Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Soft Hearts

Soft Hearts
Psalm 95[1]
  We live in a world where it can be risky to have a soft heart.  People with soft hearts often get their hearts broken, or trampled on, or pierced with betrayal.  Most of us learn to harden our hearts early on, even in grade school.  If you don’t, it’s too easy for your feelings to get hurt by the taunts of your schoolmates.  And as adults, we assume that we can’t open up and really be honest about what we think and feel.  If we do, somebody’s sure to come along and shoot us down.  So we keep our mouths shut and we close off our hearts.  It seems the only way to survive this world is to harden your heart against the slings and barbs that it throws at you.
  But hard hearts tend to fossilize over time.  They get harder and harder, until it seems impossible for anyone or anything to get through.  Hard hearts will have nothing to do with the sweeping changes the Spirit wants to bring in order to give us new life.  When our hearts are hard, we close off to protect ourselves from having to admit that we may be in the wrong, or we may need to change.[2]  Hard hearts are hearts that are defensive and defended, closed to those around us, closed even to the life-giving presence of God.
  One of the themes that gets repeated over and over in the story of Israel’s history is that their hearts were hard.  The prophets continually rebuked the people for being hard-hearted in their willful disobedience to God and in their continually going their own way.[3]  The prophets repeatedly called the people to open their hearts to God and return to him.[4] It seems to me that in order to do that, you have to admit that you’re going the wrong way and soften your heart to what God is trying to do in your life.
  The Psalmist was reflecting on this aspect of Israel’s experience in our lesson for today.  He was particularly talking about the wilderness wanderings, when the people complained seemingly incessantly about Moses and about God.  They didn’t like being in the wilderness, and they made it clear every chance they got!  They weren’t happy with the way things were going in their lives, and they rarely missed a chance to blame God, or Moses, or both.  Unfortunately, it would seem that it never even occurred to them that the root of their bitterness was within themselves, not in someone else.  They simply quarreled with Moses and “tested” God (Exod. 17:2, 3).  The question at the center of their quarrel was significant: “Is the Lord among us or not? (Exod. 17:7).[5] 
  I would offer the suggestion that they were not the first, and certainly not the last, to “test” God.  The Psalmist defines it as demanding that God prove himself to be trustworthy (Ps. 95:9).[6]  Ironically, there are numerous stories where individuals asked God for a sign or for an answer using various “tests.”  But it would seem that there’s a difference between trying to discern our direction and demanding that God give us assurances that we will get out of life whatever it is that we want.  One of the problems with that approach to faith is that you can never get enough proof.  You always need one more test to be sure you can “really” trust God.
  The Psalmist says that the people responded to God in this way because they had “hardened” their hearts (Ps. 95:8).  They had closed themselves off in such a way that faith was essentially impossible.  And so the Psalmist, speaking to later generations, warns them (and us) to avoid hardened hearts.  How then do we follow this warning?  Well, it seems to me that it starts where the Psalmist does.  He calls to all those who would hear, saying “ O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!  For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (Ps. 95:6-7). It seems to me that the place where we begin to soften our hearts so that we may “listen to his voice” (Ps. 95:7) is when we’re able to humble ourselves enough to kneel before our Maker.[7] 
  That kind of humility doesn’t come easily for those of us who have been schooled in a dog-eat-dog world.  And yet, over and over again, the Scriptures call us to soften our hearts so that we can open them to the life-giving presence of God.  And over and over again, the way the Scriptures instruct us to begin is by humbling ourselves.[8]  We have to humble ourselves to recognize with St. Paul that we were “weak” and “ungodly” when Christ died for us (Rom. 5:6).[9]  It took humility for the woman at the well to admit to Jesus that “I have no husband,” (Jn. 4:17)![10]  And it takes humility for us to open our hearts to God.
  That kind of humility is difficult for most of us.  But it truly is the first step toward softening our hearts.  When we can let down some of our defenses, and soften our hearts, then maybe we can open ourselves enough to listen, really listen to God’s voice.[11]  That’s what it takes for us to experience the kind of change Jesus was talking about with Nicodemus.  That’s what it takes for us to experience the new life of the Spirit that God wants to give us.  The call to faith is a call to humility, a call to soften our hearts and open them up enough to receive the grace and the love that God wants to pour into our hearts in such quantity that it becomes like “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (Jn. 4:14).

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/23/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: The Spirituality of the Twelve Steps, xix: “Grace is always a humiliation for the ego, it seems.”
[3] Cf. Isaiah 46:12; Jeremiah 5:23; 9:26; Ezekiel 3:7.
[4] Cf. Jeremiah 24:7; 29:13; 32:39; Ezekiel 11:19; 18:31; 36:26; Joel 2:12.
[5] Cf. J. I. Durham, Exodus, 231: “the dissatisfied people put Yahweh (and Moses) to the test by their complaining, a complaining which posed the unbelievable question, ‘Is Yahweh present with us, or not?’ The scandal of this question of course is that their release and their freedom, their rescue at the sea, their guidance through and sustenance in the wilderness, and their very presence at Rephidim all answered such an inquiry in pointed and unmistakable events.”
[6] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 307: “Putting God to the test is a self-centered demand for signs and wonders ..., as though the signs and wonders of God’s creation and salvation were not enough reason to trust him, and him alone.”
[7] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:1063, where he emphasizes that the Psalm is about the proclamation of God’s reign,  In that context, “God does not coerce obedience; God invites obedience.”  He continues, “The proclamation of God’s reign calls for a decision” and that decision is made in the context of worship: “In worship, we profess who is sovereign, and we actualize today the reality of God’s claim upon us. ... Worship really is a ‘service’ in the sense that we act out our servanthood, our submission to the God whom we profess rules the world and our lives.”
[8] Cf. Exodus 10:3; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Psalm 25:9; Isaiah 57:15; 66:2; Matthew 18:4; 23:12; James 4:10; 1 Peter 5:6; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, 127-130, where he contrasts kneeling in prayer as a subservient position with the position of standing with arms held up, hands open, and heads held high as an expression of the freedom believers receive in the Spirit.
[9] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:771-772.  He says (p. 772), “If [God] loves [man] because he is sinful, being moved to compassion by the fact that He finds him in this weakness, godlessness and hostility, this carries with it the fact that He wills to free him from the necessity of being a sinner.”  He continues, “The sin of the one loved by [God] is a stain which cannot stand against the fact that God loves him and gives Himself for him, but must yield and perish. It is the work of the love of God to cause this stain to yield. This is why we call it the purifying love of God.”
[10] I think this is true because she may have been saying that five different men had married her and then rejected her.  Among NT commentators, it is common to point out that the woman’s five marriages was evidence of her immorality.  Only Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:567, challenges this. She points out (p. 571-72) that the woman is not portrayed as a sinner in this passage, but as a witness! She suggests it’s possible that the woman had been “trapped in the custom of levirate marriage ... and the last male in the family line has refused to marry her.”  Either way, it would take humility on her part to say, “I have no husband”!
[11] Cf. Rohr, Breathing Under Water, 12: “I think your heart needs to be broken, and broken open, at least once to have a heart at all or a heart for others.” 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Real Change

Real Change
Jn 3:1-17[1]
  There are many in our world who talk about the Christian faith as if it’s the simplest thing in the world.  All you have to do is to take the step to walk the aisle and pray the prayer and you’re “born again.”  Unfortunately, that kind of approach to the Christian life makes it so that many “Christians” don’t look very “born again.”  Many of us live our lives pretty much just exactly like everybody else.  From how we spend our money to what we do with our free time to whether or not we stay married--the statistics don’t really show much difference between those of us who identify ourselves as Christians and those who don’t.
  But it seems to me that approach to the change that Jesus was alluding to in our Gospel lesson completely underestimates how hard it is.[2]  Change--real change--is incredibly difficult for most of us.[3]  We have to be willing to take a hard look at ourselves.  Unfortunately, many of us don’t like what we see when we look that closely, so we don’t look and we don’t change.  Like Nicodemus, I’m not sure we understand what being “born again” is all about, and therefore we’d rather not have to go through it, whatever it is.
