Sunday, December 09, 2012


Mal. 3:1-4; Lk. 1:68-79[1]
Although we are surrounded by the refining industry, I don’t really know that much about it. I know that it involves a great deal of heat and sometimes pressure.  I have, however, seen the process of glass-blowing.  I think there are some similarities.  The glass is super-heated to remove any impurities and to make it moldable,  just like the refining of precious metals like gold and silver.  As other elements are added to gold to make it stronger, the process of glass-blowing actually adds elements not originally present for various reasons—especially to create colors.  The whole purpose is to make the end result a thing of beauty.  When I witnessed the process of glass-blowing, I was sitting at a safe distance from the furnace in some bleachers.  But even at that distance, I found the intense heat of the furnace somewhat disconcerting.  I couldn’t imagine actually being the glass-blower and constantly working so close to such intense heat.  And I certainly wouldn’t want to be the glass in the furnace!
That’s the image the Bible uses for the process God uses in each of our lives.  It’s called judgment, but I think that doesn’t really express the true intent of what God intends to do with us.  As our lesson from Malachi puts it, the image of refining comes much closer to reflecting what that’s about (Mal. 3:2).  The purpose is to remove any impurities that might weaken or disfigure what is being refined.  And the purpose is also to instill qualities that enhance the beauty of what is being refined.  I think that’s what God’s “judgment” is really about—refining us to remove whatever keeps us from being all that we were meant to be, and instilling qualities that shape us into the image of Christ.
One of the most important of those qualities is peace.  According to Zechariah’s song, John the Baptist’s mission was to prepare a people for the Lord to come.  His “preparation” for them was to lead them into the “way of peace” (Lk. 1:79).  And he was to do that by calling them to repentance.  Not just feeling sad or sorry for the fact that they may have said something they would later regret, but rather real, heartfelt, life-changing repentance.[2]  And he made it specific: those who had more than enough were to share with those who didn’t have enough.  And those who had power were not to abuse it.[3]  He was talking about the kind of change that is like purifying precious metals, or refining glass.
The “way of peace” is not an easy path.  It is a hard road that takes humility, the will to change, and the strength to persevere.  For there to be peace in any relationship, both parties have to humble themselves enough to acknowledge their contribution to the conflict.  Peace starts by our being willing to look at ourselves—to take a good hard long look at ourselves: our self-indulgence, our need to control others, and our aggressive behaviors toward others that really amounts to a kind of violence.  But the “way of peace” goes further than just recognizing our shortcomings; it also takes us to the point of being willing to do something about them.  We have to choose, in so far as it is humanly possible, to change and to return to the way of peace.  And then, in order to preserve peace, we have to put forth the effort—sometimes time and time again—to maintain peace.  The “way of peace” is not an easy road!
That’s why we need refining.  In a very real sense, what the Scriptures hold out to us as the ideal for how we are to live our lives simply doesn’t come naturally.  We have to have our bad habits purged— our selfish ways, our reluctance to humble ourselves enough to actually put peace into practice.  And we have to have new qualities instilled in us—qualities like the fruit of the Spirit:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).  Qualities that look like the character of Christ formed in us.  Then perhaps we can actually become the “peace-makers” God intends for us to be as as his sons and daughters.
Much of what the Bible has to say about a future return of Christ includes an aspect of judgment, of setting things right, of refining us. Some of these images can be frightening, just as I was a bit frightened from the intense heat of the glass-blower’s furnace.  But the glass-blower wasn’t afraid.  He was calmly, patiently shaping the glass into a beautiful work of art.  In the same way, so God calmly and patiently watches over us, working with us carefully to make us into a beautiful work of art. It seems to me that we have nothing to fear from the refining process that kind of God has in store for us. [4]  To some extent, we can see that the trials and tribulations of this life are already a part of that process, because the challenges that come our way refine us by removing what weakens us and instilling new qualities.  On the final day, when we all stand before our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, he will finish the task of refining us, removing our impurities and enhancing the beauty God created in each one of us.  I don’t think that’s something to fear, but rather something to welcome—being set free from all that keeps us from being the person God intended for us to be, and being transformed into the image of Christ. [5]

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/9/2012.
[2] Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:86.  He says, “There is an integrity to the repentant. … Their way of life, their priorities, commitments, personal relationships, passion for peace and justice, and their unplanned acts of compassion all give evidence to their repentance.”
[3] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 48, where he points out that the specifics of John’s demands relate to the “injustices and inequities” of that society.  Cf. Eileen M. Schuller, O. S. U., “The Book of Malachi,” New Interpreters Bible VII:868, where she points out that Mal. 3:5 puts the refining the prophet speaks of in a similar context.
[4] Cf. Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi, 187, where she refers to Charles Spurgeon’s famous sermon “The Sitting of the Refiner” emphasizing this point.  She says, “such is the love of this God.”
[5] Cf. Alan Robinson, “God the Refiner of Silver,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 11 (1949): 11, where he says, “God will know that His work has been completed when he sees reflected in the Christian soul His own image”; cf. also Karl Barth, Dogmatics 4.4:56: He adds, “ it is not for nothing that Lk. 3:6 adds the end of the verse: kai opsesthai pasa sarx to soterion tou theou (and all flesh shall see the salvation of God).”

