Monday, June 27, 2016

Tunnel Vision

Tunnel Vision
Psalm 42[1]
One of the great pitfalls in any spiritual practice is that it can narrow our focus. If we’re not aware of this potential problem, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of thinking and praying primarily about our own concerns. When we do not find a way to check this tendency, our “spirituality” can actually become an extension of our self-interest, if not a kind of self-absorption.[2] I think one test we can apply is to pay attention how often we find ourselves praying with words like I, me, my, and mine. I would imagine most of us probably use those words in our prayers more that we realize, or would be comfortable admitting.
To some extent, I would have to say that when we use the Psalms as a source for our spiritual practice, they can actually contribute to this problem. So often the Psalms express the prayers of individuals, many times pouring out their hearts in fear or anguish or grief or even anger to God. We can learn a great deal from the way the psalmists pray—namely that we can bring all of our concerns and thoughts and feelings to God, and God is not offended by them. But if we’re not careful, we can also fall into a pattern of praying mainly for ourselves. We can develop a kind of spiritual tunnel vision.
Our Psalm for today is a beautiful prayer. It is actually one of my favorites. The psalmist pours out his heart to God in prayer, expressing a deep longing for God’s presence. The words are beautiful: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?” (Psalm 42:1-2). This prayer conveys the psalmists longing for God’s presence in his life.[3] In fact, the psalmist is asking for God to restore him.[4] We don’t know what has happened, but apparently he is no longer able to take part in the procession to worship God. He has encountered some kind of significant loss.[5] And for that reason, he says “my soul is cast down within me” (Ps. 42:6).
It is a natural and healthy thing to turn to God in that kind of situation. Many of us have found ourselves in precisely that position, and may have voiced our prayer to God using the words of this very Psalm. And the hope in this Psalm is expressed in the refrain, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God” (Ps. 42:5-6). It offers a reassurance we all find ourselves in need of from time to time—the promise that God has not abandoned us, and that at some point in the future we will indeed find our lives healed, restored, and renewed.
It is precisely because the Psalms express these sentiments in such beautiful ways that many throughout the ages have used them as a basis for pouring out their own prayers to God. And that is a good thing as well. But I’m afraid the fact that the language of the Psalms can at times take on an individual perspective—using words like I, me, my, and mine—is a factor that we have to be aware of if we’re going to use the Psalms in our prayers. If do not use them thoughtfully, we can find ourselves falling into a kind of self-absorption that is indeed one of the pitfalls of any faith.
In our lesson from the Hebrew Bible for today, we see precisely that kind of self-interest reflected in no less than the prophet Elijah! The ministry of Elijah marked one of the times in which the word of the LORD was most effective in the life of Israel. Among the prophets, he stands with Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. And yet, after his dramatic stand-off with the prophets of Baal, he finds himself running for his life from Queen Jezebel. He flees into the wilderness, where he collapses from exhaustion. After being fed by an angel, he goes on to the mountain of God, and when God appears he asks Elijah, “What are you doing here?”
Elijah’s answer reflects the kind of tunnel vision we’re talking about today: “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:10). This is one of the most common tendencies with spiritual tunnel vision: thinking that “I alone am left”! The LORD God reminds Elijah dramatically that in fact he had seven thousand faithful followers in Israel—Elijah was far from the only one![6] But after all the conflict and struggle he had been through, it was easy for him to think that he was alone.
When we go through hard times, we can feel like the Psalmist—we’re thirsty for God’s presence like one who is wandering in the desert. And in those times, it’s a good thing to turn to the words of the Psalms to give voice to our prayers. In fact, they have been a “school of prayer” for countless faithful believers throughout the ages.[7] But as we use the words of the Psalms to voice our prayers, we have to be aware that while they are the words of Scripture, they are also very human prayers. The benefit in the humanity of the Psalms is that we learn we can pour out our hearts to God, no matter what we’re feeling or thinking. The problem is that we can develop the kind of spiritual tunnel vision that Elijah displayed in his complaint to God. I think part of the answer to this problem is that we keep our focus on the God who is our hope and our help. God’s purposes in this world are much larger than our personal lives, and keeping our focus on that larger purpose can help us avoid the tendency we can all have to fall into tunnel vision.[8]

