Tuesday, March 27, 2012

John 12:20-33[1]
Not many of us like change. That’s very likely an understatement. Change means adjusting to something different, and adjusting is not something we prefer doing. We’d much rather keep things the way they are. Routine, consistency, predictable outcomes—these are things we rely on for a sense of safety and stability in our lives. Even good change is difficult, if for no other reason than what it takes to get there. Becoming debt-free, or getting in shape, or starting a new job are all good changes to make, but to make those changes can take a lot of determination and effort on our part. In many cases, in order to change something about ourselves, we have to be willing to admit we’ve been doing it wrong and try to do something different.
Our Gospel lesson for today suggests that God has changed everything. Through Jesus, through his birth, his life, his teaching, and in this passage especially through his dying and rising to new life, God has changed everything. Everything. For everybody.[2] Jesus says it this way, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (Jn. 12:32). It’s a message of hope, that God is working in this world to make everything new. It’s a bold declaration about the power of God’s love changing everything and everyone.
It is a wonderful thing to believe and hope that through Jesus God is making everything new. It can be inspiring and reassuring to believe that God is not going to leave this world in its current condition, with all the pain and suffering and oppression and injustice that so many people suffer. It is encouraging to hope that through Jesus Christ God is changing everyone and everything for the better.
But in a very real sense, I think we have to realize that change begins with me—and that can be challenging. The changes of the new life we’ve been talking about during Lent don’t just happen automatically for all of us. Most of us have to work at it. We have to come to the point where we can acknowledge our flaws in order to avail ourselves of the love God offers us all so freely.[3] If we want to experience the healing life God offers, the only way to start the journey is to recognize that we can’t do this entirely for ourselves.[4] We have to take the risk of faith to entrust our lives to the care of a loving God in order to make the changes the new life calls us to make.
For some, those changes can take place quickly, almost overnight. For most of us, it can take a lifetime of reorienting our lives toward God’s peace and justice and freedom and compassion. That means we must be intentional about how we live. If the change that God is bringing about in this world is important to us, then we have to take definite steps in order to align ourselves with it. We have to find ways of consciously embracing the repentance and faith that Jesus invites us to practice. We have to seek out ways of incorporating the directions for living that are meant to make us more whole, more peaceful, and more joyful into the way we actually live our daily lives. We must make it our goal in life to become a person who is open to God’s loving presence and who allows that love to flow through us to others.
It can be painful to undergo these kinds of changes in our lives. In a very real sense, in order to experience the new life that God offers us all, we have to make ourselves vulnerable.[5] We’d much rather avoid any kind of difficulty or discomfort and just stay in the same old ruts we’ve been in all our lives. But in order to change, we have to refrain from all the ways we normally try to escape the difficulty and discomfort. We have to stay with it, even if it provokes a crisis in our lives, in order to experience real change. We have to refrain from all the ways we try to escape the pain we might feel, because it’s the pain that heals us and gives us the strength and courage to make the changes we need.[6]
That sounds hard and perhaps even burdensome. But in a very real sense, it can be as simple as embracing the change God is bringing into this world by loving God and loving others. The message of our Gospel lesson for today is that when we make changes in our lives in order to align ourselves with God’s peace and justice and freedom and compassion, we’re not engaged in a self-help project! We’re opening ourselves to the change that God has already made through Jesus, and that God continues to make in all our lives through the love that constantly surrounds us. At the end of the day, the changes of the new life we seek don’t depend solely on our efforts. They depend on the good news that through Jesus the Christ what God is doing in this world has left everything and everyone changed![7]

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/25/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Some would not take this passage in such a sweepingly inclusive sense. For statements that do, cf. The Study Catechism, Q. 132, “there is … a depth of love which is deeper than our despair, and that this love … will finally swallow up forever all that would now seem to defeat it.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, In the End the Beginning, 48: The good news is that “the risen Christ … draws the whole of humanity out of the world of death” into the transformed world of new life.
