Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What Do We Have to Fear?

What Do We Have To Fear?
Psalm 27[1]
  Fear is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult aspects of the human experience.  There are some things that are simply frightening, and it is only human for us to respond to them with fear.  But it’s one thing for us to feel fear; it’s another thing for us to live in fear.  Too often, we turn fear into something that occupies our whole lives.  Part of the problem with fear is what it does to us when we give it that much power.  We cling to whatever it is we fear losing—we hold on for dear life!  In the process of trying to control what we cannot control, and trying to cling to what we cannot hold, our fear can bring out the worst in us.[2]
  I think our lesson from Psalm 27 for today addresses the problem of fear and how to find ways of feeling it without letting it dominate our lives.  The Psalm itself contains a curious back-and-forth between expressions of confident faith and the fear we all feel at times.  It would appear that the Psalmist  is struggling in some kind of situation that naturally provokes fear.  He feels as if his enemies are trying to “devour his flesh” (Ps. 27:2), describing his struggle as if he were under siege in battle (Ps. 27:3).  In fact, the situation is so intense that the Psalmist even cries out in fear that God might turn away from him, cast him aside, and forsake him (Ps. 27:9).  Whatever the specific problem is, it’s clear that the person who is composing this prayer is afraid.
  And yet, right in the middle of his expressions of fear, the Psalmist also declares his confident faith that God’s presence is like a light that keeps him safe.  So he seeks God’s presence in the place where the people of Israel of his day believed God could be found: in the Temple.[3]  He does so in the hope and faith that “he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble” (Ps. 27:5).  It is God’s presence that calms his fears.  As he says at the beginning, “the Lord is my light and my salvation,” and “the Lord is the stronghold of my life.” Since he trusts that God constantly surrounds him with the light of his presence, the Psalmist concludes, “whom shall I fear?” (Ps. 27:1).
  It’s interesting that the Psalmist seems to go back and forth between intense feelings of fear and confident declarations of his trust in God.  And yet, I would say that’s fairly true to life.[4]  When we deal with a situation in which we are afraid, I think it’s normal for us to waver between fear and faith.  There are times when our fears get the best of us.  And then there are times when our faith wins out.  I guess the real question is, how do we stay confident in the safety of God’s presence when we’re facing that kind of struggle?  I think the Psalmist may have found an answer: at one point he calls out to God to hear him and be gracious to him (Ps. 27:7).  And he seems to find an answer in his own heart.  Like the still, small voice Elijah heard, the Psalmist “hears” his own heart telling him to seek God’s face (Ps. 27:8).  And he eagerly responds: “Your face, Lord, do I seek.” 
  I think the point of this is that when we can pray in such a way as to be aware that we are constantly surrounded by the presence of God, we find a sense of safety that can calm our fears, no matter what the circumstances may be.  Now, I don’t mean to say that this is easy.  The kind of prayer the Psalmist is alluding to is a discipline that takes time and practice to master. He calls it “seeking God’s face.”[5]  You can’t do that without putting your whole heart and soul into it.  This kind of praying is something that must be developed.  It takes a kind of spiritual “training” for our prayers to reach this level.  But, though it may take time and practice, this kind of praying is something that can be learned.[6]
  At the end of his wrestling match with fear, the Psalmist makes one of the great declarations of faith in the Bible.  He says, “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps. 27:13).  Not in some far-off heavenly existence, but here and now.  The Psalmist’s faith is such that he trusts that God will make whatever happens to him turn out for good.  Again, this is a kind of faith that takes some “training”: here it’s called “waiting for the Lord” (Ps. 27:14).  I don’t think that means we have to wait for it to be our turn for God to be good to us!  Rather, “waiting” in the Hebrew Bible is a kind of faith.  We should probably translate it: “hold onto your faith in the Lord, no matter how long it takes”![7]  It may take some practice to develop our faith to that level, but when we do, we can face our fears with the confidence that God is always surrounding us with the light of his presence.[8]
  Fear is a natural part of being human.  Unfortunately, however, we have a way of letting our fear get the best of us.  But fear doesn’t have to control us.  As we learn to find the light of God’s presence always surrounding us and protecting us, always bringing good out of anything that may come our way, we can feel our fears, but live from our faith.  Then we can find a kind of safety that nothing can shake--at least not for long.  Then we can say with the Psalmist, “What do we have to fear?”

