Saturday, January 24, 2015

Belonging to God

Belonging To God
Psalm 139:1-12; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20[1]
One of my favorite confessions of faith isn’t a confession at all. It’s a catechism. It’s called “Belonging To God,” and it was approved by the PCUSA in 1998 as a “children’s” catechism.[2] In fact, when it comes to explaining our faith, that which is intended for children usually does a better job of getting to the heart of things. After all, with children, whether it’s a translation like the Contemporary English Version or Sunday School literature or a catechism, the goal is to keep things simple. When it comes to understanding what it means to live our lives in the power and presence of the Spirit, I would say that simplicity is a very good thing.
Here’s a sample. The first questions go like this: “Who are you?” And the response is: “I am a child of God.” “What does it mean to be a child of God?” To which the response is: “That I belong to God, who loves me.” I find it interesting that this catechism defines our relationship to God, it defines what it means to be a “child of God,” by saying, “I belong to God, who loves me.” I’m not sure about you, but I think that says a whole lot about our faith in a very few words: we belong to God. And “belonging” to God is about the fact he loves us. And so as a result a later question asks “How do you thank God for this gift of love?” And the answer is, “I promise to love and trust God with all my heart.” We respond to God’s love by seeking to love and trust God with all our hearts. I like the simplicity of that statement: the life of faith is about knowing that God loves us and about loving God back.
Some of us might object to the language of “belonging” to anybody. In its most negative sense, to “belong” to someone can be humiliating. To be in a situation where someone “owns” us and has complete control over us would normally be something harmful. But I think our Psalm for today gives us a different idea of what it means to say that we “belong” to God. Part of what that means is that God knows us completely. He knows our inmost thoughts, even the ones we may not want anyone else to know. He knows all our actions, both good and not so good. He knows our path; he knows where we’ve come from and where we’re headed. We might be tempted to avoid having someone who knows us so completely.[3] It can be frightening. And yet, the end result is that no matter what we’ve said or done, no matter where we’ve been or where we’re headed, “we belong to God, who loves us.”[4]
But there’s more. Belonging to God means not only that God knows us completely, but also that God is always with us. No matter where we go or what we do, we are always in God’s presence. The Psalmist uses the language of his day to describe this. He says, “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Ps. 139:8). In his world, “heaven” was the highest you could go, and Sheol, or the underworld, was the lowest.[5] The Psalmist also speaks of taking the “wings of the morning” and settling “at the farthest limits of the sea” (Ps. 139:9).  This refers to going as far to the East and West as you can. Essentially, he’s saying that we can go as high and as low, and as far in any direction we may choose, and still God is there with us.[6] As Gene Peterson puts it, “you’re already there waiting!” (Ps. 139:10). Belonging to God means that no matter where we go or what we do, God is always with us. Where ever we may find ourselves, “we belong to God, who loves us.”
I think all of this is summed up well by St. Paul when he says, “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you,” which means that “you are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19). The heart of what it means to live in the presence and power of the Spirit is the idea that we are not our own, but rather we belong to God. Living the life of the Spirit means that we recognize that we “were bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:20) and therefore, as St. Paul also says elsewhere,  “whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). In this respect, belonging to God who loves us can be challenging. It inspires us to rise above living only for ourselves. It calls us to live our lives to fulfill God’s purposes in this world.
When it comes to the idea that “we belong to God, who loves us” in all that we are and all that we do, we may respond with the Psalmist by saying, “I can’t understand all of this! Such wonderful knowledge is far above me” (Ps. 139:6, CEV). Knowing that we belong to the God who knows us through and through, and the God who is never farther away from us than the air we’re breathing can be a great comfort to us.[7] But it’s also a challenge to realize that our lives are not our own, to do with as we please, because we “were bought with a price,” the precious price of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. That can be intimidating. But I don’t believe God is demanding of us some kind of impossible ideal. It’s as simple as the catechism puts it. Because we know that “we belong to God, who loves us,” we respond by seeking to love and trust God with all our hearts. We respond by seeking to live our lives in the awareness that God is always with us, always loving us, and therefore we seek to love God back with what we do.[8] Living in the power and the presence of the Spirit is both as simple and as challenging as knowing in the depth of our souls that “we belong to God, who loves us” and living all of life out of that fundamental conviction.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/18/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. “Belonging to God: A First Catechism.” A catechism approved by the 210th General Assembly (1998) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Accessed at pdfs/catechism.pdf
[3] Cf. Paul Tillich, “Escape From God,” in The Shaking of the Foundations, 43-44. He says, “Nobody wants to be known, even when he realizes that his health and salvation depend upon such a knowledge. We do not even wish to be known by ourselves. We try to hide the depths of our souls from our own eyes. We refuse to be our own witness. How then can we stand the mirror in which nothing can be hidden?”
[4] Cf. Tillich, “Escape From God,” 50: “We are known in the depth of darkness through which we ourselves do not even dare to look. And at the same time, we are seen in a height of a fullness which surpasses our highest vision.”
[5] Interestingly, Karl Barth insists that God is present even in whatever kind of “hell” we may find ourselves. Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:482: “For the man whom God has created and with whom He covenants, there is no corner in which he does not exist for God, in which he is not enclosed by the hand of God behind and before. There is no heaven or hell in which he is out of the reach of God’s Spirit or away from His countenance.” Cf. similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 91: “By entering into the God-forsakenness of sin and death (which is Nothingness), God overcomes it and makes it part of his eternal life: ‘If I make my bed in hell, thou art there’ (Ps. 139:8).”
[6] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:327: “He ‘encloses us before and behind’ (Ps 139:5), and therefore altogether and in eternity. That we are in Him is true unreservedly and without any loophole for escape.”
[7] Cf. William P. Brown, “Psalm 139: The Pathos of Praise,” Interpretation 50 (July 1996): 284, where he says that the message of this Psalm is “You don’t have to explain yourself before God.”
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, 12-18: “The divine becomes the all-embracing presence in which what is human—indeed everything that lives—can develop fruitfully and live eternally: ‘You encompass me on every side and hold your hand over me’ (Ps. 139:5).”

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Driven By The Spirit

Driven by the Spirit
Mark 1:4-11[1]
We who attended the Presbytery training event yesterday were reminded that we’re trying to live out our faith in a rapidly changing environment. Part of what that means is that many people these days are looking to sources other than the church for spiritual guidance. Part of what it means is that many are more comfortable with a “do it yourself” kind of approach to spirituality rather than looking for a community in which to practice their faith. I’m not sure we Presbyterians have done a very good job giving people a reason to join us in the spiritual quest. It seems that even from our origins we Presbyterians haven’t been too comfortable with “spirituality.” We prefer our prayers written out in advance and many of us dislike anything related to faith that might evoke an emotion. I have to wonder if our discomfort is one reason why our churches are struggling to attract younger generations.
Despite our ambiguity about spiritual things, our Gospel lesson places the Spirit of God right in the middle of what happens to Jesus at his baptism. We ought not find this surprising. From the very first chapter of the Bible, the Spirit of God is active in achieving God’s purposes among the human family. And so it is that when Jesus presents himself to John for baptism, the Spirit comes upon him in a powerful way.[2] In fact, throughout the Gospels there are various references to the Spirit guiding, empowering, and even “driving” Jesus’ life and ministry. The Gospels make it very clear that Jesus does what he does through the presence and power of the Spirit. [3]
Now, I’m concerned that our ideas about Jesus may get in the way of understanding this. We assume that Jesus was the incarnate Son of God. Many of us may think of Jesus as more “fully divine” than “fully human.” But make no mistake about it, the Gospels make it clear that the “fully human” Son of God, our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, carried out his work in the power of the Spirit.[4] Perhaps that’s why he found it so necessary to find ways of taking time to be alone with God. You might say that if he was praying, then he received his strength and guidance from God. But in the Bible, there’s really no difference--what the Spirit does, God does, and what God does, the Spirit does.
If the fact that Jesus relied on the Spirit weren’t enough, it’s very clear from the writings of the Apostles that the Spirit’s presence and power in our lives and in the life of our congregation is crucial. I think our lesson from Acts calls attention to this. When St. Paul discovered a group of “disciples” who had not even heard of the Holy Spirit, he immediately corrected that by baptizing them in the name of Jesus. And, as is customary in Acts, when people turn to Jesus in faith and are baptized, the Holy Spirit comes into their lives to guide and empower them. In fact, one of the lessons of the book of Acts is that without the presence and power of the Spirit, there is no church. Those who seek to follow Christ cannot live the Christian life without being guided and even “driven” by the Spirit.[5]
So how do we as disciples and as a congregation follow Jesus’ example and live our lives through the Spirit’s presence and power? How do we seek to be like the New Testament believers and open our hearts and lives to the Spirit of God? To some extent, I would say that it is inevitable. As Jesus told Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it wills, ... and so it is with the Spirit.” In one sense, if we genuinely and sincerely seek to follow Jesus Christ and live out the life of discipleship, we cannot help but experience the Spirit guiding, empowering, and even “driving” us. It’s part and parcel of truly living out the faith we profess.[6]
But in another sense, the work of the Spirit among us and through us is something that we have to cultivate. That’s why the greatest examples of spirituality have described it as a discipline. Like many other aspects of our lives, it’s something that takes practice. We have to train ourselves to seek and hear and follow the guidance of the Spirit in our lives. It’s not rocket science, but it’s also not easy. Cultivating the presence and power of the Spirit is a matter of practicing disciplines that are as old as our faith itself. Like Jesus we have to carve out time to be alone with God, time to quiet our minds enough to listen, really listen, to the voice that speaks to us through Scripture and worship and even through our own conscience. We have to follow Jesus in “denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and following him.” That means paying more attention to what we do for others than what we do for ourselves. It’s not easy to cultivate a life that is guided and empowered and even “driven” by the Spirit. It takes determination and consistency. It takes a definitive decision that “not I but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
And yet, there is also a simplicity to all this. It may not be easy, but it’s also not rocket science. If you want to know what living in a way that is guided by the Spirit looks like, I think all you have to do is look at Jesus Christ![7] A life in the power and presence of the Spirit looks like the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, and peace. But I feel it necessary to warn you that a life that is directed and empowered and even “driven” by the Spirit is going to be inherently unpredictable. You never know where you’ll wind up when you open your life to the presence and power of the Spirit. I think I can guarantee you’ll find yourself doing things and going places you never dreamed. You’ll find yourself on an amazing adventure of faith and service and witness.  You’ll be living a life that is driven by the Spirit.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/11/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions, 89-91, interprets Jesus experience at his Baptism as the impetus for his unique understanding of the Kingdom of God. While both John and Jesus proclaim the approach of the Kingdom, for John this is a matter that calls forth repentance on the part of the people. On the other hand, for Jesus, his baptism was accompanied by a vision of the heavens opened, which is a “sign of salvation” in contrast with the “image of the ‘closed heavens,’” the endowment with the Spirit, and the divine voice that calls him “My Son.” Moltmann says, “something unique is added: a new revelation of the name of God. ... The ‘Abba’ name for God gives Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom a new quality, compared with John the Baptist, and with the prophets too: in the kingdom of Jesus’ Father, what rules is the justice of mercy for all the weary and heavy-laden. In the kingdom of Jesus’ Father, what reigns is the liberty of the children of God in the Spirit.” (emphasis original)
[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology, 236: “His public ministry stands in the sign of the Spirit (Luke 4:14, 18 et passim). The Spirit leads and drives him on his way (Mark 1:12). His signs and wonders count as the signs and wonders of the Spirit. In the Spirit he offers himself up for death on the cross (Heb. 9:14). Through the power of the Spirit, God has raised him from the dead (Rom. 8:11) and exalted him to be a life-giving spirit (1 Cor. 15:45).”
[4] Several commentators link this with the text in Isaiah 61:1-2, which refers to the Spirit-annointed Servan of the Lord. Cf., for example, A. Y Collins & H. W. Attridge, Mark: A Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, 148-49; Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 60-61.
