Tuesday, January 31, 2017

It's Coming Together

It’s Coming Together
Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17[1]
It’s not hard to take the point of view that our world is coming apart at the seams. If you pay any attention to the news at all, you know that peoples and countries around the world are struggling against all kinds of disorder. The events that capture our attention are often negative, and it can leave us with the feeling that societies are falling into chaos all over the globe. But you don’t have to look that far to get the feeling that society is coming apart. It seems undeniable that the ways of interacting and going about daily life that many of us may have been taught to observe have simply gone by the wayside. Work ethic, civility in public discourse, simple good manners, seem to have worn themselves out.
The result is that it leaves us feeling like the world in which we are trying to live and raise our children is not a safe place. It’s a place where might makes right, which is fine if you have power. But if you don’t, it’s easy to get discouraged from the fact that you can’t even control your own life. Our world is a place where fame and money talk, and when they do, people listen. If you’re famous and rich, that’s great. But if you’re not, it can seem like your voice is, at best, marginal if not completely muted. When we conclude that our world is unsafe because all the commonly-held codes of decency have fallen by the wayside, it can lead us to a fairly gloomy outlook on life.
When we look at the message of the prophets closely, we find that they lived in times like these. They faced their world coming apart, and in response to God’s call, they proclaimed a very different message. They were motivated by the vision of God’s kingdom of peace and justice and freedom coming into this world and transforming it from the very roots. At times that message came to the people as one of judgment—as a warning that if they didn’t change their ways their world would fall apart even more than it already had.
But beyond that, the prophets were motivated by their faith in the God whose righteousness brings peace, the God whose justice puts mercy into action, and the God whose truth sets people free. And that faith led them to the vision that God has something better in store for the world than darkness, fear, injustice, violence, and chaos. After all, the Hebrew Bible introduces us to God as the one who brings light from darkness, who overcomes chaos simply by speaking the word (cf. Isa. 42:5). And as a result, the prophets pointed to the time when that same God would restore everyone and everything to the way he intended them to be.[2] They looked forward to the time when God would come to put back together the broken pieces of this world and the lives that had been shattered by the power-mongers who try to thwart God’s ways and God’s purposes.
Not only did the prophets envision this kingdom in which God’s peace, justice, and freedom would define life for all people everywhere. They also saw the way in which God would accomplish this miracle. Or perhaps more accurately we should say they saw the one through whom God’s kingdom would become a reality. As in our text from the prophet Isaiah for today, they spoke of the “servant of the Lord” as the one through whom God would establish God’s justice in this world (Isa. 42:4). And what all that would look like could be described in these terms: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isa. 42:3). I like the way The Message puts it: “He won’t brush aside the bruised and the hurt and he won't disregard the small and insignificant.”
In other words, the one who would come to establish God’s kingdom in this world would do so through the mercy and grace and steadfast love that are the central characteristics not only of our God but also of the kingdom he intends to establish. The servant of the Lord would not act like those who wield power and influence in our world. He would be one who would come “not to be served, but to serve” (Matt. 20:28). And through his humble service, he would establish God’s righteousness, and the kingdom defined by it, for all the peoples of the world.[3]
I think that’s what Matthew’s story of Jesus’ baptism is about.  Jesus approaches John to be baptized, and John objects, “I need to be baptized by you” (Mt. 3:14)!  Jesus’ response might seem strange at first glance: “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt. 3:15).  One would think that Jesus had “fulfilled all righteousness.”  I think the “righteousness” Jesus was referring to was the righteousness of God’s kingdom that the servant of the Lord was to fulfill. Once again, I think The Message captures the meaning well: “God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.”  In his life and ministry, Jesus was convinced that his mission was to fulfill God’s saving purpose for all the nations.[4]
It can be discouraging to see the way things are going in our world. But if we have the eyes to see it, there is something else going on. In his life and ministry and death and resurrection, Jesus began the work of bringing God’s kingdom of justice, peace, and freedom into this world. And he continues to do that even today. That might come as a surprise to you. What may be even more surprising is the way in which he continues that work: through ordinary people like you and me. As we follow Jesus’ example, we too are “fulfilling” the righteousness of God’s kingdom. As we seek to serve those around us, we can see signs that God’s kingdom is even now coming together in our midst.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/8/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 311: “The LORD’s reign is power devoted to righteousness and justice.  Righteousness is the rightness that makes for life and shalom; justice is found in decisions and actions according to righteousness.”
[3] W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 344: “as the ‘servant’ of God, Jesus not only brings OT prophecy to fulfillment, receiving the Spirit (3.17; 12.18), taking up infirmities (8.17), and giving his life as a ransom for many (20.28)—he is also the paradigm of the righteous sufferer. Thus … he meekly sides with the weak and powerless while being delivered over into the hands of the mighty and powerful. Jesus came not to be served but to serve (20.28), and this idea presents itself at every turn of our gospel. From this we learn that sonship largely consists in choosing to take up the ministry of the suffering servant.”
[4] Cf. Donald Hagner, Matthew 1-13, 60: “Thus John and Jesus perform their respective roles, fulfilling ‘all righteousness’ as the salvific will of God now receives expression in the inauguration of the kingdom and the arrival of a new and crucial stage of salvation-history; cf. also Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 326: “when Jesus fulfills all righteousness, he his fulfilling Scripture.”

