Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Light Overcoming Darkness

Light Overcoming Darkness
Heb. 2:10-18[1]
  For many of us, there is no darkness we fear more than death.  It is the ultimate unknown.    I realize that when we are young, death may seem remote and almost unreal.  Until someone your age passes away.  Someone you knew and perhaps even loved.  Then the stark reality of death hits you.  And when it does, most of us are unprepared for the fear that grips us.  In response to that fear, we seem obsessed in this culture with keeping death as far away from us as possible.  And perhaps for good reason--there seems to be no logic, no rhyme or reason to the way the “grim reaper” takes its victims.  Our inability to make any sense out of death only increases our fear.[2]
  But our New Testament lesson for today presents us with the good news that, because we bear this burden of mortality, Jesus also came as one of us, made of flesh and blood.  He came not only to show us God’s unfailing love and abiding presence with us, but he also came specifically bearing our mortality so that he could die.  And the purpose of his death was to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Heb. 2:15).  Though the text doesn’t spell out precisely how it is that he sets us free from the fear of death, the gospel message elsewhere reminds us that Jesus didn’t just come to die, but also to be raised from the dead, and to triumph over all the powers of darkness in this world, most importantly death. 
  Part of the purpose of his coming in the vulnerability of our flesh and blood was to demonstrate that our God is not so high and exalted as to be unconcerned with and unmoved by our burdens.[3]  Rather, by entering our broken and confusing existence as Immanuel, “God with us,” Jesus took upon all the burdens that we bear.[4]  And so he made it clear that God is not the cold and distant deity whom people have cringed before, and at times even hated.  Rather, God is the one who loves us so much that, as we say in one of our statements of faith, Jesus died to show us God’s love as “a love that is ready to suffer for our sakes.”[5] 
  That was the conclusion Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to as he sat in his cell in a Gestapo prison camp.  He said, “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross.  He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. … only the suffering God can help.”[6]  And our lesson for today says it this way: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Heb. 2:18).
  But that really is the question, isn’t it?  Can a God who is vulnerable enough to enter our brokenness really be powerful enough to do something about it?  It would seem that a God who is able to suffer with us is a God who is just as impotent as we are in the face of our suffering and ultimately our experience of death.  In fact, that has been what some have concluded: God loves us, and God suffers with us, but at the end of the day, that’s about all God can do for us.[7] If that’s the case, I’m not sure many would conclude that God is “able to help” us at all. 
  Others are unwilling to relegate God (and us) to such a helpless state in which our experience with death leaves us with a mystery of suffering that we cannot solve.  So they insist that though our experience of suffering and death may be burdensome to us now, God will ultimately bring good from it.[8] Once again, while there is some comfort to that, “ultimately” can seem like a very long time.  Sometimes it can be a very long time.  So what are we to do in the meanwhile?  How does the suffering love of our vulnerable God help us then?
  Well, for one thing, I think we must not underestimate the power of that love that was poured out at the cross.  It may look like the Jesus who dies on that cross was just as weak as any other man.  It may look like God is unable to do anything except suffer the pain of watching his son die.  And yet, if we were to conclude that, we would be vastly underestimating the power of God’s love.[9]  Yes, love can be vulnerable.  It does not retaliate, it does not lash out at those who may in fact take the life of the one who loves.  But love always breaks the power of evil.  As we say in that same confession, “An abyss of suffering” has been “swallowed up by the suffering of divine love.”[10] Love always wins the day, no matter how long it takes.
  But there is more to it than that.  Although our lesson doesn’t mention it, surely the implication is there: Jesus did not remain in the grave.  Death was not powerful enough to hold him.  God raised him from the dead, and by so doing not only vindicated the power of suffering love, but also demonstrated that God does more than “just” suffer with us when we suffer.  Rather, the resurrection is the demonstration that “God’s light is more real than all the darkness, that God’s truth is more powerful than all human lies, that God’s love is stronger than death.”[11]  And so in the vulnerability of Jesus taking on flesh and blood and dying for us all, and in the astonishing power of God raising him to life, we see God’s light overcoming all the darkness, even the darkness of death. And, as the Scripture says, “The light keeps shining in the dark, and darkness has never put it out” (Jn. 1:5, CEV)![12]

[1] ©2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/29/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. especially Paul Tillich, “The Destruction of Death,” in The Shaking of the Foundations, 170: “fear is, above all, fear of the unknown; and the darkness of the unknown is filled with the images created by fear. ... this is true to an absolute degree with respect to death -- the absolutely unknown.”  Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.2:601:  “Death is the great mark of the unnatural state in which we exist.”
