Saturday, December 20, 2014

Finding Joy

Finding Joy
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11[1]
I think one of the worst feelings in the world may be the feeling of being powerless. At least for those of us who are used to thinking that we have the freedom to choose how we live our lives. But, the longer we live, I think the more we realize that those notions are, to some extent, illusions. Life seems to bring to us what it chooses, and we can either fight against it or we can learn to accept it. Now, don’t get me wrong: there are some things in life that we should never accept. But I think the more experience we gain, the more we learn the wisdom of letting go our ideas about how much we control our own lives. In many areas of our lives--the choices others make that affect us, the doors that open and those that close, and even in some cases the ability to provide for ourselves and our families--we seem to be more powerless than we’d like to admit. It’s hard to find joy in life when it seems like we are powerless against the forces that control our lives.[2]
The people addressed by the beautiful and inspiring words of the prophet today were very much like that. They were powerless over their lives in many ways. After mourning in exile, they had returned to a home that was devastated, and their mourning continued. Whatever hopes they had of a new life when they returned from Babylon were quickly dashed. The fact that the prophet can say he was chosen by God to bring “good news to the oppressed,” or better “to the poor” (Isa. 61:1) echoes indications elsewhere in biblical statements from this time period that after they returned home to Judea they struggled just to survive. That included having the safety of shelter and the ability to raise crops to feed themselves. As is the case with many in our world today, they were shackled to poverty in circumstances that prevented them from ever escaping. Like their hearts, for many of them their faith was broken. They felt hopeless and powerless over their poverty, and saw no way out.
Part of the “good news” this prophet delivered to the people might seem strange to us, even offensive. The idea that “the year of the Lord’s favor” would involve setting the captives free and releasing the prisoners might seem more like a nightmare scenario. And yet, we must understand that prison isn’t always a place where justice is carried out. In fact, in the ancient Near Eastern world, prison was primarily a means of control.[3] When a new king ascended to the throne, one way to make sure his former rivals wouldn’t cause any trouble was to put them in prison. Captives from military campaigns became prisoners of war and their lives were reduced to little better than that of slaves. And prison was also the preferred method of forcing those who had incurred too much debt to pay up. True criminals were typically executed swiftly, so it’s more likely than not that the majority of those who were kept in prison hadn’t committed anything we would consider a crime.[4] And the vast majority of prisoners didn’t have much in the way of life expectancy. The food was intended to keep them alive—barely. They endured such unsanitary conditions that we might not even consider it “living.” And the fact that there were no laws to force the authorities to bring cases to a speedy trial meant they had no idea when or if they would be released. They might very well die there. It was the ultimate hopeless situation; it was the ultimate experience of powerlessness.
And yet, the prophet had the courage and the vision to declare boldly to all who found themselves hopeless and powerless that God was going to relieve their suffering, comfort them in their sorrow, and see to it that the justice and righteousness of God’s kingdom prevailed instead of the injustice and oppression that define so many human “kingdoms.”[5] It is quite clear in Scripture that God is on the side of the poor, the oppressed, those unjustly deprived of their freedom, and in fact, all who suffer due to the heartless ways the powerful treat their fellow human beings.[6] In fact, the prophet speaks in the name of the Lord here and says, “For I the LORD love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing” (Isa. 61:8). And that means that God will not always stand by while his beloved children suffer and mourn in sorrow. God promises to set things right for them and for all who suffer; he promises to “cause righteousness ... to spring up” (61:11). The purpose of this is so that we can find the joy in living that God intended for us all to have--so that we can rejoice with the “oil of gladness” instead of fainting under the burden of continual mourning.
  Though we might not want to hear it, there are many ways in which our world lacks the justice and “rightness” that makes it possible for many to find the joy of living for which God created us. Whenever that is the case, whenever the "powers that be" wield their power to perpetrate “robbery and wrongdoing,” no matter how they “spin” it, God’s promise is to relieve the suffering of those who are unjustly oppressed. God’s justice cuts through all the heartless ways we have of rationalizing injustice. And the good news is that one day, God will finally set all things right so that no one has to suffer. One day God will make it possible for all people to escape the shackles that oppress them and to find joy in living, the joy that God wants for us all to find.[7]

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/14/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] There is a kind of “powerlessness” that is healthy: it is the attitude expressed in the “Serenity Prayer” authored by Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” Cf. Fred R. Shapiro, "Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer?", The Chronicle Review (April 28, 2014);  accessed at .
[3] On the role of prisons and their conditions in the ancient world, see B. M. Rapske, “Prison, Prisoner,” Dictionary of New Testament Background, 828-29; Karel Van Der Toorn, “Prison,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary V:468-69; and M. Greenburg, “Prison,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible III:891-92.
[4] Cf. Gretchen Wolff Pritchard, “Good News” The Christian Century (Dec 1, 1993): 1203, where she says, “Prisoners, in the Bible, are not criminals or convicts, since incarceration was not the penalty for civilian criminal acts. Rather, they are prisoners of war, captives, hostages—victims of militarism or government oppression.”
[5] Although many translate the text of Isaiah 61:2 “to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God,” which seems to promise deliverance and vengeance, Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 367, points out that “vengeance” in Isa. 61:2 refers to restoration. Cf. The Inclusive Translation, which renders it as the “day of vindication.” See also Isaiah 10:20–27; Jeremiah 30:1–9; Micah 5:7–15; Zechariah 8:1–8; 12:1–13:6; 14:1–21
[6] Cf. Terence E. Fretheim, “The Prophets and Social Justice: A Conservative Agenda,” in Word & World 28 (Spring 2008): 163, “God's concern about matters of social justice was believed to be so strong and so pervasive that it was built into the very heart of the covenantal promises. And God was and will be faithful to such promises.”
[7] Cf. Donald E. Gowan, “Isaiah 61:1-3, 8-11,” Interpretation 35 (Oct 1981):407, where he interprets the promises of this text both in light of the Year of Jubilee and the Day of Yahweh in the prophets, and says that the message is that “God is about to transform sorrow into rejoicing.”  In a similar vein, Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 113, points to the combination of hope for the Year of Jubilee and it’s fulfillment in the messianic reign, saying, “The coming kingdom of God is hence understood as the time of liberation and as the opportunity for true human fellowship.” Cf. similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 290; Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 53.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Looking for Peace

Looking For Peace
Isaiah 40:1-11[1]
For some of us, the search for peace takes us no farther than our own family, our friends, our community of faith, and our home. For some of us peace is as close to us as our hearts. But there are many who have a much more difficult time finding peace--true peace, lasting peace. Whether due to a significant loss, deep-seated problems that just won’t go away, or a major disappointment, there are those among us who have a very difficult time finding any peace. Especially at this time of year. All the hustle and bustle going on around people whose lives have seemed to come to a standstill can leave them feeling left out and alone. Anything but joyful. Anything but peaceful. It’s a time of year not to celebrate, but to survive.
And yet the offer of a true and lasting peace is just what the prophet of our lesson for this morning is talking about. The cry “Comfort, O comfort my people” introduces a major shift in the book of Isaiah.[2] Prior to this, the message of Isaiah mostly concerns a rebuke of the people’s sins and a call to repentance.[3] But now, there is something new at work. The God who finally gave the people over to the consequences of their sins and allowed them to go into exile now announces that he will comfort those who have suffered for so long.
Ironically, again the prophet gives voice to the doubts and fears of a people who have struggled to endure the long years of their exile. He calls out, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass” (Isa. 40:6-7). In other words, they think they have about as much chance surviving the exile as the grass does surviving a severe drought. For a people who have lost everything, and have had to put forth every ounce of effort just to survive in exile, the promise that God was coming to comfort them seemed an empty one.[4] During their exile there were many false prophets who had gotten their hopes up for a speedy release. Now, when this prophet announces in the name of the Lord that the time for their restoration has finally come, it would seem that some of them had no more faith to give to promises.[5]
And yet, one of the themes of this section of Isaiah is that God’s word does not fail. Here, the answer to the cry of despair, “surely the people are grass” is that, while grass may wither, “the word of our God will stand forever” (40:8).[6] While some might apply this to Scripture in general, in this setting it is a promise that God will not leave his promises of salvation, restoration, and renewal unfulfilled. In another passage, Isaiah puts it this way: “as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace” (Isa. 55:10-12).  The prophet declared in the name of the Lord that “the word of God” does not return empty, but accomplishes what it was intended for—to bring comfort and peace to a weary people.[7]
In the book of the prophet Isaiah, the good news of Advent is that God comes to reconcile and to heal and to restore all people, along with all creation.  That’s why Isaiah could speak of God’s coming like a shepherd who gently carries the lambs who are either too weak to make it back to safety or who perhaps have been injured (Isa. 40:11).  And the prophet’s message of restoration fills the whole book of Isaiah—with promises of the end of violence and warfare (Isa. 2:4), of the end of suffering and oppression (Isa. 25:8); a promise of a rich feast set for all peoples (Isa. 25:6), of God coming to set right everything that has gone wrong (Isa. 28:5-6) and to restore and heal those who are weak and injured (Isa. 35:3-6).
As we discussed last week, the season of Advent is a time for examining our hearts and lives. But the season of Advent is also a time to lift up our hearts and our faces and look for the peace that God has promised to bring to his people. In our lesson for today, “preparing the way for the Lord” means that “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (40:4) In other words, the return journey to Jerusalem will be much easier for them than their forced march into Babylon.[8] And the prophet promises that at that time “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together” (40:5). The heart of that glorious display would be God’s restoration for his people, bringing them comfort and peace at last.[9]
Advent is a season when we’re called to look to God in faith. And part of that involves taking a hard look at ourselves. But the season of Advent also calls us to trust in the promises of our God, promises of salvation, restoration, and renewal. Promises that, like a shepherd gently and tenderly cares for sheep who have been injured (Isa. 40:11), God will bring comfort and peace to all those who are suffering.[10] And when God promises to bring comfort and peace, we can trust in those promises because what God promises, God accomplishes.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/7/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. K. Baltzer, Deutero-Isaiah: A commentary on Isaiah 40–55, 49: “This sentence sums up everything that DtIsa has to proclaim. It means a real turn of events—a new beginning and yet, at the same time, continuity. God’s fundamental decision in favor of his people has been made.”
[3] Even in the message of judgment, however, there was a promise of restoring justice for those who had been oppressed by the “powers that be.” Commenting on the series of woes in Isa. 5:11-23, Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12, 66, observes that Isaiah “sees a time coming when all ownership will be accumulated in the hands of a few. The result of this development was bound to be that the inner coherence and legal security of the people of the covenant would collapse. A deep gulf would be opened between the poor and the rich, into which the poor were in danger of sinking.” He says (p. 68), “The divine woe is pronounced over every nation which sets pleasure and profit above the common interest and law.” He concludes (p. 71), “The woes Isaiah pronounces “proclaim with compelling force that all material well-being obtained at the expense of the people as a whole and in defiance of the law is precarious, because God loves what is right.”
[4] Cf. Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 41. Others take this cry in a different way, but he suggests that the prophet’s counter-cry that “all flesh is like grass” reflects the exiles’ “greatest temptation ... to be resigned to thinking of themselves as caught up in the general transience of things, to believing that nothing could be done to halt the extinction of their national existence.”
[5] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 14: “many of the prophet’s contemporaries were asking whether there was any source of comfort left for a people stripped of self-defense, vulnerable before their captors, bitter of soul as they mourned in a foreign land.”
[6] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 10: “What directs all of world history is captured succinctly in the divine word in 46:10, ‘My purpose shall stand, and I will fulfill my intention.’”
[7] Cf. Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 37: “Once Yahweh cried, ‘Comfort my people,’ something was bound to happen. The cry could not return to him empty.” Cf. also Christopher Seitz “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI:338.
[8] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.4:56, where he says, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness—a phrase quoted from Is. 40:3–5 in all four Gospels—is the voice of a messenger of salvation rather than catastrophe.”