Light in the Darkness

Light in the Darkness
Isaiah 9:2-7[1]
If you’ve ever tried to capture the beauty of a sunset or the grandeur of an unforgettable landscape, or even the precise shade of your grandchild’s incredibly cute outfit, you know that our eyes are amazing organs. In order to imitate the marvelous ability of our eyes to see color and detail, camera manufacturers make more sensitive chips and more accurate lenses, all of which cost far more that many of us care to imagine! And yet, whenever we amateurs look at those pictures we try to take, even with equipment that doesn’t come cheap, we are reminded that our eyes can see subtle variations of light and color not easy to reproduce artificially.
Not only do our eyes see all kinds of colors, but they also have the ability to adjust to varying degrees of light. “Night vision” is the way we refer to this. After spending enough time in the darkness for our eyes to “adjust,” our eyes have the ability to pick up details even in places where there is no light. Of course, the drawback to this is when our eyes have adjusted to the darkness and we’re suddenly thrust into bright light. Until our eyes “adjust” again, we say that the light “hurts” our eyes, and we squint to protect them until we can see normally again. It takes time for us to be able to see clearly when the light shines into the darkness.
In our Scripture lesson from Isaiah, the prophet announces that “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isa. 9:2). In the context this is meant to be an announcement of great joy. They were living in a time when foreign adversaries had conquered them and were undermining their way of life. The people worked to provide for their families only to see a substantial portion of it going to the despots who were masters of their land. Given those circumstances, you would think they would welcome the promise of a new king who would bring them justice and peace.
But I wonder about that difficulty we have when light shines suddenly into the darkness. I wonder if at least some of the people of that day had become so accustomed to living the way they were that they failed to see the joy in the light that God promised to send them. I wonder if they shielded their eyes and turned away because they were accustomed to the darkness. Perhaps at least some of the people Isaiah addressed saw the light of justice and peace not as something joyful but rather painful. They were comfortable with the way things were, and they didn’t want them to change.
Of course, we assume Isaiah is talking primarily about Jesus here, but to make that assumption would mean that his message didn’t really apply to the people living 700 years before Christ. It’s very likely that Isaiah was talking in the first place about the birth of a new king in his own day and time.[2] This new king would be a king who would walk in God’s light and lead the people to freedom through peace and justice. That promise was the basis for their hope that the current situation of injustice and oppression would not last indefinitely. Rather, this new king would change things in such a way that it would be like shining a light into the darkness.[3]
When we think about this promise, I think it’s important to clarify some of the terms. “Peace” doesn’t just mean the absence of conflict. Rather it refers to the total well-being of those who “walk in the light of the Lord,” who live their lives by following God’s ways.  And “justice” doesn’t refer to crime and punishment. Rather, in the Bible, God’s justice means that that the hungry are fed, the prisoners are set free, the blind receive their sight, those who are bowed down are lifted up, and the widows and orphans and the immigrants have someone to watch over them.
Given this perspective on the peace and justice that God promised his people, I think it’s easy to see why some would welcome it as good news and some would not.[4] For those who were oppressed, I would think they welcomed this light as the dawning of a new day, as the dawning of a new hope for them and their children. For those who collaborated with the oppressors, I doubt that they were that pleased with the idea that the conditions that they benefitted from might change. They were accustomed to the darkness, and the light for them would have been unwelcome.
Even though Isaiah probably wasn’t referring to Jesus in his original message, the fact that the best of the Jewish kings fell short of “doing what is right in God’s sight” gave rise to the hope that one day a king would come who would truly and finally fulfill the hope for lasting peace and all-encompassing justice.[5] And the apostles and prophets of Jesus’ day rightly saw that he had come to fulfill that promise.[6] And yet, with all that he did, we recognize that he has not yet completed his work of bringing peace on earth and justice to all. While the new day has dawned, we still wait for the fullness of that light to shine over this world.
We’re not so different from the people of Isaiah’s day. There are some who have been walked on by the injustices that run rampant in our society. There are others of us who are comfortable and see no need for anything to change. We’re quite happy with the way things are. You might say that we’ve become accustomed to the darkness, so much so that the light of God’s peace and justice in our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ may make us shield our eyes and turn away. But even though it may make us uncomfortable, the only way to truly find the joy of Christmas is to turn and embrace the light of peace and justice that will eventually determine the fate of this world.

