Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Through It All

Through It All
Isaiah 43:1-7[1]
If you’re like me, when “all’s right with the world” it seems to be a lot easier to trust in God. When life is relatively stable, when the family is whole and healthy, when we find joy and meaning in our daily activities, it’s not hard at all to see God’s hand of blessing at work in our lives. But when you take all that away, it’s also fairly easy to believe that God has abandoned us. When unexpected change hits us squarely in the face, when our family is fractured by the challenges and changes of life, when life itself seems to lose its joy and meaning, we may wonder whether there’s even a God at all. Let alone one who actually cares for us.
This problem isn’t unique to us or to modern life. Throughout the ages, people who have faced tragedy and hardship have questioned the love of God. And many have questioned the very existence of God. For those of us who may have made it through life relatively unscathed, we may have a hard time understanding this. But I would say that most people suffer some kind of heartbreak at some point in their lives. And when we do, it’s a very natural thing to ask the question, “Why?” It’s even a biblical question. From the Psalms to the Prophets to Jesus on the cross, the question “Why?” echoes throughout the Scriptures.
Unfortunately, the Bible never gives us an answer to that question. What it does is to assure us over and over again that, in whatever circumstances we may find ourselves, God’s love for us never fails.[2] That is the message of our Scripture lesson from Isaiah for today. If we look at these verses by themselves, we may find them comforting to some degree. But I think the real impact of any passage like this comes when we understand the situation of the people to whom these words were originally spoken. They were living in forced exile, far from anything familiar. They were people who had lost everything—homes, lives, land, and even in some cases family.  They had gone through the worst catastrophe imaginable.  They had gone through the flood, and felt overwhelmed.  They had gone through the fire and felt burned.[3]
Into this situation of devastation and brokenness, the prophet declared God’s unfailing love. This is no mere glib promise. The language of the Scripture lesson makes it clear that God’s love for his suffering people is set in the context of Creation and Redemption, the actions that define God’s character in the Bible.[4] When the prophet says, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isa. 43:1), he is speaking of the love that constitutes who God is. For him to stop loving them would mean that God would stop being true to himself. For him to stop loving them would mean that God would have to stop being God.[5]
This is the basis for the prophet’s assurance to the people: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isa. 43:2). Now, I think we sometimes have a tendency to read too much into promises like this. From a real-life perspective, you can’t go through a flood without getting soaked through.  And you can’t go through a fire without at least smelling like smoke, and maybe even getting singed.  But the promise is not that we will never suffer, but rather that these hardships will not consume us. And the reason for that is that God promises to be with us and to sustain us with his unfailing love.[6]
And in case there is any doubt about whether this promise has any teeth to it, God stakes his reputation on it. Through the prophet, God makes it clear that the basis for the promise of his unfailing love is the essential nature of who God is: “I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isa. 43:3).[7] No matter what might come their way, God assured the people that they would always be surrounded by his loving presence: He says, “Do not fear, for I am with you” (Isa. 43:5). That, too, is an admonition that echoes throughout the Bible. From Moses to Revelation God is continually reassuring his people that they do not need to be afraid of what life may bring their way, because He is with us through it all.[8] And he always will be.
In contrast to those who may think that our faith is unrealistic, time and again, the Bible promises us the support of God’s loving presence in the midst of the worst that can happen to us. Our faith is not naïve to the fact that there is a tragic dimension to life.[9] Think of it: at this very moment, how many people on the planet are suffering—suffering the loss of a loved one, suffering the lack of basic necessities, suffering because they have been displaced by disease or war, suffering because of the cruel and inhumane way in which we can treat one another. A faith that promises “everything will be just fine” without taking full account of the hardships of life would be worse than naïve; it would be obscene.[10]
But that is not the nature of our faith. Right in the midst of the worst that life can throw at us, the Scriptures promise us over and over that God’s love for us will never fail. They promise that no matter what may come our way, God will sustain us with his presence. They promise us that even if we have to go through the flood and through the fire, they will not destroy us. And the basis for that assurance is the very nature of who God is: a God whose love for us never fails, a God who is our Savior in all the circumstances of life, a God who is with us no matter what.[11] In all of life, we can trust that God’s love will sustain us and bring us through it all.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/10/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltman, The Crucified God, 243, points above all to God’s presence at the cross, where he says that God “suffers the death of the Son in the infinite grief of love”; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 172-78; cf. also Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, 126: “The God embodied in Jesus suffers not only for the victims of the world; this God suffers like them and with them.”
