Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Alpha and Omega

Alpha and Omega
Revelation 1:1-8[1]
The central affirmation of Easter is that by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, God has once and for all vindicated him as Lord of all. But you and I live in a world in which we are surrounded by images and messages that contradict that central element of our faith. Between Hollywood and Washington, DC and Wall Street, the combined effect is to make it clear that Jesus is essentially irrelevant in our culture. The “lords” of our society are those with the most money, or the most power, or the strongest celebrity appeal. And they don’t typically promote the ideals that Jesus taught. The movies we watch, the athletes we cheer, the advertisements on TV, even the music we listen to proclaim the message that the survival of the strongest and the wealthiest and the most attractive is the true reality in our world.
It may be hard for us to recognize this because it has so thoroughly worked its way into the fabric of almost every aspect of our culture. If you ever find yourself in the Mall, compare the images of people that the stores use to sell their products with the actual people around you. There’s not much similarity. In fact, the “appearance” that our culture promotes couldn’t be further from who we are as a people. But we’ve gotten so used to seeing people with perfect teeth and hair and eyes and bodies trying to sell us everything from cars to clothes to prescriptions that we don’t even notice the subtle message that conveys to us: if you don’t look like this, or have this kind of wealth, you don’t really count.
This was the context into which the Book of Revelation was written. The Christian faith was definitely a minority in the Roman Empire. Christians would either rise before dawn or stay up late at night to worship Jesus as Lord. There was no such thing as a weekend or a Sabbath day in the Roman world. Every day was a work day. And as those believers made their way to homes to worship Jesus as Lord, all around them were images that proclaimed that Zeus was lord, or Caesar was Lord.[2] They, too, lived in a world that was dominated by images of the “powers that be” that contradicted the heart of their faith and the teachings to which they had devoted themselves, sometimes at great peril to their lives.
It is to that setting that the Book of Revelation was addressed. This unique part of the Bible was not written to enable the “fortune tellers” of our age to predict the coming of Christ or the end of the world. Rather it was written to the Christians of that day, living in a world that contradicted their faith.[3] One of the major purposes of this part of Scripture that so many of us avoid was to provide struggling believers with images of a different reality, a reality in which God is the one who rules over all things with “wisdom, power, and love.” Unfortunately, It’s easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees in the Book of Revelation. Much of the symbolism seems strange to us. But at the heart of the book is the message that, despite all appearances to the contrary, God’s rule is the true reality in this world, and one day God’s rule will be fulfilled as God completes the work of making all things new.[4]
In our lesson for today, the Scripture simply hints at this by referring to God as “the Alpha and the Omega,” the one “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”[5] As you may know, Alpha and Omega are the first and the last letters of the Greek alphabet. So naming God as the “Alpha and the Omega” is another way of saying that God is “The First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”  In other words, we can count on the God who created all things in the beginning to make all things new in the end.[6] It’s an affirmation that we along with millions of other Christians sing every Sunday morning: “as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen! Amen!” The God who rules over this world will be the same God at the end of all things as he was at the beginning and is now: a God of infinite love.
The other affirmation in our lesson for today is that God is the “Almighty” one. This resonates with countless statements in the Hebrew Bible about the God who is the “Lord of hosts,” or the “Lord of the angel armies”.[7] The idea is very similar to another image in the book of Revelation: God is the one who “sits on the throne,” ruling over the whole universe.[8]  The purpose for this is to make clear that that God is the one whose rule is ultimately true. Despite the fact that the Roman Empire proclaimed itself as the ultimate power in the world of that day, and even demanded worship of those under its influence, the book of Revelation insists that this is an illusion that will one day be swept away.[9] And, of course, Rome’s claim to power was indeed swept away centuries ago.
We live in a world that is dominated by those who make claims that can seem just as false as the claims Rome made in ancient times. In the face of those claims the Scripture reassured the Christians of that day that God is the one who would have the last word. I think the message of Revelation for us today is the same. It stands as a reminder that we too can trust that God will see to it that his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. That means all those who (falsely) claim to wield power over the world in the present time are only deluding themselves. Their power may seem very real here and now, but ultimately, just as God’s rule had the first word at creation, so will his rule have the last word in the end. As God was in the beginning, so he ever shall be: the Alpha and Omega.