[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 130-31: “the messianic Son of God unreservedly takes on himself the conditions of our vulnerable and mortal existence, and becomes a human being like us. ... In this sense ‘the sufferings of Christ’ are not just Jesus’ sufferings; they are the sufferings of the poor and weak, which Jesus shares in his own body and his own soul, in solidarity with them.”
[4] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:152: “That the Word became ‘flesh’ in this definite sense, this consummation of God’s condescension, ...: this is the revelation of the Word of God.”  Cf. also ibid. 4.1:165: “the ancient creeds were also right when under the concepts passus, crucifixus, mortuus, sepultus [suffered, crucified, died, buried], they believed that they were saying everything that is decisive about the man Jesus.”
[5] The Study Catechism (1998), question 8.
[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 219-220.  Cf. also Moltmann, Spirit of Life 131, where he echoes Bonhoeffer, and adds, “it is true that a God who cannot suffer, and suffer with us, could not even understand us.”
[7] Cf. especially, Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  Kushner and his wife endured the loss of their young son, and in the face of such intense suffering, he concluded that God loves us and wants the best for us but is basically powerless to do anything about it.
[8] Cf., for example Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, 24: “Christianity … ultimately offers no theoretical solution [to the problem of evil].  It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene—not even this—but that God can turn it to good.”  Cf. similarly, Charles Poole, Is Life Fair? 68: “Ultimately, finally, God will have the last word, and the goodness and grace of God will triumph and prevail over all that is evil and hurtful and destructive and wrong.”  I do not wish to dispute these statements. I find them meaningful.  I only wish to comment on the very human difficulty of placing all one’s hopes on “ultimately.”
[9] To this end, Steven R. Harmon, “Hebrews 2:10-18,”Interpretation 59 (Oct 2005), wisely reminds us that neither an “unnuanced” theopassianism (God suffers with us) nor an “unnuanced” affirmation of divine impassibility (God is incapable of suffering) will do.  He presents the balance in perhaps the clearest way I have ever seen (pp. 405-6): “To affirm that God suffers when God's creatures suffer rightly maintains God's sympathy and solidarity with those who suffer. To affirm this without further qualification, however, overlooks the dissimilarity between God's relationship to suffering and the human sufferer's relationship to suffering. Much human suffering is against our will; God's suffering is always voluntary.”  He adds (p. 406): “Only the suffering God can help, but it is only the suffering of the God who has greater power than we do over suffering that is able to help.”
[10] The Study Catechism (1998) question 45.
[11] Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 32.
[12] Cf. G. C. Berkouwer, The Work of Christ, 337-39, where he emphasizes that “The light that emanates from Christ’s victory is consequently a bright light” by pointing out how affirmations of Christ’s victory over death and the powers that suppress humanity echo throughout the New Testament.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Staying in the Light

Staying in the Light
Matt. 1:18-25[1]
  As we approach the days when we celebrate the birth of our Savior Jesus the Christ, I’m not sure many of us are feeling very “saved.”  The season of Advent is a time for us to remember the hope, joy, peace, and love that have come to us in the one who is for us “Emmanuel,” or “God with us.”  And yet, as we get through these days leading up to Christmas, I’m not sure that hope, joy, peace, and love are the most prominent feelings we’re experiencing.  I’m afraid that many of us are feeling stressed out by all the preparations, the busy-ness, and the search for the perfect gifts.  Families are gathering, and for many it is a time to “endure” the drama that gets played out every year at this time.  Others, who have more solitary lives, may be feeling left out and lonely as the rest of the country “celebrates” the season with their families--even TV specials focus primarily on that dimension of the season.
  And so our Scripture readings that speak about the good news of God’s presence with us to restore us, to make his face shine on us so that we might be saved (Ps. 80:7, 19), may sound hollow to many of us at this time of the year.[2]  The prophet Isaiah promised a child who would come to restore the people of Israel, and ultimately the whole human family.  And Matthew’s Gospel presents Jesus as that child, the one who will “save his people from their sins” (Mt. 7:21) and who will be for us “Emmanuel,” or “God with us” (Mt. 7:23).[3]  But I would say it’s hard to find too many people at the mall who are focused on the hope, joy, peace, and love that these promises offer.  Especially during the week before Christmas! 