  Changing the way we live can be incredibly difficult.  We’ve all been programmed with the way we’re supposed to live our lives.  We’re supposed to do well in school.  And afterwards we’re supposed to get a good job.  And get married, settle down, and have children.  And raise our children.  And be successful enough that by the time our children are having their children, we’re about ready to enjoy retirement.  But as most of you know, that “script” for the way life is supposed to go doesn’t always work.  And yet, it’s incredibly difficult to change our habit of thinking that our lives are supposed to follow one of these “scripts.” [4] And so it’s incredibly difficult to change the way we live.
  I’m not excluding myself from this challenge.  Here I am--I’m up here doing my best to relate the teachings of the Bible week after week.  Every once in a while I have an insight into my own life that makes me think that all these years I’ve been preaching and teaching I’ve just plain missed it myself.  It’s very humbling when we see our own shortcomings. Most of us don’t much like to feel humbled. Most of us don’t like the discomfort of feeling like we’ve missed it.  It can be  unpleasant to really expose our lives to the light of God’s truth.  When we do, we see all the flaws and weaknesses that remain inside us.  And so we resist change.  We fight it tooth and nail.
  I think real change frightens us.  It can push us to the very edge of our ability to cope.  And yet, when you’re talking about the Spirit of God blowing through your life, I daresay no one should assume it’s going to be easy.[5]  I think when we hear Jesus saying “the wind blows where it wills, and you neither know where it comes from or where it goes,” (Jn. 3:8) we tend to imagine a nice Summer breeze that softly rustles through the trees.  But sometimes the wind of the Spirit blows through our lives like a tornado or a hurricane.  I don’t know anybody who likes going through that.
  And yet, as Jesus said, “no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (Jn. 3:6).  It’s only when we let the Spirit blow through our lives--and perhaps strip away that which keeps us from really changing--that we can experience the new life of the Kingdom of God.  More than that, I don’t believe that this is a once-for-all kind of experience, like a lot of people make it out to be.  I find that the Spirit blows through my life whenever he deems it necessary--whether I’m ready for it or not![6]
  The real change that comes when the Spirit causes us to be born again, or born from above--or both--can be painful.[7]  It can be frightening.  We may find ourselves holding onto our “old selves” for dear life rather than having to undergo real change.  But real change is what it takes to find the new life of God’s Kingdom that Jesus was talking about.  As Jesus said, “no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above” (Jn. 3:3).  That’s rarely something that is easy.  It’s usually difficult, and painful, and humbling.
  And yet, Jesus calls us to open ourselves to the blowing of the Spirit in our lives--to take the risk of letting everything we thought we had nailed down get blown away--in order to experience the new life that God has for us.  It takes courage to open ourselves to that kind of real change.  We have to admit that the things we thought we were “supposed” to do may have been all wrong.  But the end result is lasting peace, real joy, and hope that gives us a reason for living.[8]  And hopefully, we become more authentically Christian in the way we live. I don’t know about you, but I think I’m willing to let the flimsy structures I’ve built for my life get blown around to find that kind of life.[9]  The good news is that Jesus calls us all to open our lives to the real change that the Spirit will bring.[10]  The process may be one that is scary at times, and difficult, and even humbling.  But it seems to me that it’s worth it to find the new life Jesus promised us.

[1] © 2014 Alan  Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/16/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf., similarly, Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:554-55.  She says (p. 555), “By codifying the expression ‘born again’ and turning it into a slogan, interpreters risk losing the powerful offer of new life contained in Jesus’ words.”
[3] Cf. Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, 6: “What the ego hates more than anything else in the world is change ... . Instead, we do more and more of what does not work ...”
[4] Cf. Gail R. O'Day, “New Birth as a New People: Spirituality and Community in the Fourth Gospel,” Word & World 8 (Winter 1988): 54, “We are afraid to embrace newness, to accept transformation, because such acceptance would mean letting go of the things that defined our lives before newness was offered. We stubbornly cling to our definitions of life, because we are afraid to accept God's offer of new identity.”