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/19/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Frederick W. Schmidt, What God Wants for Your Life, 3, where he laments that we live in “an increasingly first-person-singular world” and says (ibid., 4-5), “That is why the lives of some otherwise very sincere people often appear self-serving or self-absorbed—in spite of their interest in the will of God. They may focus energy on spiritual concerns in a way that they never have in the past, but the first-person-singular is still there, deeply at work in their spiritual DNA. The result is dissonance: spiritualized conversation about self-seeking goals, self-actualization disguised as service, lives that lack everything except the appearance of piety.” Cf. similarly, John D. Caputo, On Religion, 2-3, “a lot of supposedly religious people love nothing more than getting their own way and bending others to their own will (‘in the name of God’).”
[3] Cf. H.-J. Kraus, A Continental Commentary: Psalms 1–59, 439, where he says the image of an animal yearning for water is “an effective picture of the torment and the consuming desire with which the petitioner stretches out toward Yahweh.”
[4] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 173: “The prayer is about the need of human life for the life that the living God bestows, revives, and preserves. Here it is understood and said very clearly that life depends on God.”
[5] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 174, where he points out that the question “Where is your God?” indicates “a situation in which those who trust in the LORD are put to shame in the presence of others because of some trouble that calls their faith into question. … The social, personal, and theological experience of the absence of God is the soul’s thirst.” Cf. also Peter S. Hawkins, “A Howl of Despair,” The Christian Century (June 6, 2001): 12, where he says, “The psalmist recalls times when his sense of the divine presence was so immediate and full that he felt as if he were beholding nothing less than the face of God. But that was then. Now all that he hears is the sound of his own dereliction—‘Why have you forgotten me?’— coming back to him in the relentless taunts of others: ‘Where is your God?’” Cf. further Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 439, where he mentions the common suggestion that the affliction involves some kind of physical illness.
[6] In the text of 1 Kings 19, Elijah experiences a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire, but “God was not in” any of them. Finally, he experiences a “gentle whisper” (1 Kg. 19:13, NIV) or “a hushed sound” (cf. Choon-Leong Seow, “The First and Second Books of Kings,” New Interpreters Bible III:142). Cf. Volkmar Fritz, A Continental Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 198: “Elijah recognizes the presence of Yahweh only in the hardly audible murmur. This statement is influenced by a reflection on the event of the presence of Yahweh and thus mediates a new image of God that moves beyond traditional views. One can experience God only in the silence that focuses the individual on himself or herself and on the act of listening; this silence is appropriate to the nature of God and to the experience of God through his word. God reveals himself mysteriously.”
[7] Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 47: “The Psalter is the great school of prayer.” Cf. Mays, Psalms, 126: “The life of prayer is incomplete unless there are supplications that say, ‘Teach me, instruct me, guide me, let me know.’” Cf. further Lawrence S. Cunningham, “Praying the Psalms,” Theology Today 46 (April 1989): 42, where he says that we are “members of a believing community who have inherited [the Psalms] as the prayerbook of the church. They are part of our lives because they were the prayers with which Jesus was familiar. They are part of our worship because they form an essential part of the church's fabric of prayer.
[8] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV: 641, where he recounts the story of how after Secretary-General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld’s tragic death in a plane crash in 1961, they recovered among his personal effects a copy of the New Testament, a copy of the Psalms, and a copy of the United Nations Charter. He says, “Hammarskjöld apparently understood—quite correctly—that the book of Psalms presents nothing short of God’s claim upon the whole world and that it articulates God’s will for justice, righteousness, and peace among all peoples and all nations.” Cf. also Schmidt, What God Wants, 10-11: “Both the best and the worst of every culture and religious tradition either enlarge or constrict our ability to discern the presence of God in the world.” Cf. also ibid, 27, where he says that when we don’t focus on God’s larger purpose in this world by seeking to give the kind of love that meets others needs, “Our prayer life and our spiritual life becomes little more than the quest to find a life that we can find gratifying.”