  Rather than the hope of God’s presence restoring us and all humanity to the life God intended for us, we seem to be mired in a pit of hopelessness.  The continual barrage of violence, oppression, and suffering on our TV sets reinforce the cynical view that there is “nothing new under the sun,” but rather “as far back as anyone can remember, everything has remained exactly the same since the world was first created” (2 Pet. 3:4, NLT).  And that bleak outlook on life positively saps the joy out of many people in our world. What is there to be joyful about?  Incomes are declining, poverty is on the rise.  Families struggle to hold themselves together in the face of the forces that pull them apart at the seams.  Violence and anger are such an integral part of our lives that we pay billions of dollars every year to entertain ourselves with movies that are filled with violence, revenge, and anger.[4]  And we’re all so busy “celebrating” that we lose sight of true joy--joy over the gift of being accepted unconditionally and irrevocably by our God who is always “God with us”!
  And then there’s peace.  I wonder if it is even possible to live in a world that is less conducive to experiencing peace than the one in which we live.  Everywhere you go, there’s some form of noise.  Whether it’s traffic, or television, or the incessant droning of Christmas music (which some places have been playing since November 1), I would say that many of us wonder where we can find even a moment’s peace in these hectic days.  But it’s there--real peace, the peace of a life that is restored to wholeness, to goodness.[5]  We just have to find a way to tune out all the noise that keeps us from finding it in the silence of meditation and prayer.
  At the heart of the good news of Christmas is love. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it, there is nothing you have to do to make God love you more, and there is nothing you can do to make God love you less.[6]  And yet, even though that message is clear virtually throughout our Scripture, our liturgy and hymns, it’s tremendously hard in this day and age for us to actually feel loved.  By God or by anybody else.  Part of the problem is that we disconnect from the possibility of love by escaping into our electronic devices.  Even when you’re in a public place that is intended to foster community and connection, like Starbucks, it seems most people remain glued to a phone or a tablet or a laptop rather than risk actually speaking to a real person.  And who of us doesn’t know the joy of taking the family out to eat, only to have most if not all of the group glued to their phones?  I think, for the most part, we’re afraid to take the risk of love--the risk of opening ourselves up to one another, and the risk of allowing others to open up to us.  But in a very real sense, if we can’t give and receive love to one another, how can we expect to feel loved by God?  I believe there’s a verse about that as well (1 John 4:7).
  The discipline of Advent calls us out of the darkness of this hopelessness, this bleakness, this frenzy, and this isolation into the light of hope, joy, peace, and love.  And if you ask what there is to be hopeful, joyful, peaceful, and loving about, the answer is Emmanuel, God with us.  The God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ is the God who will never leave us nor forsake us.  The God who came to us in the form of a helpless infant is the God who from eternity past to eternity future had determined to be “God with us.”[7] Not because he has to, but because he wants to.  It seems to me that the light of God’s unfailing presence with us all is enough to overcome the darkness that can threaten to overwhelm us at this time of the year.  I think the task for us is to keep our focus on that--to stay in the light of God’s love.

[1] © Alan Brehm 2013.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/22/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms 264-65: this Psalm is a expression of the faith that the people of God “must in the long last and in its extremity look away from its own repentance to a kind of repentance in God--his turning away from wrath and returning to grace.  The trust that God will in the end do so is based on nothing in the congregation [of Israel].  It is based on the understanding that the congregation is the work of God, there in existence, wholly and only as an act of God.”
[3] Cf. Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, 12: the idea of “Emmanuel” expresses “the full significance of Jesus’ life and work” as a “functional definition of who Jesus is.” Cf. also M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible VIII: 138: “for Matthew, the story of Jesus is a way of talking about God.  In Jesus and his story, God is with us.” Cf. also Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, 97-98 on the interpretation of Isa. 7 in Matt. 1.  See further Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 21; R. T. France, Matthew:  Evangelist and Teacher, 182–83; Anthony J. Saldarini, Matthew’s Christian-Jewish Community, 166.
[4] Grady Smith, “Box office report 2012: Film industry climbs to record-breaking $10.8 billion,” Entertainment Weekly.com 12/31/2012, accessed at http://insidemovies.ew.com/2012/12/31/box-office-report-2012/.
