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.

No comments: