Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Washing Feet

Washing Feet
John 13:1-17, 34-35[1]
We have a strange and interesting relationship with the word “love.” We can love our families, our friends, our children and our grandchildren. But we can also “love” a movie, or a book, or a favorite outfit. We can love that one special person in our lives, but we can also love sausage, or chocolate, or cherry pie. We can love God, while at the same time we can love sports. I find the many ways we use the word “love” rather ironic and somewhat comical, to be quite honest with you. At times, it seems like love means everything to us, and at times we so overuse the word it can seem like love means nothing to us.
In our gospel lesson, Jesus told the Apostles that the defining mark of their life as his disciples was to be their love for one another. Because of our widely varied use of the word, I’m not sure we have a clear idea of what that love really entails. Our definitions of love often fall far short of the kind of love Jesus had in mind.   He told them, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (Jn. 13:34).  When he said that, I believe he had in mind a very specific kind of love. In fact, he demonstrated that love for them earlier when he washed their feet. It was a kind of love that was so different from what they expected that Peter insisted, “You will never wash my feet” (Jn. 13:8).
I think we can all appreciate the difficultly Peter must have had with the idea of Jesus washing his feet.  In the first place, it is a very personal thing to have someone wash your feet, especially for those of us who don’t make a habit of getting pedicures on a regular basis! But more to the point, in that time and place, washing feet was a task that you normally did for yourself, or one that a slave did for you. It certainly was not something you would expect from your teacher, your mentor, and the one you believed to be the Messiah—God’s agent of redemption for the world!  That kind of thing went way beyond the bounds of what Jesus’ disciples would have considered an appropriate expression of love.  
And yet there Jesus was, washing their feet, doing for them all what none of them would even consider doing for each other.  In fact, when Peter objected, Jesus said, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (Jn. 13:8).  Peter misunderstood this as well.  It would seem that what Jesus was trying to impress on him and on the rest of the disciples was that this quality of humble, self-sacrificing love is what defines God’s very character. It was the quality of love that God shared with Jesus. It was the quality of love that Jesus had shared with his disciples. And it was the quality of love that Jesus commanded them to share with one another. 
Even taking all this into consideration, we might be able to get over the menial nature of washing someone’s feet—or the modern-day equivalent—as an example of the kind of love we’re to share with one another. But in order to see the true nature of the love that Jesus expected us to practice, we have to remember the situation.  He had just washed the feet of 12 men, one of whom was about to betray him. Another of them, Peter, would publicly deny even knowing Jesus. And the rest of them, with one possible exception, would abandon him and run for their lives when the crucial moment came. It would seem that Jesus knew all of this ahead of time, and yet he still demonstrated his love for each and every one of them by the incredibly humble act of washing their feet. 
This is the kind of love that Jesus said would be the defining mark of those who claimed to follow him.  It is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling for someone. The love Jesus commanded us to practice goes far beyond that. This kind of love is defined by the willingness to humble ourselves to do for one another what we would not normally do. This kind of love entails the decision to give ourselves away for the sake of one another.  This kind of love involves a commitment that our lives are to be lived not just for ourselves, but for the benefit of those around us.  It is a love that is incredibly difficult and demands of us the best we have to offer.
On this night when we commemorate Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, many congregations across the world choose to honor Jesus’ memory by holding a foot-washing ceremony. Now I must confess that I’ve never been a part of such a ceremony. And I will also admit that when I’ve had my feet washed by another person, I didn’t always feel entirely comfortable with it. I would imagine that most of us would balk at the idea of holding a “foot-washing” ceremony on Maundy Thursday. But that makes me wonder about how well we have taken Jesus’ command to heart. If we’re not willing to do something as simple as washing each other’s feet, I have to wonder how serious we are about following Jesus’ example of humble, sacrificial love.
Of course, I don’t know that I would say that it is the act of washing feet that is the primary issue here. I think it has more to do with our hearts. The kind of love that Jesus modeled on that night so long ago represents a radical departure from the ways we feel comfortable expressing “love.” Perhaps that’s where the rubber meets the road on this issue. If our hearts are in the right place, we will gladly show love for one another, no matter what it takes.
The love that Jesus modeled for us is not easy to practice in the actual push-and-shove of life. It is a love that is willing to do whatever it takes to meet the needs of one another.  It is a love that leads us to make sacrifices for one another, even when it is unconventional, or inconvenient, or even uncomfortable. It is a love that calls us to humble ourselves and serve one another, even if that means washing each other’s feet.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/25/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Into the Abyss

Into the Abyss
Philippians 2:5-11[1]
There is a dark side to life that I think most of us would rather avoid. But if we’re willing to open our eyes, we will see that, along with the light that is most definitely real, there is also darkness. There are dark places all over the world. There are dark places in our country, in our State, in our county—and in our town! For some, the darkness consists of a loneliness that may feel like it’s choking the life out of you. For others, it may be a job that is suffocating, or addictions that slowly erode their souls. For all too many in our own town, the darkness consists of mistaking what may feel good right now for happiness. There is a dark side to life in this world.
It’s no wonder that most of us would rather “stay on the bright side of life” and avoid confronting the darkness in our world or in our own lives. But the hard truth of the matter is that the only way to overcome darkness is to have the courage to face it squarely. And that usually means taking a journey into that darkness that can be painful and frightening. The only way out of the darkness is to go through it. As we allow ourselves to wrestle with the pain and fear and doubt within, the very process itself heals us. And as we become healed, we grow strong enough to recognize the darkness without giving in to it. We grow strong enough to enjoy the freedom to live in the light.
I believe that’s a part of what our New Testament lesson for today is about. It’s about Jesus’ journey into the very heart of the darkness that oppresses the human family in order to set us all free from its power. That journey led him not only to give up his rightful place with God to become a human being, just as vulnerable as the rest of us. His journey took him farther than that: he not only “emptied himself” to become human, he also subjected himself to the humiliation of a cruel execution and actually tasted death for us all. He went into the very abyss of all the darkness and suffering we can experience in this world and took it upon himself.
If we had not heard this story all of our lives, I think at least some of us would have to ask why Jesus would do such a thing. When you take a look at our world and the darkness in it today, you do see a few brave souls who are willing to enter some aspect of it, at least for a time. But the idea of someone actually taking on all the darkness of this world strains our ability to understand how anyone could possibly do such a thing. In the death of Jesus the Christ on a Roman cross there is something more going on than simple human compassion in action. In Jesus we see God’s love in all its life-changing power at work. And we learn from this that God’s love is a love that will not rest until it reaches out to every dark place we can possibly go to bring all of us back home to the light.
Of course, that answer is also a part of the faith we’ve been taught all our lives. But it seems to me that if we think about it, this too raises questions that may not be easy to answer. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to at least wonder why this particular expression of God’s love was the one chosen to set us free from the darkness. Some mistakenly think of God in human terms and imagine that Jesus volunteered to take God’s wrath toward us all on himself. But I don’t find that perspective to be very compelling. That only reinforces the idea that we have to cower in fear before the angry God who may strike us down at any moment. And I don’t think that’s what was going on when Jesus embraced his death on the cross.
Jesus embraced the suffering of the cross because that’s who God is.  The God of the Bible is not an angry God, but rather one who constantly suffers on behalf of his chosen people and the human family as a whole. That’s how the God of the Bible chooses to love us all, time and time again. And the God of the Bible is a God who never quits loving us this way. Part of the mystery of our faith is that it was God who was suffering on that cross. St. Paul said it this way, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). It is God who takes on the suffering we endure when we wander into the dark places of this life.
Now some of you may be feeling like I’m only taking you further down the “rabbit hole.” The love of God poured out for us in Jesus on the cross is indeed, as one of our confessions puts it, a mystery beyond our understanding.[2] So if you’re wondering “how can this be?,” the only valid answer is a short one, though it is far from being a simple one. That is, in Jesus the Christ we see the mystery of God’s love. In Jesus the Christ, we see the God who is the redeemer of the despised, the savior of the hopeless, the one who chooses the unwanted. It bears repeating: the death of Jesus on a cross shows us that God’s love reaches into the very abyss of darkness into which we can go and will not rest until we are all back home in the light.
The good news of the Gospel is that there is no depth of suffering that Jesus did not reach in his death on the cross. Truly does our affirmation of faith state that “An abyss of suffering” has been “swallowed up by the suffering of divine love.”[3]  That means Jesus’ death on the cross has set us free from all the darkness we could ever experience —the loneliness, agony, alienation, cruelty, abandonment, estrangement, despair, shame, rejection, and self-destruction. No one can sink so deep as to be beyond hope, beyond the reach of God’s love.  However far we may fall, the love of God has already been into the abyss in Jesus Christ, and is waiting there to bring us back home.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/25/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] The Book of Confessions 2016, Confession of 1967 9.15, p. 289.
[3]“The Study Catechism,” question 45 (approved by the 210th General Assembly of the PCUSA, 1998).

Changed from Within

Changed from Within
Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:32[1]
When I was in High School in the 1970’s, we still had a fairly strict dress code. Girls couldn’t wear skirts or shorts that didn’t reach as long as their fingertips. Guys had restrictions on the length of their hair, and they definitely couldn’t wear any facial hair. And there was no way that anyone could show up to school with clothes that had holes in them! I realize that hasn’t changed much in some places. But then as now, when Summer comes, most students wear whatever they want. I grew my hair out as long as my parents would let me get away with. The school rules really don’t affect how students dress when they are away from school. But then the fact of the matter is that those kinds of external rules have very little impact on what a person chooses to do on their own.
That’s why it’s so important to teach your children values in a way that they internalize them. It takes more than a “do as I say, not as I do” approach. Most of us who have much gray on our heads know that children are going to do what they see. And it’s essential not only to model the behaviors you want to encourage in your children, but also to give them boundaries that make sense. The values tend to stick when we help them understand why those behaviors are important. When they find the motivation within themselves to follow a certain code of behavior, they’re much more likely to actually practice that way of life.
That was one of the problems that the people of Israel had always faced. They had been given God’s torah, God’s instructions about how to live. But it would seem that they never really embraced the principles they had been taught. And so the prophets of the day declared that they were going to be sent into exile in Babylon. Now, it’s easy to think that this was just the “Old Testament” God being angry and vengeful and punishing. But the truth is that even in the Hebrew Bible, the judgments that came upon the people of Israel were intended to bring them back to God. They were “tough love” in action, and as a number of prophets indicated, it broke God’s heart when that happened.
The prophet Jeremiah was called to declare the word of the Lord to a people undergoing judgment, living in exile. They had lost everything, and may have felt that God had given up on them. But Jeremiah’s message was something they may not have expected. He promised them in the name of the Lord that God was going to make some changes that may have been hard for them to imagine. Instead of an arrangement that depended on whether the people followed “external” rules, Jeremiah said to them in the name of the Lord that God would make a whole new covenant with them. And that new covenant would depend solely upon God’s unfailing love and unshakeable faithfulness. 
But perhaps, equally as important was the fact that this relationship would be one in which God would change the people themselves from within. Jeremiah says in the name of the Lord, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts … .  No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD” (Jer. 31:33-34). God would transform them into people who were so changed from within that they would want nothing more than to love God with all their hearts and to love their neighbors as themselves. In a very real sense, it would give a whole new meaning to the promise that “I will be their God and they will be my people” (Jer. 31:33).
I believe our Gospel lesson for today also relates to this promise. It’s a very different setting, with Jesus responding to certain Greeks seeking him out, and seeing that as the sign that his time was at hand. And what was going to come to pass was going to change everything. As Jesus puts it, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (Jn. 12:32). Now, on the surface of things, that might not sound so earth-shaking. The next verse seems to almost downplay what Jesus said by interpreting it as indicating the kind of death he was going to undergo—death on a cross. But I would say there’s much more than that going on in this statement. I think Jesus was indicating not only the kind of death he faced, but also the far-reaching effects of that death.
As a result of his death on the cross, Jesus says that he will “draw all people” to himself. If you think about it, how do you “draw” another person to yourself? Somehow you have to do something that changes the way they feel about you so that they want to be near you. In Jesus’ case, I think he’s talking about how his death on the cross would change all things and all people. In the context of John’s Gospel, this reflects the power of God’s love poured out in Jesus Christ. It seems to me that only God’s love is powerful enough to change us all from within.
Real change is incredibly difficult for most of us.   We have to be willing to take a hard look at ourselves.  Unfortunately, many of us don’t like what we see when we look that closely, so we don’t look and we don’t change. But the promise of change that our Scripture lessons present is more than a self-help project. They promise that God is determined to change us all from within. They promise that God will take the initiative, working to bring his grace and mercy and love into all our lives. And the end result is that we will want to live our lives in a relationship in which he is our God and we are his people. We will want to love God with all our hearts and love those around us truly and sincerely. And we will do so because God is changing us from within.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/18/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

God's Foolishness

God’s Foolishness
1 Corinthians 1:18-31[1]
I think most of us go a long way to avoid looking foolish to others. It is humbling to say the least; more than that, it’s embarrassing and humiliating. When we feel foolish, it can seem like we’re standing right in the middle of a giant spotlight and the whole world is staring right through us, laughing at us. I think all of us would rather do just about anything than appear foolish. Unfortunately, this natural tendency can be magnified by a personality that is insecure. When that happens, looking foolish becomes more than just an embarrassment. It can seem like one’s value as a human being has been stripped. It doesn’t take much to imagine what some people will do to avoid that. And when they do, it’s not going to be a pretty picture.
The truth of the matter, though, whether we want to hear it or not, is that we are all going to look foolish at some time in our lives. It’s the nature of being human. We are flawed and fallible. We make mistakes. And some of them are real “doozies”; so much so that they leave us feeling foolish. Rather than reacting in a way that is inherently self-protective (and possibly threatening to others), it seems that laughter truly is the best medicine for this. Learning to be able to chuckle at our own foibles and quirks may be one of the most important lessons we can learn in life. It certainly takes the sting out of looking foolish.
In our lesson from St. Paul for today, we find something that might seem surprising to us. It would appear that the Apostle knew the experience of being humiliated and looking foolish. Except that in his case it was a direct result of his service to Christ! I’m not sure that’s something we would expect, especially from someone as important as St. Paul, the Apostle to the nations! I think it might be like someone making fun of Billy Graham for his preaching of the gospel. It just doesn’t compute for those of us who have been raised in the Christian faith.
And yet, as we heard in our reading on Ash Wednesday, St. Paul himself could say that he carried out his service to Christ
“in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor. 6:8-10).
All you have to do to confirm this is to read over the book of Acts. I would say Paul knew the experience of looking foolish to others quite well.
The interesting thing is that the very reason why St. Paul looked foolish was because of the message he preached. He says plainly that “the message about the cross is foolishness” to those who don’t understand it (1 Cor. 1:18). The word he uses here is the one from which we get our word “moronic.” In a Jewish context, that message was a scandal, the worst kind of blasphemy, because one who had been crucified was considered to be under God’s curse. In a Greek context the very idea that one would want to be “resurrected” in the body after having one’s eternal soul freed by death simply didn’t make sense. When Paul said he looked foolish preaching the gospel of salvation by a crucified man who was raised to new life, he meant it!
But while St. Paul recognizes that he looks foolish to many because of the gospel, he does not accept that what he proclaims truly is foolish. In fact, he insists that this so-called “foolish” message was in fact a demonstration of God’s ultimate wisdom in providing for our salvation. That’s why he could say that “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:25). Even though the gospel message looks foolish to those who don’t understand it, Paul insists that is it the means by which God grants us all new life.
Part of Paul’s motivation for this passage is that the church at Corinth was badly divided over disputes about who had the true “wisdom” and “knowledge” of God. There were some who were looking down their spiritual noses at the others. But Paul reminded them that none of them had any grounds for boasting—certainly not in themselves. He reminded them that God’s gracious act of salvation has rendered all human grounds for boasting null and void.
We live in a world where following Christ—really following Christ and not just “playing” at church—means that we will inevitably share St. Paul’s experience of appearing foolish.[2]  We should expect ridicule and humiliation, opposition and anger, in response to the faith that we find new life through the resurrection of a crucified man.  It flies in the face of what our culture values and sets us at odds with those who cling to those values.[3] But I think we can take comfort in the knowledge that the “foolishness” with which others may paint us is not our own, but rather it is “God’s foolishness” for the salvation of the world.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/4/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography, 103-4: “hope for an alternative future brings us into contradiction with the existing present. ...If we had before our eyes only what we see, then we should come to terms with things as they simply are ... . The fact that we don't come to terms with them ... is the unquenchable spark of hope for the fullness of life, for righteousness and justice on the new earth, and for the kingdom of God. That keeps us unreconciled, restless and open for God's great day.”
[3] Cf. Walter Wink, The Powers that Be, 39, where  he calls this “The Domination System” which he says “is characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all.”

Monday, August 06, 2018

Blessed are the Humble

Blessed are the Humble
Psalm 25:1-10[1]
It seems to me that humility is one of those qualities with which we have a kind of “love-hate” relationship. One the one hand, most of us don’t much care for those who go around constantly beating their own drums. It’s annoying at least and downright offensive at worst! From that perspective, humility is a good thing. But on the other hand, we live in a world where the “meek” definitely do not inherit the earth. Rather, in our culture “Nice guys finish last” and if you don’t take whatever advantages present themselves to you, you miss out. From that perspective, humility is a weakness, not a virtue. I don’t think the phrase “Blessed are the Humble” would find much traction on the nightly news!
But if you pay attention to the Scriptures, you will find a very different story. The God who seems to “hide” as much as he reveals himself is one who reserves that self-disclosure for those who are humble enough to know how much they need God. Jesus praised God for hiding the truth of the kingdom from “from the wise and learned” and revealing them “to little children” (Matt. 11:25). And St. Paul reminds us that God has chosen those who are seen to be “foolish” in this world to “shame the wise” and those who are thought to be weak to “shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27). The implication is clear: humility is a necessary feature of the Christian life.
I think that’s one of the major points of our lesson from the Psalms for today. The theme of the Psalm is, “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation” (Ps. 25:4-5). It seems clear that the Psalm is a prayer for God’s instruction. In the context of the Hebrew Bible, that’s a request for God’s torah.[2]  Now, most of us have labored under the mistaken notion that the Torah was the law, rules from which we have been set free by Jesus.  But the torah is not a set of rules that are intended to bind us.  The torah is God’s instruction for what it means to live in the light of the reality that “the kingdom of God has come near.”[3] And so this Psalm is a humble prayer acknowledging that we need help to live according to the ways of God’s kingdom.
What it means to live in the light of God’s kingdom is simply this: make God’s ways the guiding orientation to all of life. But what are God’s ways?  The Psalmist answers that question also: “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps. 25:10). God’s ways are based on God’s character. According to the Psalm, God is a God of “faithfulness”—which means that God never gives up on relationships; and God is a God of “steadfast love”—which means that God never quits loving us. Based on God’s character, the focus of God’s way is  simply “what is right” (Psalm 25:9). Of course, opinions will vary regarding “what is right.” But again, it is God’s character that defines “what is right” here.  And in the Bible that points to the  compassion and kindness that enables all people to thrive, especially the most vulnerable.[4]
But this path of living according to God’s kingdom, or living by God’s ways, is not one that comes automatically to us. In order walk this path, we must be taught—taught by God. And in order to be taught, we must have humility. I think it’s important to note that in the Psalm God’s instruction is for those who are humble enough to know that they need it. The Psalm says it this way, “He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way” (Ps. 25:9).   Those who are open to God’s way are the ones who are humble enough to realize that they need God in every aspect of their lives.  They are the ones who are humble enough to align their lives with God’s kingdom when it begins to make an appearance. It reminds me of what Jesus said in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Matt. 5:3). I like the way the Message translation puts it: “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.” I think that’s the kind of humility we need if we want to learn how to live according to God’s ways. That’s the kind of humility we need to follow the ways of God’s kingdom.
One of the fundamental lessons of Lent is that we are called to live the life of the kingdom of God.  But another of the fundamental lessons of Lent is that we cannot live the life of the kingdom on our own.  The only way we can possibly align our lives with God’s ways is if God “teaches” us. That means being humble enough to recognize that we need God to show us how to live. But being humble enough to seek God’s instruction is a matter of trust—it’s a matter of entrusting ourselves to God’s goodness and steadfast love and faithfulness, and being willing to take the risk of following God’s ways. When we do that, I believe we will discover that the humble truly are blessed.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/18/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2]As the Psalmist puts it, God “instructs [torah] sinners in the way” (Psalm 25:8). James L. Mays, Psalms, 127, reminds us that in the context of the Psalms, “the torah of the Lord, his instruction of those who fear him, is part of God’s saving work.”
[3] Mays, Psalms, 126: God’s instruction “is guidance that makes it possible to live in and according to the rule [or Kingdom] of God.”  Cf. also Mays, 98-99, 152, 168, 254-57, 301, 381-84.
[4] Mays, Psalms 311: “Righteousness is the rightness that makes for life and shalom; justice is found in decisions and actions according to righteousness.” 

