Monday, February 18, 2013

My God In Whom I Trust

My God In Whom I Trust
Ps 91; Lk. 4:1-13[1]
  Trust is a complicated thing.  It takes a great deal of work to earn it.  It can be priceless, and once earned, it is something to cherish.  But it can also be incredibly fragile. After working years to build trust with someone, just one word or deed can shatter it.  And once broken, trust is not easily renewed.  Sometimes it’s impossible to rebuild broken trust.  Trust can be extremely complicated.  And yet we speak of trusting God as a part of our faith in ways that seem to suggest that trust is not complicated at all, but rather very easy.  I’m not sure we’re giving enough respect to the importance of trust in our relationship with God when we do that.
  In a relationship, you build trust by getting to know another person.  You spend time together, you do favors for each other, give gifts, share life stories, and little by little you begin to trust the other person.  The more you take the risk to open yourself to that person and your vulnerability is met with a positive response, the more you trust.  But how exactly does one do that with a God whom Scripture calls the “immortal, invisible, God only wise” (1 Tim. 1:17). And we add in the hymn, “In light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”[2]  How do you build a relationship of trust with a God you can neither see, nor hear, nor touch? 
  There are some for whom it seems like the easiest thing in the world.  They will say that you do it just like you build any relationship--in this case by spending time reading Scripture and praying.  If we believe Scripture is God’s word to us and that praying is talking to God, then that makes sense.  And it works wonderfully for some people.  But for some of us, Scripture seems incredibly difficult to understand, and our prayers seem to go no further heavenward than the ceiling above us.  What do we do then?
  How do we reach a place where we can say, like the Psalmist says in our lesson for today, “My God, in whom I trust”?  Some of us may find that too much of a stretch.  Even the language of the Psalm seems to promise too much: If we make God our refuge, “no evil shall befall you” (Ps. 91:10).  What are we to make of this, especially in light of the fact that faithful believers throughout the ages have always suffered evil?  This points to a potential danger in the sweeping promises of the psalm.[3]  Even the tempter uses one of the promises of this very Psalm against Jesus in the wilderness! (Lk. 4:10-11, citing Ps. 91:11-12).  But I think it’s important to recognize that the Psalmist doesn’t promise that nothing bad will happen to us.  Notice that later the Psalmist assumes that the faithful will experience “trouble” in life (Ps. 91:15).  Rather than promising to exempt us from the bad things that can happen to good people, the Psalmist promises that there is nothing bad that can happen to us that God cannot ultimately turn into something good.[4]
  But the question remains, how do we learn to trust a God whom we can neither see nor hear nor touch?  I think it takes the courage to risk--to stake our lives on our belief in God.  It takes the kind of courage Jesus displayed in the wilderness.  His response to the tempter reveals that he was willing to place his fate in God’s hands, come what may.[5]  It takes the same courage Abraham had when he decided to trust God’s promise of a child and set out from his homeland to a place yet to be determined.  Did all the heroes of faith who took the risk of trusting God do so blindly?  I don’t think so.  I think this is one of the ways Scripture can help us the most.  Not with proof-texts that can be twisted the way the tempter twisted the Psalm lesson for today.  Rather, the Scriptures tell us stories of the way in which God was faithful to those who trusted him time and time again.  It tells us stories of people just like us who didn’t have some kind of storybook life but experienced the trials and challenges and risks we all do in life.  And because they had experienced God’s faithfulness in the past, they continued to trust.  Their experiences demonstrate an important lesson:  We can only learn by experience that God brings surprising good out of even the worst experiences of life.  We can only develop the heart of trust and the eyes of faith to see God’s love and grace and mercy in our lives when we look back in hindsight.[6]
  During this season of Lent, I think it is a good time to look back and to try to develop those eyes of faith.  It think it’s a good time to examine our trust in God.  By that I don’t mean whether we believe in the existence of a supreme being.  I mean it’s a good time to ask ourselves whether we trust God--whether we really trust God the way the Psalmist did, the way Jesus did.[7]  It takes courage to trust God.  It’s a risk.  But as St Paul reminds us, “no one who believes in him will be put to shame” (Rom. 10:11).  When we muster up the courage to take the risk of staking our lives on God and God alone, then we learn what it means to trust God enough to say, come what may, “My God in whom I trust.”