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Our Hope and Our Help

Our Hope and our Help
Psalm 146[1]
Last week we discussed the fact that the Psalmist calls us all to find joy in the promise that the God who reigns over all things will one day right every wrong, heal all that is broken, and wipe away every tear. It is the very foundation of the hope that we cherish: the promise that God will be faithful to us no matter what. But, unfortunately, when you look at the way life actually works, it can sometimes be hard to believe that our hope does us any good. Those who have no lack of faith in God often suffer in ways that seem incredibly unfair. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to wonder about the promise that God will set things right.
I think that may be one of the great challenges to our faith. When the suffering of this world seems so unjust, the question whether our hope in God does us any good has to come up, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.  For many of us, “natural” tragedies like tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods provoke us to ask this question.  There’s a separate subject in the study of religion for it: it’s called “Theodicy,” which means “justifying God.”  The basic problem it tries to explain is this: if God is both loving and all-powerful, then the massive suffering we see in our world should never happen.[2]  So some conclude that God must be all-powerful but not loving.[3]  Others conclude that God must be loving but not all-powerful.[4] Either way, God may be our hope, but he’s not much help.
Our lesson from the Psalms for today addresses this question by insisting that God is indeed both all-powerful and loving. The psalmist begins by affirming that God is all-powerful. And his evidence for this is the world around us. God is the one who “made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them” (Ps. 146:6).[5] Already in that day, there was a sense that the created order is amazingly vast. And yet in our day we know so much more about how vast creation is. A cubic foot of soil can be a vast microcosm of life, from microscopic organisms to insects to plants. The ecosystem that supports our world is incredible complex. And beyond that, there are countless galaxies of stars that are only visible to extended exposure photography from the Hubble telescope. The Psalmist insists with the rest of Scripture that the one who created all of this is indeed all-powerful.
But at the same time the Psalmist insists that this all-powerful God is not just “a God who doesn’t care, who lives away out there.” Rather, this all-powerful God is also the God whose very character is defined by love. God is not only the one who created all things, he is also the one who “keeps faith forever” (Ps. 146:6). God is the one who remains faithful, and this means that he is actively involved in relationship with us all. If you want to know what that looks like in specific terms, the Psalmist spells it out.  It means that God feeds the hungry, he sets the prisoners free, he restores sight to the blind, he lifts up those who are bowed down, he watches over the “strangers” or resident immigrants, and he upholds the widows and orphans (Ps. 146:7-9).[6] God is both all-powerful and completely loving, and he demonstrates his love in the very real circumstances of our lives.
This affirmation is the foundation of our faith: that God is not only our hope but also God acts in specific ways to help us with the burdens of life. And yet, I would think we can all call to mind instances where the hungry didn’t get fed, those who were bowed down were crushed by their hardships, and those who were suffering found no relief, no matter how hard they prayed or how fervently they believed. It is a fact of life that calls into question the faith that our Scripture lesson affirms. And the question we face in those situations is whether we can continue to believe in a God who is not only our hope but also our help.
It may come as a surprise to you, but this question is one that the Scriptures ask repeatedly. The Psalmists ask God if he has forgotten to be loving (Ps. 77:8-9) and if he has fallen asleep instead of coming to help his people in their time of need (Ps. 44:23). When we do all that we can to stay on the right path, and we muster all the faith we can manage, and still our lives fall apart, it can seem like God has abandoned us. That’s when the burden of suffering can make it seem impossible to trust the promise that God loves us enough to actually do something about what we’re going through.  It can be enough to shake our faith so intensely that we may feel like the ground has given way beneath us. It would seem that the facts of our lives simply cannot be reconciled with the assurances of Scripture.
Our confession of faith today affirms that there is nothing that can happen to us that “God does not bend finally to the good.”[7] I would imagine that plenty of us have been through experiences that make that hard to swallow, let alone believe. When that happens, I think we need more than just “God knows what’s best for us.”[8]  If God truly is the one who “keeps faith forever,” then we need something to reassure us those words mean something real when it feels like he’s broken his promise. In my mind, that’s where the cross comes in. I believe that one of the most important reasons for the cross was to demonstrate once and for all that God doesn’t abandon us.[9] God didn’t abandon Jesus on the cross, and God will never abandon you or me or anyone in this world, especially in the midst of suffering. I believe that the cross stands as a reminder that God is not only our hope, but also, even when it seems all but impossible to believe, he is our help.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/5/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] The seriousness of this question is pointedly expressed in connection with the Holocaust by 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?” Cf. similarly, Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 182, where he says that the level of suffering in our world can make us wonder whether “all talk about a loving and just God” is just empty talk “by people who are not courageous enough to face up to the fact that we live in a godless and godforsaken world.”
[3] One contemporary example of this point of view is Sam Harris. In a post on Twitter dated Aug. 5, 2015, he said, “God visits suffering on innocent people on a scope and scale that would embarrass the most ambitious psychopath.”
[4] A contemporary example of this point of view would be Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Rabbi Kushner concludes that God is loving, but is incapable of doing anything about our suffering.
[5] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 441: “Hope attached to [God’s] 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.” Cf. also ibid., 391, where he says that the formula “maker of heaven and earth” occurs in the Psalms either to reinforce God’s help or God’s blessing: “It identifies the LORD as the one whose power in help and in blessing is unlimited by anything that is.”
[6] Cf. J. Clinton Mccann, Jr, “The Book Of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible, IV:1264. He says that these verses portray “a God who cares about human hurt and who acts on behalf of the afflicted and the oppressed.”  He adds that they constitute “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.”  Cf. similarly H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 553: God’s faithfulness “consists of the fact that he sets up the justice of the Creator among all the oppressed and poor.”
[7] The Study Catechism, question 22: “God not only preserves the world, but also continually attends to it, ruling and sustaining it with wise and benevolent care. … God provides for the world by bringing good out of evil, so that nothing evil is permitted to occur that God does not bend finally to the good.” Cf. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 171, where he says that what we can do in the face of suffering is “remind ourselves and others of the light that shines in the darkness: the light of a loving God who understands and shares the depths of our suffering and dying; the light of a powerful God whose will for our good will not be defeated, who is stronger than death itself, who makes the dead live again.”
[8] Cf. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 171, where he insists that we simply cannot explain why some things happen: “in the last analysis we just do not know, should not pretend that we do, and do not have to feel guilty because we don’t. We can do what we can to relieve our own and others’ suffering. We can stand by one another to share one another’s suffering and grief to make it a little easier. But the one thing we cannot do and should not try to do is explain why—especially with glib talk about the ‘will of God’ or speculation about what people do or do not deserve.”
[9] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 95: “There is no remoteness from God which the Son in his forsakenness did not suffer, or into which his self-giving did not reach.” Cf. further, Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 245-48. While he speaks of Jesus taking on the “God-forsakenness” of human experience, he also makes it clear that act was an action of God himself, suffering with Jesus on the cross, taking all human suffering into God’s very own self in order to convey to us all his life. Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 173, where he says that, far from abandoning his Son, “in the surrender of the Son the Father surrenders himself too.” Cf. also cf. René Girard, “Job and the God of Victims,” in L. G. Perdue and W. C. Gilpin, ed., The Voice from the Whirlwind: Interpreting the Book of Job, 226: “The Jesus of the Gospels becomes, for the Christian tradition, the decisive event revealing the reality and meaning of the God of victims, of the God, …, by which the world is created and constituted and who takes the side of the poor, the needy, the oppressed.

