Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Change of Format

Those of you who may have followed my blog will notice a change of format in future posts. For the past 8 years or so, I have posted sermons with rather full footnotes, in part because I have been sharing my sermons with "The Text this Week" in the hopes of making my work available to the larger body of Christ. Now it seems that it is time to shift gears in my ministry. I will continue to publish my sermons, but they will no longer contain such full documentation of sources. I hope that they will continue to be useful. 

The Lord is With Us

The Lord is With Us
Haggai 2:1-9[1]
What is your formula for “success” in life? It depends on whom you ask, and I would say a survey would yield a wide variety of answers. There was a time when the formula for success was to work hard, do what is right, love your family, and trust in God. Unfortunately, the changes in our society and our economy over the last several decades have made us painfully aware that we can do all that and not wind up with the “success” we were hoping for. The “millennial” generation is learning that to be successful in life, they have to be flexible, able to innovate, thinking creatively about ways to carve out a niche for themselves in the world. It’s a very different approach to life, but then they face challenges many of us could not have imagined at their age.
One of the side effects of the changes in our society and economy is that church is changing. And while many are wringing their hands about the future of the church, I think there are just as many people in churches who are actually worried about the past.  Remembering “the good old days,” they are desperate to find the solution that will make it possible for us to re-create those days, when the pews were mostly filled.  Unfortunately, no one can turn back the hands of time, and those days are gone for good. In order for churches to thrive, we have to take a cue from our children about what that takes to thrive in this day and time.
I imagine that our situation isn’t all that different from the way it was in the days of the prophet Haggai.  He was one of the exiles who returned to Judea from Babylonian captivity.  And when they returned, they found that everything had changed. Jerusalem, their cities and towns, and especially the Temple, were all in ruins.  There were those who looked at the ruins of their culture and their temple and who worried about the future: how would they survive?  And there were those who looked at those same ruins and grieved over past greatness that had been lost.  But for all their worrying and all their grieving, I’m not sure they knew what to do about it.   
And so the word of the Lord came to Haggai.  He rather pointedly reminded them that their efforts to restore their lives and to provide for their future had been in vain.  They struggled with crop failures, food shortages, inflation, and famine—not to mention the lingering threat of their enemies who would like nothing better than to see their restoration project fail.  And the word of the Lord came to them: “You have looked for much, and, lo, it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why? says the Lord of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses” (Hag. 1:9).
Apparently, everyone was devoting their efforts to ensuring and securing their own future—rebuilding houses, planting crops, trying to maintain their feeble hold on the land of their ancestors.  And their efforts met with more failure than success.  Haggai asks them, “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” (Hag. 1:4).  And Haggai’s words had their effect: “the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel ..., and the spirit of Joshua ..., and the spirit of all the remnant of the people; and they came and worked on the house of the Lord of hosts, their God” (Hag. 1:16). 
But even though the people set about the work of rebuilding the temple, there were those who remembered the former temple, Solomon’s temple.  And in comparison, this new temple looked pretty shabby. Once again, Haggai came with the word of the Lord: “take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts” (Hag. 2:4).  Even though the results of their work may have seemed disappointing to those who had seen the original temple, the word of assurance was that the “Lord of hosts” was with them.  That was the purpose of the temple: it was to be a place where the people could come to encounter the presence of God in a unique way.  And so Haggai told them to go on with the work despite their misgivings.
I would imagine that there are many in our day who are saying similar things about the church—or about their church in particular. They remember the “good old days,” and look for a way to somehow re-create that storied past. They may believe there are certain qualities that are supposed to define a thriving church. But we live in a very different world, and the strategies that worked 25 years ago will not necessarily work today. Rather than trying to go back to the way it was, we have to learn to be flexible, able to innovate, and think creatively now.
Regardless of challenges we face in the church, the promise Haggai made to the exiles in Judea applies to us today as well. We can rise to the occasion and do the work it takes for this church to thrive.  Just as the people of Haggai’s day needed foundation stones and timbers to build the temple, so we have specific things we can do promote new life in our church.  They aren’t secret; they’re the same as they have always been: prayer, worship, studying Scripture, helping those in need, working for peace, promoting community, and inviting others to join us. And the reason why I believe we can do the work it takes to see the church thrive in our day is because we have the promise that we are not doing the work on our own.  We can do our part because we have the same promise the people of all ages have had: it is not our efforts alone that will cause this church to thrive, but the presence of the Lord who is with us.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/6/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