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/25/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Gene M. Tucker, “The Book of Isaiah 1-39,” New Interpreters Bible VI:122, “The reasons for celebration—release from an oppressor, destruction of battle gear, and the birth of the ‘Prince of Peace’—are not in the future but in the past. These events form the basis for confidence in the future.”
[3] Tucker, “Isaiah 1-39,” NIB VI:123, “From Isaiah’s perspective, the birth announced in v. 6 is a sign of hope. The ancient promise of a son of David on the throne is reaffirmed. Both the names of the child and the final lines of the poem promise perpetual peace with justice and righteousness.”
[4] Cf. Christopher Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, 87: “Yet next to [the] vision of just and righteous government stands the stark and sober portrait of a prophet under siege, of a God who is sanctuary for some but a snare and a stumbling block for many. Before we encounter a people who see great light, we must first encounter a people thrust into thick darkness.”
[5] Cf. Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, 75: “What kingship shall become in Israel, and for the nations, it becomes with reference to the Immanuel child and the historical rule of King Hezekiah. Out of that historical matrix a model for kingship emerges that is filled full in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, Messiah of the nations.”
[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—the Beginning: The Life of Hope, 4: “The theology of the early Church said that in this event God ‘became man’—became human. But the mystery really begins with God’s becoming a child. The great, all-comprehensive rule of God begins as this child’s rule of peace.” (emphasis original)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Walking in the Light