[5] Cf. Desmond Tutu, Made for Goodness, 198: “For Christians, finding our way home to God is not a ‘self-help’ project. Jesus Christ is our hope for complete wholeness, for healing that is salvation. And that hope has already been accomplished. So we are constantly called to experience the truth about us: that we are beloved of God.”
[6] Cf. Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream, 32.  He says it this way: “There is nothing you can do to make God love you more, for God already loves you perfectly and totally.  But more wonderfully, there is nothing you can do to make God love you less--absolutely nothing.  For God already loves you and will love you forever.”
[7] See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II.2:735: “God does not will to be without us, but, no matter who and what we may be, to be with us, that He Himself is always ‘God with us,’ Emmanuel.”  Cf. also Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:3-20. Cf. Ulrich Luz, Theology of the Gospel of Matthew, 31.  See further, Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 81, where he connects the power of the Spirit in Jesus’ entire life, including his birth, with the theme of “God with us.”

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Light in the Darkness

Light in the Darkness
Isa. 11:1-10; Rom. 15:4-13[1]
  One of the challenges we face at this time of year is the fact that it gets dark so early.  It seems like it was just the other day that we still had daylight after dinner, and now it gets dark even before you sit down to eat!  It makes it hard to keep your spirits up when you’re used to a lot more sunshine. There’s even an official diagnosis for it: it’s called Seasonal Affective Disorder.  For many people, the months of December and January are excruciating literally because of the fact that so much of our “day” at this time of year is spent in darkness.  I think that many may suffer from a kind of chronic form of this.  We all have personal disappointments, and even tragedies, that just take the wind out of our sails and leave us feeling stuck in the mud.  These experiences that most of us will endure at some point in our life can rob us of the joy of living and leave us feeling as if we’re constantly walking around in darkness.
  The thing about darkness is that you really can’t see very well in it.  I would think many of us have had the experience of being in the dark, alone, someplace that may have been unfamiliar.  When you’re in that situation, it’s easy to imagine that there are dangers lurking in every nook and cranny of the darkness.  Not being able to see clearly frightens us, and our fearful minds can imagine all kinds of things.  Fortunately, even if we find ourselves in a place where the darkness seems oppressive, we have the hope that the sun will come up soon, and it will be light again.  I’d hate to live in one of those places where it’s dark for weeks on end!
  I think that’s one of the reasons light plays such an important role for us at this time of year.  We light up the Christmas tree, and we light up our houses (some really light up their houses!).  The light is something that gives us hope in the midst of a world that can feel very dark.  The prophet Isaiah sought to give people that kind of hope.  He spoke of one who would come to lighten their burdens, to right the wrongs, to restore all things to way they were meant to be--a way that makes it possible for us all to live full lives of joy and purpose.[2]  And he said this coming one would not only be for the Jewish people, but that all the nations would turn to him as well.  I like the way the Contemporary English Version puts it: the one who was coming would be the “signal for the people of all nations to come together” (Isaiah 11:10, CEV).[3]
  Now, this particular expression of the hope of one who would come to set things right was spoken before the Jewish people’s lives reached their darkest point in exile.  Though there were threats looming on the horizon, they were still relatively safe at home in Zion.  But all was not well.  The prophets like Isaiah pointed their fingers at the Jewish leaders for neglecting their duty when it came to caring for the least and the last and the left out in society.  That was their role--as priests and teachers and even the King--to be shepherds who would lead the people in the ways of the Lord and care for those who needed help the most.[4]  But throughout their history, they gave up that role in favor of simply looking out for themselves.[5]  They relished their power and prestige, and forgot about the widows and orphans and immigrants in their midst. 
  That’s why Isaiah spoke of the coming of one who would set things right.  Although the Jewish people had not yet reached their deepest and darkest valley, there were many who were already living in darkness (cf. Isa. 9:2) in a land that seemed to be doing just fine.  Isaiah spoke of the one who would set things right to give hope to the widows and orphans and immigrants who were already living their lives in the darkness of poverty and fear and hopelessness. [6]  And he offered it to them as a light that would lessen the oppressive burden of the darkness they had to endure.
  As we prepare for the celebration of Christ’s coming into this world of darkness, I think it’s important for us to face how truly dark the world can be.  We cannot delude ourselves with the propaganda that has covered over the hardships many have to bear.  Make no mistake about it, we are walking in a world that can be very dark at times. It can be dark for all of us, and it can be especially dark for the least and the last and the left out in our world.  But the good news of Advent is that Christ’s coming into the world brings a light that is powerful enough to shine into every dark corner that can exist for anyone anywhere. 