[9] Cf. Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 34: “The messenger’s word that turns lamentation into joy has as its counterpart the intervention in history of the God who is lord of history, who exalts the humble and casts down the mighty.” Cf. also Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 10: “Second Isaiah’s message consistently describes how God was about to heal a torn creation and restore a broken community.”
[10] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography, 99-100, where he compares this “promise of the coming kingdom of God and his righteousness and justice for all” with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Waiting For God

Waiting for God
Isaiah 64:1-9[1]
In 1966, the cover of Time magazine asked the question “Is God Dead?”[2] In fact they were not the first to raise that question. Philosophers and Theologians have been debating the issue for at least a couple hundred years, and the debate continues. At various times in history, traumatic events and cultural upheaval, coupled with what can at best be called a superficial faith, have caused many to question whether God exists, or at least whether God still cares. The gas chambers of Auschwitz, the killing fields in Cambodia, the rise of diseases like AIDS and Ebola, natural disasters, and our own personal tragedies all challenge our faith in a God who cares and works in our lives to bring grace and peace and love and new life. It can feel very much like we’re on our own in this world at times.
The people whom the prophet was addressing definitely felt like God had forgotten them. After losing everything at the hands of the Babylonians, they had kept up at least a whiff of faith during their exile with the promise that God would again “let his face shine” (Ps. 80:3) upon them and graciously restore them to their homes and their lives and their land.[3] But when they got back to Judea after their long years of exile, the reality of their “new life” fell far short of what they had hoped. The temple lay in ruins. Even the city of Jerusalem had no walls to protect them. Instead of returning to a “land flowing with milk and honey,” they returned to a land that had been devastated by war and left a wasteland. Their lives were harder than ever, and it seemed that the God of their deliverance was nowhere to be found.[4]
In that situation, the prophet speaks aloud the questions that must have been on the minds of the people. After all they had suffered, he asked “where are your zeal and your might?” (Isa. 63:15) and “will you keep silent?” (64:12). Their circumstances and God’s seeming silence and absence contradicted what they had been told for generations, that God “will never forsake you.”[5] They simply could not comprehend being abandoned by the God who revealed himself time and again as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). And yet there they were crying out to God, asking why God had forsaken them.[6]
The prophet could have given them a lot of different answers. Like many in that day, he could have assured them that God would shortly make all their hopes come true. But that is not what this prophet does.[7] This prophet moves from lamenting God’s silence and absence to the confession of sin. In the name of the people, he confesses “We have all become like one who is unclean” (Isa. 64:6). The prophet omits no one from his heart-wrenching confession: “we all” echoes throughout the passage like a bell tolling: we all, we all, we all.[8] Regardless of their situation, “we all” leaves no one out. The people had forsaken their God, time after time for centuries. No one could protest, “but I never did anything wrong.”
And yet, though the confession of sin at this point might seem only to make matters worse, it is precisely the way to recover hope. After pouring out his heart in confession, the prophet returns to the faith that they who had stumbled badly still remained God’s people. He recalls that “you are our Father,” and he calls on God to act accordingly (64:8). Just as “we all” had turned away from God, the prophet reminds both God and God’s people that “we all” are your people (64:9). The prophet points out to God that their lives and their lands remained in ruins, and asks, “After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?” (64:12).[9]
It would seem that when it feels like God is absent and all hope is lost, one path to restoring our hope takes us through confession and repentance. In this season, I’m not sure we want to hear about confession and repentance. We’re ramping up for the festivities of shopping and cooking and gathering and celebrating. The last thing on our minds is confession and repentance. And yet that is precisely what the season of Advent is: a time to “prepare the way for the Lord” by examining our own hearts and lives. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that, like the people of Judah, “we all” have fallen.
The season of Advent is a time when we’re called to look to God in faith. And part of that involves taking a hard look at ourselves, whether we want to or not. If you look at our society, it seems that more and more we as a people are living as if God were dead. So many in our culture are disillusioned and seem to be just fine living what can seem almost a God-forsaken existence. Even for those of us who still look to God, the feeling of having been abandoned by a God who seems absent and silent can provoke feelings from guilt and shame to fear and even anger. But the season of Advent calls us all to confess that we have fallen short, and in doing so to entrust our lives again to the God who remains our Father no matter what.[10] Advent is a discipline that calls us to wait in repentance and faith for the only one who can restore us: God our savior.[11]


[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/30/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Time Magazine, April 8, 1966.