[5] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 9, where he observes that our encounter with God moves us “beyond the sphere in which we have some mastery…”  Cf. also Donald G. Miller, “John 3:1-21,” Interpretation, 35 (Ap 1981): 178, where he observes that “We prefer God's dealings to be less drastic, to come within the range of our own rational processes. We want reconciliation without redemption, attunement without atonement, amnesty without amends, the olive branch without the rod, truce without truth, mercy without holy majesty, love without holiness, a God who is a friend but not a Redeemer. But we cannot have it so.”
[6] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 56, where he says that the deepest meaning of our history is “a constant invitation calling us to turn our hearts to God and so discover the full meaning of our lives.”
[7] Cf. O’Day, “New Birth as a New People,” 56: the double meaning of what is usually translated as “born again” emphasizes that Jesus “speaks of a newness that challenges even the conventional capacity of language.”  Cf. also O’Day, “Gospel of John,” NIB IX:549.  On Nicodemus’ misunderstanding, cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, 138-41, where he points out that while there was only limited background in the Jewish tradition for becoming children of God, there was ample background for the idea of the outpouring of the Spirit in preparation for entering God’s kingdom.
[8] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:563: “The man involved in the act of conversion is no longer the old man. He is not even a corrected and revised edition of this man. He is a new man.”  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 152.
[9] Cf. O’Day, “New Birth as a New People,” 55: “The true sign of the fullness of God's gift of grace may be that God’s grace can form new persons even in the face of our resistance.”
[10] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God , 104; cf. also Rohr, Breathing Underwater, 8-14, where he describes the process of opening up three inner spaces: our minds, our hearts, and our bodies.  He says (p. 8), “To finally surrender ourselves to healing, we have to have three spaces opened up within us--and all at the same time: our opinionated head, our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body.”

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The "Voice" is a Liar

The “Voice” is a Liar
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11[1]
  Among the many voices that compete for our attention in this world, some of the most difficult ones are the voices inside us.  We all have those inner voices.  You know them as well as I do.  There is the voice of fear that says, “There’s no place I can feel really safe.”  Or the voice of condemnation that says, “No matter what I do, it will never be good enough.”  Or the voice of shame that says, “I’ll never be worthy of love.”  Those voices are drilled into us by our culture, and they’re incredibly hard to ignore, let alone unlearn.  But those voices are all lying to us.  Because the truth is that we are already safe in God’s hands; everything we do is good enough for the God who loves us without our having to do anything to be “worthy.”
  There’s another voice that we all have faced from time to time.  It’s the voice of temptation.  It’s the voice that says, “You know you want it, so go for it.”  It’s a voice that comes to us in situations that can be mundane as well as  those that have life-long consequences.  Essentially, it’s the same voice our original parents heard in the Garden.  When the tempter came to them, he lied to them.  But he did so in ways that made it really hard to recognize that he was lying to them.  Notice how cunning the tempter was.  First, he distorted God’s original instruction to them.[2]  God’s voice said “you may freely eat of every tree of the garden” (Gen. 2:16), except for one.[3]  But the tempter made it sound as if any restriction was unfair: “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” (3:1).
  Next the tempter made God out to be a liar.  God had warned Adam that if they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they would die (2:17).  But the tempter flatly contradicted that: “You will not die” (3:4).  And, in fact they didn’t die the moment they ate.  But they did bring death into that beautiful garden.[4]  As if that were not enough, the tempter proceeded to call God’s motives into question, implying that God was trying to keep something great and wonderful from them: “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5).[5]  The truth of the matter is that they were already “like God” in all the ways that mattered, because they had been created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27).  But the voice of temptation always makes it hard to recognize that it’s lying. Just like the other voices that can trouble us, the voice of temptation is a liar.  It’s always a liar.[6]
  In our other temptation story for today, Jesus seems to handle the tempter’s voice with great ease, as if the temptations presented to him were no real challenge at all.  And yet, if we were to think that, we would miss an important truth about this temptation story.  As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, Jesus is “one who in every respect has been tested as we are” (Heb. 4:15).[7]  If we think that he didn’t want to turn those stones to bread after fasting for forty days and nights, it’s only because we’ve never fasted that long. 
  Interestingly, the tempter’s strategy was the same with Jesus as it had been in garden.  First, he planted a seed of doubt about whether Jesus could trust the voice at his Baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17).[8]  The tempter tried to get Jesus to doubt that declaration by talking him into indulging his hunger: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Mt. 4:3).  But Jesus responded with the voice of truth from the Torah: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (4:4, quoting Dt. 8:3).[9] 
  Next, the tempter shifts to the strategy of distorting God’s voice.  He took Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple and quoted from the Psalms: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone’” (4:6, quoting Ps. 91:11-12).  But despite the fact that Jesus had the need for validation just like every other human being, he also knew that this wasn’t the way to get it.  And so he turned again to the voice of truth in the Torah: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (4:7, quoting Dt. 6:16).[10]
  Finally, the tempter goes all out and challenges not only God’s motives but also Jesus’ intentions.  Jesus had come to transform the “Kingdom of this world into the Kingdom of our Lord” (Rev. 11:15) by stripping the power from evil on the cross.  He knew this was the reason God had sent him in the first place.  So the tempter offered Jesus an “easier” path: showing him all the kingdoms of the world he said, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” (4:9).[11]  As if they were his to give!  And as if it was not Jesus’ destiny to become the one at whose name “every knee shall bow” as a result of his death on the cross.[12]  But Jesus saw through the tempter’s ruse and again answered with the voice of truth from the Torah: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (4:10, quoting Dt. 6:13).  As in the story of the temptation in the Garden, so here the tempter was a liar.  In every scheme, every pretense, every aspect of the sham he tried to perpetrate, the voice of the tempter was lying.
  That is true for us as well.  As we enter the season of Lent, I think it would be helpful to take a look at how well we tell the difference between the voices that are lying to us and the those that speak truth.  It’s never easy, because the lying voices play on our doubts and our weaknesses and our failures in an attempt to convince us they’re telling us the real truth.  But in the end, those voices are always lying to us.  The voice that speaks truth is the one that tells us we’re accepted and loved.  The voice that speaks truth is the one that reminds us that we are precious and of inestimable worth in God’s sight.[13]  The voice that speaks truth is the one that points us toward what is good for us, and right, and life-giving.  That’s the voice we need to be listening for.  That’s the voice that will help us recognize that the other voice is a liar.

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/9/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, 47, where he points out that the interplay in this passage “serves to invert the realities ordained by God."  He also says (p. 48), that in the tempter’s approach, “there’s just enough of a twist to miss the point” of God’s original voice.
[3] Cf. Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” New Interpreters Bible I:351: “To be truly a creature entails limits; to honor limits becomes necessary if creation will develop as God intends.  Yet, while the language takes the form of command, the issue involves trust in the word of God.” At the same time, the freedom to disobey was also a part of the creation (p. 365): “The temptation to reach beyond the limits of creatureliness belongs to created existence for the sake of human integrity and freedom.” Cf. similarly, Brueggemann, 48: the matter of death in the original prohibition “was not a threat but a candid acknowledgement of a boundary of life.”
[4] Cf. Fretheim, “Genesis” NIB I:352, where he points out that they were already mortal beings, so “It may be that death (and life) has a comprehensive meaning in this story ..., associated with the breakdown of relationships to God, to each other, and to the created order.”  Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.2.607, is more direct when he says at the conclusion of a long exposition that “the finitude of human life stands in fact in the shadow of its guilt. What else can death be for sinful man but the sign of God’s judgment, and therefore—if man is indeed not created to be a sinner or to suffer God’s judgment—not a divinely willed and created determination natural to his being, but an alien intrusion?”  To be sure, Barth’s conclusions are heavily influenced by Pauline theology, and especially by Barth’s understanding of Jesus’ death on the cross.
[5] Cf. Fretheim, “Genesis” NIB I:361: “The serpent engages in no coercion here, no arm-twisting, no enticement through presentation of fruit from the tree; everything happens through words.  The word of the serpent ends up putting the word of God in question.”  And he points out that the question is whether they can trust that God has their best interests at heart in restricting them from this particular tree.