  And so as we light up our trees and houses this year, let’s remember the reason why we do it.  We do it to remind ourselves that we have a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it.  We do it to remind ourselves that there is no place so dark in this world that the light of Christ cannot shine on it.  And we do it to remind ourselves that we are to bear that light to the ones who are walking in their own darkness, to share with them the joy and peace of our hope.[7]

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/8/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 121: “God’s justice and righteousness brings shalom to both his people and land.” Cf. also James L. Mays, Psalms, 311, “Righteousness is the rightness that makes for life and shalom; justice is found in decisions and actions according to righteousness.”  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, In the End--The Beginning: The Life of Hope, 62: “Because Israel’s experience of God is the experience of liberating, saving and justice-creating righteousness, this righteousness also determines Israel’s hope for the world: the promised Messiah ‘will judge the poor with righteousness and decide with equity for the meek of the earth’ (Isa. 11:4).
[3] This is essentially St. Paul’s point in the reading from Romans 15:4-13 (especially 15:8-12).  Cf. N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” New Interpreters Bible X:747: “It is not that God has done one thing for Jews, and another thing for Gentiles; God has designed mercy for all (11:28-32).”  Referring to God fulfilling his promises, he adds, “The promises were both to Israel and through Israel to the world” (emphasis original).  Regarding “the idea of a risen Messiah ‘ruling the nations,’” he says this is “packed with explosive political implications, especially in a letter to Rome whose own emperor claimed to rule the nations.”  He further elaborates (p. 750), “a church that all too obviously embodies the social, ethnic, cultural, and political divisions of its surrounding world is no real challenge to the Caesars of this world.  It is only when representatives of many nations worship the world’s true Lord in unity that Caesar might get the hint that there is after all ‘another king’.”  Cf. similarly Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans, 225.  He adds, “If in the present time that reality still remains a hope, it is a hope grounded in the power of God himself.”
[4] That this is to be the role of the King in Israelite society is made clear by the Psalm lesson from Ps. 72, especially Ps. 72:4 “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.”  Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:963: “Everything said about or wished for the king depends ultimately on God’s justice ... and God’s righteousness.  Justice and righteousness are first and foremost characteristic of God’s reign ....  In short, the role of the king is to enact God’s rule” (emphasis original).  Cf., similarly, Mays, Psalms, 236-38; H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 78-80 (especially to the point is the comment on p. 80: “It is the king’s duty to care for the poor”).
[5] Cf. McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:964: “Perhaps the most obvious observation to make about Psalm 72 is the disparity between its portrayal of the king and the actual behavior of the kings of Israel and Judah.”  He adds (p. 965), “The same disparity is evident ... when we call the church ‘the body of Christ’ and then observe the actual behavior of the church.”  On the failure of justice in Judah, see also Hans Wildberger, A Continental Commentary: Isaiah 1-12, 475–476.
[6] Cf. Gene M. Tucker, “The Book of Isaiah 1-39,” New Interpreters Bible VI:141: “The ideal king exercises power to protect the weak.  The character and administration of the king here are those that the people hoped for--but never fully realized--as each new descendant of David took the throne in Jerusalem.”  Cf. also Christopher Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, 105-107; cf. also J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 77-79.
[7] Cf. Gene Tucker, “The Book of Isaiah 1-39,” NIB VI:142: he says that Isa. 11:1-10 is “not a call for action or even a criticism of injustice.  These lines simply present unqualified good news.  Whether in this world and history or beyond, they cry joyfully that God wills--and will one day bring about--justice and peace for the world and all its living creatures.”  Cf. also R. David Kaylor, Jesus the Prophet , 104: “Jesus addressed the poor, the hungry, the discouraged, and the persecuted with the message that God is on their side, supporting them in their struggle, and that God’s just will focuses on their relief.”