Source of Joy

Source of Joy
Psalm 96[1]
I think it would be hard to dispute the assertion that we are the most-entertained generation in the history of the world. The vast changes in communications technology over the last decades has opened up means of entertainment that many of us could never have imagined. Growing up in a home with a color TV, I was content with the half a dozen channels we could get (when the antenna was adjusted the right way). Now, not only do we have access to hundreds of channels on our TV’s, there are many more options as well. We can stream just about anything we want to watch any time we want to watch it through Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and YouTube. And we’re not restricted to a TV; we can watch all of that on a tablet, or even a mobile phone. I’d have to say we are the most-entertained generation in the history of the world!
But I wouldn’t say that instant entertainment has translated into our being the happiest generation in the history of the world. In fact, I would say that many of us use those entertainment options primarily as a substitute for real happiness. It’s very easy to fall into the pattern of using the entertainment choices we have available to distract ourselves from what’s really going on in our lives. We would rather lose ourselves in something playing out on a screen, whether a movie, a TV program, a video, or a game, than face the sometimes lonely and empty places in our lives. But the catch is that whatever we may be trying to avoid is still there after we turn off the screen.
Because of the popularity of that approach to finding a way to enjoy life—or at least to distract ourselves from not enjoying it—I think our lesson from the Psalms for today must seem strange. The psalmist calls upon all creation and every creature in it to rejoice because of who God is and what God has done and will do. I’m not sure that even comes up on the radar screen for many of us. We’re used to instant gratification, immediate results, and a pay-off with no delay. The approach of the Scripture lesson requires us to take a longer look at life, at what it means to truly be happy, and how to find that happiness.
The psalmist calls all creation to be joyful about the fact that “The LORD reigns! The world stands firm and cannot be shaken” (Ps. 96:10, NLT). That sounds like good news. It is reassuring to be told that the world in which we live is established on the firm foundation of God’s reign.[2] That can be good news for those of us who are aware of how vulnerable our lives seem to be in the face of the constant changes all around us. The psalmist calls us to rejoice over the fact that “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” even when our circumstances might not appear to back that up.[3]
But the psalmist also calls us to join with all creation in celebrating the promise that God is coming to judge the world and all the peoples in it.[4] That might not make sense to us. We tend to associate judgment with punishment, so why would we want to celebrate that? And yet, I think we have a basic misunderstanding about the nature and purpose of God’s judgment. The psalmist says, “He will judge the peoples with equity” (Ps. 96:10). He restates it at the end by saying, “He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth” (Ps. 96:13). At first glance, that might not look like a reason for joy.
But the idea here is not primarily one of punishment.[5] God exercises his reign in our world through setting right everything that does not line up with the way God intends for things to be. That’s what God’s role of “judging” is about. It’s a matter of relieving those who have been oppressed and defending those who have been falsely accused. The end result of God’s role of “judging” is a fair share for every one.[6] I like Gene Peterson’s translation in The Message: “he comes to set everything right on earth, Set everything right, treat everyone fair” (Ps. 96:13).[7]
In fact, the psalmist is so enthusiastic in his insistence that God’s reign in our lives is a source of joy that he expresses that idea in a variety of ways. He uses five different Hebrew words to describe the joy of all creation over God’s reign. We are invited to join in celebrating, rejoicing, reveling, and shouting for joy with the whole created order over the promise that God will set things right in this world where “the wrong seems oft so strong.” We are called on to worship God with joy because of the promise that he will see to it that his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.[8]
Happiness is an elusive quality for most of us. It seems like just when you get your life on track in one area, everything flies apart somewhere else. When our happiness depends mainly on our circumstances, our experience of life can be up or down depending on what each day brings. To some extent, that’s just life. But the psalmist offers us a source of joy that is beyond the constantly changing conditions of our lives. The psalmist invites us to join with the whole of creation in finding joy in the promise that the God who reigns over all things will one day right every wrong, heal all that is broken, and wipe away every tear. That is the outcome of God’s “judgment.” But this is more than a “pie in the sky” promise for the future. Because the truth is that even now God “has the whole world in his hands,” and he is working in all of our lives to set things right. If we can hold onto that essential faith, then perhaps we can begin to find in God’s constant presence and work in our lives a true source of joy.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/29/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 309, where he says that on the basis of the affirmation that the Lord reigns, the Psalm insists that “the world is reliable, the earth is stable, the human home is dependable. Life does not need to be lived in anxiety. So the very elements of the world are summoned to rejoice before the LORD because of the stability his power establishes (vv. 11-12).”
[3] It is interesting to note, as J. Clinton McCann, Jr, “The Book Of Psalms” New Interpreters Bible IV:1065, does, that it is possible that Psalm 96 was written in response to Israel’s deliverance from captivity in Babylon. He says, “The ‘new song’ may also be understood as the response to a historical event, such as the return of the exiles from Babylonian captivity. In this regard, it is significant that Isaiah 40–55, which originated as a response to exile, also invites the people to ‘sing to the LORD a new song’ (Isa 42:10 NRSV) in response to the ‘new thing’ (Isa 43:19; see 42:9) that God is doing in returning the exiles to their land.” He also points out (ibid.) that “Both texts are concerned with the proclamation of “good tidings” or “good news” (Isa 40:9; 41:27; 42:7; … Ps 96:2b) involving the reign of God (Ps 96:10; Isa 52:7), the proper response to which is singing for joy (Ps 96:12; Isa 52:8). And in both texts, God’s purpose is justice (Ps 96:10, 13; Isa 42:1, 3-4) for the earth and its peoples (Ps 96:7, 10, 13; Isa 42:1; 45:22-23; 49:1-6; 52:10; 55:4-5).”
[4] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 309, where he says that the idea of the Lord’s reign also points toward the affirmation that “the affairs of people will be ordered according to equity. History and society are not left to the capriciousness of fickle gods or the arbitrary decisions of human rulers. Instead, the LORD will rule with righteousness and faithfulness. There is power that sets things right, a might that can be trusted.”
[5] Cf. F. Hossfeld & E. Zenger, Psalms 2: A commentary on Psalms 51-100, 466: “In v. 13b the manner of judging is described: “with justice and in his faithfulness.” We find here an unusual pair of words for the characteristics of YHWH through which a judgment applied to the rejoicing world—thus not a judgment for punishment—is described [Cf. Deut 32:4; Isa 11:5; Pss 33:4; 40:11; 143:1].”
[6] Cf. McCann, “The Book Of Psalms” NIB IV:1066: “the establishment of justice and righteousness is the hallmark of God’s reign (see Pss 97:2; 98:9; 99:4). God’s justice and righteousness mean “equity” (see Pss 9:8; 98:9; 99:4) rather than partiality (see Ps 82:2), faithfulness (v. 13; see also Pss 89:49; 92:2 …) rather than neglect (see Ps 82:3-4).”
[7] Cf. Jürgen Moltman, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 77: “The gospel is already understood in the eschatological, universal sense in Deutero-Isaiah and in Psalm 96. ‘Yahweh is king’ means salvation for the world of the nations, beyond the restoration of the people of God: ‘Tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous works among all the peoples!… Say among the nations, “Yahweh reigns!” ’ (Ps. 96:2ff.).” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, Sun of Righteousness, Arise!: God’s Future for Humanity and the Earth, 142: “Ps. 96:10–13 gives a wonderful description of the ‘last judgment’ as an image of hope.”
[8] Cf. McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:1066: “The invitation to praise in Ps 96:7-9 is essentially the same as that in Ps 29:1-2, except that the invitation in 96:7 is extended to the ‘families of the peoples’ rather than to the ‘heavenly beings.’ This difference suggests at least that God’s sovereignty is to be effective on earth as well as in heaven. To hear Psalms 96 and 29 together is to be taught to pray, in effect, ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ Like Psalm 96, the perspective of the Lord’s Prayer is eschatological. Reciting it, we both affirm the present reality of God’s reign—‘thine is the kingdom’—and pray for the coming of God’s reign—‘thy kingdom come.’”