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/26/14 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Gospel of Liberation, 102: “So long as man makes idols out of his life’s environment, then his certainty of life is surrounded by anxiety. That makes him malicious toward others.”
[3] Cf. H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 334.
[4] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 132: “Trust is active and real precisely when one is aware of one’s vulnerability, of one’s ultimate helplessness before the threats of life.”
[5] Cf. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 335, where he discusses the importance of “seeking God’s face” in the Hebrew Bible.  Cf. also Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 20: “To pray is to listen to [God’s] voice of love.”
[6] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out, 135-48, where he discusses various ways to develop this kind of praying;  cf. also Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, for a comprehensive overview of the methods by which we can cultivate the discipline of prayer in our lives.
[7] Cf. the Net Bible: “Rely on the Lord.  Be strong and confident! Rely on the Lord!”  Cf. also the Contemporary English Version: “Trust in the Lord! Be brave and strong and trust in the Lord.”  Cf. also The Message: “Stay with God!  Take heart.  Don’t quit.  I’ll say it again: Stay with God.”
[8] Cf.. Kraus, Psalm 1-59, 337, where he says that this expression of faith reflects one who “has anchored his life entirely in Yahweh. For that reason no hostile power can overwhelm him and separate him from the God of salvation.”  He also likens this to St. Paul’s expression of faith in Romans 8:33-39.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Shining Light Into Darkness

Shining Light into Darkness
Isa. 42:1-9; Matt 3:13-17[1]
  There are places in our world that are so dark that most of us really don’t want to look at them.  Nations where law and order have so broken down that people’s lives are in danger just because they belong to the wrong faith or the wrong political party or the wrong tribe.  Cities where the government is so corrupt that money that should provide basic services for those who need them instead lines the pockets of the rich and powerful.  Neighborhoods where crime is so rampant that even murder becomes just another part of life.  We can see all these dark places in our world just by turning on our TVs and watching the evening news.  Many of us have stopped doing that because it’s too disturbing, because the darkness in our world is too close. 
  Our lesson from Isaiah for today speaks to this.  It addresses one whom God would appoint to bring light into the dark places of the world.  It speaks of “the Servant of the Lord” who would come to right the wrongs in this world, who would bring God’s justice.[2]  As I’ve said many times, I think our idea of justice is very different from the Bible.  In our world, “justice” is something that happens in courtrooms.  Justice is about arbitrating disputes and determining guilt or innocence and handing down punishments for crimes.  But in the Bible, God’s justice means that the hungry are fed, the prisoners are set free, the blind receive their sight, those who are bowed down are lifted up, and the immigrants and the widows and orphans have someone to watch over them.  Simply put—God’s justice is the light that shines into all the dark places of the world and makes it possible for all people to thrive equally. 
  It’s important to notice the way in which the “Servant” in Isaiah establishes this kind of justice.  Our lesson says it this way: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isa. 42:3).  I like the way Gene Peterson renders it in The Message translation: “He won’t brush aside the bruised and the hurt and he won’t disregard the small and insignificant.”  In addition, the “Servant” is to be “a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (Isa. 42:6-7).  If you’re thinking that sounds like a very strange kind of justice, I’m not surprised.[3]
  In fact, it would seem that this is the very opposite of the way we think authorities ought to “establish justice” in our world.  They are to “crack down” on criminals, without lifting a finger to do anything about the social conditions that create criminals.  We want them to carry out the “war on drugs,” but I’m not sure that includes coming up with ways to help those who use illegal drugs to find peace of mind.  And when anyone anywhere does violence to us or to our people, we believe that we have a right and obligation to respond to that violence with violence--whether that means waging war or executing violent offenders. 
  I’m afraid, however, that our version of “justice” has only served to spread the darkness in our world.  Our “justice” certainly looks very different from God’s justice.  Our justice is a justice of vengeance and force and hostility.  Rather than creating the conditions that make for life, it only leads to a “culture of death.”[4]  But God’s justice takes place not through vengeance but forgiveness.  God’s justice takes place not through violence but compassion.  God’s justice takes place not through hostility but mercy.  It is a justice that leads to peace.  And in order to achieve God’s justice that rights the wrongs and creates the conditions in which all people can thrive, we have to employ God’s ways instead of ours.[5]
  I think that’s what the story of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew’s gospel is about.  Jesus approaches John to be baptized, and John objects, “I need to be baptized by you” (Mt. 3:14)!  Jesus’ response might seem strange at first glance: “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15).  One would think that if anyone had “fulfilled all righteousness,” it was Jesus.  Once again, I think The Message captures the meaning well: “God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.”  I think, in a very real sense, in his baptism Jesus was making a public declaration that he was going to take the side of God’s justice.  He was going to set about promoting God’s work of righting the wrongs and lifting the burdens from the oppressed.  He was going to shine the light of God’s truth into all the dark places of the world.[6]
  And that’s what he did.  And the world responded in the way it always does--we don’t much like having our ways criticized or our misdeeds exposed.  And so they tried to stifle him by labeling him a criminal and executing him.  But those of us who have shared in Jesus’ baptism cannot give our approval to the ways of our world.  By sharing his baptism we have taken on the same calling as his--to shine the light of God’s truth and God’s peace and God’s compassion and God’s mercy--in short, the light of God’s justice--into all the dark places of our world.[7]