Tuesday, December 03, 2013


Rom 13:11-14[1]
  Somewhere on the way from the seeming simplicity of the way life used to be to the overwhelming complexity of the way life is now, a lot of us decided it was all too much to take in.  So we pulled the covers over our heads to avoid the really difficult issues of life that have been thrust right under our noses on the evening news.  We have all kinds of ways of avoiding the hard truths that beg for our attention.  We lose ourselves in the images that play out on our television screens or in the world of social media.  We distract ourselves by overusing alcohol and overusing caffeine.  We become workaholics, keeping busy every waking minute.  Or we just go shopping.  Somehow spending money on something, on anything, seems to make us feel like everything’s really just fine.
  But the reality is that we’re sleepwalking.[2]  We use these and many other distractions to keep from having to face the painful truths of our world.  Children are abused, and their lives are put in danger.  People live on the edge of literally losing everything, clinging to jobs that have little or no future.  Families are coming apart at the seams.  Morality seems to be a quaint relic of a by-gone era.  The only moral code these days seems to be “if it feels good do it.”  And when we widen our gaze, we find that there are wars raging all over the world, wars that spread violence like an epidemic and leave in its wake thousands of victims, mostly innocent.[3]  And yet we can find that violence in our own cities plagued by gang wars.  But rather than taking a hard look at all this, we’d much rather pull the covers over our heads and sleep through it all until the nightmares some people are living have gone away. 
  St. Paul says, however, that we can’t live like that anymore if we choose to follow Christ.  He says that the light of day has dawned, and we have to pull the covers off our heads and get up to face the sunrise.  In the light of day, we can no longer ignore the harsh realities of the world in which we live.  When we neglect to live out the faith we profess, we’re living like we’re still in the darkness.  We’re sleepwalking through life. Part of the problem is that when we close our eyes to the hard things around us, the pain and suffering, the fear and hatred, we also close our eyes to the good things.  Yes, the light of Christ makes it clear that we cannot sit idly by while others suffer.  But it also brings with it “peace on earth” (Lk. 2:14) and “the tender mercy of God” (Lk 1:78).  The light that shines through Christ brings with it the joy and hope and love that our faith in him brings to life in us.  That light makes it clear that, even now in spite of all the suffering and tragedy in this world, Christ is “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).[4] 
  Advent challenges us to wake up from our slumbers.  We can no longer afford to linger in the various distractions that keep us stumbling in the dark.  We cannot continue to blame those who are different from us simply because it’s easy.  We cannot continue to ignore the suffering around us because it is too painful to watch.  We cannot continue to indulge our selfishness just because it feels good to do so.  The message of Advent is that with the coming of Christ the day has dawned. [5]  And that means we have to throw the covers off our heads, and get out of bed and walk out into this hurting world, bearing the light that Christ wants to bring into it through us.[6] 
  I realize that there are a lot of people who try to do that all year long.  And I realize that the immensity of the task can be overwhelming.  There are just so many people who need our help.  I can’t go to the Philippines to help people rebuild their homes.  I can’t go to Syria to help the refugee children.  I can’t even help all the people in Houston, TX who are living on the edge of tragedy every day.  And those thoughts can lead us right back to the cycle of feeling overwhelmed, pulling the covers over our heads, and simply sleepwalking through life. 
  But the light of Christ that shines at Advent won’t let us do that.[7]  It calls us to act “as people who live in the light of day” (Rom. 13:13, TEV).  I think at least part of what that means is that we live our lives in such a way as to bring the light to those around us.  And if we have a hard time figuring out how to do that, maybe the first step is to decide we’re going to treat the people around us, all the people around us, regardless of creed or color or economic status or educational background, with respect, and kindness, and compassion.[8]  That might not seem like much, but in our world that feels like it’s tearing itself apart at the seams from hostility and anger and even hatred, perhaps there’s no better way for us to shine the light of Christ on the lives of the real people we come in contact with every day.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/1/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Michael J. Gorman, “Romans 13:8-14,” Interpretation 62 (Ap 2008): 171. He says our task in reflecting on this passage is “to refocus the church on the need to embrace Christ daily, even moment by moment. Otherwise, the powers of darkness and evil either look more and more appealing or become less and less obvious, so that we are seduced by them as if we were half-asleep (v. 11).”
[3] Cf. ‘Syria war ‘damaging a generation of children’, UN warns,” BBC News, 29 Nov 2013.  It quotes a recent United Nations report about the human cost of the war in Syria estimating that half of the 2.2 million refugees are children.
[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 102: “For Paul too, the approaching sunrise of the day of God makes it possible and necessary to lay aside ‘the works of darkness’ and to put on ‘the armour of light’ (Rom. 13:12ff.). The inviting proximity of the coming kingdom of God makes possible what was impossible before, and what is impossible without it. Conversion implements these new potentialities which God throws open. True life begins here and now, the true life which will come for the whole of creation with the kingdom of God. ‘Conversion’ is itself an anticipation of that new life under the conditions of this world.”
[5] While it is true that St. Paul is speaking to Christians about their conduct in view of the (second) coming of Christ, I would argue that the language is applicable to Advent in that it was the coming of Christ in the first place that brought the light St. Paul speaks about.  In a very real sense, therefore, we can say that the future light of Christ’s coming has already dawned in the present time, as Jurgen Moltmann argues in many of his works.  On the future orientation of the text, cf. Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans, 211-13; and N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” New Interpreters Bible X:728.
[6] Cf. Charles B. Cousar, “Disruptive Hope: New Testament Texts for Advent,” Journal for Preachers 25 (Advent 2001) 27.  He says, “It is time to get up and shake off the effects of the night. But the dawn for believers also brings with it the sounds of warfare. We dress for battle, but with unusual gear, called ‘the armor of light’ (13:12). In fact, Jesus himself is the armor we wear.”
[7] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:255: “We cannot ... define Christians simply as those who are awake while the rest sleep, .... They are, in fact, those who constantly stand in need of reawakening.”  Cf. also Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 53, where he says, “the main question becomes: How to set our hearts on the kingdom first when our hearts are preoccupied with so many things?  Somehow a radical change of heart is required ...”  Cf. ibid., 68-69, where he says that is the “discipline of prayer” that helps us to come back again and again to “the active presence of God at the center of [our] living.”  Cf. similarly, Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island, 43: “Spiritual wakefulness demands only the habitual awareness of him which surrounds all our actions in a spiritual atmosphere ....” See also Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 10, 15, 40-42, 226-28.
[8] Cf. Nicholas D. Kristof, "Where Is the Love?" The New York Times, November 27, 2013.  Kristof reflects on the general lack of empathy for the poor among those who have responded to his columns about social welfare programs, saying that while those of us who are successful tend to think we are the products of our own “level of virtue or self-discipline,” the reality is that “one of the strongest determinants of ending up poor is being born poor.”  He concludes that “compassion isn’t a sign of weakness, but a mark of civilization.” More than that, the Bible makes it abundantly clear that compassion for those who are in poverty is a mark of authentic faith.  On this, cf. especially Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 80: “Conversion includes soul and body, the individual as well as his community, his own way of life as well as the system in which he lives.”  Cf. also Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 104: “Before Constantine, the Christian congregations were communities with a social commitment. Strangers were accepted, and new work was found for them. The poor in the congregations were fed, and even the city’s own poor as well. Sick people who had been abandoned were taken in and cared for. The Christian congregations felt in duty bound to undertake the care of others. Until these independent congregations were absorbed into the parishes of the imperial church, many of them continued the struggle against real, practical poverty, hunger and sickness, acting in the name of Jesus, and following what he himself did. It was only with the Constantinian imperial church that there came to be an increasing tendency to spiritualize poverty, because the church had to leave ‘welfare’ to the emperor, and was forced to confine itself to the salvation of souls.”

Monday, December 02, 2013

Christ the King?

Christ the King?
Lk 23:33-43[1]
  On this day when we remind ourselves of our faith that Christ reigns over us all, I can think of no more ironic way to do that than with a Gospel lesson that describes his death on the cross!  Kings don’t get dragged before their subjects, who throw all kinds of false accusations at them.  Kings don’t allow themselves to be spat upon and mocked and beaten.  Kings don’t wind up being executed by means of one of the cruelest punishments ever devised by humankind.  They are the ones who are usually doling out that kind of thing.  And on the rare occasion when a King or any other powerful person is publicly humiliated, that’s pretty much the end of it.  But here we are, on this Sunday when we celebrate our faith that Christ is reigning over us all, reading the “good news” of his death on the cross.
  The irony in this has raised questions since the day Jesus faced that ultimate test--especially for people who look at Jesus’ life and ask what he actually accomplished.  He gathered some disciples.  He stirred up the Jewish leadership.  And he got himself killed in the end.  And while he’s hanging there on that cross, vulnerable, showing all the weakness of humanity, some in the crowd ask the question that has been asked throughout the centuries: “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” (Lk 23:35).[2]  In the light of Jesus’ humiliating death, many have asked what a Jewish reformer from the First Century can do to make my life any better in the Twenty-First Century?  And many have concluded that a man who was executed as a common criminal may have had some fine ideals, but he really can’t do anything for us in this day and time.