[3] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 62, where he says that the people “needed a word of assurance, a promise that there was a future beyond the baffling suffering and shame they had suffered.” Cf. also Mary W. Anderson, “Who is Like Thee?” The Christian Century (Jan 26, 2000), 87, where she says, “in the midst of their captivity the people are wondering how their God can be omni-anything when they are so miserable.”
[4] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 61, where he observes that creation and redemption go together in this text: “the Creator God is the God who enters history to establish a relationship with human beings and to heal their brokenness.”
[5] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 61, where he recognizes the tension between the expression of God’s “wrath” in the judgment the people have undergone and the affirmation of God’s love here. He says, “Contradictory as they may seem on the face of things, expressions of divine anger, as genuinely as affirmations of divine steadfastness, reveal the commitment of God to authentic,  reciprocating love.”
[6] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.1:39, where he refers to the assurance of the the Heidelberg Catechism (ques. 26) that “whatever evil he sends upon me in this troubled life he will turn to my good, for he is able to do it, being almighty God, and is determined to do it, being a faithful Father” (cf  Book of Confessions 4.026).  Cf. also Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI: 381.
[7] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 64, where he says, “only one word could satisfy the deepest yearning of the fearful heart, a word of assurance that the Creator of all, …, loves radically and unconditionally. The reason this defeated people could hope for a future beyond tragedy is a remarkable promise, a promise filled with the creative power that belongs exclusively … to love.”
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 24-25: “Neither in presumption nor in despair does there lie the power to renew life, but only in the hope that is enduring and sure.” For him, fear is hopelessness that expresses itself either as presumption or despair.
[9] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 118. He says that “the love of God” is distressed by the question raised by that which is “loveless” in this world: “Does anyone know or care that we are here?” He puts it more clearly when he asks (p. 119), “Is there nothing beyond the heartless and unrelenting cosmic rhythms, nothing loving, kind, or fair?” Ultimately while he recognizes that he cannot make this “tragic sense of life” go away, he will not agree that “the tragic is the real truth” of our lives. In fact, he insists that “faith is faith precisely in the face of the facelessness of the anonymous” and is always “haunted” by “this specter of a heartless world of cosmic forces.”
[10] See Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark, 61-62: “Anyone who claims to believe in an all-powerful, all-loving God without taking into account this devastat­ing evidence [i.e. the Holocaust] either that God is indifferent or powerless, or that there is no God at all, is playing games. … If Love itself is really at the heart of it all, how can such things happen? What do such things mean?”
[11] Cf. Caputo, On Religion, 123, where in the face of the prospect that all that really exists is a heartless, tragic world of anonymous cosmic forces, he affirms, “The name of God is the name of the One who takes a stand with those who suffer, who expresses a divine solidarity with suffering, the One who says no to suffering, to unjust or unwarranted suffering.”

New Clothes

New Clothes
Colossians 3:12-17[1]
For those of you who may keep up with the latest styles, it’s pretty obvious that I’m no fashion guru. I do try to look my best, mind you, especially in professional situations. But I’m aware that my wardrobe wouldn’t make the cover of GQ magazine. I wear clothes that are functional more than trendy. Some of my clothes are 15 years old, which means they are long out of style. And I tend to go with a certain look and stay with it. It makes it easier that way. I don’t have to make too many decisions about what to wear. I like to keep things simple and functional when it comes to my wardrobe.
But then some of you may have also noticed that I’ve made a wardrobe change recently. This Fall, I’ve started wearing bow ties on special occasions. Now, I know that bow ties are the trademark of the Presbyterian pastor down the road. I must say I sort of fell into this trend by accident. My son and his fiancée are getting married this week, and the theme of their ceremony is art deco. So all the men in the wedding party are wearing bow ties—the real thing, not pre-tied clip-on’s. So I figured I’d buy a couple of bow ties and learn how to tie them before I get to the wedding. Well, I have to say, I had so much fun with it, that I decided to incorporate it into my wardrobe. I don’t know that it makes me look any more trendy or stylish, but I like my “new look.”
