Thursday, March 08, 2018

Changing Allegiance

Changing Allegiance
Mark 1:14-20[1]
When we hear the word “allegiance” I think most of us associate it with our attitude toward our country. “Allegiance” is something that we pledge to the USA as people who intend to carry out the fundamental privileges and responsibilities of citizenship. But I think our “allegiance” relates to more than just whether we vote and pay taxes. In fact, I would say that there are other matters that claim our allegiance in deeper ways. For some of us, it may be allegiance to our family. For others, it may be allegiance to a life dream. For still others, it may be allegiance to certain values. What we may not realize in all of this is that Jesus’ message about the “kingdom of God” presents us with a challenge regarding our ultimate allegiance.
Unfortunately, I would have to say that Jesus’ “gospel” that “the kingdom of God has come near” is a message that we struggle to grasp. For example, if you asked most people these days whether the kingdom of God is here, I think most of them would say no.  In fact, I had some seminary students who did a survey of random people asking them that very question.  And everyone they met gave the same answer—no, the kingdom of God is not here.  I guess that’s why we have a hard time with Jesus’ “gospel.”
Part of the problem is that we just don’t get the whole “kingdom” bit.  For us, a “kingdom” is a place where people suffer the injustice of having their basic civil rights denied them.  Kings are tyrants who enrich themselves at the expense of their people.  Kings exploit, they oppress, they enslave.  But the “kingdom of God” has nothing to do with that.  According to the Bible, when the “kingdom of God” comes the whole world will “do God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.” Everyone will enjoy life the way it was intended by God in the first place.
Another problem we have with Jesus’ message that “the kingdom of God has come near” is that we think he’s talking about something out there somewhere. In our lesson for today, the phrase “has come near” causes no small confusion. If something is near, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s here. And so it’s easy to think for that Jesus was talking about God’s kingdom being around the corner. It is true that in some respects Jesus pointed to the final fulfillment of God’s kingdom at some point in the future. But Jesus also made it abundantly clear that his mission was to bring the “kingdom of God” among us in the here and now, not somewhere out there.  
I think our most important problem with this message is that we don’t really know what to do with it. If it’s God’s kingdom then Jesus’ “gospel” is primarily about what God is doing in this world. In biblical terms, what that means is that prisoners are set free, the blind receive their sight, those who are bowed down are lifted up, those living in a foreign land have someone to look out for them, and widows and orphans find comfort and support. Simply put, God’s kingdom makes it possible for everyone to thrive—rich and poor; white, black, brown, and yellow; tall and short, thin and overweight, nearsighted and balding, young and old.  It does not discriminate based on race, creed, color, or national origin.  It does not exclude anyone based on gender, age, disability, or political affiliation. God’s kingdom is for all people equally.
But that may still leave us asking what we’re supposed to do about “the kingdom of God.” In our lesson for today, Jesus answers that question: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). Now, I think we are typically comfortable with the idea of “believing” in God, or in Jesus, or in the good news of God’s kingdom. But that word “repent” is another story. I would dare say that we may not feel comfortable with “repenting.” In fact, we may not like it at all!
It might help us to see that Jesus was calling people to open themselves to God’s presence and his work among us to set things right, to heal and restore those who are wounded and broken, and to bring peace and life. In order open ourselves to God and his work, we have to start by recognizing that we may have been doing things the wrong way. But repenting means more than just admitting we’ve been wrong. It means actually doing something to make things right. For that to happen, I believe we have to change the core allegiance of our hearts.
Whether we like it or not, God’s kingdom confronts us with a choice about where our ultimate allegiance lies. At the most basic level, “repenting and believing” in the kingdom of God means aligning our lives with what God is doing in this world.  It means living out the principles and truths of God’s kingdom every day. That starts with the kind of people we choose to be, but it also extends to what we actually do. The coming of God’s kingdom into this world presents us with a life-changing choice.  It means choosing not to continue pursuing the selfish ways of this broken world, even when it’s running around pretending to be Christian. It means giving our ultimate allegiance to God’s kingdom, and to the peace, justice and freedom it brings to us all.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/21/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Who Is This?

Who Is This?
John 1:43-51[1]
I think it’s hard to ever really get to know another person. We are such complex creatures, and we constantly grow and change. Even when you spend a lifetime with the one you love, there are aspects of that person you may never know. Unfortunately, romantic relationships are prime situations for this problem. Most of us have an image of the “ideal” person we’d like to meet. And when we “fall” for someone, it’s because we have decided that s/he fits that ideal. But the unfortunate part is that our starry-eyed infatuation is usually fueled by our own imagination. When you actually live with someone, you learn sooner or later that nobody can live up to any “ideal.” Hopefully, that’s when real love begins: learning to accept another person.
One of the dynamics that you find in the Gospels is that people are constantly misunderstanding who Jesus is. Part of the reason is their own pre-conceived notions about him based on what they may have heard or seen. In the Jewish culture there were lots of expectations about what a “Messiah” would be like and what he would do for their people. Those expectations were quite varied—all the way from being a true high priest who would cleanse the temple to leading the Jewish army on a stallion to rout their Roman masters in battle.
This is the context for our Gospel lesson for today. Following Jesus’ baptism, John the Baptist directs two of his own disciples toward Jesus. One of them, Andrew, found his brother Simon (also known as Peter), and told him, “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:41). Something similar happens in our lesson when Philip sought out Nathanael. Philip told him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote” (John 1:45). Initially, Nathanael is skeptical about Jesus. But later when he meets Jesus, he exclaims, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49).
 All of this probably sounds very natural to us. But  I’m pretty sure Andrew and Nathanael didn’t fully understand what they were saying when they called him “Messiah,” “Son of God,” and “King of Israel.” I would say that their expectations were too high, while at the same time they were too low. They were too high in that it seems like they expected Jesus to miraculously deliver them from their enemies, and re-establish the Kingdom of David. Jesus has to tell his own closest friends over and over that wasn’t his mission. At the same time, their expectations were too low. They were looking for a human deliverer; mighty in battle and wise as a ruler but nevertheless human. And the kingdom they imagined pales in comparison to the kingdom that Jesus intended to bring: the kingdom of God.
There’s an interesting exchange that happens between Jesus and the people who acclaim him. They call him “Son of God” and by that they mean he is the extraordinary human being chosen by God to lead the people of Israel to their former glory. But Jesus responds in a strange way. He doesn’t exactly deny it, but he also doesn’t exactly confirm their expectations. They constantly come to him calling him “Son of God,” and he responds by referring to himself as the “Son of Man.” That’s what happens in our lesson for today. Jesus tells Nathanael and the others that they will see greater thing, including “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (John 1:51).
This may seem strange to us, I think we have to understand the background of the “Son of Man”. It comes from Daniel 7, where at the end of his vision of all the man-made kingdoms of the earth brought to an end by God’s kingdom, one like a “Son of Man” comes “with the clouds of heaven” and appears before God, as if he were equal to God (Dan. 7:13)! And what is said of him should sound familiar to us: “To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed” (Dan. 7:14). With that background in mind, I would say that Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man” in order to indicate that he was much, much more than people imagined when they called him “Messiah” and “Son of God.” He had not come simply to restore Israel, he had come to rule over a kingdom that would encompass all the peoples of the world!
Much of what Jesus said and did left his own disciples scratching their heads and asking, “Who is this?” Throughout the centuries, people have been asking the same question, “Who is this?” And the same is true for us. We may wonder whether Jesus is the one who will make our hopes come true. Or we may wonder whether Jesus really makes any difference in our lives at all. I’m afraid that the way we approach Jesus may be similar to his first disciples: our expectations are too high and too low at the same time. Jesus is the one who definitively shows us who God is. Jesus is the one who gave up his life for us all. And he is the one who even now rules at the right hand of God over not just the nations of the world but the whole cosmos. I think that means that he is much more than our expectations can ever define. If we truly grasp who Jesus is, it should leave us all asking, “who is this?”