New Sight, Fresh Vision

New Sight, Fresh Vision
Habakkuk 2:1-4[1]
There are times in life when it seems like “God is in his heaven, and all’s right with the world.” In everything that really matters things just seem to line up. It all works smoothly and life makes sense. But there are other times when it can seem like everything has come unraveled. You find out you’ve been “downsized” at work. Or the diagnosis is a frightening one. Or no matter what you try, it seems like nothing goes right at home. In those difficult times of our lives, one of the challenges we may face is that our problems persist for so long that we begin to believe it will always be this way. We lose sight of hope, and just put one foot in front of the other to keep moving. Or we may be tempted to just shut down altogether.
Unfortunately, we are living in a time when church life can seem that way. Estimates on the number of churches that close each year range from five to ten thousand. The numbers of pastors who drop out of ministry aren’t much better. It’s no secret that it’s a difficult time to be the church, especially a neighborhood church with a particular identity like “Presbyterian.” When you look around and see dwindling congregations and younger families seemingly going elsewhere (or not at all), it can be pretty discouraging. It’s easy to lose sight of hope and wonder what future this or any other church has.
In our lesson from Habakkuk for today, he was dealing with a crisis of faith and hope as well.[2] It’s hard to know for sure, but it seems clear that Habakkuk carried out his prophetic ministry during the time when Israel and Judah were being effectively dismantled by powerful empires like the Assyrians and the Babylonians. By comparison, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were tiny and had little hope of fending off these ruthless invaders. We know from other sources that they tried to make an alliance with Egypt, the only other major world power of the day. But that didn’t protect them from being conquered and sent into exile.
One of Habakkuk’s problems was that he found it hard to reconcile the fact that this was a judgment from God. The reason this was a problem was that God was using the Babylonians, a people who were far more violent and unjust, to carry out this judgment. That didn’t make any sense to Habakkuk. He doesn’t come right out and say it, but it seems as if Habakkuk is disappointed with God because right and wrong appeared to have been turned upside down. From his perspective, what was happening meant that “judgment comes forth perverted” (Hab. 1:4). Later in the same chapter, Habakkuk asks God rather pointedly, “why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Hab. 1:13). We might debate with him as to whether Judah was truly “more righteous,” but that’s the way he saw it, and because of that he had a serious problem with God.
So Habakkuk poses his question to God and then basically decides to watch and wait to see how God would answer his complaint. I find it interesting that Habakkuk doesn’t mince words here: he’s complaining about God’s justice and fairness and he knows it. That’s something we might think ought not be done, but Habakkuk was not the only prophet to complain to God. While we might be tempted to think of “complaining” to God as an act of unbelief, that’s not necessarily the case. If you think about it, it may take more faith in God to voice a serious complaint than to keep silent.
The interesting thing about Habakkuk is that God does indeed answer. Although there are other times and places in the Bible when God gently (or not so gently) chides the complainer, there’s nothing like that here. God simply gives Habakkuk an answer: “there is still a vision for the appointed time; …. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay” (Hab. 2:3). God’s answer to Habakkuk is that even though it seemed as if the events around him invalidated his faith in God as well as his hope for any future for his people, God did indeed have a future in store for them.[3] It might not look like what Habakkuk expected, but that didn’t mean there was nothing left to hope for.
In fact, although it’s not obvious on the surface of things, it would seem that part of God’s answer is that the proud and arrogant people who had conquered them would not last. In our lesson this comes as a hint: “their spirit is not right in them” (Hab. 2:4). In the next verse, it’s more straightforward: “the arrogant do not endure” (Hab. 2:5). Although the proud and arrogant seemed to have all the power at the time, God assures Habakkuk that their power would come to an end. And his people would indeed have a future.
At times when you look at our world it’s easy to become discouraged. It can seem like all the wrong people have all the power in our world, and they use it to their own advantage. With that in mind, many may say that the church has become irrelevant in our culture. But just as it was in that day, so now God still has a future for his people.[4] And the path to that future is found in our lesson as well: “the righteous live by their faith” (Hab. 2:4). Perhaps a better way to put it is that God’s people endure through their faithfulness to him and to the gospel of new life through Jesus Christ. That is the vision that has inspired generations of servants of God—right here in this church as well as elsewhere. And it’s that vision that continues to point us toward the future. As we gain new sight of this future, it can renew in us a fresh vision for our lives in the present.