[6] Cf. Brueggemann, 52, who points out that the crux of this temptation was about trust in God.  He says, “the God announced in this story is not a petty god who jealously guards holy secrets and who eagerly punishes the disobedient.”  Rather the point is that “there is something to life which remains hidden and inscrutable, and which will not be trampled upon by human power or knowledge.”
[7] Cf. Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, 26, where he says that the “basic underlying temptation” that Jesus shared with all the ones we face is “the temptation to treat God as less than God.” Cf. also M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:165: here Matthew depicts Jesus as “one who fully shares the weakness of our human situation (cf. Phil 2:5-11; Heb. 2:5-18).  The picture of Jesus as the obedient Son of God does not abolish or compromise the image of Jesus as truly human.”
[8] Cf. W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 367: the question at issue in the temptation is “How should Jesus exercise his power as Son of God?  The answer is, In obedience to God.” Cf.  also Hare, Matthew, 23; Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 92-93.
[9] Cf. Hare, Matthew, 24: unlike Israel in the wilderness, this “Son of God” “refuses to give way to mistrust.”  Cf. also Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 362.
[10] Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 367: “The Father in heaven is not to be compelled; rather should every deed be an obedient reaction to what he has willed, a submissive response to divine initiative.” Cf. also Hare, Matthew, 25
[11] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1, 260-63, where he points out that all the temptations were intended to persuade Jesus to violate God’s purpose.  Cf. similarly, Moltmann, Way of Jesus93: “Filled with the Spirit, Jesus becomes the messianic Son of God; but through the temptations into which this same Spirit leads him, he is denied the economic, political and religious means for a ‘seizure of power’. Here, that is to say, his passion in helplessness is prefigured: his victory comes through suffering and death.”
[12] Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 369-70: Jesus rejects this temptation because “Only after the passion, and then only from the Father in heaven, can Jesus accept all authority.”
[13] Cf. Jurgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 187: "Human life has eternal value because it is loved and accepted by God."

Monday, March 03, 2014

Seeing that Justice is Done

Seeing that Justice is Done
Ps 99; Mt. 17:1-9[1]
  There are so many voices competing for our attention these days.  That’s especially true whenever we’re coming up to an election.  It seems that everybody who’s running for just about any office has a commercial on TV these days.  And pardon me for saying so, but it’s my impression that many of them are engaged in a competition to outdo each other in promoting the very opposite of what we’ve been hearing from the Scripture lessons.  Instead of the generosity, kindness, and compassion that the Bible calls us to practice toward all people, we hear things that seem to reflect indifference toward others, and even at times outright hostility. 
  But that is not the way of life we’ve been learning about.  We’ve heard that what God desires of us is to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8).[2]  We’re to “let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke” (Isa. 58:6) and so live as light for the world.  We’re called to “loving the LORD your God,” which means “walking in his ways, and observing his commandments” (Deut. 30:16).  And Jesus took those commandments and made them about what goes on in our hearts, not just our outward actions.  And as we learned last week that when it comes to “loving our neighbors” the Scriptures are very specific and all-inclusive.  They measure the quality of our faith by how we treat the weakest members of society.
  And so we have come full circle during the Season of Epiphany.  We began with Jesus’ Baptism, which demonstrated his commitment to carry out the role of the “servant of the Lord.” He was intent on “fulfilling all righteousness,” which means that he was going to set about God’s work of righting the wrongs and lifting the burdens from the oppressed.  In a word, he was going to see that God’s justice is done.  And as we pointed out then, 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 widows and orphans and the immigrants have someone to watch over them.[3]
  In a very real sense, I think we could look at all of Jesus’ life in the light of that commitment to God’s justice.  Our Scripture lesson from Psalm 99 for today tells us that the kind of justice we’ve been talking about, the fairness that makes it possible for all people to thrive equally, is something that God has “established” (Ps. 99:4).[4]  And so it should come as no surprise that Jesus set about establishing God’s justice.  Seeing that God’s justice is done could very well have been a “mission statement” for Jesus. Except that in Jesus’ case, it would seem that he was one who determined to “see that justice is done everywhere.” [5] And the way he “established” this justice was not simply by his own life.  He called those of us who would follow him to see that justice done for everyone, everywhere.[6]
  As at Jesus’ baptism, so at his Transfiguration, there is a heavenly voice that confirms his commitment to carry out this role.[7]  I believe this is one of the important outcomes the Transfiguration was intended to accomplish: to convey to Jesus’ closest disciples that he was indeed carrying out God’s justice, and that they were to “hear him” (Mt. 17:5).  I think the point of this went beyond simple hearing.  It seems to me that the point was that they pay attention to what Jesus was teaching them about justice, fairness, and compassion.  And paying attention meant putting Jesus’ teachings into practice when then came down from the mountain.[8]
  That’s where it gets complicated for us. When we do that, we have to change the way we actually live.  But most of us resist change.  As one contemporary prophet puts it, “we try to engineer our own transformation by our own rules and by our own power.”[9]  But when we try to become the masters of our own conversion, we tend to miss the “log” in our own eyes, in all of our eyes, and obsess about the “speck” in others’ eyes.[10]  And so we stroll blandly through our lives, never really “hearing” what Jesus was saying at all.  We’d much rather let it go in one ear and out the other so we can avoid the changes Jesus demanded of those who said they wanted to follow him.[11]
  It’s only when we actually let the challenging and sometimes incredibly difficult demands of Jesus really sink in, that we can begin to change.  It’s only when we really hear his call to see that justice is done, that we can begin to experience the new life he offers us all.  But that means that in order to really hear him, we have to have to start with ourselves first.  We have to take the logs out of our own eyes.  That’s where real justice begins--with a change in our own hearts that translates into a different way of living. That’s when we begin following Jesus’ call to see that God’s justice is done by doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/2/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinon, TX.
[2] Cf. Daniel J. Simundson, “The Book of Micah,” New Interpreters Bible VII:582-83, where he points out that “what God expects of us is a dedication of our whole lives, not just outward and occasional acts of piety.”
[3] Cf. H.-J. Kraus, A Continental Commentary: Theology of the Psalms, 43: Justice is “first of all, as its ‘proper work,’ the bringing of assistance, deliverance, and loyalty to those who are victims of injustice, persecution, and false accusations.”
[4] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 311: “The LORD’s reign is power devoted to righteousness and justice.  Righteousness is the rightness that makes for life and shalom; justice is found in decisions and actions according to righteousness.”  Cf. also Kraus, Theology of the Psalms, 42: “The holiness of Israel’s God is the power that makes justice and righteousness prevail.”
[5] Cf. H.-J. Kraus, A Continental Commentary: Psalms 60–150, 272: “the holy God who is glorified in Israel is the God of the nations (v. 2*). His justice and judgment, manifest in the chosen people has universal validity and power.”
[6] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV: 1076: “Because the Holy One is committed to being with us and enacting justice and righteousness among us, it is fitting that Jesus taught us to pray, ‘hallowed be thy name, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Cf. also Mays, Psalms, 315, where he says that God’s exercise of justice in Israel “was prophetic of his coming rule over the world.”
[7] Cf. Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, 199-200.
[8] Cf. Hare, Matthew, 200: “Seeing Jesus transfigured has value only if it leads the disciples to listen obediently to his divinely authorized teaching.”  Cf. also Ulrich Luz, Matthew: A Commentary, 399: “In the narrative the ‘listen to him’ ... of the divine voice is, as it were, God’s finger pointing down from the mountain. Below, on the level of everyday life, the Son of God will proclaim to his disciples the will of the Father and the gospel of the kingdom.”
[9] Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, 4.
[10] Cf. Rohr, Breathing Under Water, 4: “many Christians whittle down the great Gospel to some moral issue over which they can feel totally triumphant and superior, and which usually asks nothing of them personally.”
[11] Cf. Rohr, Breathing Under Water, 4: “Christians are usually sincere and well-intentioned people until you get to any real issues of ego, control, power, money, pleasure, and security.  Then they tend to be pretty much like everybody else