Monday, June 13, 2016

Who Am I?

Who Am I?
Psalm 8[1]
The question of the meaning of human life is one that has been raised in various ways throughout history. On Christmas eve, 1968, it was brought to the forefront by the famous picture of the “earthrise” over the moon taken by the astronauts of Apollo 8.[2] For the first time the human family saw the earth from a vantage point other than our own. That image created a whole new approach to the meaning of human life, because it showed how small a planet we live on in comparison with the vastness of space. The question, “Who am I?” took on a different implication for many who saw this as evidence of our insignificance.
Now images of the earth taken from space are commonplace. And the Hubble telescope has brought us even more images of the vastness of the universe. But since this was the first time human beings had seen the earth as a small planet in the vast ocean of space, it made a huge impact. And yet, as striking as that image was, it wasn’t the first time that individuals had noticed that our human existence can seem rather unimportant in the scheme of things. When you look at the sweep of human history—empires and nations rising and falling over the centuries—or when you simply take the time to look up at the night sky, it can easily provoke us to ask, “Who am I?”
In fact, the psalmist who wrote our lesson for today reflects on that very question. Like anyone else, the psalmist apparently was moved by the vastness of the night sky to wonder about our place in all of that.[3] He asks, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Ps. 8:3-4). It’s a common experience to feel a sense of awe when you see the beauty of a clear night that seems so full of stars. And it’s common to wonder at our place in the universe when we feel that sense of awe.
But there are several ways in which the question “Who am I?” is framed in a unique manner by the Scripture lesson. First, the wonder at our place in a universe that can seem overwhelmingly immense is framed by an affirmation that it is our God who rules over all of it.[4] At the beginning and the end of his reflections, the psalmist affirms, “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Ps. 8:1, 9). The question begins and ends with the affirmation that God is the one who reigns over all creation. While God’s great majesty may lead us to wonder at our place in things, at the same time, because we are God’s creatures, our lives are by definition endowed with significance.
The second way in which the psalmist frames the question “Who am I?” is by placing it in the context of God’s care for all people. Notice that the psalmist doesn’t simply ask “What are human beings?” Rather, he asks, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them” (Ps. 8:4).[5] Literally, the psalmist wonders why God “remembers” and “visits” mortals. The acts of “remembering” and “visiting” sum up God’s works on behalf of his people Israel throughout the Hebrew Bible. God continually made them the object of his attention and care. But the psalmist extends that care to include all humankind. Again, the thought that God pays attention to and cares for every human being is one that we may might find so amazing that it’s hard to believe. But the psalmist insists it’s a vital part of the answer to the question, “Who am I?”
The third way in which the Psalmist frames this question is by affirming the dignity of all human beings as partners in caring for God’s treasured creation.[6] He says it this way, “You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet” (Ps. 8:6).[7] It seems clear that the psalmist is reflecting here on the description of humanity as a part of God’s creation in Genesis chapter one. Unfortunately, however, the ideas of “ruling” (Gen. 1:26) or having “dominion” (Ps. 8:6) over creation have been misconstrued.[8] The idea is not that this world and all that is in it is ours to do with as we please. The idea is that we are called to be partners with God in the ongoing project of creation. We mortals have been entrusted with that which is most dear to God’s heart!
There are many ways we could approach the question “Who am I?” We could approach it functionally, based on what we do. We could approach it philosophically, or from the perspective of psychology. And those approaches have important lessons to teach us. But from the perspective of the psalmist, one cannot fully answer the question of the meaning of our lives apart from the God who created us and who reigns over all things.[9] Photos like the “earthrise” can make us think that we are alone in a vast and empty universe. But the Psalmist begs to differ. We are not left here on our own, but rather we are the objects of God’s continual attention and care.
We are not mortals who live out our short lives with no significance, but rather we are partners in God’s ongoing project of creation. That has a lot to say about who God is: not a God who is distant and absent, but a Creator who takes great delight in every aspect of creation. We see that in Jesus our Savior, and in the work of the Spirit. But it also has a lot to say about who we are: we are an important part of God’s project. All 7 billion of us are beloved and cared for by the God who is beyond the vast universe. However we answer the question “Who am I?” we cannot leave that out of the equation. God loves us all, and that's a very important part of answering the question, "Who am I?"