[1] © 2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/30/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Ralph L. Smith, Micah–Malachi, 107: “Habakkuk, like all of us, was living ‘between the times,’ between the promise and the fulfillment. Habakkuk was to wait in faith for God to act.”
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3.2:913: “How much need faith has of hope may be seen from the innumerable temptations which assail and shake those who would cling to the Word of God, from the delay of God in the fulfilment of His promises (cf. Hab. 2:3), from the hiding of His face, from the aperta indignatio [revealed indignation] with which He can sometimes startle even His own people, from the scoffers who ask where is His coming, who argue that all things remain as they were, and who can so easily insinuate their doubts into ourselves and the world around (2 Pet. 3:4)!”
[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 85, where he reminds us that our hope is based on a promise, one which contains a fundamentally different view of reality, and in fact not only “announces the coming of a not yet existing reality” but also to some extent “goes beyond what is possible and impossible in the realistic sense” by anticipating the fulfillment of the promise already in the present. Cf. also similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 295.

Monday, November 28, 2016


2 Timothy 3:10-17[1]
The concept of “truth” has become quite small in our day. In a world of “instant everything” we seem to believe that truth can be reduced to a “sound bite.” We feel justified in thinking that we can capture in a word or phrase the full truth of a human being with all of his or her thoughts, feelings, history, and aspirations. We don’t have as many bumper stickers these days as we once did, but it seems that our conception of truth is something that can be reduced to a slogan. We like our truth bite-sized, cut-and-dried, and simplified so that we really don’t have to think too much about it. Unfortunately, life is far more complex than a slogan that can fit on a bumper sticker.
That kind of simplification of truth seems to apply to all topics generally, from human relationships to politics to science to history to religion. Yes, we take this approach to our faith as well, as if a slogan can somehow satisfy the questions about God, redemption, and the meaning of human life. And our approach to the Bible is very similar. If we can quote some snippets of Bible verses, then we “know” our Bible. And we dutifully say, “The word of the Lord, thanks be to God!” And yet, I’d have to say that in my opinion this perspective on the Bible effectively nullifies any real authority biblical teaching might have in our lives. The real authority for most of us is our own opinion.[2] And if we make any reference to the Bible at all, its actual impact on our lives is quite minimal.[3] It’s become essentially a useless book.
Our lesson from 2 Timothy reflects a very different approach to the Bible. All of the New Testament writers look to the Hebrew Bible, which was the “Scripture” of their day. When they make a point, whether it’s theological or practical, they appeal to Scripture to back it up. They also appeal to life and nature and the way things tend to work, but when they really want to make a point with authority, they appeal to the “Scriptures.” Some scholars have accused the writers of the New Testament of simply trotting out their favorite snippets of Scripture as a “proof text.” But a more thorough study makes it clear that the apostolic writers were much more familiar with their Bible than most of us are.
In fact, the point of our lesson is to encourage Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed” (2 Tim. 3:14). The reason for that is two-fold: first, Timothy knows the character and the life of those from whom he had learned his faith.[4] But the second reason our lesson cites for his continued confidence in the faith is because “from childhood you have known the sacred writings” (2 Tim. 3:15). The idea here is not just simply pulling out memory verses, but rather that Timothy knows the Scriptures, and knows them well. The idea of “knowing” Scripture in the New Testament has much more depth than we may assume. For example, James speaks of know the Scriptures so well they are able to become “doers of the word” and not simply “hearers who forget” (Jas. 1:22-26). This, of course, echoes the words of Jesus at the conclusion to the Sermon on the Mount, where he praises those who “hear these words of mine and act on them” (Mt. 7:24-27). “Knowing” Scripture is something that makes a difference in the way you live.
When we know Scripture in that way, it becomes “authoritative” for us. I’m afraid that we may have some problems with our understanding of the Bible’s authority as well. We hear that “All scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16), and we may tend to think of a secretary taking down dictation. That makes it seem settled and beyond question or doubt. But if you’ve ever given the Bible any really serious study, you know that it raises all kinds of questions and its truth is something that’s far from “settled.”[5] We continue to study the Bible over a lifetime, and at the end of it all, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to confess that we’ve only touched the hem of the garment.