[3] Without this, Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls what we seek “cheap grace”! Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 44-45; cf. also Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics II:296-97, 301, 305, 339.
[4] See Paul Tillich, “Salvation” in The Eternal Now, 115, 117-18
[5] It is commonly noted that the most vulnerable people in our world seem to have a way of pointing us most clearly to faith and new life. Cf. Jon Sobrino, Where is God?, 7, where he says that the poor and the powerless possess a “primordial saintliness”; and Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 126-29.
[6] Cf. Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart, 2-5, 8, 17, 30; cf. also Pema Chödrön, The Places that Scare You, 28-29, 120-22.
[7] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.3.491, where he argues that even for one who has not embraced faith, what God has done in Jesus Christ “means de jure a complete alteration of his situation.” He also reminds us that “Jesus Christ always comes to him with His call, that He always encounters him, that He always stands at his door and knocks (Rev. 3:20).”

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

John 3:14-21[1]
Many of you know that I recently took up practicing yoga. I find it to be an exercise that does it all for me: increasing strength, aerobic fitness, balance and flexibility. I also find it amusing the kinds of responses I get when I tell people I practice yoga. The most frequent one is, “Do you find it relaxing?” The truth of the matter is that yoga does wonders for relieving my stress, and it is very relaxing in that we always end with a time of quiet resting. But yoga is also one of the most rigorous forms of exercise I’ve ever tried. Most of my guy friends who’ve never tried yoga look at me like I’m crazy when I say that. But just try to take on a revolved chair pose or a half-moon pose for yourself. If you need the directions, you can find them on the internet.[2] Let me just say they take a great deal of strength!
You may find it interesting that I describe this as “practicing” yoga. That’s what yoga is—something you practice. I know that the word “practice” sounds like what you do before you’re ready to do the real thing. But in the case of yoga it’s more a matter of something you’re always learning, something that is a continual journey, something that takes constant and consistent attention. It is a discipline of the mind as well as the body. In that respect, I have found it to be a practice that helps me develop my inner strength, and my peace of mind. And perhaps even more importantly, it helps me learn to focus my intentions with clarity and determination so that I can better follow through on them.
You may be wondering what this has to do with the repentance and faith that Jesus calls us to embrace. Well, I think they are very similar. Like yoga, living out the directions that are intended to make our lives more whole, more peaceful, and more joyful, is something that we must constantly learn to do. In a very real sense, we’re on a continual journey when it comes to loving God and loving others. We’re engaged in something that takes constant and consistent attention. Becoming a person who is open to God’s loving presence and who allows that love to flow through us to others is something we must constantly practice.
In our Gospel lesson for today, we find some difficult tensions that may make it hard for us to get this message. On the one hand, we find a wonderful affirmation of the unconditional love of God—for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that we might experience the wholeness that is called eternal life (Jn. 3:16).[3] But there is also a lot of talk about those who don’t believe being condemned that sounds pretty exclusive.
Background for John’s gospel was one of conflict; the Jewish Christians were very likely dealing with the pain of having been thrown out of their synagogues—having been cut off from their families, their friends, the very foundation and center of their lives.[4] When you experience that kind of painful rejection, it’s easy to fall into a way of thinking that is oppositional, that falls into looking at everybody in terms of whether they’re for us or against us. That seems to have been precisely what was going on with the people for whom John’s Gospel was written. And it led them to believe some things that may have been helpful for them in order to reinforce their sense of identity, but when transferred into our day and time can result in some pretty ugly exclusion. [5]
But we shouldn’t let that obscure the gems of truth found in this text. It clearly affirms Gods’ unconditional love for the whole world. It also tells us something about the kind of response that love calls forth in us. In John’s Gospel, it’s called “doing the truth.” Our faith, our truth, our convictions are meant to be put into practice in our lives, as we said last week.[6] But that’s not something you learn to do like riding a bike and once you learn it you’ve got it. It’s more like learning a musical instrument. If you’re really committed to it, you’re always learning how to practice faith in real life.
