Friday, January 25, 2013

Sign of Joy

Sign of  Joy
John 2:1-11[1]
For centuries, our faith has been more a source of oppression than celebration.  Long ago the motivation for being a Christian turned from joy over the coming of God’s justice, peace, and freedom to fear of punishment, guilt over our shortcomings, and the belief that humanity is inherently evil. It would seem that in the days when the church became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it became convenient to control people using fear, guilt, and shame.  And since the keepers of the faith insisted that people approach their faith from this perspective, they really had only two choices--to follow their leaders’ dictates to the letter or to renounce their faith and risk an eternity of banishment.  From that time until now, the prevailing spirit of the Christian faith in many cases has been repressive rather than joyful.
But our gospel lesson for today flies in the face of that kind of approach to religion.  We know very well the story of Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding feast in the village of Cana in Galilee.  But I’m not sure we get the point of it all.  In fact, I think many throughout the history of our faith have made a concerted effort to suppress the point of this first sign that he worked to demonstrate his glory, i.e., to show what he was about and what God’s kingdom was about.  Surely most of us have heard the saying that wine in ancient times wasn’t fermented, or if it was it was only lightly fermented.  The idea that Jesus would make a huge quantity of alcohol (around 150 gallons!) seems to offend the sensibilities of those who still view our faith from the perspective of fear, guilt, and shame. 
But that is precisely what Jesus did for his first “sign.”  He made a huge quantity of wine--and very fine wine at that, according to the steward of the feast.  What we have to understand is that the “signs” in John are a central theme running throughout this Gospel.  The signs Jesus works are the actions by which he demonstrates what he is about and what God’s Kingdom is about.  They reveal his “glory,” and they culminate with his being “lifted up (on the cross) in order to draw all people” to himself (Jn. 12:32).  The signs in John’s gospel are meant to demonstrate what Jesus is doing, and what God’s Kingdom is about.[2]
What would Jesus possibly mean to demonstrate by doing something like this as his first “sign”?  Well, I think we have to consider the context to answer that question about any particular text.  Jesus was a guest at a wedding feast in the small village of Cana in Galilee.  It would appear that this family was not wealthy, because it would seem that their feast was only going to last one day.  Traditional wedding feasts, even today, can last up to a week.  Unfortunately, even at this meager feast, the family had not been able to buy enough wine to last the whole feast.  And to run out of wine at a wedding feast would have been humiliating to the family, and not least to the couple who were starting their lives together on this special day.
Now, at this point I think we have to recognize that the place of wine in biblical festivities is a bit naive.  While there are places where the Bible criticizes drunkenness as a habitual practice, there are several places where drinking a lot of good wine is an essential part of joyful celebration.  Whether it’s a wedding feast, or even the feast that God promises to set for “all people” when the Kingdom comes in all its fullness (Isa. 25:6), wine is there as something that is supposed to make the celebration joyful.[3] 
I think that’s why Jesus’ first sign by which he revealed the light that he was bringing into the darkness of this world was the creation of a huge quantity of very fine wine.  If the wine had given out it would have ruined the celebration of these two people beginning their new life together.[4]  It would have been a mark against their family that would not have been forgotten in a small village.  It would have not only marred the joy of the day, it would have potentially marred the joy of their life together as husband and wife.  And so Jesus made enough fine wine to ensure that the joyful celebration of life continued.[5]
It may seem strange in church to hear that the inaugural sign of Jesus’ ministry in John’s Gospel was the creation of a huge quantity of wine so that a drinking party could continue as long as it needed to.  But we have to remember that the whole point of this miracle was to ensure that this couple’s joyful celebration of their new life together could continue.  We may be surprised to hear that the means for doing that was 150 gallons of fine wine, but that was entirely appropriate in that day and time.  The main point is that Jesus’ first sign, the first act by which he reveals his glory to his disciples, the first thing he does to demonstrate what he’s about and what the Kingdom of God is about, is to promote the celebration of life.
More than that, Jesus’ action of ensuring that this particular celebration of life at Cana could continue points to the good news that God is working in this world through Jesus the Christ and through the Spirit of Life to restore everything and everyone to the place where we can all celebrate life.[6]  It seems to me when religion loses its ability to celebrate life, it loses its very heart and soul.  God created our world, and all that is in it, and stood back and said, “it’s very good” (Gen.1:31). When our religion looks at life and says “it’s very bad,” we’ve missed something very important.  Don’t misunderstand--there is much that is wrong with this world.  But the message Jesus came to proclaim to us, the message that we’re re-learning during the season of Epiphany,  is that God is in the business of making everything right, of making all things new.  And part of that message is that the life that God has created, and that God has redeemed through Jesus Christ, is something precious and joyful.  It’s something to celebrate!