[1] ©2013 Alan Brehm.  A Sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/17/2013.
[2] Walter Chalmers Smith, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” in The Presbyterian Hymnal, 263.
[3] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 297: “The Psalm itself poses a danger.  Because its assurance of security is so comprehensive and confident, it is especially subject to the misuse that is a possibility for all religious claims, that of turning faith into superstition.”
[4] Cf. “The Study Catechism,” 1998, question 22.  Cf. also J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:1048, where he says, “We should not use Psalm 91 as a magical guarantee against danger, threat, or difficulty.  Rather, this psalm is a reminder to us that nothing ‘will be able to separate us from the love of God’ (Rom. 8:39 NRSV).” Cf. also H.-J. Kraus,  A Continental Commentary: Psalms 60–150, 225. Cf. further Marvin Tate, Psalms 51-100, 458: “The last words in the psalm are not spoken to God but are spoken by God to us” (citingBrueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 157).
[5]Cf. Mays, Psalms, 298.  He says that  the temptation posed to Jesus “was to take the promised protection of God into the control of his own will and act. Cf. also R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke” New Interpreters Bible IX:100, where he observes that in his temptation experience Jesus fulfills “the command that was at the heart of Judaism,” the command to love God with all one’s being. Cf. further F. Bovon, Luke 1: A commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1–9:50, 145.
[6] Cf. Tate, Psalms 51-100, 459: “We are challenged to ground our endeavors in trust in Yahweh, a trust which will not fail and which leads us along a way where we will see more and more of the saving work of God until finally our knowledge will be complete.”
[7] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 298: “Real trust does not seek to test God or prove his faithfulness.”

Thursday, February 07, 2013


Luke 4:21-30[1]
Choosing is an action that is full of consequences--some intended and some unintended.  Especially when it comes to choosing people.  If you choose someone, that means you are passing over, or not choosing others.  In my day, where this was played out most significantly was on the school playground.  When it came to choosing sides for a game of football or kickball, the most popular kids, and the most athletic, were always chosen first.  I was never among that group.  I was usually the last to be chosen for any team I was on.  It feels really good to be the first chosen for something.  It makes you feel special and wanted.  It doesn’t feel so good being the last chosen, or even being passed over.
The Bible is full of language related to God choosing a particular people, the descendants of Abraham.  The Jewish people had a strong sense of being a “peculiar people,” a nation chosen and blessed by God.  Unfortunately, as many of the prophets make clear, the Jewish people turned that blessing into a privilege, and they thought it would spare them from suffering the consequences of their disobedience to God.  It would seem that by Jesus’ day and time, one of the fundamental aspects of Jewish identity was the belief that they were chosen by God.  In their minds, God’s special relationship with them meant that they must be special, and therefore better than the “gentile dogs” (that is, all non-Jewish people).
But like Jesus, the prophets also reminded the Jewish people that the purpose of their calling was not simply privilege, but so that they might be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6).  This theme goes back to the days of the Exodus, when Moses had said that they would be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), a whole nation of people who would speak for God and represent God’s saving purposes in the world.  It goes back even beyond that to the days when Abraham lived in Ur of the Chaldees, and God called him for a special purpose.  The purpose was to make Abraham a blessing to all people: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).[2] 
I think this is a big part of what is going on in our Gospel lesson for today.  Jesus knew that the people of Nazareth were jealous of the fact that he had done wondrous things in Capernaum--a city they considered virtually heathen territory.  It was a scandal to them that he would share the blessings of God’s Kingdom with those who were outside the chosen people.  That’s why he gave them two examples of God doing just that--blessing those who were outside the chosen people.[3]  In part, I think Jesus was trying to remind them that God’s kingdom of justice, peace, and freedom was not just for the chosen few, but for the whole human family. The God of Abraham is the God who is concerned about “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3).[4]  The God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ does not single anyone out for special attention or blessings. God gives the blessings of sun and rain (Mt. 5:44-45), compassion and care (Ps. 145:9), to all people on earth alike.[5] I think that’s at least a part of what Jesus was trying to say to them, and they didn’t like it one little bit!
But I think that Jesus was also trying to remind them of the original purpose of their special relationship with God: to share the blessings of a new way of life with those living in the darkness of oppression, captivity, violence, and fear.[6]  Like God’s servants of the past, like Jesus himself, those who claim to have a special relationship with God by virtue of calling and faith are chosen for a reason: to share God’s grace and mercy and love and justice with those around them.  That was true in the time of the prophets, it was true in the time of Jesus, and it’s still true today.  We are called to give water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, welcome to the stranger, shelter to the homeless, clothing to the naked.[7]  We are called to share the blessing of new life that we have been given through our faith in Jesus the Christ.
Epiphany really is a good time to re-learn the good news that we profess.  It is a time to remind ourselves that in Jesus a light has dawned that will never go out.  It is a time to reaffirm our hope in the promises of all the good things that God is always working to bring into all our lives. It’s a time to remind ourselves that the life that God has created and redeemed through Jesus Christ is something to celebrate.  It’s a time to recognize that the grace of God is emerging all around us, bringing freedom and peace and a fresh start for the least and the lost and the left out.  But it’s also a time to remember that we have received all those blessings of new life for a purpose--not to hoard them, or to think of ourselves as special, but to share them with everyone we meet.