[3] Cf. Isa. 35:1-10; cf. also Isa. 2:1-4; 11:6-10; 49:5-13.
[4] Cf. Roy W. Howard, “Isaiah 64:1-9,” Interpretation 62 (Oct  2008): 418: “With great expectation and hope the exiles headed home to reestablish their distinctive way of life as God's people, seen chiefly in the reconstruction of the temple. However, a crisis arises because of the contrast between the lavish promises recounted in Second Isaiah and the reality they encounter in Jerusalem. The burning question now is "Where are you, God?" What has become of the promises for restoration proclaimed in exile?”
[5] Cf. Deuteronomy 31:6, 8; Psalm 37:28; 94:14; Isaiah 41:17; 42:16.
[6] Cf. Christopher Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI: 531: “How hard it is to genuinely recall God’s pure love and goodness when these are absent, and when distress is the governing condition. How much easier it is to assume that we were led astray by descriptions of God’s character, or that the good God has done for us in the past was not really divine goodness at all, but a stroke of fate. Yet Israel’s hope is genuinely grounded in God’s character as God. ... Whatever confusion or distress we may feel under the hand of God, God remains truly God and truly good. We must interpret God’s absence as a request, a demand, that we come to terms with God as God is.”
[7] Cf. Richard Nysse, “The Dark Side of God: Considerations for Preaching and Teaching,” Word & World 17 (Fall 1997): 442: “The dark side of God is not explained away; rather, it is prayed against with questions that God must address and with imperatives that God must carry out. ... False prophets announced a hopeful future that claimed exemption from the dark side of God .... The hope of which the canonical prophets spoke was grounded in the reality of human sin and consequent exile and judgment .... It was a word that needed to be authorized by God because only God could bring it about. ... The canonical prophets were able to let the hard questions linger in the air until God answered.”
[8] Cf. J. D. W. Watts, Isaiah 34–66, 906. Cf. also Howard, “Isaiah 64:1-9,” 419: “Everything must be laid bare with language that leaves no one unexposed to the untamable God who will not be assuaged by false piety or illusions of moral righteousness. Everyone is unclean. The community’s standard for righteousness has itself become toxic.”
[9] Cf. Kathleen Norris, “Apocalypse Now ,” The Christian Century (Nov 15, 2005):19: “The good news is that we are all in this together. ... How remarkable that God refuses to give up on us.” Cf. also Howard, “Isaiah 64:1-9,” 420: “With this naked faith, he humbly pleads with God to be God (w. 8-9). At the heart of the covenant is the relationship now tenderly evoked: ‘... you are our Father.’ Without the One who begets, Israel is nothing. As clay is to the potter, so the people are to God: utterly dependent, the work of God’s hand.”
[10] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:390, where he describes the righteousness of God in the face of the people’s sin, affirming that “In the process of judging, rejecting and punishing, God does not break but keeps His covenant, and therefore comforts, helps and saves.”
[11] Cf. Will Willimon, “Going Against the Stream,” The Christian Century (Dec 19, 1984):1193, where he says that “The hope for us, says the church in Advent, is that we are out of hope, and we know it.” Therefore he urges that it is a time to “Wait. Wait and see what is to be born among us.” And he prays “God grant us the honesty and the patience to wait long enough to find some real salvation.”  Cf. also Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 240,  “The doubts, the contradictions, the tensions, the pains that have been expressed in the lament are not thereby resolved. But they are lifted up in one final impassioned plea to the only one who can help.” Cf. also Howard, “Isaiah 64:1-9,” 420: “The people pray, yet God is the Holy One of Israel who cannot be tamed and whose actions cannot be guaranteed. All that remains is a people exposed and dependent upon God who is bound to them, no matter what, and them to God, again, no matter what. Odd as it is to our ears, this is astonishingly good news.”