  I’ve been doing yoga for about nine months now. I’ve been doing it long enough that those muscles that at first were screaming at me because I’d never really used them before have gotten accustomed to the poses we do. Don’t get the wrong idea—I’m still very much a beginner. I have a long way to go. To some extent, although I’ve been practicing my faith a lot longer, I’m still continually learning what it means to love God and love others. I’m still learning how to get beyond my own selfishness so that I can truly love the people around me. I still learning how to open myself so that the life and love of God can flow through me. I’m still learning to relate to the people around me with compassion, understanding, kindness, and mercy. And I hope that I never stop practicing.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/18/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Revolved chair pose can be found at http://www.fitsugar.com/Yoga-Poses-Legs-16023419?slide=1. Half-moon pose can be found at http://www.yogajournal.com/poses/784.
[3] Cf. Gail. R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible 9:555. She says, “The God revealed in Jesus is a God whole love knows no bounds and who asks only that one receive the gift.”
[4] Cf. David Bartlett, “Inclusive or Exclusive Grace?,” The Christian Century, Feb 27, 1991, p. 227.
[5] Paul Tillich, in “Doing the Truth,” The Shaking of the Foundations, p. 117 suggests that the division is found in this gospel text is inherent in one’s response to Jesus. He says, “You cannot have opinion about the Christ after you have faced Him. You can only do the truth by following Him, or do the lie by denying Him.”
[6] Cf. Tillich, “Doing the Truth,” p. 117: “Christian theology is rooted in the concept of truth in which no cleavage between theory and practice is admitted, because this truth is saving truth.” Cf. similarly, John D. Caputo, On Religion, 115.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Non-Virtual Faith
Exod. 20:1-19; Ps. 19[1]
It seems that more and more of our lives are focused on what can only be called “virtual reality.” Most of us spend a great deal of time staring at some kind of screen or another—and the younger we are the more this is true for us. Whether it’s composing a document or tweaking a spreadsheet, what we’re looking at is not the “real” thing, but pixels of color meant to represent reality on our computer screen. In many cases, we don’t even handle “real” documents any more—they just get passed around from one computer to another. And then there’s the internet—a vast store of knowledge, the greatest encyclopedic collection of information in the history of the world. But all of it is virtual as well. When we look at pictures of the places we want to go, we’re not looking at the real thing, but again at pixels that present a more or less realistic facsimile of the real thing. Even our televisions don’t show us what’s real, but tiny bits of color transmitted over the cable network to represent the people, places and events on the news programs.
It’s no wonder that virtual social networks have become so popular—more than 800 million people belong to Facebook, a number that will soon soar because Africans who have limited access to internet service will soon be able to connect to Facebook via their cell phones. The attraction of Facebook is easy to understand—we spend so much time at our computers anyway, that it’s nice to check in on what our friends are up to for a few minutes before and after and in between working. But it’s still a virtual connection. There’s no real voice. There’s no human touch in the interchange. It all happens over computer.
When it comes to living out our commitment to repentance and faith in order to experience the life and love that God is constantly working to bring into our lives, our fascination with virtual reality will simply not do. The Scriptures are incredibly down to earth and practical when it comes to what it looks like to experience a relationship with God, to follow Jesus the Christ, or to live out the life of faith.