[1] © 2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/3/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE. An audio version of this sermon is available at
[2] Cf. Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation,  17: “Civic and religious architecture, iconography, statues, rituals and festivals, … all provided powerful visual impressions of Roman imperial power and the splendor of pagan religion. In this context, Revelation provides a set of Christian prophetic counter-images which impress on its readers a different vision of the world … . The visual power of the book effects a kind of purging of the Christian imagination, refurbishing it with alternative visions of how the world is and will be.” Cf. Craig R. Koester, Revelation, 132: “John’s message ran counter to the public rhetoric of the Roman era, which celebrated the peace and prosperity that the imperial rule had brought. According to the dominant discourse, Roman rule was invincible and benevolent.”
[3] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, 40, where he argues that the point of apocalyptic documents like Revelation in the ancient world was not to answer the question “Will there be an end of the world?” but rather “Is God faithful?” He says that they “lived in impossible situations, … when children saw their parents imprisoned or killed because their faithfulness to their confession of Jesus as the only Lord made it impossible for them to yield to the imperial religion … .” In that situation the question was “how can one still believe in the faithfulness of God?” He continues, “It was the honor and integrity of God as God that was at stake, not just human selfish longing for golden streets and pearly gates.” Cf. Koester, Revelation, 132, where he reminds us that the setting was actually somewhat complex: “Readers who were overtly threatened would be aware of the challenges and needed encouragement to persevere, but those who were complacent or accommodating would not have sensed the problems. John would need to challenge them  to see issues of which they were unaware, while calling for commitment that would set them at odds with the dominant social, religious, and economic patterns of the cities where they lived.”
[4] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 40: “The whole of Revelation could be regarded as a vision of the fulfillment of the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:9-10). John and his readers lived in a world in which God’s name was not hallowed, his will was not done, and evil ruled through the oppression and exploitation of the Roman system of power. But in chapter 4, he sees in heaven, the sphere of ultimate reality, the absolute holiness, righteousness and sovereignty of God. From this vision of God’s name hallowed and God’s will done in heaven, it follows that his kingdom must come on earth.”
[5] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 1.2:53, where he points out, as many do, that “the one who is and who was and who is to come” is very likely an interpretation of the revelation of God’s name in Exod. 3:14; “I am who I am.” He says, “From the fact that God is He who exists and therefore is the Living One in the supreme sense and therefore the Almighty, it follows that He is not only this, but, as this, also He who was and He who cometh, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. And vice versa, by the fact that He is the first and the last, it is indicated that He is truly He who is. the Living One, the Almighty.”
[6] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 27: “God precedes all things, as their Creator, and he will bring all things to eschatological fulfillment. He is the origin and goal of all history. He has the first word, in creation, and the last word, in new creation.” Cf. also Koester, Revelation, 220: “Revelation recalls texts that stress the singular lordship of Israel’s God: ‘I am the first and the last, there is no other god but me’ (Isa 44:6; cf. 41:4; 48:12).” Cf. further Jürgen Roloff, A Continental Commentary: The Revelation of John, 28: “the God to whom [John] bears witness is the living and historically active God.”
[7] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 30: the designations “The Lord, the God of hosts” and “the Lord of hosts” are used especially in the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible to indicate “Yahweh's unrivalled power over all things and therefore his supremacy over the course of historical events. … The Greek pantokrator (‘almighty’) indicates not so much God’s abstract omnipotence as his actual control over all things.” Cf. Koester, Revelation, 220: “Revelation, …, refers to God as pantokrator, ascribing to him power over all things. In Revelation God’s supreme might is expressed in his acts of creation, judgment, and righteous rule (Rev 1:8; 4:8; 18:8; 19:6; 21:22; 22:5-6).”
[8] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 31, where he emphasizes that the vision of God on the throne provides one of the major starting points for the whole book: “the vision of God’s sovereignty in heaven.” He continues (ibid.), saying that this “makes it possible for John to enlarge his readers’ perspective on their own situation by setting it within the broader context of God’s universal purpose of overcoming all opposition to his rule and establishing his kingdom in the world.” From the perspective of Revelation, God’s sovereign rule is “the true reality which must in the end also prevail on earth.” Cf. also Roloff, Revelation of John, 29: “whereas human rulers like to claim total dominion over the world and have themselves celebrated as rulers of history, …, in truth it is God alone to whom dominion over the world and history belongs.”