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Promises, Promises

Promises, Promises
Lk. 21:25-36[1]
It seems like Advent is the “overlooked” season in our calendar.  The days leading up to Christmas are simply the time to load up on stuff and run around doing twice as much as usual.  But for many of us, Advent is a special time of year.  It means different things to different people.  For some of us, we get into the spirit of giving, whether it may be for someone less fortunate, or for family members and friends, or for all of the above.  For some  of us we get into the whole spirit of festivity, putting up the tree, decorating the house, and having people over to celebrate the season.  For some of us, we get into the Advent readings and Advent calendar and the special services at church, and we find this time to be refreshing and renewing to our faith.  For some of us, Advent means all of the above!
One of the most important aspects of Advent for me is that it is a time for us to focus on the hope that is in our faith.  We in the Protestant world don’t focus too much on the future aspect of our faith, but it is definitely there.[2]  There is a strong element of promise, of hope, of the future in our faith.  And Advent is a time for us to focus on that.  As our Gospel lesson reminds us, one of the major themes in our faith is the promise that Jesus will return with power and glory some day.[3]  Unfortunately, it seems to me that most of us don’t really know what to do with this aspect of the Christian faith.  We know of the extremists who claim to be able to interpret all the signs and to pin down the exact date when future events will happen.
There are others who take the promises of the future in the Bible and use a “name it, claim it” approach.  It’s almost as if the promises in the Bible are a kind of currency you can plug into a cosmic slot machine and pull the lever to get whatever you happen to want to come true.  I think we are just as keen to distance ourselves from those people as we are from the ones who think they can lay out a precise timeline of future events.  But in the process we may be in danger of losing the element of promise and of hope that figures so prominently in our faith.
I think it’s important to go back to the beginning, so to speak, and try to find out what the promises were intended for in the first place.  It seems to me that the point of the promises of a future where Jesus returns is not to give us a basis for predicting what’s to come, or to give us a way to claim for ourselves whatever our hearts desire.  And I certainly don’t believe those promises are intended to create fear in us, or make us worry whether we’ll be “left behind.”  They offer us reassurance that the God who began this creation as something “very good” will not rest until it has been restored to being “very good” again.[4]    And they promise us that God has begun to do that very thing through Jesus Christ.[5]  Yes, there is talk about cataclysmic signs and being caught unaware, but it seems to me that as long as we trust that “we belongbody and soul, in life and in death—to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ,” then we have nothing to fear from whatever that day will look like.[6]
In short, I think one of the most important purpose of the promises of a future in the Bible is to show us the character of God.  They remind us that we believe in a God who will “never fail us nor forsake us.”  We may feel like God has let us down, or we may feel abandoned by God, but the promise of the Scriptures is that God isn’t that kind of God.  God sticks around, no matter what.  We may not be aware of it, but God’s always there, loving us, guiding our way, seeking our best.  When we look at the promises this way—as demonstrations of God’s character—I think it gives us a wholly different way to approach them.  Instead of trying to read them like tea leaves to predict the future, instead of taking them as currency we can cash in on, we can use the promises of the Scriptures to help us live our daily lives.
That all sounds really good, but the fact is that when you look around you, many of the people you see are suffering.  Someone has a loved one who is near death.  Someone else has lost a job.  Someone else has gone through a divorce.  Someone else is no longer able to live in their own home.  And so on, and so on.  People are suffering.  Some of us are suffering.  I think when were in that position, we want to know what the promises of the Scriptures have to say to us, right here and right now.  It’s one thing to say that God promises to return to this world in the future to set all things right again, as they were at the very beginning.  But what difference does that make when we’re suffering right here and right now? 
I think this is where taking the promises as pointers to God’s character may be most important.  They show us a God who always cares for us, and so we can cast all our cares on him. They show us a God who never forsakes us, though everyone else we know may turn their backs on us.  They show us a God who loves us with a love that will never let us go.  I think that’s something to hang onto when the suffering of this world makes you question whether you can even make it through another day. 
I believe the promises of the Scriptures regarding Gods’ future are treasures for us hold on to firmly.  As we hear the promises read again this year during Advent, promises we’ve heard read so many times before, I hope we will pay attention to what they tell us about the God we believe in.[7]  I pray that they will rekindle in us a spirit of hope about what God is doing in this world and our place in it.  I hope they will give us courage to entrust our lives—all of our lives—into the loving hands of our faithful God, who always keeps his promises.[8]

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/2/12.
[2] Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:410
[3] Cf. Culpepper, “Gospel of Luke,” NIB IX:410.  He points out that there is a whole category of “Son of Man” sayings in the Gospels that deal with this, no to mention the emphasis found in the rest of the NT.
[4] John C. Morris, “Anticipation,” The Christian Century  (Nov. 22, 2000):1214: he says it is the promise of “a future of justice, freedom, reconciliation and wholeness.”
[5] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 26-27, 28, 30, 32-33.
[6] Cf. The Heidelberg Catechism, question 1, The Book of Confessions 4.001.  Cf. also Culpepper, “Gospel of Luke,” NIB IX: 411, where he says, “the end of time or the end of life holds no terror for those who know God’s love because they know the one who determines the reality that lies beyond what we can know here and now.”
[7] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 20: “Hope is nothing else than the expectation of those things which faith has believed to have been truly promised by God” (quoting John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.2.42 ).
[8] Cf. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 115: “God is the same God all the way from promise to fulfillment.”