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/20/2013.
[2] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.2: 479.  Cf. also G. C. Berkouwer, The Return of Christ, 237, where he reminds us that “Only when signs are seen through the eyes of faith can they display their meaning and significance.”
[3] Cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, 105: “One of the consistent OT figures for the joy of the final days is an abundance of wine.”  Cf. similarly, G. R. Beasley-Murray, John, 36.
[4] Cf. Timothy L. Owings, “John 2:1-11,” Review and Expositor 85 (1988): 535-36; cf. also Gerard S. Sloyan, John, 36.  Cf. similarly, J. D. W. Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 479.
[5]Cf. Jack Good, “Defining Moment,” The Christian Century (Jan 13, 2004):16: Jesus’ “coming-out event was a party within a party, a celebration within a celebration. The work of Jesus began in a life-affirming setting. The sign of his ministry would be wine, a symbol of human conviviality and gladness.”
[6] Cf. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” NIB IX, p. 540.  She says that Jesus’ miracle is “a miracle of abundance, of extravagance, of transformation and new possibilities.” cf. also Sloyan, John, 38; Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 479; and Hans Wildberger, A Continental Commentary: Isaiah 13-17, 534.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Not Too Good to be True

Not Too Good to be True
Isa. 43:1-7; Lk 3:15-22[1]
Karl Marx is famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for his criticism of religion.  He said it was the “opiate of the masses.”   By that he meant that promises of a better life in the by and by dulled people’s senses to the oppression and injustice all around them.  Many people think of Marx as an enemy of the faith, and angrily reject his views as dangerous and anti-Christian.  But I take a different approach.  I think Marx was a disappointed idealist.[2]  He was raised on the prophets’ teachings and their promises of justice and peace and freedom in God’s kingdom, and instead what he saw all around him was injustice and violence and oppression.  And he saw the church as a major player in that injustice and violence and oppression.  Many of the ideals he articulated are actually almost verbatim from Scripture!  Unfortunately he took those ideals out of their original context of faith, and turned them into a formula for violent social upheaval that caused even more suffering!
When you look at some of the promises of Scripture, I think you can understand why Marx got so disillusioned.  Take our lesson from the book of the prophet Isaiah for today.  The prophet, speaking in the name of the Lord, promised the Jewish people that even if they had to go through the floods they would not be overwhelmed, and even if they had to go through the fire they would not be burned!  Just on the surface of it, it sounds too good to be true.  Who can go through the fire without getting burned?  Who can go through a flood without getting soaked through?  And when you realize that the prophet was addressing people who were living in exile, it makes the contrast even more stark.[3]  These were people who had lost everything--homes, lives, land, and even in some cases family.  They had gone through the worst catastrophe imaginable.  They had gone through the flood, and been overwhelmed.  They had gone through the fire and been burned.  Or so it would seem from their perspective.
But when we go through the flood and the fire, sometimes our perspective isn’t always the best one.  We can’t understand why catastrophic losses come into our lives.  We may feel like God has broken his promises because we tried our best to trust and obey him, and instead of a “reward” we got punished.  But that’s when we have to remember that we simply don’t know what God is doing in our lives--in good times and in bad times.  When hardships come into our lives, we don’t know what the pain is doing to open us up to what God may have in store for us in the future.  I think the mistake we make is that we think that the Scriptures promise us that God will bring us through the flood and the fire unscathed.  But you can’t go through a flood without getting soaked through.  And you can’t go through a fire without at least smelling like smoke, and maybe even getting burned.  But the promise is that these hardships will not consume us, not that we won’t suffer.  The promise is that even if we have to go through the floods, we will not drown, and even if we have to go through the fire, we will not be destroyed.[4] 
This is also the day when we commemorate Jesus’ baptism.  You may wonder what in the world Jesus’ baptism has to do with the promises from the Scriptures that may seem too good to be true.  Well, I think it has everything to do with them.  It’s these very promises from the prophetic scriptures that continually hold out for us the possibility of light in our darkness--that no matter what we may have to go through in this life, God loves us and is always with us.  And it seems to me that Jesus’ baptism was one more sign that God was beginning to fulfill those promises that may seem too good to be true.  At least that’s the way John the Baptist saw it.  Listen to what he has to say about Jesus in Gene Peterson’s The Message: “I’m baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out” (Lk. 3:16).  Seems pretty clear that John sees Jesus as the one who is going to ignite the fire of God’s kingdom by pouring out the Spirit.[5]  And so it’s no coincidence then that when Jesus is baptized, the heavens are opened and the Spirit comes upon Jesus.  It’s only fitting because he’s the one who’s going to bring the light of God’s kingdom into this dark world. He’s the one who’s going to fulfill the promises the prophets made in the name of the Lord.[6]
In Jesus’ Baptism, we have another event from his life that affirms our hope in those promises that sound too good to be true.  In the NT, it seems clear that the early Christians believed Jesus was the one who was bringing the light of God’s justice and peace and freedom into this world of injustice and violence and oppression. We may still see too much injustice, violence, and oppression in our world today.  But God is not finished with us yet.  Those promises that seem too good to be true are at the heart of our faith, that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Lk. 3:6).  The season of Epiphany is not only a time to celebrate the light that has dawned; it is also a time to reaffirm our hope in the promises that are not too good to be true, promises of all the good things that God is always working to bring into all our lives