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1:312: “The ‘blowing’ (Jn. 3:8) of the Holy Spirit which creates life and leads into all truth is received by them. They are ‘baptised’ (Mk. 1:8) by Jesus Christ Himself, or they have ‘drunk’ of Him (1 Cor. 12:13). As they pray for Him, He is to them the One who is ‘given’ by their Father in heaven (Lk. 11:13). He ‘dwells’ in them (Rom. 8:11). They are ‘led’ by Him (Gal. 4:6, 5:18; Rom. 8:14). They walk in conformity with Him (κατὰ πνεῦμα*, Rom. 8:4) or in Him (πνεύματι*, Gal. 5:16, 2 Cor. 12:18).”
[6] Cf. Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 68: “The Spirit whom the disciples experience, and with them the community of believers, bears the impress of Christ. Through the Spirit they enter into Christ’s saving and life-giving fellowship. In the experience of the life-giving Spirit they recognize Jesus as the Lord of God’s rule.”
[7] Cf. Luke T. Johnson, Living  Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel, 201: “The imitation of Christ in his life of service and suffering … is not an optional version of the Christian identity.  It is the very essence of Christian identity. It is the pattern by which every other claim about the spiritual life must be measured if it is to be considered Christian.”

Friday, January 16, 2015

In Plain Sight

In Plain Sight
Luke 2:22-35[1]
Part of the fun of Christmas celebrations is the mystery. You know, you have presents under the tree, and you don’t really know what they are. You may have an idea, but you’re not certain about it. And so we have developed the fine art of snooping. You know, you shake the package a certain way. Trying to peek under the wrapping paper without tearing it and giving yourself away. And then whenever your family opens presents, you have the thrill of finally finding out what’s in that package. Or maybe it turns out to be not so thrilling. But whether your thrilled or not with what you’ve received, the secret is out, the mystery is over, and everybody knows what you got for Christmas.
Our gospel lesson for today is like that: there’s a part of it that is thrilling, and there’s a part of it that may be less than thrilling for us. It’s the story of Simeon, who was “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him” (Lk 2:25). What an amazing way to characterize a person. He lived a life that could be called “righteous.” He was also a man of hope, looking for God’s “consolation” in the midst of the repression they endured under the boot of the Roman empire.[2] And he was a particularly spiritual man. Not religious, mind you; that was for the people who liked to show off their own importance.  Rather, Simeon was spiritual.[3]
In part, I think that meant that Simeon was  sensitive enough to God’s presence in his life that he had the eyes to see something special in this child who was being presented to the Lord at the Temple in accordance with Jewish custom. Part of what he saw was that this child was one anointed by God to bring salvation not only to Israel but to all peoples (2:31). Up to this point in Luke’s Gospel, the primary focus of Jesus’ birth is on the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes. He would “ reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Lk. 1:33), redeeming the people with mercy, peace,  and justice (Lk. 1:50-55; 69-79). Now there is a new hope introduced to the story: Jesus birth would mean salvation also for the Gentiles, not just for the people of Israel.[4]
But after that wonderful declaration of good news,  Simeon did something unusual. He “blessed” Jesus and Joseph and Mary. But the words of his blessing might not sound like much of a blessing. Simeon said, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed” (2:34). I would say at the very least, it was a “mixed blessing.” Essentially, Simeon declared that Jesus, as God’s salvation, would bring about the “falling and rising” of many. That seems like a strange way to talk about salvation.
But there’s also a troubling note in all this. Jesus is to be a “sign that will be opposed.” This seems to predict the fact that Jesus’ ministry of mercy and justice and peace would be opposed by the “powers that be,” even among his own people. Perhaps the most troubling part of this “mixed blessing” is that he warned Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul” (2:35). All this sounds very strange for a “blessing.” It doesn’t sound like something I’d want to hear. And it all seems very different from what we would define as “consolation” or “salvation.”