[1] ©2013 Alan Brehm.   A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/3/2013.
[2] Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World, 28-41.       
[3] Cf. William Willimon, “Book ‘Em,” The Christian Century (Jan 27, 2004):20, where he points out that this is Jesus’ first sermon, and he “threw the book at them”!
[4] Cf. Claus Westermann, C, A Continental Commentary: Genesis 12–36, 152:  “Where the name of Abraham is spoken in a prayer for blessing, the blessing of Abraham streams forth; it knows no bounds and reaches all the families of the earth.” Cf. also Charles B. Cousar, Galatians, 84 and Richard B. Hays, “The Letter to the Galatians,” The New  Interpreter’s Bible XI:278.
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2.223.  He points out that Jesus acts out this mercy and grace of God especially toward those who benefit from his miracles.  He says, “the important thing about them in these stories is not that they are sinners but that they are sufferers. Jesus does not first look at their past, and then at their tragic present in the light of it. But from their present He creates for them a new future. He does not ask, therefore, concerning their sin. He does not hold it against them. He does not denounce them because of it. The help and blessing that He brings are quite irrespective of their sin. He acts almost (indeed exactly) in the same way as His Father in heaven, who causes His sun to shine on the good and the evil, and His rain to fall on the just and the unjust (Mt. 5:45).”  Cf. also ibid., 2.1:270, where he comments on Ps. 145: “Everything that God is and does is determined and characterised by the fact that there is rooted in Him, that He Himself is, this original free powerful compassion, that from the outset He is open and ready and inclined to the need and distress and torment of another, that His compassionate words and deeds are not grounded in a subsequent change, in a mere approximation to certain conditions in the creature which is distinct from Himself, but are rooted in His heart, in His very life and being as God.”
[6] Cf. John Stendahl, “The Offense,” The Christian Century (Jan 21, 1998):53.  He suggests that Jesus was trying to get them to see the “big picture” of what God was up to in the world and they tried to trivialize it by focusing on him as the local boy who made good.  Cf. also Donald G. Miller, “Luke 4:22-30,” Interpretation 40 (Jan 1986): 54; and Craig A. Evans, “Luke's Use Of The Elijah/Elisha Narratives And The Ethic Of Election,” Journal of Biblical Literature 106/1 (1987)78-79.
[7] Cf. Letty M. Russell, “A Prophet Without Welcome,” The Christian Century (Jan 1, 1992):10.  She says, “The oppressed whom Jesus has come to set free are the crushed ones, the bruised of society; the nonpersons who have no room to breathe or live as human beings. God is specially concerned for such people because they have been denied their created humanity by the way the social system functions.”  Cf. also Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 136, where he comments (on Matt. 5:45) “In this love that knows no boundaries, the disciples are to reflect the generosity of God, who sends blessing upon both the righteous and the unrighteous and who has brought the kingdom to the unworthy.”