me that, among the many influences on what we do and how we relate to others, our state of mind plays a very powerful role. There is a great deal of truth to the religious traditions that advocate serenity as a spiritual discipline.[2] They call it many things—being “centered”, staying mindful, getting peaceful. But it all boils down to recognizing that no matter what happens “out there” we can choose who we are “in here.” Regardless of our external circumstances, we can choose how we feel, what our attitude will be, and what kind of state of mind we will take. And that makes all the difference in how we act and how we relate to others.

As we enter the season of Advent and look forward to something better, I can think of no better place to start than by looking at ourselves. Are we the kind of people who take things in stride, who bring peace to a room, who spread kindness and compassion to those we meet? Or are we the kind of people who get angry at every little thing, complaining constantly, the kind of people whose company others prefer to avoid, who enter a room and the mood turns instantly tense, or anxious, or hostile? I think it’s no small question. Because it seems to me that we are the ones who are responsible for being light in our world. If our world is one where injustice and violence and oppression and suffering thrive, at this time of the year when we look forward to something better, I think we have to ask ourselves whether we are contributing to that suffering, or whether we are contributing to the peace that God is bringing into the world.

I think that’s what Isaiah was trying to say to the people of Israel and Judah. The prophet Isaiah saw God’s justice and peace as light that brings life to the (“pagan”) nations. [3] But he did not just see that light as something for an indefinite time in “days yet to come.” He believed that the extent to which the Jewish people themselves became living light, the nations would be attracted to that light and come streaming to learn the ways of God and to hear the word of the Lord.[4] And so he urged the people of Israel and Judah to “walk in the light of the Lord” (Isa. 2:5). I think that had as much to do with the kind of people they chose to be—their frame of mind, their quality of spirit, the attitude of their heart—as it did with the way they acted.[5]

Our other lessons serve to highlight the benefits of living this way—you don’t have to worry who’s watching you; and you have no regrets about your life. I think the first one may be at least part of what the Apostle Paul had to say. He used the analogy of darkness as the time when people do what they don’t want others to see them doing. He contrasts living in a way that we are an open book—everything we are and all that we do is on display for anyone to see. And I think the difference has to do with whether or not we are living out of a love for those around us (Rom. 13:8-10). It has to do with the kind of people we choose to be.

I think our Gospel lesson brings out the second benefit of living this way—having no regrets. Jesus uses a different analogy—that of sleeping versus waking. Some live their lives like so many sleep-walkers—oblivious to the fact that what they do and who they are affects those around them. Adopting a rather ominous perspective on the coming of the Son of Man as a day of judgment, I think Jesus urges us to live in such a way that we are constantly ready to face even the most intense scrutiny to our lives. And when any such scrutiny comes, we can “stand in our own light,” which in this case consists of a spirit of kindness, and generosity, and compassion.

As we begin the pilgrimage of Advent, I think it is good to be reminded that one of the important aspects of looking forward to something better is to look at ourselves. I’m not just talking about what we do, because if the Bible has anything to say about how we live, it is that who we are determines the quality of our lives. That may sound discouraging to you—as if we’re left solely to our own resources for this. But the good news is that the light of God—God’s gracious presence—is available to us all.[6] That means we can choose to be the kind of people who are essentially living light, living out of a spirit of kindness and generosity and compassion. Because the light of God’s presence is available to us all, we can be people who shine the light of God in what we do and say. And as we live our lives singing, marching, dancing, praying in the light of God, we become living light for those around us.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/28/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] See especially, Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World through Mindfulness.

[3] Hans Wildberger, A Continental Commentary: Isaiah 1-12, 95-96. He says (p. 96), “Even though there have been numerous changes in the global political situation since the days of Isaiah, the promise which is proclaimed here still remains in force. The message about ‘peace among the nations’ cannot be silenced. But Isaiah’s promise also reminds one that the peace among all peoples can be an ongoing reality only if it is a ‘fruit of righteousness’ (32:17*), but remember that ‘righteousness’ also means recognizing the legal claims of the downtrodden. Wherever this becomes a reality, as a consequence of the pilgrimage of the nations to Zion, it will be because those who have come have submitted themselves to the will of the God of Jacob.”

[4] Christine Roy Yoder, “Hope that Walks: An Interpretation of Isaiah for Advent Preachers,” Journal for Preachers 25 (Advent 2001):17-24. She says (p. 18), “Isaiah refuses to leave the vision a distant abstraction, but calls on Israel as one of the many nations to begin its pilgrimage today.” Cf. also Hans Walter Wolff, “Swords into Plowshares: Misuse of a Word of Prophecy?” Currents in Theology and MissionInterpretation, 51 (Jan 1997): 61-64. 12 (June 1985): 133-147; Fredrick C. Holmgren, “Isaiah 2:1-5, Between Text and Sermon,” See further, Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1:28-33 and 4.3:56-60, where he summarizes the biblical witness to this theme, especially in the Hebrew Bible.

[5] Cf. Gene M. Tucker, “The Book of Isaiah 1-39,” NIB VI:70. Regarding this vision he says, “Wishing, and even praying will not necessarily make it happen. But it will certainly not come unless we imagine it, unless we believe and articulate the vision the God wills the end of war.”

[6] Cf. Wildbarger, Isaiah 1-12, 94.