[9] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 34: “The Roman Empire, like most political powers in the ancient world, represented and propagated its power in religious terms. Its state religion, featuring worship both of the deified emperors and of the traditional gods of Rome, expressed political loyalty through religious worship. In this way it absolutized its power, claiming for itself the ultimate, divine sovereignty over the world.” By contrast (ibid, 35), Revelation sees the “the view of the Empire promoted by Roman propaganda” from “the perspective of heaven, which unmasks the pretensions of Rome. Revelation portrays the Roman Empire as a system of violent oppression, founded on conquest, maintained by violence and oppression. It is a system both of political tyranny and of economic exploitation.” Cf. also ibid, 39: “it was the Christian vision of the incomparable God, exalted above all worldly power, which relativized Roman power and exposed Rome’s pretensions to divinity as a dangerous delusion.”

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Coming to Life

Coming to Life
Isaiah 65:17-25; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26[1]
When you pay attention to what goes on in our world, it’s easy to conclude that “there’s nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). The world keeps on turning just as it has for centuries. When you really see the way we treat the members of our human family, it would seem that “everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” (2 Pet. 3:4, NIV). The travesties and tragedies of life can easily lead us to the attitude that nothing ever changes. The rich get richer, might makes right, nice guys finish last, and the only things you can count on are death and taxes. Our existence in this world is just a matter of taking one turn after another on a merry-go-round that’s going nowhere.
But if we were to embrace that kind of attitude, we would be contradicting everything the Bible has to say about what God is doing in this world and in our lives. The good news is that God is working to fulfill promises like “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” (Isa. 65:17). Promises like “they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,” (Isa. 11:9; 65:25). Promises like “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ,” (1 Cor. 15:22). And promises like “I am making everything new” (Rev. 21:5).[2] The good news of Easter flies in the face of all the naysayers and doomsayers who see the outcome of our lives as always and only loss, heartbreak, tragedy, and futility. God’s final word over us is not death but life.
I think we see this profound truth reflected in our lesson from St. Paul for today. He says it this way: “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:22). In his letters, Paul is fond of comparing the effects on the whole human race of Adam’s choice to disobey God with the effects of Jesus’ choice to obey God and go to the cross. From his perspective, “all die in Adam” is more than just a statement about human mortality. It is an assessment of the state of our lives given the fact that we live in a world where sin and death still oppress us. They still have the ability to rob us of the joy that God intends for us.
Despite the fact that we can still feel the sting of sin and death in this life, the message Paul proclaims is that through Jesus’ resurrection from the dead God has decisively overcome the power of sin and death.[3] Even though we still suffer the effects of sin and death in this world, through the cross and the resurrection their power over us is ultimately broken. They may still affect our lives here and now, but they are defeated enemies, and their days are numbered.
The language of the risen Christ defeating enemies may sound strange to us. It can seem almost violent, as if Jesus is going to do battle against part of the human family. But I don’t think that’s the point here. In order to understand what Paul is saying we have to recognize who the real “enemies” are. Paul says that there are “rulers” and “authorities” and “powers” that must be overcome before the Kingdom of God comes to its full expression (1 Cor. 15:24). Paul usually refers to them as spiritual enemies who oppress humankind.[4]  Without attempting to identify them any more specifically, I think we can say that they represent the primary “enemies” Jesus fights against: sin and death. And by dying on the cross and by rising again, Jesus has defeated all these enemies.
At times, however, we may find ourselves subjected to powerful people who choose ways that are opposed to God, ways of injustice and oppression and violence. In so doing, they become agents of sin and death in our world. This is part of the context of our lesson from Isaiah. There are those who, because they continue to refuse to hear the message of God’s forgiveness to all those who genuinely seek him, persist in living a life that actively thwarts God’s purposes.[5] The result of Jesus’ death and resurrection is that their power is broken as well. They may have the ability to wield power over us in this world, but their days are numbered.
But the purpose of the language about overcoming enemies is not to give God a chance to vent his anger through violence. Rather, it is to prepare the way for a whole new creation. As the Scripture promises, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (Isa. 65:17). Here, the prophet promises in the name of the Lord that what God is going to do will change things so much that the original creation will not even be remembered![6] In this new creation we will all have the chance to live in peace, enjoying God’s good gifts.
This brings us back to Paul’s statement that “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.”[7] The resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter Sunday was the first act of God’s promised new creation.[8] The promise of Easter is that “all will be made alive in Christ.” Through Jesus’ resurrection, we already get to taste the new life that will be ours one day when God’s kingdom comes to its full expression.
Just as the sun rose on that first Easter morning, announcing to the whole creation that God had begun to make everything new, every sunrise can remind us of the promise of Easter. As the sun comes up each new day we have the chance to be “made alive in Christ” all over again. With the dawn of each new day we can already have a taste of the new creation that will be so breathtaking in the peace and joy it brings that it will make us forget the pain and sorrow of this life. As the first light of each morning reaches us, it reminds us that through Jesus the Christ we have the opportunity today to come to life.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/27/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Presbyterian Church in the United States. A Declaration of Faith. 117th General Assembly (1977), reissued by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1991, § 8.3; 8.5; 10.2, which articulates the faith that God is working toward a day when “justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” when “nations will not learn war any more,” and when we will see “the end of cruelty and suffering in the world.”
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:157, where he says that Jesus “is according to Paul the ‘second Adam’ (1 Cor. 15:45f.), the One who by His obedience sets the many before God as righteous, whose righteous act confronts in reconciliation the transgressions of the many who by following Adam are involved in hopeless death. In this righteous act there is achieved a justification for all, a justification that brings life (δικαίωσις ζωῆς, Rom. 5:12f.; I Cor. 15:22).” Cf. Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, 263: The consequences of Jesus’ resurrection “correspond (antithetically) to the consequences of Adam’s sin which brought death upon all humanity. The impact of Jesus death and resurrection is therefore equally sweeping: …. our ultimate destiny is transformed from death to life through Christ’s resurrection.” Nevertheless, he seems to contradict himself by pointing out that (ibid., 164) “Many of Paul’s other statements make it difficult to suppose” that he believed in universal salvation of all human beings through Christ’s resurrection. He cites 1 Cor. 1:18; 2:6; 3:17; 4:5; 6:9-10. Therefore he concludes that Paul “is concerned in the present passage only about the way in which Christ’s resurrection prefigures the fate” of “those who belong to Christ.” And yet, Hays overlooks passages like Col. 1:20; Eph. 1:10; and Phil. 2:10, all of which point to a universal salvation.
[4] Cf. Hays, First Corinthians, 265: these “enemies” “refer in the first instance to cosmic spheres or forces arrayed in opposition to God …, but they also have concrete political implications. The idea that Christ is Lord and that the kingdom ultimately belongs to God the Father stands as a frontal challenge to the ideology of imperial Rome.”
[5] Cf. Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI:544: “The indictments of false worship from Isaiah’s day are as true for these opponents as they were before, but with the added dark reality that standing as they do on the other side of an era of forgiveness and release from blindness, they constitute more serious offense. To turn away from the lavish forgiveness proffered by God and brought about by the sacrifice of the servant is a worse offense than to stand under Isaiah’s “former thing” judgment. And so, too, the punishment is more severe. God called and spoke anew, but some refused to listen and answer, choosing instead a way of death (65:15).” Cf. also Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 242: “it was often difficult for the people to persevere in the vocation of [God’s] servant. Especially in times when those struggling to uphold torah and worship found their efforts thwarted both by their own leaders and by the sponsoring foreign powers, … .”