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/22/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] See the photo on NASA’s web site: . The caption reads: “Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1968. That evening, the astronauts-Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders-held a live broadcast from lunar orbit, in which they showed pictures of the Earth and moon as seen from their spacecraft. Said Lovell, ‘The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.’”
[3] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 66, where he says that Psalm 8 “reports the wondering reflection that arises when a mortal looks at the heavenly bodies as a result of the Lord’s creation and control” and it “marvels at the attention and importance that God gives to the human being in such a universe.”
[4] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 34: “Because ‘the Lord reigns,’ human beings may and must praise in wonder and joy, pray in dependence and gratitude, and practice the piety of trust and obedience.” Cf. also J. Clinton McCann, Jr, “The Book Of Psalms” New Interpreters Bible IV:711: “the proclamation of God’s reign frames the psalm.”
[5] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 67-68: “The Psalm does not frame the question absolutely and ask, ‘What is man?’ The question is qualified: ‘What is the human being that you, Lord, remember and visit them?’ ‘Remember’ and ‘visit’ are biblical verbs used to speak of the divine response to human finitude and fallibility, the necessary attention God pays to mortals.” He continues, (ibid., 68): ““The psalmist knows about that mortal existence as an Israelite, a member of the covenant people. But his question is not about Israel alone; it is about the entire race. He believes and assumes that God remembers and visits every human, that Israel’s experience with God is the truth about God’s way with all.”
[6] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 69: “The administration of the Lord’s reign in the world extends beyond a messianic king and covenant people to include humanity as a whole. Everybody is involved in the kingdom of God.” Cf. McCann, “The Book Of Psalms” NIB IV:712: “God and humans are partners in the care of creation, because God has made the risky choice to share God’s power!”
[7] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 69, “In the psalm’s world of thought, kingship had an ideal and normative dimension. Dominion involved a pattern of responsibility. Glory belonged to the ruler, but the ruling was to be for the benefit of the ruled….” From that perspective, he interprets the “dominion” given to humankind by saying, “Human beings are to use their power over creatures in a way that serves the purposes and practices of their own sovereign.”
[8] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 70, where he says that in our world “Dominion has become domination; rule has become ruin; subordination in the divine purpose has become subjection to human sinfulness.” Cf. McCann, “The Book Of Psalms” NIB IV: “Apart from the limits of God’s sovereign will, the exercise of dominion is in danger of becoming simply human autonomy, or self-rule. … In other words, dominion without the recognition of God’s claim on us and on the earth becomes domination. To leave God out of the partnership invites disaster.”
[9] Cf. McCann, “The Book Of Psalms” NIB IV:711, where he says that “the character of God’s sovereignty cannot be understood apart from the knowledge that God does choose to be ‘mindful’ and to ‘care for’ humanity; the identity of humanity cannot be understood apart from this relationship with God.”