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/13/2013.
[2] Cf. Keith Ward, God: A Guide for the Perplexed, 154-57.  He observes (p. 156), “Revolutionary Marxism tortured and massacred more people in fifty years than the so-called oppressive religions had managed to get through in generations.”  He adds (pp. 156-57), “there is an unbearable tension in Marx between his outrage at the conditions of the industrialised workers, in early nineteenth-century Britain, particularly his longing for freedom for the poorest and most oppressed, and his recommendation of a revolution which would introduce unprecedented violence and terror into the lives of those he most wanted to help.”
[3] cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 62, where he says that the people “needed a word of assurance, a promise that there was a future beyond the baffling suffering and shame they had suffered.”
[4] cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1:39, where he refers to the assurance of the the Heidelberg Catechism (ques. 26) that “whatever evil he sends upon me in this troubled life he will turn to my good, for he is able to do it, being almighty God, and is determined to do it, being a faithful Father” (cf Book of Confessions 4.026).  Cf. also Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI:381; and Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 64.
[5] Cf. also Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 49, where he observes that in Luke and Acts there is repeated emphasis on “the Holy Spirit as the hallmark of Christianity.”
[6]Cf. J. Nolland, Luke 1:1-9:20, 165: Jesus’ baptism is “his anointing by the Spirit to the ministry of Isa 61:1–2”; cf. also F. Bovon, Luke 1:1-9:50, 130; R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:91; and  Craddock, Luke, 51-52.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Light in Darkness