[6] In fact, the very wording of Isa. 65:17 in the Hebrew text alludes clearly to the original creation in Genesis 1:1, but the new creation will by far surpass it. Cf. Seitz, “Isaiah 40-66,” NIB VI:544: “To speak of a new heaven and a new earth is to return to creation and the curses that followed upon the very first act of disobedience. It is to go back beyond the rebellions of Isaiah’s generation, or of the present generation; back to the very point of rupture. In order for the former things to be put away for good, God must begin all over again.” And yet, Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 408, can also say, “The words, ‘I create anew the heavens and the earth’, do not imply that heaven and earth are to be destroyed and in their place a new heaven and a new earth created—this is apocalyptic, … . Instead, the world, designated as ‘heaven and earth’, is to be miraculously renewed.”
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, In the End the Beginning, 161, 164, where he insists that as the effects of sin are universal, so the salvation effected through the resurrection is universal. Cf. similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 306, commenting on Col. 1:20: “Unless the whole cosmos is reconciled, Christ cannot be the Christ of God and cannot be the foundation of all things.”
[8] Cf. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), The Study Catechism: Full Version with Biblical References, 210th General Assembly (1998); question 85, which describes the new creation as a new world in which “evil in all its forms will be utterly eradicated,” so that “God is really honored as God, human beings are truly loving, and peace and justice reign on earth.” 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Ours the Sufferings

Ours the Sufferings
Isaiah 53:1-9[1]
It doesn’t take much to recognize that one of the greatest challenges we may face in this life is undeserved suffering. And it’s not hard to find plenty of examples of those who suffer unjustly. In fact, if we pay attention carefully enough, we might be overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people who live with hardships and afflictions that they didn’t do a thing to deserve. It’s a part of life that can call into question our faith in God’s grace and mercy and love at its very core. In fact, throughout history, Christian thinkers have wrestled with this problem. Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone has come up with convincing answers as to why it is that the innocent people of our world who put their faith in God are often the ones who suffer the most.[2]
This is a difficulty that the Bible is intimately familiar with. From Moses to the Psalmists to Job to the prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the Bible is well acquainted with the concept of the innocent bearing underserved suffering. And in many cases, those who are suffering ask God “Why?” They wrestle with God and with their faith and with their suffering. At times these “wrestling matches” in Scripture can be pretty blunt in the honesty with which they express their anguish and discouragement to God. Some of what they say we might even consider blasphemous, but there it is, in the Bible, written as an example and an instruction for us.
Our lesson from Isaiah addresses the question of innocent suffering head-on. It is perhaps one of the best known descriptions of undeserved suffering in the Bible. It is considered one of several “Servant Songs” in Isaiah, sections where the role of the “Servant of the Lord” in carrying out God’s purposes is proclaimed. The “Servant” is one who will set things right for those who have been oppressed (Isa. 42:1-4). The “Servant” will bring “light” to restore Israel, but he will also bring light to grant the “nations” salvation as well (Isa. 49:1-6). In this chapter, the “Servant” take the sufferings of “the many” on himself, thus fulfilling God’s purpose to make us all whole through the salvation he brings.
An interesting feature of the “Servant Songs” in Isaiah is that it’s not easy to figure out who the “Servant” is, whether an individual, a group, or the nation of Israel.[3] In fact, one of the great challenges with the lesson we are studying is that it would seem that the role of the “Servant” relates to all three, and extends beyond that to all who recognize God’s purpose in the suffering he bore. In some respects, it’s clear that the Scripture is referring to an individual. This person, whether fully understanding the purpose of his suffering or not, willingly offers himself to endure undeserved mistreatment for the sake of others. As the Scripture puts it, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isa. 53:7).[4]
In other respects, it would seem that there are other “Servants” who are making a report about the “Servant” and the true meaning of his affliction.[5] In fact, these “Servants” recognize that they totally misunderstood what was happening to the “Servant” initially.[6] They confess, “He was despised, the lowest of men, a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering, one from whom, as it were, we averted our gaze, despised, for whom we had no regard.” (Isa. 53:3, NJB). In that context, anyone who suffered was thought to have done something to deserve it, as Job learned from his so-called friends. But these “Servants” who had missed the true meaning behind the one who was suffering came to recognize that he was suffering for them. They put it this way: “Yet ours were the sufferings he was bearing, ours the sorrows he was carrying, while we thought of him as someone being punished and struck with affliction by God” (Isa. 53:4).[7]
It is this “report” or “testimony” of this group of “Servants” that points us to the message that undeserved suffering doesn’t have to be something meaningless and tragic. It can be the very means by which God carries out his purposes to renew and restore and redeem this world and all of us in it.[8] In fact, this recognition carries with it a call to all Israel—and indeed all of us who hear—to embrace the possibility of suffering on behalf of others in order to carry out God’s purposes in our world.[9]
None of us likes to suffer. Nor do I think that this passage is telling us to go out and seek suffering. Rather, it is addressing one of the great mysteries of our faith: God uses innocent suffering to set things right in this world. For some of us, suffering just comes upon us when we least expect it, and we have to struggle through it as we wrestle with our faith. For those who suffer in this way, we can look to this Scripture for comfort, knowing that ours were the sufferings Jesus bore for us on the cross.