I think this is one of the reasons why the Ten Commandments remain so important to us today. They are practical, objective, and specific. I think we can see this in the way Jesus made faith a matter of loving God and loving others. When we look at the two passages in the Hebrew Bible where he drew those great commandments, we get a better idea of how practical and specific they are as well. In Deuteronomy 6:4-6, loving God means to bind the commands to your lives, adhering to them with your heart and your actions and diligently passing them on to your children![2] And the context for the second great commandment is even more specific. It’s an alternate version of the Ten Commandments in Leviticus 19:1-18. In this chapter, to love your neighbor means to refrain from stealing, oppressing your workers, cursing the deaf or trying to trip up a blind person, being impartial in judging between the poor and the rich, hating another person, and taking vengeance or bearing a grudge (Lev. 19:13-18)! Just in case you have any doubts about how important these very specific instructions are, they conclude with “I am Yahweh”![3]
Of course, in a Christian context, many of us have been taught essentially to ignore the Hebrew Bible. Since the days of Martin Luther, “law” has occupied a secondary place in our faith, if it has any place at all! But make no mistake about it: the Ten Commandments are echoed by every major writer in the NT—they remain an important guide for the specifics of what it means to love God and love others. And Jesus made them a central part of what it means to live in relationship with God in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17-48)! There Jesus spells out in very specific terms what it looks like to respond to God’s love with repentance and faith. For him it means that we not only don’t kill one another, we also avoid hatred, anger, and disrespect. For him it means that we not only don’t engage in promiscuity, we also relate to others with pure hearts. For him, it means that we not only love our friends, we also love our enemies.
That’s not something you can do virtually. It has to move beyond an idea we hold in high regard into the actual ways in which we live our lives. That’s why I like Eugene Peterson’s translation of our Psalm lesson for today in The Message: “The revelation of God is whole and pulls our lives together. The signposts of God are clear and point out the right road. The life-maps of God are right, showing the way to joy.” (Ps. 19:7-8, Message).[4] The directions for living we find in the commandments and in Jesus’ teaching are intended to be put into practice in real life. And they are intended to make that life more whole, more peaceful, more joyful.[5] When we live this way, we are allowing the life and love of God to flow through us, healing the broken and wounded world around us. Living out the repentance and faith that Jesus calls us to embrace translates to love, compassion, understanding, kindness, mercy—in our actual, real-life relationships with those around us.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/11/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Walter Brueggeman, “The Book of Exodus,” in New Interpreters Bible, I:837.
[3] Cf. Walter Kaiser, “The Book of Leviticus,” in New Interpreters Bible, I:1133-34, 1136.
[4] Cf. similarly, J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” in New Interpreters Bible IV:752, where he translates v. 7 as “the instruction of the Lord is all-encompassing, restoring life.”
[5] John Shelby Spong, Living Commandments, 14, 15, says that the Ten Commandments are the principles through which we find “the fullness of life, the depth of love, and the meaning of our own humanity.” Cf. also James L. Mays, Psalms, 99; and Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge, 146.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Hardest Choice
Mk. 8:31-38[1]
I would venture to say that all of us have some experience with selfishness. I think we could all easily call to mind several people we know who are completely absorbed with their own opinions, their own feelings, their own wants, and their own significance in the grand scheme of things. We know them because it’s hard to be around them for very long without wanting to somehow escape from the encounter! In the 1980’s, culture analysts spoke of those who came of age at that time as the “me generation.” But it seems to me that there have been plenty of “me” people in every generation.[2]
Of course, part of the problem with selfishness is that we tend to identify it most readily in others. It’s very difficult to see our own selfishness—in fact, sometimes it’s downright impossible. Most of us can be completely oblivious to the ways in which we ourselves are absorbed in our own opinions, our own feelings, our own wants, and our own significance in the grand scheme of things. We just don’t notice it, because it’s about us. But make no mistake—all of us have plenty of experience with selfishness—our own selfishness!
I think that’s why our gospel lesson for today is particularly difficult for us to hear. Jesus has announced to his disciples that his commitment to the justice, peace and freedom of God’s kingdom means that he must go to Jerusalem to die. And then he proceeds to tell them that if they want to be his disciples, they must deny themselves, take up their own crosses, and follow him (Mk. 8:34). Despite what many may think about this, the kind of self-denial that Jesus calls us to practice has nothing to do with denying ourselves something we like during Lent. It’s not about giving up meat or chocolate for 6 weeks. It goes way beyond that! Jesus calls us to let go our own self-interest.[3] This is something most of us find very difficult to do, if we even try it at all! In our self-oriented and self-absorbed world, I think he might has well have said we have to give up all our worldly goods![4] It seems like something that is not merely the hardest of choices, but rather it is an impossible choice. It is, I think, one of the greatest obstacles to faith, to experiencing the life and love God offers us all.