In our lesson for today, the Bible’s authority is presented in terms that are far less definite than words like “inerrant” or “infallible” imply. Our lesson says it differently: the Scriptures “are able to instruct you for salvation through Jesus Christ.” That is the primary purpose of the Bible: to teach us what it means to know God, to follow Christ, and to experience salvation.[6] The other purpose of the Bible here is very practical: it is “useful …so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).[7] The Scriptures are not meant to be the final word on every matter of truth or knowledge. They are intended to introduce us to God through our faith in Jesus Christ, and to teach us how to live out that faith.[8]
From that perspective, the Bible is meant to be a truly useful book. But for it to be useful to us in this way, we have to spend time actually reading it—to be precise, studying it. That means we have to think about what we’ve read. We have to do so enough to raise questions about what it says, because we learn best when we ask questions. The Bible is not something that is meant to be read once in 90 days and then you’re done with it. The way for us to actually learn what it means to live out our faith is to continually read and study portions of the Bible.[9] Sound bites and slogans can’t come anywhere close to getting us there. The Bible only unfolds its truths gradually, over time to those who practice regularly studying it. When we do that, it will become more than just a table ornament or an accessory we carry to church. It will become useful precisely because it prepares us to be useful in living out the Christian life.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/16/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Langdon Gilkey, Naming the Whirlwind: The Renewal of God Language, 60: “The assertion of autonomous freedom and self-direction as the key to human self-fulfillment is subversive of many of the historic forms of religion with their traditional authorities of various sorts stemming from the distant past—and their insistence that man is fulfilled when he patterns himself according to the divine image” (cited in J. Christiaan Beker, “The Authority of Scripture: Normative or Incidental?,” Theology Today, 49 [Oct 1992]: 378).
[3] Cf. Sharon H. Ringe, “The Word of God May Be Hazardous to Your Health,” Theology Today, 49 (Oct 1992): 368, where she reminds us that “If what a speaker or author says is to have authority, it has to find an echo in his or her audience’s experience or longing.”
[4] The primary reference here is to St. Paul. Cf. James D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and The Letter to Titus,” New Interpreters Bible XI:850: “Thus is picked up again an emphasis running through both letters to Timothy, where Paul is put forward, not only as Timothy's father and teacher in the faith, but also as a model for subsequent generations (1 Tim 1:12-16; 2:7; 2 Tim 1:11-12; 2:9-10; 3:10-12; 4:6-8).”
[5] Cf. Ringe, “The Word of God,” 371: “Clearly such readings that find in the Bible support for abuse, slavery, apartheid, and other death-dealing institutions are misreadings and, indeed, abuses of the Bible. But the fact is that the requisite words are in there.”
[6] Cf. Dunn, “First and Second Timothy and Titus,” NIB XI:850: “Obviously implied is the continuity between Timothy’s instruction from the Jewish Scriptures and his belief in Christ; it was because the two were so closely coordinated that Paul could defend and expound the gospel by referring to the Scriptures.” He continues (ibid.), “the assumption is that the gospel is the outworking of Scripture, so that the wisdom, salvation, and faith held out in the gospel are continuous with that inculcated in the holy writings. That is also to say that the gospel's saving power is of a piece with the saving power of Scripture, or it is not the gospel.”
[7] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 1.2:504, where he explains the authority of Scripture in terms of the fact that “they have already given the proof of what they claim to be, that they have already shown their power, the specific power of instruction in the faith which saves him [Timothy],” and yet when this text describes the Scriptures as useful for instruction, “The same Scriptures have now become the object of expectation. The content of the expectation does not differ from that of the recollection of which he spoke earlier, but all that was previously represented as a gift now acquires the character of a task which has still to be taken up and executed.” The reason the Scriptures can carry out both of these functions is because they are “given and filled and ruled by the Spirit of God, and actively outbreathing and spreading abroad and making known the Spirit of God.”
[8] Cf. Dunn, “First and Second Timothy and Titus,” NIB XI:852: “The sacredness of the writings is directed to the end of ‘making wise for salvation’; the point of Scripture's inspiration was that the Scriptures should be beneficial for teaching and equipping the student believer for effective living as a Christian.”
[9] Cf. Beker, “Authority of Scripture,” 381: “when we posit that the authority of Scripture is to be located in the dynamic interrelation between coherence [which he defines as ‘the abiding, constant, and normative elements of the gospel’] and contingency [which he defines as ‘those elements of Scripture that comprise the time-bound, culturally specific situations into and for which the gospel is addressed’], the question of the authority of Scripture is directly connected to the interpretation of Scripture. And so it follows that Scripture is only authoritative when we obey its command to engage in the same risks of interpreting the gospel that it is itself engaged in all its parts.”

