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.

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