  But that would be to miss some important signs that point us to the reign of Christ, even in this passage that apparently presents Jesus at his weakest.  One thing we need to notice is that in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus seems to know exactly what he’s doing and how it’s going to turn out.  Hanging on the cross, he has the presence of mind to respond to his hecklers by saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34). And when Jesus dies, he simply says, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk. 23:46). Jesus gives up his life calmly and intentionally.[3]
  But there’s another detail in this text that is easy to miss.  While Jesus is hanging on the cross, seemingly undergoing the ultimate humiliation, even one of the criminals who was hanging there with him cursed him for not being able to climb down from the cross and save them all. But the other one saw something that many of those who witnessed this event missed.  He saw that Jesus was who he had claimed to be, and that there truly was something about this man that set him apart.  And so he took an amazing step of faith: hanging there on a cross, he looked at Jesus and asked, “remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42).  How or why he had the faith to see Jesus hanging on the cross and to believe that one day Jesus would indeed come into his reign, we may never know.  And Jesus’ response was astonishing, if you think about the circumstances.  There he was, having been beaten, having been humiliated by some of the Jewish leaders, having been strung up to die by the Roman empire.  And he said, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43)![4] 
  If you think about it, there was nothing about the situation that would have made anybody believe such an incredible claim.  And yet Jesus made that claim: today you will be with me in Paradise.  The unnamed criminal leaves his request open: “when you come into your kingdom, remember me.”  He expresses faith, but he’s not pinning Jesus down to anything specific.  But Jesus makes that astonishing claim any way: “Today,” not at some indistinct point in the future.  “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”[5] 
  Despite the irony, I think it is ultimately fitting to remind ourselves that Christ reigns over us all with this story, because his death on the cross defined the way in which he exercises that reign.  As one of our confessions puts it, “He was the Lord who took the form of a servant; he perfected royal power in weakness. With no sword but the sword of righteousness, and no power but the power of love, Christ defeated sin, evil and death by reigning from the cross.”[6]  The reality is that the only way for Christ’s reign of true justice to be established in this world that is so filled with injustice was through the path of the cross.[7]  But his cross also led to his resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God, where he was exalted, as St. Paul puts it, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (Eph. 1:21).

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/24/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Paul D. Duke, “Calling Forth the Kingdom” The Christian Century (Nov. 8, 1995): 1043, “To be sure, the word ‘king’ flies all around him, but only as the punchline of a joke.”
[3] Eugene C. Kreider, “The Politics of God: The Way to the Cross,” Word & World 6 (Fall 1986): 461: “So the Messiah dies, but not an ignominious death. Jesus the Messiah of God, the Chosen One, dies as king whose way to the cross was the way of God's freedom and determination set in the world.”
[4] Cf. Fred Craddock, Luke, 274: “Three times he has been mocked with , ‘Save yourself,’ ... . Here Jesus does save someone, and that the one who is saved is a dying criminal” is consistent with the way Jesus carried out his whole ministry. “In his own dying hour, Jesus continues his ministry: ‘For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost’ (19:10).”  Cf. also Duke, “Calling Forth the Kingom,” 1043: “With that utterance, the Sovereignty suddenly grows visible. It's as if the air around the naked Jesus trembles, revealing him wrapped in brilliant, regal light.”
[5] Cf. Duke, “Calling Forth The Kingdom,” 1043: “As requests go, ‘Remember me when . . .’ is modest; but Jesus replies with extravagant majesty. Sovereign of more than his petitioner can dream, he grants him the whole green garden of God.”
[6] The Study Catechism, question 41.  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 102, where he says that when we celebrate Christ as “king” it represents “the most radical reversal of the ideal of rule that can be conceived.”
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 110: “There are no miracles on the road of his passion. On the cross he dies in forsakenness by God and man. Or is this the greatest of all the miracles, the all-embracing healing? ‘He bore our sicknesses and took upon himself our pains … and through his wounds we are healed’ (Isa. 53:4, 5). This was how the gospels saw it. So Jesus heals not only through ‘power’ and ‘authority’ but also through his suffering and helplessness.”