For others of us, God calls us to be willing to bear the sufferings of others and to carry their sorrows, just as God’s servant Jesus did on the cross. It seems that at least part of the reason for this is that those who would seek be God’s servants are called to suffer because it’s the only way to truly set things right in a world of sorrow and pain, of suffering and injustice, of sin and death.[10] We may never fully understand why God works this way. But we can accept the calling knowing that we are following the path that Jesus marked out for us. And we can do so in the assurance that our Savior knows everything we have to bear, because it is true also in this case that ours were the sufferings he bore on the cross.        

[1] © Alan Brehm 2016. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/24/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, 24: “Christianity … ultimately offers no theoretical solution [to the problem of evil].  It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene—not even this—but that God can turn it to good.”
[3] Cf. Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book Of Isaiah 40–66” New Interpreters Bible VI:462: “with the death of this individual servant, the servants depict the nations coming to an understanding of Israel’s destiny, while Israel, in its own way, also understands that this individual expression of ‘Israel,’ in the servant (49:3), has effected the removal of sin, in the same way as Moses’ death and intercession brought new life, for Israel. The dual mission of the servant—restoration of the survivors of Israel and as ‘Israel,’ a light to the nations (49:6)—is here confessed by the servants as fully accomplished.” Cf. also Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 154, 163-66.
[4] Cf. Seitz, “Isaiah 40–66,” NIB VI:465: “‘He was despised and we esteemed him not’ captures the passive character of his afflicted condition, without stipulating further the reasons or the agents. … There are despising, rejection, sorrow, sickness, smiting (by God), wounding, bruising, chastisement, stripes, oppression, and judgment; but they are uniformly unstipulated in respect of agency (cf. 49:7). What is stipulated are the beneficiaries of all this.” See further, ibid., “Whether they were the agents of his distress or not, they are most assuredly the beneficiaries of his suffering, and this even while they had failed to comprehend it and, indeed, had regarded him as afflicted to another end altogether. No, ‘the Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all.’” Cf. also Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 156-57: “Isaiah 53 is Second Isaiah’s … answer to the question of how the tragic pattern of sin and punishment could be broken and replaced by the wholeness that accompanies a hearty embrace of God’s compassion and righteousness. It revolves around the notion of a Servant of the Lord whose surrender to God’s will was so total that he took the consequences of the sin of the community upon himself, even though he was innocent of any wrong.”
[5] Cf. Seitz, “Isaiah 40–66,” NIB VI:460: “The ‘voices’ responsible for this poem are the servant followers of the servant, who see in his death the bringing to fruition of God’s design for him, that he be a ‘light to the nations’ (42:6; 49:6).”
[6] Cf. Seitz, “Isaiah 40–66,” NIB VI:463: “The servants confess their massive misunderstanding of the servant’s suffering and affliction.”
[7] Cf. Seitz, “Isaiah 40–66,” NIB VI:466: “The confession of sin and iniquity is clear as it rises from the lips of the servants. Whether they were the agents of his distress or not, they are most assuredly the beneficiaries of his suffering, and this even while they had failed to comprehend it and, indeed, had regarded him as afflicted to another end altogether. No, “the Lord has laid upon him the iniquity of us all.”