But there may be something deeper going on here. Simeon also says that “the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” (2:35).[5] This may give us a clue about the meaning of this strange blessing. The scriptures tell us that Jesus came to reveal God, God’s truth and grace, God’s compassion for all, including the least and the lost and the left out. He came to establish God’s Kingdom and justice that will set things right for everybody. But often the most “religious” people are those who benefit from suffering of the “least of these.” And despite their protestations of faith, they will fight tooth and nail to hold onto their advantages, comforts, and luxuries.[6] So it seems that all our “inner thoughts” are revealed by the way in which we respond to Jesus and to his message of peace and justice and freedom for the least and the lost and the left out in this world.[7]
And yet, that just might turn out to be a blessing after all. If we have an illness, sometimes physicians have to open up a part of our body to cleanse out whatever is wrong. I think there may be an analogy here with the sickness that can infect our hearts and minds and souls. It takes God’s truth to open up our hearts and expose what needs to be cleansed and healed. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it: “ the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). That might sound painful, and sometimes it is hard to come face to face with our own shortcomings. But the end result can be tremendous healing and freedom and peace.[8]
Most of us would rather keep our failings and misdeeds and not-so-wholesome thoughts a secret. We’d rather not have to deal with the disorders of our souls. But it seems that the one whom Simeon identified as the agent of God’s salvation for all the peoples is not content to leave us with our “inner thoughts.” Jesus came to expose all the secrets, to disclose the willfulness and selfishness that can lurk in all our hearts. He did this not to embarrass or humiliate us, but because that’s the path to true salvation. We can only be made right with God and the human family when that which keeps us from loving them is unwrapped and opened in plain sight--at least in our sight. We may be disappointed with what we see at the outset, but the end result is freedom, and peace, and new life.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/28/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Christine D. Pohl, “Living on Tiptoe,” The Christian Century (Dec 27, 2005): 18, where she says of Simeon and Anna that “A posture of hope and fidelity structured their lives. They were righteous, devout and profoundly shaped by a story that was yet to be completed. The years of anticipation, waiting and looking were not wasted time, but time infused and transformed by intimations of the promise.” Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 40: These two aged saints are Israel in miniature, and Israel at its best: devout, obedient, constant in prayer, led by the Holy Spirit, at home in the temple, longing and hoping for the fulfillment of God’s promises.”Cf. similarly Marion L. Soards, “Luke 2:22-40,” Interpretation 44 (Oct 1990):402.
[3] Luke tells us that Simeon was a deeply spiritual person.  He says that the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would see “the Lord’s Messiah” before he died (Lk. 2:26).  Luke also says that “the Holy Spirit rested” on Simeon (Lk. 2:25), suggesting that he was someone specially gifted by God.  Furthermore, Luke tells us that Simeon came to the Temple that day “guided by the Spirit” (Lk. 2:27).
[4] Cf. Raymond E. Brown, “The Presentation of Jesus,” Worship 51 (Jan 1977):7
[5] Cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Luke I-IX, 430, where he says that the “inner thoughts” or dialogismoi “are to be understood here as of evil, critical ,or antagonistic thoughts” which lead to the rejection of Jesus. Cf. also Soards, “Luke 2:22-40,” 404; and Brown, “Presentation of Jesus,” 8.
[6] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 39: “Jesus will bring the truth to light and in doing so will throw all who come in contact with him into a crisis of decision. In that decision, rising and falling, life and death, result. Jesus precipitates the centrally important movement of one’s life, toward or away from God.”
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 98: the kingdom of God “is a controversial rule, veiled in antagonism.”  Cf. also Soards, “Luke 2:22-40,” 403-404, where he says, “A major theme throughout Luke-Acts is that Jesus produces a division among humans as they react favorably or unfavorably to him, both in the course of his own earthly ministry and in the course of the disciples' proclamation of the meaning of God's work in Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and exaltation.”
[8] Cf. Paul Tillich, “Has the Messiah Come?” in The New Being , 95, where he says “There is something surprising, unexpected about the appearance of salvation, something which contradicts pious opinions and intellectual demands.” After discussing the complexity of talking about salvation in light of the harsh realities of life, he  concludes: “Only he who can see power under weakness, the whole under the fragment, victory under defeat, glory under suffering, innocence under guilt, sanctity under sin, life under death can say: Mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Healing Light

Healing Light
Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:8-20[1]
This time of year is traditionally one of joyful celebration. We look forward to gathering with our families and sharing special times with those we love. It’s “the most wonderful time of the year,” as the song says. But for many this is anything but the “most wonderful time of the year.” The losses of life can press in upon those among us who are struggling. And all the festivities and good cheer that so many seem to be enjoying during the holiday season only increases their sense of loss. They may wonder why they have to grieve or struggle while it seems like the rest of the world is happily celebrating. And yet, even those of us who have the joy of gathering with our families at this time of the year may have to admit that it can be exhausting and even stressful.