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/14/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.


Isaiah 42:1-7; Mark 1:4-11[1]
One thing you may not know about me is that I can be a pretty picky shopper. Oh, when it comes to everyday things, like grocery shopping, I may take the path of least resistance. But when it comes to spending my hard-earned money on something “important,” I am incredibly selective. I shop online, I read reviews, and I compare and contrast various options. Even then, I may or may not “pull the trigger” and make the purchase. Of course, these days, it’s much simpler because I can do most of that online. You should have seen me back before the internet. I would go all over town looking for just the right purchase, whatever it was. I can be a pretty picky shopper.
We all face choices in our lives, and ironically we may not be so picky with some of the most important choices we face. I find the way our churches choose pastors a bit ironic. All you have to go on is a file with information on it, perhaps a couple of videos, and references. And then you have a couple of “dates” with the prospective pastor, and on the second “date” you have to choose whether or not you want this person to be your pastor. If a friend decided to get married after the second date, most of us would probably do everything in our power to convince them they aren’t making a wise choice.
Our Scripture readings for today speak of a very different kind of choice. They speak of the one whom God has chosen to carry out his purpose. In our lesson from Isaiah, the Scripture speaks of the “servant” of God, who would “bring forth justice to the nations” (Isa. 42:1). That sounds a bit ominous on its own until you read on. The servant will bring about this “justice” in a manner that is gentle and merciful: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isa. 42:3). And the task of bringing “justice” to the nations is equated with bringing “light” to them (Isa. 42:6). The kind of justice the “servant” has been chosen by God to carry out means “opening the eyes that are blind” and “bringing out the prisoners from the dungeon” (Isa. 42:7).
As I’ve said many times, our idea of justice is very different from the Bible.  Our “justice” is about enforcing laws and punishing crimes. It’s about making those in the wrong pay for their actions.  But in the Bible, God’s justice takes place through compassion and mercy and peace. What that means in real-life terms is 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 immigrants and the widows and orphans have someone to watch over them.  Simply put—God’s justice is like a light that shines into all the dark places of the world and makes it possible for all people to thrive equally. This was the task that the “servant” of God in Isaiah was chosen to carry out.
It may not seem obvious to us, but the voice that came to Jesus at his baptism indicates that he was chosen to fulfill the task of establishing God’s justice of compassion and mercy and peace. The voice that came to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mk. 1:11), contains a subtle reference to the original address to God’s “servant” in Isaiah: “my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Isa. 42:1). I believe that Jesus understood very well the implications of the voice at his baptism: he was called to establish God’s justice that would enable all people to thrive. But he framed it in terms that we might not recognize: Jesus proclaimed that “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” That was his way of saying that he had come to establish God’s justice, peace, and freedom in a world that knew precious little justice, peace, or freedom.
The hard truth is that we still live in a world that knows precious little of God’s justice, peace, and freedom. Looking back over the history of the world, or simply looking back over our own histories, we might be tempted to think it incredibly naïve to still place our hope in such a seemingly idealistic notion. It may seem downright foolish to hope for a world in which “evil in all its forms will be utterly eradicated, … God is really honored as God, human beings are truly loving, and peace and justice reign on earth” as our Study Catechism puts it. If Jesus truly was chosen by God to be his “servant,” his Messiah, the one to bring God’s peace and justice and love into this world, we might expect to see more evidence of it in the way things actually work.