[8] Cf. Seitz, “Isaiah 40–66,” NIB VI:469: “The report got written, even though a generation had got it wrong at first. The report got written, and it was not tragic because God had the final word, and that final word included even the promise that, not just us, but the servant himself saw something of God’s purpose within his agony and was satisfied.” Cf. also Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 154: “What is occurring in the experience of the Servant bears significance that extends far beyond the life of the Servant. … the events of the Servant’s life are episodes in God’s providential care for the whole world.
[9] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 83: “Through his death and resurrection the church participates in his mission, becoming the messianic church of the coming kingdom and man’s liberation.”
[10] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 91: “in the act of dying [Jesus] brings the liberating rule of God into the situation of deepest abandonment.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 178: “the inner secret of Christ’s vicarious act ‘for us’ is the vicarious act and self-giving of God.”

Monday, April 04, 2016


Philippians 2:5-11[1]
I think it’s fair to say that a life of service in the name of Christ is not an easy path. After all, his path led him to a brutal execution. If we set out to follow him expecting to experience only joy and blessing, I’m afraid we may be deeply disappointed. The reality is that many who serve others in the name of Christ can find themselves facing not only frustration and discouragement, but also exhaustion and burn-out. This is true not only for pastors but also for anyone who takes seriously the call walk in Jesus’ footsteps. When you give so much of yourself to so many people, you can find yourself feeling empty at the end of the day.
The truth of the matter is that this is a feature of human life that is not restricted to the church. It affects people of all classes, in all walks of life, engaged in a variety of vocations. You give of yourself on behalf of those you love, or on behalf of those you work with, or on behalf of total strangers, and it can leave you feeling empty. When you stretch that kind of experience into days and weeks and months and years, it can make you begin to wonder why you even get out of bed in the morning. The simple fact is that life can be challenging and hard and draining at times. And there is no “free pass” that exempts those of us who follow Christ and trust in God from experiencing that emptiness.
I think, however, that our lesson from St. Paul for today might give us some inspiration here. In the context of this chapter of Philippians, Paul is trying to instruct the Christians about how to live together in community with one another. He urges them to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” and to “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Phil 2:2-3).[2] Paul sums up the kind of relationships he wants to see in the church in terms of imitating the same attitude Jesus displayed (Phil. 2:5).
I find it interesting when Paul spells out what that looks like, he quotes what was probably an early Christian hymn.[3] In fact, the believers in the church at Philippi may very well have been familiar with this hymn. I also find it interesting that this hymn about Jesus only actually refers to two acts Jesus took: the act of “emptying himself” to become human, and the act of “humbling himself” to die on the cross. If we want to know how much we’re to give up in service to others, Paul points to these two acts that reflect the incredibly generous and giving heart of Jesus, as well as God himself.
Scholars have debated for centuries what exactly it was that Jesus gave up when he “emptied himself.” I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that question in this life. But it seems, however, the main point is that Jesus was equal to God, and rather than clinging to that status as something that was his by right, he gave it up to come among us as a servant in order to redeem us all.[4] If that were as far as it went, Jesus would be the most amazing example of self-sacrifice. And yet there’s more: not only did Jesus give up everything to come among us, he also “humbled himself” by obeying God’s will to redeem us all through suffering love.[5] Jesus chose to surrender himself to one of the cruelest means of death ever devised.[6] And so, at the end of his life as at the beginning, he made the choice to sacrifice himself in a way that surpasses our ability to understand or imagine.
If you’re like me, you may be thinking that’s a pretty hard act to follow. You may be wondering how any of us could ever hope to even come close to the kind of loving sacrifice that Jesus made not only by choosing to come as one of us, but also by giving up his life for us all. I must confess there have been times when I myself have asked God how I could keep sacrificing and keep serving when Jesus “only” hung on the cross for six hours. When you think about a lifetime of “taking up your cross” and following Christ in a life of sacrifice and service, it can be an intimidating prospect.
I think one of the practical questions we face is how we can maintain the energy and the motivation to continue following Jesus’ example, as demanding as it can be. I think our expectations may play a significant role in how we experience a life of service. If we expect recognition or reward for our service, we are probably setting ourselves up for serious disappointment, if not flat-out defeat.[7] Rather than expecting any kind of return for following Jesus’ example, I think at least a part of the answer to this question may be to view a life of service as fulfilling and meaningful in and of itself.[8] We don’t derive our sense of satisfaction with our lives from what we get from our service. We simply offer it because following Jesus is the way to find true life.