Well, again I think we can take Jesus as an example to help us out with this. His commitment to God’s justice, peace and freedom in this world was so complete that he literally gave up his life for it. I think one of the reasons why the early Christians cherished this very challenging teaching of Jesus is because they literally faced the same fate.[5] The persecution they endured for their faith in many cases put them in a place where they had to choose between their faith and their lives. And when the time came, many of them chose to go to their deaths for the sake of the life and love God had poured into them through their faith in Jesus.
But in our culture, it would seem that nobody is going to kill us for our faith. So what does this text mean for us today? Well, I think whatever else it might mean, it certainly relates to giving up our own self-interest.[6] It’s a matter of getting beyond our own selfishness and learning to truly love the people around us—all people, even those we might not normally think very highly of.
I think it also means getting free from the small box we trap ourselves in when “I” is the center of our universe. I think that’s what Jesus was getting at when he talked about trying to save your life and losing it (Mk. 8:35-37). He said that in fact the only way to truly live is to give yourself away for the sake of others. This is a principle that many of the world’s religious traditions echo. When we get trapped in the prison of our own interest, our own wants, or what “I” deserve, it becomes a place that robs us of life itself.[7] We only truly discover the life and love that God has to offer us when we let go all the things we cling to so tightly in that small place of “I” and open ourselves to the people around us in compassion, understanding, and love. Only then can we open ourselves enough to receive the life and the love that God wants to give each of us every day.
Last week we talked about how we must be willing to utter the hardest words, “It’s my fault” in order to repent and begin to open ourselves to the life and love of God that is all around us. This week, it seems that we’re faced with the hardest of choices—letting go of our natural selfishness in order to open ourselves to others in compassion ! It really is the only way to open ourselves to the joy of knowing how much God loves us and how much we can love those around us. It may be a difficult choice, even the hardest of choices, but because it is the path to a life that is free and joyful, it is a choice that is also very appealing.[8]

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/4/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Frederick Schmidt, What God Wants for Your Life, 3, where he talks about our culture as an increasingly “first-person-singular world” in which “I” is the dominant factor.
[3] Cf. David Garland, Mark, 333; quoting Ernest Best, Following Jesus, 37.
[4] Cf. Lk. 14:33, where Jesus says just that: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions”!
[5] Cf. Harold W. Attridge and Adela Y. Collins, Mark, 408, where they suggest that the call to self-denial to take up a cross points to the likelihood of persecution in the community Mark was addressing.
[6] It’s very difficult to define “self-denial” in our day. John Calvin, in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.7, defines it in terms of recognizing that we are not our own, we belong to God. Garland, in Mark, 327 says that it means learning to say “not my will but thine be done.”
[7] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 2-3, where he defines this kind of living in terms of being “caught up in the meanness of self-love and self-gratification,” and people who “love nothing more than getting their own way and bending others to their will.”
[8] Cf. Augustine of Hippo, “Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament,” in P. Schaff (ed.), The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, I:6, 408, where he says this may be the hardest of choices, but because Jesus promises rest to those who follow him, it is also an easy choice.
Hardest Words
Mk. 1:9-15[1]
Some people say that the hardest words to utter are the words “I’m sorry.” It is difficult to say those words at times. It takes a great deal of humility. We may have to “eat crow,” as the saying goes, in order to apologize to someone we’ve offended or wronged. And as we all know, eating crow is not a savory dish! But as hard as it is to utter the words, “I’m sorry,” I think it is even harder to say the words, “It’s my fault.” Apologizing for something still leaves room for the possibility that you didn’t mean any harm, that you innocently offended or wronged the injured party. Saying, “It’s my fault” goes way beyond that and accepts responsibility for what is wrong.