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/12/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 42-43.
[3] cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 45: “Is it possible that the reign of justice can be promoted by ... the express renunciation of force, even by special attention and care to fellow victims who are on the verge of collapse and death?”
[4] John Paul II used this phrase to describe American culture his Homily at Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, January 27, 1999.  He issued a challenge to us in that homily: “If you want peace, work for justice. If you want justice, defend life. It you want life, embrace the truth–the truth revealed by God.”
[5] Cf. Presbyterian Church (USA), The Study Catechism, question 41, which answers “How did Christ fulfill the office of King?” with the response, “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.”  Cf. also Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 46.
[6] Cf. Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 60: “Thus John and Jesus perform their respective roles, fulfilling ‘all righteousness’ as the salvific will of God now receives expression in the inauguration of the kingdom and the arrival of a new and crucial stage of salvation-history; cf. also Douglas R. A. Hare, 21-22; W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 327.  Contrast Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.4:15, where he suggests that the “righteousness” Jesus fulfills is the judgment of God announced by John, which he takes upon himself at the cross.
[7] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 46-47: “The community called and upheld by God, by discharging the patient faithful witness assigned to the Servant, becomes the instrument through which the nations are drawn into the covenant relationship marked by God’s reign of justice.”

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Reflecting Light

Reflecting Light
Jer. 31:7-14; Jn. 1:1-18[1]
  There are a lot of people you meet in life who simply radiate gratitude.  Like children, their actions, their words, even the look on their faces and in their eyes conveys a fundamental joy.  But that’s not always the case.  It’s become more socially acceptable to complain than to be “radiant over the goodness of the LORD” (Jer. 31:12), as the prophet puts it.  Criticizing someone or something demonstrates that you’re sophisticated, that you think about things more deeply than the average person, and that you’re not prone to being gullible.  If there’s an unforgivable sin in our culture, it’s being too gullible.  You might as well paint a target on your back that says “kick me.”
  And yet, in response to the “indescribable gift” of God’s “surpassing grace” that we have received in Christ (cf. 2 Cor 9:14-15), it would seem that there is no other fitting response than to be thankful.  When you look at all that the prophet Jeremiah promised the Lord would do for his people, it’s no wonder he expected them to be radiant with joy. Instead of exile they were going to be gathered home, instead of weeping they would find themselves consoled by God, instead of languishing in a foreign land they would live in their own homes and enjoy all the grain and wine and oil they need.  The prophet was promising them that one day God would ransom the people of Israel from captivity, from “hands too strong” for them (Jer. 31:11).[2]  As one modern-day prophet observes, our lesson from Jeremiah provides “a picture of overwhelming, over-the-top grace.”[3]
  If there’s one word in the New Testament that summarizes the gift that God has given to us in his son our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, it’s grace.  And so it comes as no surprise to us when our lesson from John’s Gospel says that the light that those first Christians saw in Jesus was “the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).  He goes on to elaborate: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (Jn. 1:16).[4] 
  Because we’ve heard words like this from the Bible so many times, it’s easy for us to overlook the fact that John’s Gospel goes “over the top” to describe the gift we have received in Jesus the Christ.  That phrase “grace upon grace” gets lost in our hearing. Our translations have a hard time putting it in words.  Some of them, like the NIV and the NLT, render it with “one blessing after another.” I like Gene Peterson’s translation in The Message: “We all live off his generous bounty, gift after gift after gift.”  In the very first chapter of John’s Gospel, the meaning is clear: Jesus comes to us as the one who brings God’s grace.  And he brings so much of it that all you can call it is “grace piled on top of grace.”[5] 
  John’s Gospel uses other words like light and truth and life to describe the gifts Jesus brought to us.  But there’s one very important aspect of this gift that is clear in John’s Gospel: the gift that Jesus brought to us was the good news that we are God’s children. In part, this is due to the fact that because God is our creator, we all are God’s children.  No one who has ever lived or who will ever live is excluded from this good news. But there’s another level to being a “child of God” in our Scripture readings for today. 
  There is the sense in our lessons for today that our experience of  “grace piled on top of grace” is meant to produce in us a reflection of that grace in the way we live our lives.  In Jeremiah’s day, he anticipated that those who benefitted from God’s “gift after gift after gift” would be “radiant over the goodness of the LORD” (Jer. 31:12).  They would reflect the gratitude and joy that would be the only fitting response to the amazing grace God was going to lavish on them.  And in Paul’s day, the idea that the believers were chosen by God to be his children meant that they were to “live for the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:12).  And that brings us back to our gospel lesson: we who have “seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14) are to reflect that glory in our lives as his children.[6] 
  It seems to me that the ultimate gratitude for the “indescribable gift” God has given to us in the birth of the Christ child is to reflect the light that we have been given.  Our world still has plenty of darkness in it.  One of the primary ways in which the light of Christmas shines in this world is through us!  Part and parcel of the good news that we celebrate is our calling to be children of God, children who reflect the light that has come into our lives and has given us a new way of living, one full of hope and joy and peace and love.[7]

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/5/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Patrick D. Miller, “The Book of Jeremiah,” New Interpreters Bible VI: 813, “The promise of return to the promised land is one of the many instances in which God’s deliverance is seen to belong to the very real and material world of human existence in time and space and not only to a spiritual realm. ... The image of returning home as a salvific act is so powerful that it comes to have a spiritual dimension as well, through the images of pilgrimage, of looking for a city without foundations, whose builder and maker is God. ... The return to the land long ago promised is a return home, and it is a return to the place of security, the place where the means to life can be found.”   Cf. similarly, R. E. Clements, Jeremiah, 185: “Israel does not and cannot exist in and of itself.  It exists as a people only as the outward expression of a decision of divine love.  Because that love does not and cannot cease, so will Israel’s existence and restoration in the future be assured.”
[3] Christine D. Pohl, “Homeward Bound,” The Christian Century (Dec. 27, 2005): 19.  Cf. also Miller, “Book of Jeremiah,” NIB VI:815: “Surely there is no more powerful or extravagant depiction of the Lord’s future provision of the good of the people than that of 31:10-14. It is an invitation to a party the likes of which this people have never known. It is a homecoming party, with all the good things parties are meant to have: the best food and wine, music and singing and dancing. It is intergenerational and full of fun and merriment. And it goes on forever. The picture of a marvelous party, where all are gathered before the Lord to enjoy all the benefits of God’s goodness and celebrate in joy and singing and dancing, is a way of connecting the vision of the future with the reality of the present.”
[4] Cf. Gail R. O’Day “The Gospel of John” New Interpreters Bible IX:524, “The Word becoming flesh is the decisive event in human history—indeed, in the history of creation—because the incarnation changes God’s relationship to humanity and humanity’s relationship to God. The incarnation means that human beings can see, hear, and know God in ways never before possible.”  She adds (p. 526), “The joyous witness of the Prologue is spoken by those whose own experience has been decisively marked by the incarnation. John 1:14-18 is not theological speculation about the character of the incarnate Word, but the testimony of those whose lives have been changed by the incarnation.”
[5] Cf. Pohl, “Homeward Bound,” 19. Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3.1:236: “It is, therefore, the love which is in God Himself, which goes forth and breaks into the world in the existence of the man Jesus, .... He reveals Himself as the One in whom this affirmation of the world takes place, ..., the fulness of life, so that what He gives and what is received from Him is absolutely unequivocally and exclusively grace, “grace and truth” (1:14, 17), “grace for grace” (1:16), inexhaustible, victorious grace which can be followed only by more grace.  Cf. also Ernst Haenchen, John: A Commentary on the Gospel of John, 120: “the community that speaks this way is conscious of living out of grace that is forever being renewed.”
[6] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:429: “the Church as such, and every individual in the Church in his own place and manner, becomes a bearer and proclaimer of” the “loving-kindness of God realised and revealed in Him.”
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, 337-38: “In joy over the open fulness of God, out of which we receive not just ‘grace upon grace’ but also—as we can now say—life upon life, the life we live here and now is already transfigured and becomes a festive life, life in celebration.”