Light in Darkness
Ps. 72; Isa. 60; Matt 2:1-12[1]
We have just completed a season of waiting and preparing ourselves for the coming of God's light into the world.  Some might wonder why all the fuss.  For them, the world is already a place full of light and joy, full of all they could ever want or desire--family, career, success, prestige.  But for many people in our world--in our own communities and neighborhoods, their experience of life in this world is full of darkness.  Theirs has been a life of grief and loss, a life of broken dreams and shattered hopes, a life of failure and shame.  It is the time of year when there is more darkness than light during the day.  But the kind of darkness I’m talking about is a darkness that does not depend on the season of the year or the time of day.  It is a darkness that can and does come at any time.
The world into which Jesus was born was full of all kinds of this darkness.  Many lived out their lives as slaves of one kind or another.  Many lived a kind of virtual slavery, dependent for their daily bread on the arbitrary generosity of those who owned the majority of the land.  And the shadow of the Roman Empire was cast over the whole Mediterranean world--a shadow cast by ruthless conquerors who had no conscience about enforcing their will with the edge of a sword and the point of a spear.  For many in Jesus’ day, there was no hope of anything better.
The Jewish people at least had a hope to sustain them.  The prophets sustained that hope for generations.  It was the hope that God would bring light into the darkness.  It was the hope that God would throw off the yoke of every oppressor and set free all those who lived in unjust captivity.  It was the hope that God would restore the people to the land where they could once again thrive by the sweat of their own labor, eating the bread made from grain grown in their own fields and fruit grown on trees in their own groves. When that happened, old and young would live in safety, without fear of either famine or captivity.[2]
It was in Jesus that the early Christians saw the fulfillment of these hopes.  They believed that Jesus would be the one to bring the light they longed for.  They believed Jesus was the one who would “deliver the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper” (Ps. 72:12).[3] That is why today, the feast of Epiphany, is such an important day in the Christian calendar.  It is the day when we commemorate the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus.  That story was seen as a literal fulfillment of the prediction that “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn” (Isa. 60:3).  For the early Christians, the visit of the magi was another sign that the light was dawning in the darkness.
But there is something more to the visit of the magi.  These men were all pagans, they were heathen gentiles.[4]  They had no connection with the Jewish people, their prophets, their hopes or their Messiah.  And yet, according to our Gospel lesson for today, they come from afar to “pay homage” to Mary’s child (Matt. 2:11).[5]  This is important, because from the very beginning, Jesus is worshipped by shepherds and angels, by commoners and royalty, and, perhaps more importantly, by Jews and Gentiles alike.[6]  From the very beginning, the light that dawned with the birth of Jesus was a light that shines for all people (Jn. 1:4). 
This is one of the reasons why Paul rejoiced so much in his gracious commission to bring to those in darkness “the news of the boundless riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). Elsewhere Paul could express the good news in this way: “The God who said, ‘Out of darkness the light shall shine!’ is the same God who made his light shine in our hearts, to bring us the knowledge of God's glory shining in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).  His vision of the revealing of God’s light was such that he looked forward to the day when every tongue would confess “Jesus is Lord” to the glory of God (Phil. 2:10-11).[7]
Though we really don’t know much what to make of the season of Epiphany, in a very real sense, everything about our faith is a part of the celebration of Epiphany.  Literally it means “revealing,” it is a taking away of the veil that covers something.  Epiphany is about unveiling what Advent promises: that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Lk. 3:6); that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together” (Isaiah 40:5).  During this time of year, we read stories from Jesus’ life that show how Jesus revealed that he truly was the light that was coming into the darkness.[8] That’s why we celebrate Epiphany--it’s a time to remind ourselves that in him a light has dawned that will never go out--a light of faith, and hope, and joy that shines in all the kinds of darkness that can afflict this world.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/6/13.
[2] Cf., for example, John D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34-66, 867-68, where he talks about the restoration envisioned in Isaiah 60.  Cf. also Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 218-221, where he describes the adverse conditions that made it a challenge for the people to hold onto that hope.
[3] See. H.- J. Kraus, Psalm 60-150, 81: “The expectations of the prayer for blessing look forward to ‘God’s deliverer’ in whom the ‘reign of God’ on earth, in the people of God and at the same time among the nations, finds its fulfillment.” Cf. also James L. Mays, Psalms, 237: “Saving justice for the helpless is the definitive mark of the reign of God, the sign of the one who represents the lord of all the world.” Cf. differently, Marvin E. Tate, Psalm 51-100, 226.
[4] Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, 13.
[5] Cf. Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 27, 31.  Cf. also U. Luz, Matthew 1-7, 115, where although he earlier questions whether we are to see the worship of  the magi as a fulfillment of Isa. 60:3, he recognizes that the christological interpretation of the event as a sign that God is with us is prominent.
[6] cf. Luz, Matthew 1-7, 115, where he also points out that this is an important theme in this passage.
[7] cf. Hare, Matthew, 13, where he says, “When the visitors come into the presence of Mary’s child they do obeisance to him, unwittingly anticipating that day when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil. 2:10-11).”
[8] This is a theme in Jürgen Moltmann’s theology.  He says that when the glory of God is revealed over all the earth, all humankind and all creation will be drawn into “the life stream of the triune God,” where they experience “boundless freedom, exuberant joy, and inexhaustible love,” which is what God intended for creation in the first place. See Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 124, 126, 161, 178, 212, 222.  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 183-84;  Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 145.

Song of Hope

Song of Hope
Lk. 1:46-56[1]
This is the season for singing. One of the things most of us like best about the Christmas season is the music—provided you don’t spend too much time at the Mall!  Even those of us who don’t particularly like to sing get into the mood when it comes to Christmas carols.  We sing because it reminds us of all the good times we’ve had at this time of year.  We sing because it lifts our spirits during what can be a difficult time of year for some of us.  We sing because we relish the joy in the eyes of our children and grandchildren as they anticipate the gifts they will receive.  We sing for all kinds of reasons, but most of us sing at this time of year.
In our Gospel lesson from Luke for today, we hear the song that Mary sang in response to her cousin Elizabeth’s declaration of faith in the birth of her son.  Mary’s song is called the Magnificat because that is the first word in the Latin version.  In her song we hear her joy over God’s work of restoration.  Interestingly, her song of joy about the coming birth of her son sings about what God has already done: the proud humbled, the powerful pulled down from their thrones, those who are stuffed sent away empty-handed, those who are disempowered lifted up and those who are hungry filled with good things (Luke 1:51-53). [2] Mary describes the overturning of the current system of consumption and oppression and violence by the norms of God’s kingdom: mercy, justice, and love.[3]  And she sings for joy as if these things have already happened.
One of the reasons why she can sing this way about the future birth of her child is because it repeats the song of God’s restoration that has been sung throughout the ages.[4]  From the song of Hannah in the days before King David a thousand years before Christ to the song of the Psalmist in Ps. 146, we hear again and again that God’s work in this world consists of setting things right.  And Mary sings her song of joy because she sees the birth of her son as the beginning of the fulfillment of the hope that people like her had been singing about for generations.
While Mary’s song is a song of hope and joy, there’s just no way to avoid the fact that there is a barb in the good news that God is working to restore the human family.  That barb is this—most of us fall into the category of the “full” and the “rich” who will be sent away hungry and empty-handed.[5]  Mary’s song of hope is a joyful one for those who are lowly, humble and humiliated, the least and the last.  And yet, even here there is good news—the future Mary looked forward to is a vision of the restoration of the whole human family.  She saw in the birth of her son the establishment of the justice that makes it possible for all people to thrive, to reach their God-given potential, to experience the joy and the vibrancy that God intends for us all.
What that means for those of us who are “full” and “rich” here and now is that the only way for us to sing Mary’s song with the same kind of joy—the joy of the “lowly” being lifted up—is if we actually engage in God’s work of restoration.[6]  The only way for us to sing Mary’s song with joy and hope is for us to work at lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, and restoring those who are disenfranchised.[7]  That was what Jesus came to do—to begin God’s work of making all things new, of setting right the wrongs and lifting the burdens we all carry.  That’s why we celebrate Advent and Christmas.  It is a time for us to focus our attention on God’s work in this broken world.  It is a time of looking for the salvation that God has promised, and a time of singing for joy over what God is already doing among us.  It is a time to celebrate the work of restoration God is carrying out in the human family—the whole human family.  And it is a time for us to join that work.
In Advent we sing because we look forward to something better than the violence and suffering and injustice all around us.  We look forward to the kindness and generosity and compassion of our God being fulfilled for all the peoples of the world.  We sing because we look forward to “peace on earth, and mercy mild”; it is the heart and soul of our faith. We sing because of the good news that in Jesus the Christ God has entered this world definitively to set everything right and to make all things new.[8]  And we sing because in and through this marvelous event, “light and life to all he brings.”  This song of hope is what enables us to look past our fears and our hurts and our suspicions and view those around us with God’s compassionate love.[9]  This joyful faith is what gives us energy to sustain our love as we join in God’s work of transforming all creation by making a difference in our corner of the world.[10]

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm.  A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/23/12.
[2] Cf. Ruth Ann Foster, “Mary’s Hymn of Praise in Luke 1:46-55,” Review and Expositor 100 (2003):451-463.  She says (p. 458), “Mary acknowledges God's mercy and love for the lowly and a radical reversal of normal human values in the coming messianic kingdom.”  Cf. also R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:55.
[3] Cf. Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge: A Shortened Version of On Being A Christian, 89: in the light of the Kingdom of God, “all existing systems, all ordinances, institutions, structures and indeed all differences between the mighty and the powerless, between rich and poor, appear from the very beginning to be relatively unimportant: the norms of this kingdom must be applied even now.”
[4] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 30, where he says that Mary’s song expresses what is “timelessly true.”
[5] Cf. Foster, “Mary’s Hymn,” 458: “even though Mary has been often ‘regarded as the comforter of the disturbed .. . she [or at least her song] is far more accurately the disturber of the comfortable’” (quoting Doris Donnelly).
[6] Cf. Stephen Shoemaker, GodStories, 217-18: “There are only two ways you can enter the kingdom and experience its joy. One is to be among the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted; those to whom God comes as healing, comfort, justice, and freedom. The other way is to be among God’s people who are going to the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted and bringing God’s healing, comfort, justice, and freedom.”
[7] Cf. Letty M. Russell, “God’s Great Reversal,” The Christian Century (Nov. 20, 1991): 1089.  She says, “God's great reversal may come too close to  home as we hear that Christmas is about lifting up the ‘lowly,’ filling ‘the hungry with good things’ and ‘sending the rich away empty.’ Yet it is by joining in the their desire and work for deliverance that we find out the meaning of the good news of great joy.”
[8] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.2, 460-61
[9] Henri Nouwen, Now and Then, 60-62.
[10] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 338: “Faith can expend itself in the pain of love, ..., because it is upheld by the assurance of hope in the resurrection of the dead.