What I’m talking about here is a real change of heart. We call it repentance. I think that’s one of the hardest challenges we may face in our spiritual pilgrimage. At some time or other, we have to come to the conclusion that “I have sinned,” and we have to admit that sin to another human being. I find the words of the traditional mass interesting: in the prayer of confession one says, “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” Those words have recently been rendered in the mass as “through my fault, through my own fault, through my own most grievous fault.”[2] Those are hard words to say. I think they’re much harder than saying “I’m sorry.”
So I would suggest that perhaps the hardest words for one person to admit to another are the words, “It’s my fault, my own fault, and mine alone.”[3] But it seems to me that as difficult as those words may be to utter, they are essential to the spiritual life. We’ve been talking a lot about the presence of God that surrounds us continually, no matter where we are or what our circumstances. It seems to me that one of the challenges of the spiritual life is for us to actually open our hearts to that presence that is surrounding us with love and life. That’s not an easy thing to do! It’s hard enough to open your heart to trust another human being. How do you open your heart to trust the invisible, ineffable, immortal God?
In a very real sense, I think that’s what Jesus was calling people to when he announced, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mk. 1:15). I think he was calling people to open themselves to the presence of God, who is constant moving among us to set things right, to heal and restore those who are wounded and broken, and to bring peace and life into every life. I think that’s what Jesus meant when he said “the kingdom of God has come near.”
But the essential problem remains: how do you open yourself to something like that. Well, this may sound simplistic, but I think Jesus himself tells us how to do it: repent and believe. In a very real sense, repentance is necessary before we can really open ourselves in faith to accept the gift of life and peace and freedom that God offers us all.[4] In order to get to that place, we have to be willing to say, “I’m the one who sinned.” We have to be willing to admit, “It’s my fault, my own fault, and mine alone.” Those are hard words, but healing words.
But the repentance that opens our hearts to that transformation doesn’t end with saying “It’s my fault.” That’s just the beginning. Repentance means actually doing something to make things right. Whether we like it or not, the coming of God’s kingdom of justice and peace and freedom into this world presents us with a “road not taken” kind of choice.[5] If we really want to experience the healing and loving presence of God, then we need to face a hard reality: it means choosing not to continue pursuing the selfish ways of this broken world. In another gospel text, Jesus says that this kind of repentance means “denying” ourselves. That’s a transformation that doesn’t just happen automatically. It is a journey, not a one-time experience. It’s a pilgrimage we make our whole lives.
There’s only one starting point for that life-long journey toward God’s peace and freedom. Like any healing journey, it can only begin when we recognize that “It’s my fault.” It begins with repentance. Experiencing the love and life of the God who is constantly working to heal us all begins with hard things—hard words, hard changes. But it’s worth it to utter those hardest of words, and to take up that hard challenge, because it opens the door to the joy and peace and freedom of the new life God offers us all. That’s why those words are so powerful and so essential to our spiritual life. In order to say them, we have to let down our walls. That’s the only way to really let the healing presence of God into our lives so that we can begin to experience the transforming love and life of God. When we let down the walls of fear and suspicion, and actually open ourselves to the joyful presence of God’s life and peace and freedom among us, then we can experience the kind of personal change that Jesus was constantly calling people to make.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/26/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2]Edward Sri, “Through My Own Most Grievous Fault,” Catholic Education Resource Center, http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re1093.htm .
[3] Compare the definition of repentance in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 87: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience.”
[4] Cf. Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 433: “Without repentance all the notes of the Christian faith are off-key or silent.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:552.
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:199, where he says that repentance is a decision that is “both comprehensive and radical,” and that it “claims the whole man [sic].”
Breaking Dawn
2 Cor. 4:3-6; Mk. 9:2-9[1]
We’ve been approaching the “Gospel of Epiphany” from a pretty positive perspective. We’ve celebrated the good news that wherever we are, whatever our circumstances, God is right there with us, drawing us into God’s life and love. We determined a couple of weeks ago that even though there is great suffering in the world, it is still important to hold firmly to our trust that in God’s own timing, God will make everything right. And last week we came to the conclusion that, even though our friends and neighbors may be going through their own suffering, it’s appropriate for us to celebrate the good news of Epiphany, if for no other reason than to encourage them in the midst of their difficulty. But what do you do when you’re the one who is in the depth of suffering? How do you celebrate the good news that God is always right here with us when it feels like God has forsaken you, or at the very least has forgotten you?