I think this is where we all face a choice. It’s a much more important choice than how you’re going to spend your money, or who you’re going to call as pastor, or even perhaps your choice of a career or a spouse. We all face the choice of how we will view the world in which we live. We can choose to look primarily at all the cruelty, greed, abuse of power, violence, and injustice in our world. When we do so, we will very likely not place much faith in God, let alone put much stock in the hope that Jesus came make a radical difference in our lives. But we can also choose to look at our world through the eyes of faith and hope. When we do, I think we will see that there are indeed signs of God’s justice, peace, and freedom in our world. And that helps reinforce our faith that Jesus was indeed chosen by God to make those hopes a reality for all people everywhere.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/7/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Something Different

Something Different
Luke 1:26-38[1]
The “preacher” of the book of Ecclesiastes said it centuries ago: “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). To some extent, that can be a comfort to us. We rely on routines and familiarity in our daily lives. We can see how much we depend on things staying the same when we have go through any kind of major change. It’s like a shock to our whole system: we feel the stress of a major change in our bodies. And it takes time to adjust to a “new normal” when life throws us that kind of curve. Sometimes even years. For most of us the words, “there is nothing new under the sun,” feel reassuring.
But that’s not the way the “preacher” of Ecclesiastes meant them. It was one of the ways he lamented the meaninglessness he saw in life. The sum of the book is that he examined every aspect of human life and found it to be “vanity and a chasing after wind” (Eccl. 1:14). It may be surprising to find something like that in the Bible, but there are actually quite a few expressions of disappointment. From Job to Jeremiah, from the Psalms to the Prophets, biblical writers do on occasion express their disappointment with God. In specific, they complain to God when life’s realities seem to invalidate God’s promises. Through the centuries, many have lamented that life seems in vain.
Our Gospel lesson for today recounts the story of something very different. It is, of course, the story of the angel Gabriel and his encounter with Mary in which he gives her some surprising news. She was going bear a son, who would inherit the throne of David. Of course, she didn’t understand this announcement, because she was thinking about the normal way children are conceived. And I’m sure the idea that any child she might bear would inherit the throne of David must have seemed far-fetched to her. She and her fiancé Joseph were not the kind of people who could expect to raise a King!
If that were as far as the story had gone, it would have been a remarkable event, but not something different from what had already gone before. There had been many in the line of David who had occupied his throne. Each and every one of them was considered to be the “son of God” by virtue of being anointed King. That didn’t mean they were divine, it simply meant that they were special servants of God. Even the promise that “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:33) was nothing new. It was the essence of the original promise made to David in 2 Samuel 7:12-14. Despite that promise, many heirs to David’s throne had come and gone, and the kingdom with no end was nowhere to be seen.
But there was something different going on here, as Gabriel proceeded to explain. Her child was not going to be just another “son of David,” like the many who had gone before. Gabriel answered her question about how she could possible bear a child by saying that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Lk. 1:35). That’s not a very scientific explanation for what was going to happen to her, but it was a theological one. Gabriel was telling her that her child was going to be different from all the others who had come before him.
This son of David was not only going to be “called” the “son of God” in honor of his special service as King. I’m aware that in both of Gabriel’s statements, he says “he will be called” “the Son of the Most High” and “Son of God.” But in this context, it’s clear that “Son of the Most High” and “Son of God” were more than just titles he would take to himself, like many Kings in that day. Rather, Mary’s child would actually be “the Son of the Most High” and the “Son of God.” This was something unique. This was something very different from what had happened with David’s heirs throughout the centuries.
And a part of the good news of this announcement is that because this child would indeed be “the Son of the Most High,” the implication is that he would have the ability to actually fulfill the promise of reigning over a kingdom that has no end. Where many heirs to David’s throne before him had failed, this child would succeed. They failed because they broke their covenant with God. He would keep that covenant, and would usher in a kingdom without end—not the kingdom of David, or the kingdom of Israel, but the Kingdom of God for all people.