Not Forsaken

Not Forsaken
John 14:7-14[1]
If you listen to some of the voices in our world, it would seem that if God exists at all, he abandoned this world long ago. There is a significant strain of skepticism in our culture that sees all that’s wrong with this world and concludes that we’re left out here in the middle of the galaxy on our own. The message of doubt and despair seems to overwhelm any hope or faith altogether. The only realities are buying and selling, winning and losing, living and dying. And from this perspective, since death has the final word on all of our lives, then all that we do is ultimately meaningless. It is an approach to life that fundamentally mistrusts everything and everyone, because we are ultimately God-forsaken.
This outlook on life flies in the face of the biblical message. In fact, it would seem that some of those who have contributed most significantly to this kind of pessimism have taken the biblical message and turned it on its head. But the fact remains that the Bible insists that we live in a world that is filled with the presence of the loving God.[2] It may be difficult for us to sense God’s presence, and it may be even more difficult for us to grasp that God is with us. But that is one of the most important reasons why Jesus lived and served, to make it clear to us that God is with us.[3]
One of the problems with this is that, obviously, Jesus is no longer physically present with us. This seems to be a problem that has troubled faithful believers from the very beginning. If we read between the lines as we’re reading some of what the NT has to say about this, it would seem that Jesus’ physical absence was difficult for the first Christians to bear. They looked for him to return in their lifetimes. And when some of the faithful started passing away, those who remained were confused. It would seem that some of them wondered if Jesus had abandoned them.[4]
In our lesson from the Gospel of John for today, that is the question that Jesus addresses with his disciples. In this section of the Gospel, Jesus is preparing them for his departure. If we pay attention to the questions they ask him, we can tell that they themselves—Jesus’ very own followers—were puzzled and even dismayed by what Jesus was trying to tell them.[5] How could Jesus leave them? They had come to believe that he was the Messiah. How was it that he was going away? In their minds, the Messiah wouldn’t go away, he would stay and ascend the throne of David and usher in an age of peace and justice.
Our lesson for today is preceded by Jesus’ announcement that he was going to go to prepare a place for them in his father’s house, assuring them that they knew the way to the place he was going (John 14:1-4). In response, Thomas very likely voiced what many of the others were thinking: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5). I think he was only voicing the questions they were all asking. They had been with him, they had followed him, they had learned from him, and it now seemed barely believable that he would leave them. In fact, it would seem that this problem serves as the backdrop for much of what Jesus had to say to them in this chapter of John’s Gospel.
In response to Jesus’ answer that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, Philip asks Jesus to “show us the Father” (John 14:8). Jesus answers him by re-emphasizing what he has already asserted time and again: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). One more time, Jesus goes over the basic lesson of his life and ministry: that he had come to make it clear that God’s grace and God’s truth are always with us.
But beyond that, Jesus addressed their concerns by telling them “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever” (John 14:16). The translation “Advocate” is probably not one that communicates with most of us. It has also been translated “Comforter,” “Counselor,” “Helper,” and “Friend.” The truth is that the concept that Jesus was trying to convey probably includes all of those ideas.[6] I think the main point is that the one Jesus was sending to them would be with them in the same way that he had been with them.
This comforter, counselor, helper, and friend that Jesus promised to send is “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17). He is nothing less than the Holy Spirit of God, the one who makes God’s presence in our lives a reality. But the interesting thing about the way Jesus speaks of the Spirit here is that it seems that the Spirit also makes Jesus’ presence in our lives a reality. In fact, just after our lesson, Jesus assures them that he would not abandon them. The implication is that the Spirit continues Jesus’ presence with those who have trusted in him.[7]
This is a message that starkly contrasts the counsel of despair that says we live in a God-forsaken world.[8] It flies in the face of those who would say we’ve been abandoned and left to our own devices. This message is one that resonates throughout the Bible: God rejoices in his creation. And that means that God will never, ever forsake us. One of the most important reasons why Jesus lived and served and taught as he did was to make it clear to us all that through him, God is with us. And even though Jesus is no longer present physically, we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit because he makes Jesus’ presence with us just as real as he did for the first disciples. The Spirit has been poured out on “all flesh” as a declaration that we never have been and never will be forsaken.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/15/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, we live in a “God-bathed world.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God, 9: “Through the energies and potentialities of the Spirit, the Creator is himself present in his creation. He does not merely confront it in his transcendence; entering into it, he is also immanent in it.”
[3] Cf. Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:744: “the incarnation changes everything for the Fourth Evangelist, because through it humanity’s relationship to God and God’s relationship to humanity are decisively altered. The incarnation has redefined God for the Fourth Evangelist and those for whom he writes, because it brings the tangible presence of God’s love to the world.”  Cf. also  Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 114-118, says that the incarnation is part of the “eternally self-communicating love of God.” Cf. also Shirley C. Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 240, where he reminds us that the idea of the incarnation is not just a matter of God “pretending” to be a human being, but rather of God fully entering our reality and fully sharing our humanity in order to redeem every aspect of human experience.  
[4] Cf. O’Day, “Gospel of John,” NIB IX:749, where she says that the question that occupies this portion of John’s Gospel is, “Can the disciples still love him, when he has gone?” She continues by saying that this passage “answers yes to this question, but it may be a yes that surprised even Jesus’ first disciples. The disciples can still love Jesus, but neither by clinging to a cherished memory of him nor by retreating into their private experience of him. Rather, they can continue to love Jesus by doing his works (vv. 12-14) and by keeping his commandments (vv. 15-24). That is, when they move outside of their own private experience of Jesus, when they live what Jesus has taught them and demonstrated in his own life, then they will find themselves once again in his love.”
[5] On the Disciples’ lack of understanding, cf. G. R. Beasley-Murray, John, 252; and O’Day, “Gospel of John,” NIB IX:741-42.
[6] Cf. O’Day, “Gospel of John,” NIB IX:747, where she points out that the Greek word transliterated “Paraclete” is based on a verb that “has a wide range of meanings that include ‘to exhort and encourage,’ ‘to comfort and console,’ ‘to call upon for help,’ and ‘to appeal.’ The noun form can mean ‘the one who exhorts,’ ‘the one who comforts,’ ‘the one who helps,’ and ‘the one who makes appeals on one’s behalf.’ The Fourth Evangelist seems to draw on the whole range of meanings in the variety of functions attributed to the Paraclete.”
[7] Cf. Raymond Brown The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, 644: “the Spirit of Truth is a Paraclete precisely because he carries on the earthly work of Jesus.”
[8] Cf. Gerard S. Sloyan, John, 178, where he paraphrases Jesus’ assurances in the beginning of John 14, “The pain of life, separation, and cross cannot last forever. Live in hope. The present will yield to the future because I will see to it.”

Tuesday, June 07, 2016


Revelation 22:12-17, 20-21[1]
Invitations can be tricky. They always involve the problem of balancing whom to include on the list and whom to leave out. There are some events, of course, where everybody is invited, because that’s just the nature of the occasion. There are other events, however, that call for a more thoughtful approach. Whom do you invite to weddings? Whom do you invite to birthday parties? Just the nature of the event and the costs that can be involved limit the number of people you can in all practicality include. Not to mention the obvious and sticky fact that there may be some people you don’t want to invite. Invitations can be tricky.
When it comes to church-related events, obviously everyone is by definition invited. But I’m afraid the reality is that we don’t always look at things with such an open mind. There are some people whom we may not actually want to show up at our “everyone’s invited” events. They are different from us, whether by race, or ethnic origin, or class, or convictions. And if we’re completely honest about it, we wouldn’t feel comfortable if they showed up. All churches have that dynamic going on. Even churches that proclaim themselves completely inclusive would very likely not welcome representatives from Westboro Baptist Church! Invitations are tricky, even in church.
This challenge extends to our lesson from the book of Revelation for today. As the book comes to a close, it extends what seems to be an unlimited invitation: “let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” (Rev. 21:17). It resonates with other passages in Revelation that include all people in God’s work of salvation. In one of the worship scenes sprinkled throughout the book, the victorious witnesses proclaim, “All nations will come and worship before you” (Rev. 15:4). And as we saw recently, God announces that his purpose is to “make all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
The challenge stems from the fact that Revelation also contains images that seem equally sweeping in their condemnation of those who refuse to acknowledge God and the Lamb. In our lesson for today, the Risen Christ declares “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates” (Rev. 22:14). But immediately afterward he also announces ominously that all those who have aligned themselves with the false claims dominating their world would remain outside the New Jerusalem (Rev. 22:15). This also resonates with other passages in Revelation that seem to exclude those who refuse to repent.[2] After declaring that he is making all things new, God proceeds to condemn those who have refused to line up their lives with God’s purposes, either from cowardice, or from an unwillingness to stay true, and who as a result have lived contrary to God’s ways (Rev. 21:8).
I would say that this “tug-of-war” within the book of Revelation is one of the primary reasons why most of us avoid it. The messages that announce God’s purpose to renew and redeem and restore all things and all people bring us encouragement and hope. The messages of widespread judgment and destruction can be frightening and depressing. The question we face is what to do with this tension if we decide we’re not going to simply ignore Revelation.
The traditional answer has been that God would like for all people to be redeemed, but practically speaking it depends on their choice. That would seem the logical answer, except for one problem. Both the declarations of universal salvation and universal judgment are all-encompassing.[3] “All nations” are said to fall down and worship God and also to curse God and fall under his wrath. Both salvation and judgment leave no one out. That doesn’t seem to lend itself to a “logical” solution.
I think, however, that a better approach is to look at this problem from the perspective of what the Book of Revelation was intended to accomplish.[4] It was written to Christians who were faced with difficult choices. They had to choose, sometimes daily, whether to remain true to their faith and pay the consequences, or to compromise with the “powers that be” in order to survive. In that context, Revelation affirms that it is the purpose of God’s grace to restore all things, to set right all that is wrong, and to bring all people to repentance through the witness of the faithful. But it does not enable us to predict the extent to which that purpose will be accomplished.[5] It leaves the question open, and it does so intentionally, because the Book of Revelation was intended to challenge the believers of that day to remain faithful.
Throughout the history of God’s people, we who identify ourselves with Christ have had an unfortunate tendency toward an exclusive mindset. We have tended to believe that “we” are invited, but that those who differ from us may or may not be. At times we’ve actually insisted that the “others” are definitely not invited. But the Bible’s witness to God’s saving purpose in this world will not allow us to take such an easy way out. In fact, the messages of judgment are meant to remind us that we are responsible for our choices and our actions. They challenge us all to reach for ever greater levels of faithful living. But the messages of salvation assure us that in the incomprehensible wisdom of God, no one is by definition excluded from grace.[6] In the infinite mystery of God’s love, everyone who is thirsty may drink from the waters of life. All are invited!