Monday, November 07, 2016


2 Timothy 2:8-15[1]
I don’t know about you, but I must confess that I find betrayal something most difficult to forgive. I’ve learned over the years to forgive a lot. But I still struggle to forgive a perceived betrayal of trust. Most of us have some experience with this unfortunate part of human life. The truth of the matter is that people are prone to let us down. They very likely mean well, but when push comes to shove, they can disappoint us in the most disheartening of ways. Of course, since we’re people too, that applies to us as well. Recognizing that about myself helps me to forgive others. And as we all know, forgiving someone is something we do as much for ourselves as we do for one who we think has wronged us. But betrayal remains a challenge.
If you pay close attention to the history of the people who claim to trust and obey God, you will find that we have betrayed God’s trust repeatedly. That’s the theme of the history books in the Bible: there is a cycle of betrayal, the subjection of the people to a hostile enemy, repentance and restoration, followed by further betrayal. It’s one of the major plots in the story of the people of Israel throughout the Hebrew Bible. They continually betrayed God’s trust, and he restored them every time. This applies to the history of the Church as well. The truly remarkable feature of this story is the way that God remains true to himself by remaining faithful to love and care for his people.
Our lesson from 2 Timothy for today presents us with an interesting “litany.” It is one of the “sure” or “faithful” sayings that are found throughout 1 and 2 Timothy. The first part is fairly clear: “If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Tim. 2:11-12). This is a theme that St. Paul was fond of: our baptism into the body of Christ constitutes our sharing in his death and resurrection. The purpose of this, as he says elsewhere, is “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).
It’s the second part of the litany that’s troubling: “if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). On the surface, that doesn’t sound like good news. In fact, it sounds positively menacing. We’ve been talking about the good news of our salvation by God’s grace alone as a gift of his unconditional love. But this seems to introduce some conditions for actually achieving the end result of salvation: eternal life. That impression is only reinforced by remembering that Jesus himself said, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mk. 8:38).
It sounds like we’re back to trying to earn God’s love and trying to do enough good to deserve salvation! There is, of course, another way to look at this strange litany. If we look at it from the perspective of the way God has actually dealt with his people for generations, we could see it as a promise. From that point of view it could mean that even when we are at times “faithless” and betray his trust, he remains faithful to us, and continues to love us and offer us grace and mercy. That would seem to make more sense in the light of the consistent witness of the Scriptures. The most fundamental affirmation of the Bible is that God remains faithful to us, no matter what.[2]
But there’s still that part about denying and being denied that causes us to wonder about all that. Would Jesus really deny us if we happened to not perfectly live up to our commitment to follow him and to bear witness to him? Does God really reject us if we have times in our lives when we fall short and are “faithless”? That seems to be the implication here, at least on the surface. And many in the history of the church have understood it that way: they think it means that if we fall short or lose heart, God will remain true to himself by punishing us accordingly![3]
Again, I would argue that reading doesn’t do justice to the way God actually deals with his fallible and wayward people in Scripture. Whatever “denying” and being “denied” means in this context, it has to take into account the fact that Peter specifically “denied” Jesus three times, and yet he was not “denied” but restored!  Perhaps that’s the point—even if we fall short to the extent of denying Christ the way Peter did, God’s faithfulness provides a way back for us. Whatever the “denying” that leads to being “denied” means, it has to be something more than just human weakness. It must be a final and definitive rejection of God’s grace and mercy and love.[4]
The Bible bears witness time and again to the promise that, even if we are faithless to the extent of betraying God, God will remain faithful to his love, mercy, and grace towards us, which are unconditional and irrevocable.[5] In light of our experience with betrayal, it may be hard for us to wrap our minds and hearts around this promise. When we experience betrayal, we don’t readily respond by offering even forgiveness, let alone unconditional love. But as the Scriptures remind us, our way is not God’s way. God’s way is to send his son to die for those who are at odds with him. God’s way is to forgive and restore those who stumble and fall. God’s way is to remain faithful to us, even when we can at times be faithless.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/9/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Martin Dibelius and Hans Conzelmann, The Pastoral Epistles, 109: “‘He remains faithful’ (πιστὸς μένει) cannot refer to God’s insistence upon formal recompense; such an interpretation contradicts the usage of the terms. Rather it is the thought of God’s faithfulness to the covenant (cf Rom 3:2f).” Contrast William Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 520. He sees no conflict in affirming that this verse both “asserts the absolute seriousness of apostasy after one has professed faith in Christ, giving a reminder of the fact of final judgment” and that it “teaches the marvelous faithfulness of God whose promises to people remain despite the temporary faithlessness of some”!
[3] See, notably, John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, 218-19: “he threatens that they who, through the dread of persecution, leave off the confession of his name, have no part or lot with Christ. … Hence it is evident, that all who deny Christ are disowned by him.”
[4] Cf. J. D. G. Dunn, “The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:844, where he refers to the tradition rooted in Judaism that “God remained faithful to the chosen people, even when they proved faithless time and time again.”  In that light, it makes sense to conclude with him that “denying” is a deliberate and determined action, not simply a failure of nerve.
[5] See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:510, where he describes “God’s action in relation to the apostasy of the creature” as one of grace and reconciliation, and in this God is supremely true to himself and his purposes as revealed from the beginning of Creation.