So what, if anything, is so great about this time of the year?  During the Sundays of Advent we’ve heard various Scriptures calling us to turn to God our savior to restore and renew us. The prophet Isaiah has challenged us to examine our lives, to confess where we’ve fallen short, and to repent of our hurtful ways. He has encouraged us with the promise that God would comfort us, coming to set things right and to set us free from everything that holds us in captivity. And the prophet has promised that God will one day make it possible for us all to find joy in living, and that he has begun to do just that in the birth of Jesus the Christ. Some of this is familiar to us, but I think some of it may seem strange to us. We’re so used to talking about how Jesus opens the way for us to go to heaven when we die that we may overlook what the Scriptures have to say about what God is doing in our lives here and now.
But as I have been reading the Scriptures from Isaiah for the Advent season, I have found myself hearing echoes of what Jesus had to say about that.  The prophet Isaiah called us to take a hard look at ourselves during the season of Advent. When we do that, if we’re honest with ourselves we have to admit that “we all” have fallen short. While that may sound depressing, Jesus said it this way, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt. 5:3). I think at least part of what Jesus was saying is that we have to know that we have fallen short in order to find it good news that we have been given the gift of God’s amazing grace. We have to know that we need a Savior for Jesus’ birth to be good news.
The prophet also promised that God would come to set all things right, and to bring comfort and relief to those who suffer. That may seem like a promise that is just too good to be true when you think about all the corruption and everything that seems wrong with our world. But I’m also reminded that Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6). I don’t think Jesus was talking about people who want to be holy. I think he was talking about those who are weary from carrying their burdens and long for things to be made right somehow. I think he was talking about those who hunger for justice in the midst of injustice. And he promised that all who feel that hunger will be filled. God will set things right.
The prophet Isaiah also spoke of God’s coming to comfort those who were crushed by the burden of mourning. The people endured a harsh captivity, and after their release they returned to find their homeland in ruins. They must have thought that they were doomed to grieve forever, that they would mourn perpetually. But the prophet promised them that God himself would comfort them, like a shepherd tenderly caring for injured sheep. I hear in that promise an echo of Jesus saying, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” In some ways, that applies to all forms of mourning. But in a particular way, I think Jesus was trying to comfort those of us who look at the way our world seems to be coming apart at the seams and are grieved by what we see.
So, in answer to the question what those who suffer or struggle or mourn can celebrate at this time of year, I think the answer is the same as for the rest of us. We celebrate the gift of God’s unconditional and irrevocable love to us all in the child who was born in a barn and made his crib in a feed trough. As one of our readings puts it, we celebrate at this time of the year because, just when the days grow darkest, we have the promise that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa. 9:2). Now, the prophet was talking about something other than the fact that we don’t get to enjoy a lot of sunlight at this time of year. He was talking about the other forms of darkness that have plagued the human family. But I do think we can take some comfort here. We light candles and our Christmas trees and our houses and yards because the light lifts our spirits.
So it is with the light of God’s love. The reminder that the child born in Bethlehem is the embodiment of God’s everlasting love for us all can bring light to brighten even the darkest of days. And he is the one who would grow up and promise new life, and comfort, and restoration to all those who were carrying heavy burdens. He would grow up and declare, “I am the light of the world.” Just as physicians use forms of light to heal illnesses, so Jesus our Savior shines healing light into the darkness that we can feel at times. And it’s a light that heals us by filling our hearts with hope, and joy, and peace, and love. I hope that, as you light your candles tonight and experience the warmth and glow of the light that fills this room, it will remind you that the healing light of God’s love always surrounds us all.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/24/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.