I’m afraid that when we look at our world, at our lives, and even at the church, it can be very easy to conclude that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Those who have no qualms about bullying others seem to get their way. Human ego and selfishness taints everything from family to work to church. It can lead some to conclude that there’s really no point to it all. But the birth of Jesus was something different from all that. His entry into this world marked the beginning of something new that God was doing with the human family. Because he is the “Son of the Most High,” he is different from all who came before. He truly reigns over a kingdom without end, a kingdom that makes a great deal of difference in many lives, and will continue to do so until all things have become whole and new.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/24/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Like a Dream

Like a Dream
Psalm 126; Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11[1]
Our dreams in life are an important part of what motivates us to live up to our potential in the fullest possible sense. Our dreams inspire us to do something that is above and beyond the “norm,” and to make the sacrifices that entails. If we go through life without any particular dream to motivate us, we can fall into the humdrum of routine, and we very likely turn to some kind of escape to avoid the boredom that results. Whether it has to do with our families, our careers, or some particular accomplishment, our dreams play a central role in defining how and for what we will invest our lives. Our dreams are an important part of our lives.
But we have to take a realistic approach to our dreams. For many of us, our dreams are formed when we are young and have little experience with way life actually unfolds. I doubt that there are many of us who, at the end of our lives, can say that everything about the way life unfolded for us was exactly what we expected. For me, one of my dreams was that I would live in close proximity to my children and grandchildren. But they are pursuing their own dreams, and I want them to do that. Unfortunately, most of us have a hard time letting go of expectations like that and accepting the way in which life actually does bring us fulfillment.
Our Scripture lessons for today were addressed to people who very likely had given up on their dreams. Some of them had spent their whole lives in exile, living far away from the land of their ancestors. While to some extent they had been “free” to go about their lives, they were nevertheless “living in an unholy land.” They were strangers and foreigners, and as anyone who has lived in a foreign country can attest, there is always a sense that you’re just not where you belong. They felt “out of place” as long as they were in exile. Their “dream” was to return to their homeland so they could live full and free.
But the people for whom our Scripture lessons were intended very likely had already gone “home,” only to find that home was nothing like they remembered it. Jerusalem was half-deserted. The walls protecting the city had been torn down. The Temple had been destroyed. And after 70 years of exile, the land had been at the mercy of bandits and marauders who took whatever they pleased. In a very real sense, those who returned to their homeland after decades of exile in Babylon were faced with the prospect of rebuilding their homeland from scratch. I would say that wasn’t anything close to the dream they had clung to all those years. The reality they returned to was very different from their dream.
There’s an interesting tension in our Psalm text for today. The Psalm begins with a declaration of the joy and laughter of those who had the privilege of seeing their dream come true. They longed for God to “restore their fortunes,” to return their lives and their homeland to the way they had been before the exile. In the first part of the Psalm, it sounds as if that has already happened, and their dream was fulfilled. But the second part of the Psalm changes tone abruptly to a fervent plea that God would indeed restore them and their land. And that plea makes clear that it had not yet come to pass. Instead, their situation was one in which they had to “sow in tears.” They had set about seeking to rebuild the ruins of their homeland, but they were still broken-hearted about the reality they faced. It was very far from their dreams indeed.
I think this is where our lesson from Isaiah comes into play. Again, the prophet is addressing the same people, those who returned to a reality that was very different from what they had imagined. In that context, the prophet declares that he has been sent to “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isa. 61:1). Not only were those who returned from exile broken-hearted about the conditions they found. They were also subject to powerful warlords who threatened their safety in order to steal what little they had. They desperately needed to be reminded that God had not forgotten them, that God would indeed make good on his promise to set things right, and that he would indeed set them free from the cruelty and greed of those who were treating them like cattle to be slaughtered at will.
We might wonder what a message addressed to people who lived 2500 years ago has to do with us. I think we too find ourselves in situations where we mourn over the fact that the reality of our lives doesn’t live up to our dreams. We too need reminding that God hasn’t forgotten us. We need reminding that we still have something to look forward to: God’s work of setting all things right, of restoring the justice, peace, and freedom that make it possible for our lives to be truly whole. We need reminding that “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (Ps. 126:6). That’s what the birth of Jesus is about: a definitive statement that God is not finished with the human family. Rather, what God has in store for us is so different from what we’ve grown accustomed to that it could be said that it is “like a dream.” And yet, that dream of God continuing to work in our world to set things right is precisely the essence of our faith.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/17/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE