Monday, September 14, 2015

Keeping the Faith

Keeping the Faith
Psalm 146[1]
I told you last week about how difficult it was for me to go through two divorces. What I didn’t tell you was how hard and long I prayed for God to keep both relationships intact and both of my families whole. When those prayers went seemingly unanswered, I had a real crisis of faith on my hands. I had trusted God to make things work out right, and when they didn’t, I wasn’t sure I trusted God to keep his promises. As I pointed out last week, I’m sure I’m not the only one to have gone through that kind of crisis of faith. We hope and pray that if we do what is right and if we hold true to God, our lives will turn out the way we want them to. But the fact is that life isn’t that neat and tidy and predictable. We can make all the right choices and do all the right things, and still all our hopes and dreams can come crashing down. That can pose a serious challenge to our faith.
Our lesson from Psalm 146 for today addresses the question whether we can trust God to keep his promises. The answer is an unqualified affirmation that God always holds up his end of the bargain. The psalmist puts it this way: “Happy are those … whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever” (Ps. 146:5-6).[2] The psalmist makes it clear that the God who has the power to create all the heavens and the earth always keeps faith with those who trust in him.[3] That means he always keeps his promises. As the New Living translation puts it, “He keeps every promise forever” (Ps. 146:6).
The Psalm goes on to elaborate on the kind of promises God keeps forever. He “gives justice to the oppressed and food to the hungry”; he “frees the prisoners”; he “opens the eyes of the blind”; he “lifts up those who are weighed down”; he “protects the foreigners among us”; and he “cares for the orphans and widows.” These are the kind of promises that God keeps forever. They are promises of restoration and new life. They are promises of mercy and love that redeems and restores and renews our lives. They are promises that demonstrate who God is: the God who knows our deepest joys and our deepest disappointments and lifts up those who have been broken by life.[4]
You may notice that these promises are “slanted” in a certain direction. They are promises for the downtrodden; like Jesus’ beatitudes they are for the lost and the least and the left out. [5] There is nothing here about guaranteeing that those who already have more than enough will gain even more. Nor do we find anything about climbing the ladder of success or having that beautiful house on an acreage or the “perfect” marriage and the “perfect” family. I think this points out one of the reasons why we may struggle to trust that God will keep his promises: we expect God to give us what we want in life. But when we do that, we have put our faith in promises that God never made in the first place!
I think another problem with our approach to God’s promises is that we have a certain idea about how and when those promises will be fulfilled. We come to God with very definite requests (or maybe it’s more accurate to call them demands) and we expect God to deliver just what we want just when we want it. But it’s been my experience that we are notoriously bad at knowing what we really need and therefore what we can expect from our lives. And we are even worse at predicting the time for what is best for us to happen.
So what can we trust in? According to our Scripture lesson for today, we can trust that God will “keep the faith.” When the Psalmist says that the Lord “keeps faith forever,” he is affirming that God will always be faithful to us, no matter what the circumstances of our lives. He will always keep every promise: promises to “never forsake us,” to support us and sustain us with his loving presence. Promises to set right what is broken in our lives, if not immediately, then in his own time and in his own way. And what we may have to understand is that the promise may point to the ultimate future; it may be that we will have to wait for the renewal of all things in the Kingdom of God to see these promises the Psalmist outlines for us finally fulfilled for all those who hope in God.
Even if we have to wait, we have some assurances to hold onto. The first is that we’re talking about the God who has the power to create all the heavens and the earth.[6] The God who is powerful enough to make this vast and beautiful creation has the power to keep his promises. The second assurance is that our Scripture lesson speaks in terms of what God always does.[7] The wording in some translations may not bring it out clearly, but the implication in the Hebrew Bible is that these promises reflect the very character of God.[8] The only way for him not to keep these promises is for God to stop being God. And the third assurance is that even if we have to wait to see the fulfillment, it will surely come. That is the point of the final statement: “The LORD will reign forever. He will be your God … throughout the generations.” Since God is the one who reigns over all things—from creation to the final redemption of all things in the new creation—we can trust him to keep his promises.[9]
Our God keeps the faith. He keeps the promises he’s made, promises of restoration and renewal. He always has, as the biblical story demonstrates again and again. He does so now, even though oftentimes we may not understand it. And the declaration that “the Lord will reign forever” means that he always will. Our God always keeps the faith.

[1] © 2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/6/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:1264, where he contrasts “wickedness,” which in the Psalms always means the decision “to trust something or someone other than God,” “happiness is not the absence of pain and trouble but the presence of a God who cares about human hurt and who acts on behalf of the afflicted and the oppressed.”
[3] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 116: “if the revelations of God are promises, then God ‘himself’ is revealed where he ‘keeps covenant and faithfulness for ever’ (Ps. 146:6).”
[4] McCann, “Psalms,” NIB IV:1264: “In view of v. 10, which explicitly affirms the eternal reign of God …, vv. 6-9 come into focus all the more clearly as a policy statement for the kingdom of God. The sovereign God stands for and works for justice, not simply as an abstract principle but as an embodied reality—provision for basic human needs, liberation from oppression, empowerment for the disenfranchised and dispossessed.”
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 129: “the God who in his almighty power created heaven and earth is on the side of the people who have to suffer violence because they cannot defend themselves. Their rights are his divine concern.” Cf. also ibid., 130: “God, …, creates justice for the people who have been deprived of it, and for those without any rights, and he does so through his solidarity with them.”
[6] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 441: “Hope attached to his reign is founded on a reality that does not pass away. The God of Israel is king of the universe; ‘maker of heaven and earth’ is a title of the God who rules all.”
[7] Cf. Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 129: “just as in Paul the justification of the sinner becomes the revelation of God’s righteousness in the world, so in the Old Testament the establishing of justice for people deprived of it is the quintessence of the divine mercy, and hence of the divine righteousness.”
[8] Cf. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 116: “In proving his faithfulness in history, he reveals himself. For the essence and the identity of the God of promise lies not in his absoluteness over and beyond history, but in the constancy of his freely chosen relation to his creatures, in the constancy of his electing mercy and faithfulness.”
[9] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 441: “Not only does the Lord rule forever but in his rule he keeps the faith forever.”

Saturday, September 05, 2015

God's Saving Justice

  The "back story" for this week's sermon is the biblical teaching about justice. Justice is a relative term in our society.  Two parties come to court, each with their own idea of what justice looks like in their case, and the court has the responsibility of weighing the facts and rendering a decision.  It seems that most of us see justice as whatever is good for me.  
  The Bible has a very different idea about justice, however.  You could say that the Bible’s view of justice is very “results-oriented”!  The Psalm 146 spells it out fairly clearly: prisoners are set free, the blind receive their sight, those who are bowed down are lifted up, the resident immigrants have someone to watch over them, and the widows and orphans are supported. God's justice is a justice that saves us.
  Simply put, God’s justice is what creates the conditions in which all people can thrive, especially those who are downtrodden by society as a whole.  God’s justice does not favor the rich and powerful, the privileged and successful, or the beautiful and the famous.  God’s justice makes it possible for everyone to thrive—rich and poor; white, black, brown, and yellow; tall and short, thin and overweight, nearsighted and balding, young and old.  It does not discriminate based on race, creed, color, or national origin.  It does not discriminate based on gender, age, disability, or political affiliation. God's saving justice is for all people equally.
  One thing we might miss about this Psalm and the way it's worded is the affirmation that this is always the way God operates. The Hebrew Bible clearly depicts these actions as characteristic of who God is. God always acts in this way. Thus when Psalm 146 says that God "keeps faith forever," it's saying that God always carries out this kind of saving justice because it's the very nature of who God is!

Solid Ground

Solid Ground
Psalm 15[1]
I think most of you know me well enough to know that I have been divorced twice in my life. What you may not know is that, both times it came to me as a shock, as a deep disappointment, as a crushing blow. In a very real sense, what I thought was my life came crashing down. Everything changed for me—my relationship with my children, my hopes for the future, my career path, even the details of my daily routine. It was as if the very ground beneath my feet had given way. Both times, I had to reinvent myself and re-build a life from the ground up. I was fortunate in that, in both cases, I had friends, my children, and church families who helped me get through that process. But I’d have to say that this kind of earth-shattering life change isn’t something I would wish on my worst enemy.
I’m not the only one here who has experienced the way life can come crashing down. You build a life with a husband or wife and then one day the doctor says it’s cancer and you only have a short time. You pour your heart and soul into your children only to have one of them fall into addiction, or get in trouble with the law. Or even the unthinkable can happen—they can be taken away entirely. You invest your energy into a career only to find out that you’re pushing 50 and the company is about to “outsize” you. You save for a lifetime, investing the hard-earned fruits of your labor in the stock market. But then the bottom falls out of the market just as you retire, and a huge chunk of your nest egg seems to go “poof” in the night.
This tragic side of life is something we’d rather not talk about, but it is the reality that we will all inevitably face at one time or another.[2] We would like to believe that if we do the right things, live a right life, raise our kids in the right neighborhood, associate with the right people, then we can trust that God will keep those tragedies far from us. We cling to it so much that when tragedy strikes someone, while we may express our sympathy, sometimes the rest of us are afraid to get too close to those whose lives have come crashing down for fear that it might “rub off” on us.
Our lesson from the Psalms for today addresses the question of how to live a life that has a solid foundation. At first glance, it might seem to give a simplistic answer. It might seem to simply reinforce those assumptions we tend to have about life. If you do the right things, make the right choices, work hard and live an honest life, everything will work out just fine.  But we have to remember that the Psalms are not always prophetic words from “on high.” They are prayers of people who were very human. And they had all the same hopes and dreams for their lives as we do. But what this means is that we have to read each Psalm in the light of the Psalms as a whole. And the Psalms are very much aware that tragedy strikes everyone at some time in life.[3]
So how are we to take this particular Psalm which seems so definitive in its outlook on life? In the first place, we have to realize that this Psalm has nothing to do with being good enough to earn God’s love. The presupposition of this Psalm, like most declarations in Scripture about what God expects of those who claim to know and trust him, is that God loves us all and extends his grace to us unconditionally. So this Psalm then depicts the response of those who have truly encountered this unconditional love of God. That means that it has worked its way into how we live—even into the workings of our minds and hearts (Ps. 15:2).[4]
The point of this passage is not to give us conditions for being “worthy” of God’s love.[5] God loves us because he wants to have a relationship with us—one that starts with his grace and mercy and love, and results in our living our lives with that same grace and mercy and love. This is true of the Biblical teaching in general: we don’t obey God’s way in our lives so that we will earn some kind of reward, either here or in the hereafter.  Rather, we obey God because we have encountered God’s love and our lives have been changed as a result of that encounter. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that the way the Bible describes this kind of living sounds a lot like the way God is. The Bible, like our Psalm for today, insists that when we truly encounter God’s presence, when we truly encounter God’s love, it changes us so thoroughly and irrevocably that we will reflect God’s will and God’s ways in our lives.[6]
But there is a promise in this way of life. In our Scripture lesson, the promise is that those who encounter God in this way, those whose lives are thoroughly and completely oriented to God and his ways as outlined by this statement and many others in Scripture like it, “will never be moved” (Ps. 15:5).[7]  That doesn’t mean we will have some kind of magical protection against the tragedies of life that can devastate us. It doesn’t mean that we get an automatic pass on the hardships that are part and parcel of human existence. What it means is that through it all, we will find that God is present with us, sustaining us every step of the way. What it means is that, when everything that we thought was stable in our lives gives way, we will find ourselves held safely by the everlasting arms of God. Even when all that we may have built of our lives comes crashing down around us, even if the very ground gives way underneath us, we will be standing on the solid ground of God’s loving presence.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/30/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 124-25, where he insists that faith always takes place against the backdrop of the evil and suffering and tragedy in life. He says (p. 125), “Faith is faith that there is something that lifts us above the blind force of things, a mind in all this mindlessness. That there is … someone, …, who stands by us when we are up against the worst, who stands by others, by the least among us.”  In fact, he also insists that violent fundamentalism results from the repression of fear of the evil and suffering and tragedy in life (cf. also ibid., 107).
[3] Cf. Peter C. Craigie, Psalms 1-50, 152, where he points out that in the Psalms, “the righteous very often were ‘shaken’ (cf. Ps 13:5) in a literal sense.” Cf. also James L. Mays, Psalms, 85: “To be shaken or moved is a way of speaking about the unsettling undermining effect of the chaotic dimension of reality. God has overcome the cosmic chaos and founded the earth so that it cannot be shaken … . God’s presence keeps his holy dwelling Zion from being shaken by the chaotic powers of history… . And the righteous, whose life is based in the way of God, are secured against any ultimate undoing by the troubles that buffet life … .”
[4] In response to the phrase “speak the truth from their heart,” H. –J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 229, asks, “Are the innermost movements of thought and directions of the will ‘faithful’ and ‘reliable’? Are they emet (truth/faithful/reliable)? The penetration of the word to the innermost recesses of human existence is attested in Deut 6:4. Therefore, without reservations, the whole person is involved.”
[5] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:733: “God’s gracious acceptance of persons into the divine presence has an important implication for understanding the answers in vv. 2-5ab. These answers should not be understood as requirements; rather, they portray the character of persons whose lives have been shaped in conformity with God’s character.”  Cf. also Mays, Psalms, 86, where insists that this Psalm is not to be read legalistically as “some kind of judicial procedure to exclude the unqualified; rather it is the rehearsal of a purpose and a possibility. This kind of person, says the psalm, is what the Presence intends. This Presence, says the psalm, is the power that makes this kind of person possible. The Presence calls and commands, judges and redeems. To be in the place of the Presence means to be at the point where the purpose and power of God come to bear on a person’s identity and formation.” Therefore he concludes, “The psalm, then transcends the actual performance of the lives of those who come to the place of the Presence. But it does ask them whether this is what they want to be like and whether they are trying to be like this and whether they come to this place in the hope of being like this.”
[6] Cf. McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” NIB IV: 733: “Those who belong to God mirror God’s character. This is not to say that they are absolutely sinless … but that their lives are completely oriented to and dependent upon God.” Cf. ibid., 734: “The answers to the questions in v. 1, therefore, are not requirements or prescriptions. Rather, like the content of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7, vv. 2-5b portray what life is like when it is lived under God’s reign instead of in reliance upon oneself.”
[7] Cf. Craigie, Psalms 1–50, 152: “From a human perspective, the psalmists were constantly shaken by their experience of human oppression and the vicissitudes of life, and so they issued their laments; but the only possibility of transforming lament into confidence or praise lay in the fact that there was an unshaken position transcending the vicissitudes of a shaken and uncertain life. That position was in the presence of God.” Cf. also McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” NIB IV: 732: “There is a revealing progression from Psalm 13 to Psalm 15. The movement is from the threat of being ‘shaken’ (13:6) to the affirmation that ‘God is with the company of the righteous’ (14:5) to the portrayal of the righteous dwelling with God, the result being that they ‘shall never be moved.’”

God's Strength

God’s Strength
Ephesians 6:10-20[1]
If you’re a devoted follower of the news, it can be easy to conclude that the world in which we live is full of evil. To some extent, this is a matter of perspective. A ‘random act of kindness’ only rates a mention at the end of the news, while the headlines tend to focus on the tragic side of life. On the other hand, I think a person has to go through life with “eyes wide shut” not to recognize that we live in a world in which evil is very real. All I have to do is simply mention Auschwitz, Hiroshima, My Lai, Tianenmen Square, Bosnia, Tibet, the Twin Towers, Sandy Hook, or Charleston. And those are just the ones we may remember.
One of the challenges we have with evil is that it can be so deceptive. Some of the most evil deeds in human history have been perpetrated by those who claimed to be serving a greater good, or even insisted they were doing God’s will.[2] That makes evil incredibly difficult for us to recognize. But one of the other challenges is that evil is so widespread. I don’t believe that our world is defined by evil, unlike some people in our day. But the influence of evil affects human life all around us every day.[3] Some of the ways evil shows itself are obvious. Others are more subtle, and harder to recognize. But it is there, nevertheless.
Our lesson from Ephesians for today reminds us that we can rely on God’s strength as we face evil in our world. One of the problems with the way the New Testament approaches evil is that the language is influenced by the worldview of the day. The general idea in that time was that the air—literally, earth’s atmosphere— was the place where evil spiritual powers lived.[4] Our text says it this way: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). As you can imagine, made people feel like they were constantly vulnerable to their influence.
I’ll have to say that I don’t buy into every detail of that worldview. I don’t believe we have to live our lives in constant fear that some “evil spirit” will attack us. I don’t “believe in” Satan or demons. The way some people talk sounds like give the Devil and his minions too much credit! I “believe in” God the Father almighty, and in his only Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit. Whether there is or is not a being named Satan is a difficult question to answer, but if there is, he is not the object of my faith! My faith is in God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer!
Nevertheless, it seems obvious by what we can see around us that there is a power at work in the world that seems to be beyond simple human selfishness or cruelty.[5] And that evil affects us all. That’s why the Scripture lesson calls believers to be alert and to protect themselves against the “schemes” that evil throws against us to trip us up, to confuse us, and to discourage us.[6] When you look at some of the events that happen in our lives, it can be difficult to understand why something so tragic would happen to someone who is trying so hard to live for God. The effects of evil in our world can be truly disheartening.
But I think that is the reason for this passage. The Scriptures encourage us to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power” (Eph. 6:10). I think part of the idea behind this is that we have to realize that what we’re up against in this life as we seek to follow Christ is bigger than we can handle on our own. We’re not up to the task in our own strength. We need the strength that only God can provide in order to “stand” firm despite whatever may come our way. We are also encouraged to “take up the whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:13) in order that we might be able to withstand the onslaught. When you look at the pieces of armor mentioned here as a whole picture, what stands out to me is that every part of the body is protected.[7] And since it’s God’s armor, we can be confident that it is more than sufficient to keep us safe from whatever may come our way.[8] All we have to do is “stand firm” in it.
To some extent, however, this protection isn’t quite that automatic. We do have to make the effort to take up the protection God offers us. As we “put on” the virtues like truth, righteousness, and faith, we are “taking up the armor of God.” And yet I think it’s also important for us to remember that the Scriptures view these powers as already defeated.[9] In the beginning of this letter, we find the statement that God raised Jesus from the dead and “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” (Eph. 1:20-21). His exaltation far above all powers implies that he has already won the victory over them. Since these evil powers have already been defeated by what God has done through Jesus Christ, then we have nothing to fear from them.
I don’t pretend to understand fully the existence of evil in this world. It would seem that there are forces at work in our world that are evil to a degree that surpasses our human ability to conjure. And they are almost always deceptive and manipulative. While I don’t believe we are living in a world in which evil powers have the upper hand, they still have the ability to wreak havoc in our lives. For that reason I think the Scriptures remind us that the life of faith is more than we can handle on our own. We need God’s strength to protect us as we seek to be faithful to him in our lives. And the promise is that God’s strength is ours for the asking.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/23/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Blaise Pascal, Pensees, no. 892: “Jamais on ne fait le mal si pleinement et si gaiement, que quand on le fait par un faux principe de conscience” (People never do evil so totally and so gladly as when they do it from false religious conviction).
[3] Compare a different approach in John Caputo, On Religion, 118, where he speaks in terms of “the tragic sense of life” that is “an anonymous and loveless force” that exerts itself in our lives even when we try to hold on to faith. He explains (p. 122) that according to this “tragic view” that some have set over against faith, “both the cruel indifference of natural disasters and the malice in the human heart are of a kind, equally innocent, equally the outcome of impersonal and unknowing forces of nature.” He adds that while he remains haunted by “this specter of a heartless world of cosmic forces,” he ultimately does not give it “the final word.”
[4] Cf. Pheme Perkins “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:463: “The initial depiction of humans armed against forces that are more than human, against spiritual powers, fits an established pattern in apocalyptic texts. Ordinarily, the conflicts of the evil times at the end of the world are described as demonic in inspiration. Angelic figures like Michael do battle against the spiritual forces that the faithful righteous ones struggle against on earth. This scenario understands the sufferings of the righteous as part of the testing that belongs to the last days.”
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:230, where he opposes both the idea that in using the language of spiritual forces of evil, Jesus either merely accommodated himself to the prevailing view or that he himself was limited by them. He says, “Like all other Jews therefore, but in a way which was incomparably more exact than all others, He saw and experienced what there was actually to be seen and experienced: an abyss of darkness which was not merely supposed or imagined or invented or projected into the sphere of being but was actual and concrete; the presence and action of nothingness, of the evil in the background and foreground of human existence.”
[6] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:675, where he describes the powers that attack believers as “the power of nothingness lashing out wildly in its final death-throes in this last time which is the time of the community, the violence of chaos which knows that its hour has come and, knowing that it cannot hurt the One who has trodden it underfoot, makes its last and supreme attack on His human attestation in an attempt to suppress and falsify and destroy it
[7] Cf. Perkins “Letter to the Ephesians,” NIB XI:460: “Though the concrete details of the armor are biblical, not Roman, the audience probably envisaged the fully armed Roman soldier when they heard these words (Judith 14:3).” She refers to the description of the armor of Roman Hastati, Principes, and Triarii in Polybius, Histories, 6.23 as a comparison.
[8] Cf. Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, 76, where he say that since the armor is God’s , “no provision is lacking. No part of the body is unprotected. … , the believer’s protection as he faces the enemy is complete and sure.” Cf. also Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians: 442: “Despite the fact that not every piece of the armor will be listed, the emphasis is on the full protection it provides.”
[9] Cf. Perkins, “Letter to the Ephesians,” NIB XI: 463; cf. also “The Confession of 1967,” in The Book of Confessions, 9.25: “our strength is in the confidence that God’s purpose rather than human schemes will prevail.” I think that confidence also applies to any other schemes as well.