We can all face times in our lives when the challenge of living out our faith can seem overwhelming. That’s when we can look to Jesus for encouragement and inspiration. His willingness to give up his rights to come among us as a servant inspires us to do the same in our relationships with others. His death on the cross not only brings us forgiveness and new life, it also serves as an example for us to follow.[9] I will not pretend that seeking to follow Christ in either of these ways is easy or that it will bring any special recognition. We do it because that’s what Jesus called us to do. And as we answer that call and follow his example, we find that giving ourselves away in service to others can leave us not empty but fulfilled in a way that no other life endeavor could possibly match.

[1] © Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/20/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Morna D. Hooker, “The Letter To The Philippians,” New Interpreters Bible XI: 515-16, where she summarizes Paul’s intent: “Those who confess Jesus as Lord should not be looking for status or power; nor should they be acting from ‘selfish ambition or conceit’ (2:3). Rather, they should be humbly considering others better than themselves. And because they are concerned with the interests of others (2:4), they will be of one mind and one purpose, ‘having the same love’ and of one accord (2:2). In stark contrast to the modern spirit of encouraging competition and giving rewards to individuals who get to the top, Paul insists on mutual concern and service.”
[3] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Philippians, 39: “Paul is quoting a hymn which arose in another context to address another problem, perhaps a Christological question. Christological hymns and confessions are not uncommon in Paul’s writings and they seem, by internal structure and relation to their literary contexts, to be quotations from a common store of materials used in the worship of Gentile Christian churches (I Cor. 8:6; II Cor. 8:9; Col. 1:15-20, and others).”
[4] Cf. Hooker, “Philippians,” NIB XI:507. She points out that there is an implicit contrast with Adam in this part of the passage: “Christ, who was ‘in the form of God,’ might well have claimed the privileges of equality with God as his right, but did not do so. What Adam desired, Christ was content to forgo.” And yet she also rightly observes (ibid., 508), “Christ did not cease to be ‘in the form of God’ when he took the form of a slave, any more than he ceased to be the ‘Son of God’ when he was sent into the world. On the contrary, it is in his self-emptying and his humiliation that he reveals what God is like, and it is through his taking the form of a slave that we see ‘the form of God.’”
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today’s World, 40: “Christ entered into this humiliation and this forsakenness so that he could become a brother for the humiliated and forsaken, and bring them God’s kingdom. He doesn’t help through supernatural miracles. He helps by virtue of his own suffering—through his wounds. ‘Only the suffering God can help’, wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his death cell. God always helps first of all by suffering with us. …The God of Jesus Christ is the God who is on the side of the victims and the sufferers, in solidarity with them.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.1:164-66, where he summarizes the New Testament references to this theme. He says (ibid., 166), “The story of Gethsemane (like the story of the temptation at the beginning of the Gospels) shows two things: first, that we have to do with His genuine human decision; and second, that it is a decision of obedience. He chooses, but He chooses that apart from which, being who He is, He could not choose anything else.”
[6] Cf. Hooker, “Philippians,” NIB XI:509. She says, “More than two thousand years of Christian piety have obscured from us the shock and horror with which these final words would have been heard by their original audience. Crucifixion was the cruelest and most shameful of deaths, and there could be no greater contrast with the opening lines of the “hymn,” or with the exaltation that follows.”
[7] Cf. Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer, reprinted in Ministry and Spirituality, 155-56. Nouwen warns that many of those who base their Christian lives on the search for visible results “have become disillusioned, bitter, and even hostile” to the faith “when years of hard work bear no fruit.” He advises that our ability to continue to serve others is not based on the results we see, but rather on the hope that is firmly grounded in Christ’s victory over death itself, which demonstrates “that there is light on the other side of darkness.”
[8] Cf. Craddock, Philippians, 42: “Christ acted in our behalf without view of gain. That is precisely what God has exalted and vindicated: self-denying service for others to the point of death with no claim of return, no eye upon a reward.”
[9] Cf. Craddock, Philippians, 42: “The central event in the drama of salvation is an act of humble service.”