Walking in the Light
Isaiah 2:1-5[1]
Living in a place like this, it may be hard to imagine that there are places in the world where there is so much light that it’s hard to see the stars at night. In most cities, the “ambient light” drowns out the natural light coming from the stars, or any other phenomena in the sky. It’s not just things like street lights. In major cities there’s so much light pouring into the sky at night from screens and neon and headlights and other sources that even for miles around it’s impossible to see all but the closest objects in the night sky. When the Hale-Bopp comet was visible in 1997, I had to drive my boys about 50 miles from the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area so that we could get a good look at it.
I think there is a similar phenomenon in our culture today. We have so many ways to distract ourselves from the truth that resonates in the deepest parts of our existence—the truth that peace and justice and compassion are the meaning of human life and our real destiny. But, unfortunately, peace, justice, and compassion don’t always sell in our world that is so full of other “lights” that can capture our attention. In comparison with the glitter of our celebrities, the stimulation of the programs on our TV and movie screens, and the glare of our infatuation with power and violence, the light of peace, justice, and compassion gets obscured just like the stars in the sky.
In our lesson from Isaiah for today, the prophet has a different vision. It’s the vision of God’s light and God’s truth finally shining through all the glare of the lights that compete for our minds and our hearts. By the time that Isaiah carried out his ministry, the people of Judah had been through a long history of fighting enemies all around them just in order to survive as a nation. Although other prophets called for God to take vengeance on those nations, Isaiah had a different vision. Rather than a war to wipe their enemies off the face of the earth, Isaiah envisioned Jerusalem as a place that would become the center of a world dominated by peace.[2]
And as a result, the nations of the earth would be drawn to the light of God’s truth, God’s peace, and God’s justice. Isaiah’s vision of the end of history was one in which all the different people groups of the world—even those who had been enemies of Judah—would “stream” to Jerusalem as the “mountain of the Lord” (Isa. 2:2). And the reason they would come was “that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isa. 2:3). Isaiah explains that the reason for this attraction is that Jerusalem would become a distribution node for the Torah, or instruction, of the Lord.[3] It would be a place where the word of the Lord would enlighten all the nations to “walk in his ways.”
One result of this universal spread of the knowledge of God Isaiah envisioned would be peace. Part of Isaiah’s vision of the destiny of the human family is an ideal that has inspired and fired the imaginations of people of faith throughout the generations. His vision is that when God’s truth becomes the light by which we all order our lives, then “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isa. 2:4).[4] It is one of the more powerful visions of the destiny of humankind, and it has inspired people throughout history to listen to the “better angels” of their hearts.
Ironically, Isaiah’s vision of this universal peace is one that includes judgment. In his vision, the peace that brings all the families of the earth together is one that results from the fact that God would “judge between the nations,” and “arbitrate for many peoples” (Isa. 2:4). Again, we might be tempted to view that judgment like some of the other prophets: as handing out punishments to the “enemies” of Judah as an act of vengeance for their evil deeds. But that’s not the kind of judgment Isaiah envisions. Rather, Isaiah envisions judgment coming at the hands of a righteous king, one who would “judge the poor fairly and defend the rights of the helpless” (Isa. 11:4, TEV). In other words, the kind of judgment Isaiah envisions is one that establishes justice for all people equally. In that day, no one will be left behind or left out. In that day no one will have to worry about whether their family is safe from oppression and injustice. As the prophet says it in a later chapter, “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isa. 11:9).
We live in a world in which peace, justice, and compassion can be very fragile. It seems like it doesn’t take much to spark a riot or even start a war. Some of us may feel like justice has passed us by, whether or not that’s actually the case. What is true is that many in our world live in fear for their safety and the safety and well-being of their children. That kind of fear has the power to overshadow and obscure the light of God’s truth, even in the most faithful of believers. But it will not always be this way. Isaiah clearly articulates a different vision for the destiny of the human family: one in which peace overcomes all hatred. It is a destiny in which true justice means that the rights of all people are protected, not just the fortunate few. It is a destiny in which the compassion that is the essence of God’s truth defines all of life. Since that is the world toward which the Scriptures promise God is moving, it seems only prudent to align our lives here and now with God’s truth, and God’s peace, and God’s justice. I think that’s what the prophet had in mind when he issued the call to “walk in the light of the Lord.”

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/27/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3.55-56: “Time and again the Old Testament makes it unmistakeably clear that the covenant of Yahweh with the one Israel and Israel with the one Yahweh, that all that takes place in the covenant, …, is not at all an end in itself and does not exhaust itself in this particular relationship, but has significance, relevance and true and dynamic meaning for the relationship between God and all the nations.”
[3] Cf. Fredrick C. Holmgren, “Isaiah 2:1-5, Between Text and Sermon,” Interpretation 51 (Jan 1997): 62, where he says, “The way of shalom [peace] is the path of Torah whose teaching of ‘righteousness and justice’ is the foundation of God's rule in the universe.”
[4] Cf. Christine Roy Yoder, “Hope that Walks: An Interpretation of Isaiah for Advent Preachers,” Journal for Preachers, 25 (Advent 2001): 18, where she says, “The peoples will transform (literally, crush to pieces) their weapons into agricultural tools, reversing the age-old call to arms: ‘beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weakling say, “I am a warrior”’ (Joel3:10…). Instruments once deformed to make destructive arms will be reformed into implements for tilling and keeping the earth. At the same time, the nations will cease military training (v. 4c). The result will be an enduring, worldwide peace in which Yahweh’s protection sweeps away the memories of weaponry and strategies of war.”