[1] © 2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/8/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 102: “The judgments of chapters 16-19 are primarily aimed at destroying the systems—political, economic and religious—which oppose God and his righteousness … . But those who support these systems, …, heeding neither the call to worship God not the threat to those who worship the beast (14:6-11), evidently must perish with the evil systems with which they have identified themselves.”
[3] Cf. Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 102-3: “John seems content to place indications of the universal conversion of the nations alongside references in equally universal terms to final judgment. But he is not making the kind of statements which need to be logically compatible to be valid. He is painting pictures which each portray a valid aspect of the truth. He depicts the faithful witness of the church leading to the repentance and faith of all the nations. He depicts the world which rejects their witness, unrepentant in its final adherence to the beast, necessarily subject to final judgment. The two pictures correspond to the choice presented to the nations by the proclamations of the angels in 14:6-11. It is no part of the purpose of John’s prophecy to pre-empt this choice in a prediction of the degree of success the witness of the martyrs will have.” Cf. Craig R. Koester, Revelation, 806: “The issue is how to read Revelation’s language. If the vision is taken as a prediction that every human being will be saved in the end, then the warnings of judgment make little sense; conversely, if the visions of judgment are taken as predictions about the complete destruction of kings and nations …, then it is equally hard to explain where the nations and kings in New Jerusalem will come from … .” Cf. also M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, 228.
[4] Cf. Boring, Revelation, 212: “In accord with traditional apocalyptic imagery, books are opened in which the deeds of human beings stand recorded, and people are judged by what they have done. This picture makes human freedom and human responsibility as serious as it can get. What we do matters, and matters ultimately. Yet in this same scene another book is opened, the book of grace, the Lamb’s book of life. Names are written there before the creation of the world, purely as a matter of God’s grace (13:8; 17:8). This picture takes grace with absolute seriousness. … In these two books are pictured the paradox of works and grace, … . We are ultimately responsible for what we do, for it has eternal consequences—we are judged by works. God is ultimately responsible for our salvation, it is his deed that saves, not ours—we are saved by grace.” Cf. similarly, Koester, Revelation, 792: “Judgment is not a purely human affair in which those whose good deeds outnumber their evil deeds are saved and the rest condemned. Neither does God simply choose to redeem some and condemn others. Logically, the tension is awkward, but rhetorically, it shapes the readers’ perspectives in two ways: On the one hand, people are accountable for what they do, so they must not capitulate to evil but resist it. When they fail, the proper response is repentance (22:14). On the other hand, the forces of evil are so pervasive that resistance can seem futile, but the scroll of life gives assurance that salvation is ultimately God’s doing. This gives people reason for hope and perseverance (13:8-10), knowing that the scope of redemption is wide (7:9-17).”
[5] Cf. Boring, Revelation, 228: “John knows the danger of claiming to know too much.” Cf. similarly above, Bauckham, Theology of Revelation, 103. From a slightly different perspective, cf. Koester, Revelation, 806 where he interprets the tension between judgment and salvation in terms of an invitation: “as a vision of the future to which God calls all human beings. Sweeping visions of judgment warn about the devastating consequences of the reign of the beast, and expansive visions of redemption promise a glorious future under the reign of God. Both futures remain open in Revelation; the question is whether people will respond to the message with faith or rejection.”
[6] Cf. Boring, Revelation, 228, where he says that in the end, the tension between judgment and salvation comes down to the faith in “the God whose victory does not depend on ours, who loves us when we do not love him or ourselves, who forgives us when we do not forgive him or ourselves, who believes in us when we do not believe in him or ourselves, who saves us when we do not believe we need saving or are worth saving.” Cf. Koester, Revelation, 806: “The vision of redemption includes all humanity because this is the future to which all humanity is called … .”