As I mentioned on Christmas Eve, this year’s Gospel readings during advent are all about the changes that Jesus’ birth brought to our lives. They change the very ground on which we build our lives. Jesus made it clear that what he had come to do was to make it possible for “the last to be first,” which also means that the “first shall be last.” It turns everything upside down. Or, maybe, as one contemporary prophet puts it, the world is flying upside down and Jesus comes along to turn things right-side-up.[2]
One of the metaphors for this kind of radical change of life in the New Testament has to do with clothes. St. Paul is particularly fond of talking about “taking off” behaviors that diminish and harm ourselves and others and “putting on” the qualities that defined Jesus’ life.[3] And so in our lesson for today, he calls us to change our wardrobe, so to speak. Paul goes through the closet of our lives and pulls out what is no longer beneficial, and sets us to the task of filling our wardrobe with a whole different set of clothes.
In particular, he calls us to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col. 3:12).[4] That in and of itself is a tall order, if you really think about what it means to make those qualities the defining marks of your life. To some extent, I think he summarizes all of the qualities that he wants to see in our lives when he tells us to “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14).[5] In fact, he tells us to do this “above all.” That shouldn’t come as a surprise to us, since the whole Bible teaches us that what God wants from us is to love our brothers and sisters—all our brothers and sisters.
Now, we’re familiar with the fact that the Bible presents this kind of challenge to us—we are to leave behind the ways that belong to life apart from Christ, and we’re to put on our “new clothes” instead. But I’m not sure we get the motivation for all that. It’s not just that you’re supposed to be a good and kind and nice person. There’s much more behind it. One aspect is that since Christ died for us, we’re also called to die to all that characterizes a life that is motivated by selfish desires and is essentially harmful to others (Col. 3:5-9).
But there’s more: because Christ has been raised to new life, we too have a new life within us.[6] And the Scriptures call upon us to let the qualities of that new life be our new wardrobe. Because we have been “raised with Christ” (Col. 3:1), and “Christ is our life” (3:4), we are to let the life of the risen Christ shine through our character and actions. St. Paul depicts this in terms of a “renewal” that God has brought into our lives. But it goes beyond that—this renewal that is underway is changing everything for everyone, whether they know it or not. It is a transformation that means that “Christ is all in all” (Col. 3:11). That might not say it clearly enough: I like Gene Peterson’s translation of this phrase in The Message: “From now on everyone is defined by Christ, everyone is included in Christ.” Since we are all caught up in God’s work of making all things new through Jesus Christ, we are to let that newness shine in us and through us.
In a very real sense, I would say that our Scripture lesson for today is a call for us all to take a close look at the wardrobe that defines the way we live our lives. All that is selfish and harmful to others, all that diminishes us and others, has become like clothing that is out of date. And just as we sometimes have to go through our closets and clean out clothing that we no longer wear, so we’re to take all those ways of being and acting that are no longer useful or beneficial, and clear them out of the closet of our lives. And in the place of those old behaviors and actions we’re to fill our closet with a whole new set of clothes: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. In a word, whatever constitutes authentic, sincere, and truly loving ways of being and acting. After all, that’s the kind of life that Jesus embodied. What St. Paul is really asking us to do is to clothe ourselves with Jesus.[7] His way of life, his love, his character, and all that goes with it, are to be the “new clothes” in our wardrobe.

[1] ©2015. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/27/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman NE.
[2] Cf. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 88-89. He defines “flying upside-down” by saying (p. 10), “What is truly profound is thought to be stupid and trivial, or worse, boring, while what is actually stupid and trivial is thought to be profound.”
[3] Many scholars speak of this as the tension in Paul’s letters between the “indicative,” or the newness that becomes real in a person’s life when they are transformed by Christ, and the “imperative,” or the practical realization that this transformation does not take place overnight, but must be intentionally cultivated. Cf. Andrew T. Lincoln, “The Letter To The Colossians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:647: “although they have already put on the new person, they still need to clothe themselves with specific virtues.”  Cf. also P. T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, 213.
[4] Cf. E. Lohse, Colossians and Philemon: A commentary on the Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 147: “All of the five terms that describe the new man’s conduct are used in other passages to designate acts of God or of Christ.” (compassion: Rom 12:1; 2 Cor 1:3; kindness: Rom 2:4; 11:22; Eph 2:7; Tit 3:4; humility: Phil 2:8; 2 Cor 10:1; patience: Rom 2:4; 9:22).
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:784: “love is the sum of all the mercy, goodness, humility, long-suffering and mutual forbearance and forgiveness that those who are chosen and sanctified and loved by God are to ‘put on’ as a garment which is prepared for them and suits them.”
[6] Cf. Michael Barram, “Colossians 3:1-17,” Interpretation, 59 (April 2005): 190, where he says that “the living Christ provides the basis for all Christian conduct”; and further, these behaviors become “the norm for believers because Christ is alive and reigning with God.”
[7] Of course, this is a process. The church is always made up of people who are simul justus et peccator (“at the same time both justified and a sinner”). Or as Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 353, says it, “God sanctifies his church by calling the godless through Christ, by justifying sinners, and by accepting the lost. The communion or community of the saints—or the holy or sanctified—is therefore always at the same time the community of sinners; and the sanctified church is always at the same time the sinful church. Through its continual prayer ‘forgive us our trespasses,’ it recognizes itself as being in sin and at the same time as being holy in the divine forgiveness of sins. … In the confession of sin and faith in justification the church is simultaneously communio peccatorum and communio sanctorum.”

Monday, January 04, 2016

Tender Mercy

Tender Mercy
Luke 1:46-55, 68-79[1]
If you’ve been listening to this year’s Gospel readings during Advent, you know already that the way Luke presents the birth of Jesus has an “edge” to it.  Zechariah’s sings at the birth of his son, John the Baptist, that will he prepare a people for the Lord to come.  His “preparation” for them would be to lead them into the “way of peace” (Lk. 1:79).  That may not sound “edgy,” but if you read on, you find that he was to do that by calling the people to repentance. And in his ministry, John would call the people to real, heartfelt, life-changing repentance.[2] Repentance that resulted in “bearing fruit worthy of repentance” (Lk. 3:8).[3] And he made it specific: those who had more than enough were to share with those who didn’t have enough, and those who had power were not to abuse it. That seems pretty challenging to me.
Mary’s song of praise has even more of an “edge” to it: we hear that one of the ways God’s work of restoration would come about is through the “Great Reversal”: the proud humbled, the powerful pulled down from their thrones, those who are stuffed go away empty-handed, while those who are disempowered are lifted up and those who are hungry are filled with good things (Luke 1:51-53).[4] Mary describes the overturning of the current system of destruction and oppression and violence by the ways of God’s kingdom: mercy, justice, and love.
There’s just no way to avoid the fact that there is a barb in the good news that God is working to restore the human family.[5]  That barb is this—those among us who flourish on the backs of others, those who wield power through violence of any kind will be overthrown and overturned.  It’s a message that may seem inappropriate for a Christmas Eve sermon. After all, this is a time when we’re supposed to feel good about ourselves. We come to Christmas Eve expecting to hear good news, not to be challenged.
But the truth of the matter is that we can’t have the one without the other. The Good News of the birth of Jesus is challenging. It confronts us and all of the ways we live that are contrary to God’s grace and mercy and love. And this contradiction begins with the fact that the one who is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Savior who will bring new life to the whole world, was not born in an ornate palace, but very likely in a cave that was used as a pen for livestock! Those of you who’ve been around livestock know what kind of place we’re talking about—not the sanitized version of the nativity we usually see! I think the reason for this is that in the birth of Jesus, God made it clear that he was doing something that was very different from the way our world works. And that’s the challenge we face—if we want to be a part of it, we have to be willing to change our ways to match up with God’s ways.
And yet, even here there is good news—the restoration that God promises is one in which some of us may suffer loss, but in the end we will all gain immeasurably more.  The future Mary and Zechariah looked forward to is a vision of the restoration of the whole human family.  Mary saw in the birth of her son the beginning of God’s saving plan that makes it possible to experience the joy and the vibrancy that God intends for us all.
What that means for those of us who are “full” and “rich” here and now is that the only way for us to sing Mary’s song with the same kind of joy—the joy of the “lowly” being lifted up—is if we actually work at lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, and restoring those who are disenfranchised.[6] That was what Jesus came to do: God’s work of making all things new, of setting right the wrongs and lifting the burdens we all carry.  That’s why we celebrate Christmas.  It is a time for us to focus our attention on God’s work of healing this broken world.  It is a time of looking for the salvation that God has promised, and a time of singing for joy over what God is already doing among us.  And it is a time for us to join that work.
The Good News of Christmas is that we can look forward to something better than the violence and suffering and injustice all around us.  We can look forward to the kindness and generosity and compassion of our God being fulfilled for all the peoples of the world.  We have this hope because of the good news that in Jesus the Christ God has entered this world definitively to set everything right and to make all things new. It is this Good News, and the hope, peace, joy, and love it brings to us, that enables us to look past our fears and our hurts and our suspicions and view those around us with God’s compassionate love.[7] This joyful faith is what gives us energy to join in God’s work of transforming all creation by making a difference in our corner of the world.[8]
Jesus’ birth and life and death and resurrection constitute a challenge to the way we live our lives. We can no longer simply go about our lives wrapped up in our own concerns, ignoring the needs and suffering and hopes of those around us. We can no longer simply love those who love us back. We are called to give our lives away just as he did by loving others, all those we may consider other. But in the midst of that challenge that will very likely take all the faith, hope, and love we can muster, we can also remember that the birth of Jesus is Good News for us all. Because of that Good News we look forward to redemption, salvation, and forgiveness.  We can experience right now, in the midst of the difficulties of life, “the dawn from on high” through the “tender mercy of our God” that will bring the hope, peace, joy, and love God promises to us all (Lk. 1:78-79).[9]

[1] © 2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/24/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 3.2:461: “Μετάνοια [repentance] means a complete re-orientation, both inward and outward, of the whole man to the God who in a very real sense has turned to him in time. Πίστις [faith] means the unquestioning trust in this God which is the positive side of this re-orientation; the new life which is the only possible life after this event in the time which follows it.”
[3] Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:87: “To say that we can never be worthy of God’s grace is to miss the point of John’s challenge. John calls instead for a change of life-style that reflects the genuineness of our repentance. Just as false love is not love at all, so also repentance that is not sincere is not repentance. There is an integrity to the repentant. … Their way of life, their priorities, commitments, personal relationships, passion for peace and justice, and their unplanned acts of compassion all give evidence of their compassion.”
[4] Cf. Ruth Ann Foster, “Mary’s Hymn of Praise in Luke 1:46-55,” Review and Expositor 100 (2003):451-463.  She says (p. 458), “Mary acknowledges God's mercy and love for the lowly and a radical reversal of normal human values in the coming messianic kingdom.”  Cf. also R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX: 55.
[5] Cf. Letty M. Russell, “God’s Great Reversal,” The Christian Century (Nov. 20, 1991): 1089.  She says, “God's great reversal may come too close to home as we hear that Christmas is about lifting up the ‘lowly,’ filling ‘the hungry with good things’ and ‘sending the rich away empty.’ Yet it is by joining in the their desire and work for deliverance that we find out the meaning of the good news of great joy.”
[6] Cf. Stephen Shoemaker, GodStories, 217-18: “There are only two ways you can enter the kingdom and experience its joy. One is to be among the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted; those to whom God comes as healing, comfort, justice, and freedom. The other way is to be among God’s people who are going to the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted and bringing God’s healing, comfort, justice, and freedom.”
[7] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 62: “Only when we claim the love of God, the love that transcends all judgments, can we overcome all fear of judgment. When we have become completely free of the need to judge others, we will also become completely free from the fear of being judged.”
[8] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 338: “Faith can expend itself in the pain of love, ..., because it is upheld by the assurance of hope in the resurrection of the dead.
[9] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 23-24, where he reminds us that Luke frames his account of the “new thing” God is doing in terms of “old stories” from the Hebrew Bible to establish a continuity in God’s work of redemption. He says (p. 24), “The new is at the door, to be sure, … . But for now, it is enough to be reassured that the new continues and fulfills the old, with the same God remembering covenants kept and making good on promises made.”