I think our lesson from St. Paul might give us a clue. He clearly asserts the Good News of Epiphany, that in Jesus the Christ God has definitively entered our world, bringing life and light to us all. And this is a light that, as our Confession of 1967 says, reveals “the power of God’s love in Christ to transform the world”![2] In fact, he believes that the life and light that entered the world through Jesus the Christ is so powerful that it will transform us all “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). But St. Paul is also aware that we have the light of God’s life and love while we still live in a world that is full of darkness.
That’s probably not something that comes as anything of a surprise to you. Most of us have had our own experiences of walking through times of darkness. When the darkness descends on you, it can be frightening, because it can seem like the dawn will never come. When the darkness falls in your life, you can feel god-forsaken, instead of constantly drawn into God’s life and love. You feel pain and sadness and even depression instead of joyful celebration. It can be especially difficult to celebrate the Gospel of Epiphany when it seems like the darkness has engulfed you.
How do we bring the light of our celebration of Epiphany into our own personal experience of darkness? To some extent, we can look to Jesus. Jesus’ life and ministry was a kind of preview—where we get a taste of what is coming. That’s what the transfiguration of Jesus was—a preview of what is to come. It was a pre-view of Jesus’ resurrection. And, in turn, was a pre-view of the resurrection of all life and indeed all creation.[3] So when Jesus was transfigured before his disciples, it was an event that revealed the light of God’s new life already breaking into this world.[4] Even when we feel like we are engulfed and perhaps even drowning in darkness in our own personal lives, we can look to Jesus as the one who shows us the light that is making all things new.[5]
But St. Paul gives us another approach. When we feel like the darkness around us threatens to overwhelm us, we can literally look out the window at the sun shining in the sky. In a very real sense, the light that literally shines in the sky is a pointer to God’s loving purpose for us all. St. Paul the Apostle says it this way, “God commanded light to shine in the dark—Now God is shining in our hearts!” (2 Corinthians 4:6 CEV). Our confession of 1967 affirms that the light of God’s redemption in Jesus “discloses that the Redeemer is the Lord and Creator who made all things to serve the purpose of God’s love.”[6] At the same time, I would say that the light of creation—reflected in the very rays of the sun that warm and light our lives—points us to the flip side: the Lord and Creator who made all things to serve the purpose of God’s love is also the Redeemer who in Jesus has unleashed the power of divine love to transform the whole world! So when our lives are filled with pain and suffering, when it seems like darkness has prevailed, we can look to the very light that is literally shining all around us as a reminder that even then, God is still there with us.
Although St. Paul knew as much as anyone that the light of God has been poured into a world that is still filled with darkness he also shared the conviction that what God has done in this world through Jesus Christ has changed everything. And so when the darkness in our world threatens to engulf us and choke out the good news that God is constantly surrounding us with life and love, we can look to Jesus as a reminder that even the darkness cannot hold back the light he brought to us all. At the same time, the God who has caused this light to shine in our hearts is the same God who made the light to shine in our world. And so when we feel the darkness of pain and suffering and despair in our lives, all we have to do is look at the light that is literally shining all around us. God gives us a constant reminder of the love that surrounds us with the breaking of every new dawn.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/19/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] The Confession of 1967, 9.15.
[3] Cf., for example, 1 Corinthians 15:20 where Paul says that Jesus was raised from the dead as the “first-fruits,” or anticipation, of the resurrection of all humankind.
[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 251: he speaks of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead in terms of a “transfiguration” that “is the beginning of the transfiguration of all mortal life.”
[5] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3.319 says it this way: we look forward to the day when “the light of life which has appeared in Him will penetrate and fill even the remotest corner of the cosmos
[6] Confession of 1967, 9.15.