Unveiling the Kingdom

Unveiling the Kingdom
2 Corinthians 3:17-4:6; Mark 9:2-9[1]
Anytime we achieve some major success, we tend to want to publish it as far and wide as possible. Sometimes, as with the birth of a child, we would shout it from the rooftops of our neighborhood if we could get away with it! But this seems to be a part of human nature: when something really great comes our way, we can’t wait to share it with someone. Depending on our personality, we may be more or less discreet with that sharing. Some of us choose only trusted friends. Others publish it all over social media! It just depends on how comfortable you are with people knowing your business!
Regardless of personality traits, anyone who is chosen for a special task, especially if it is one that carries a significant amount of honor, wants to tell someone about it immediately. And the more important the position, the more widely we spread the word and the more we make a big deal about it. The arrival of a new and promising coach generates a lot of excitement. The inauguration of a new leader may draw a large and distinguished crowd to the event. Whenever we have new and important roles assigned to us, we mark the occasion with some kind of special observance. We want people to know about it and celebrate it with us.
The strange thing about Jesus and the kingdom of God, however, is that he went about things in the exact opposite way. In our Gospel lesson for today, we hear the story of his “transfiguration” before the disciples Peter, James, and John. His appearance is transformed, and they hear the voice of God telling them, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). It would seem that the whole event was designed to reveal to them that Jesus really was the one who had come to bring the blessings of new life God had promised. In a way, it was a confirmation of Jesus’ message that though his ministry, “the kingdom of God has come near.” As we have discussed, that was one of the major themes in the Gospel.  In a very real sense, we could say that Jesus’ whole life and ministry was an unveiling, a disclosure of God’s work of salvation for us all. 
But the strange feature of this “unveiling” that took place through Jesus’ teachings and ministry is the fact that it was somewhat understated and easily overlooked. Many in Jesus’ day did just that: they missed the whole picture of what he was saying and doing. They missed the fact that Jesus had come to reveal the presence of God’s kingdom already working to make all things new, to set things right and restore life as God intended. In light of this, it might make sense for us to speak of Jesus’ life and ministry as a kind of preview of the Kingdom. In him, we get a taste of what is coming, but the full dimension of what that will be remains to be seen. 
That’s what the transfiguration of Jesus was—a preview of what is to come.  Whatever you make of it in terms of “just the facts”, the point of the transfiguration was that it was a “pre-view” of Jesus’ resurrection.  And, in turn, one aspect Jesus’ resurrection is that it serves as a “pre-view” of the restoration of all life and indeed all creation.   So the “unveiling” that occurred when Jesus was transfigured before his disciples reveals the light of God’s new life already breaking into this world.  
St. Paul the Apostle says it this way, “God commanded light to shine in the dark—Now God is shining in our hearts!” (2 Corinthians 4:6 CEV).  Although St. Paul knew as much as anyone that the light God has poured into this world is one that can be veiled, he nevertheless believed without a doubt that the light is indeed shining, here and now.  And he was convinced that all who have the chance to catch a glimpse of this light in Jesus wind up completely changed. Just like with the kingdom of God, it’s easy to overlook the changes God’s light in Jesus makes in us. But Paul nevertheless insists that  the light of God’s new life is indeed shining here and now, and changing all of us to be more and more like Jesus.
I think it’s still very easy to overlook what God is doing in our lives through Jesus today. The reason for that is that the way God’s kingdom works is very different from the way things work in our world. Instead of turning it into a “media event,” as Judas suggests he should have in “Jesus Christ: Superstar,” the way Jesus unveiled the presence of the kingdom was understated and easily overlooked. I think part of the reason for that was he didn’t want to confirm the false assumptions people had about what the kingdom would look like. But I also think that his approach to unveiling the kingdom was so discreet because he only wanted those who were sincerely looking for it to see the signs of its presence.
In the midst of all the clamor for attention by those who are blowing their own horns in our day, we have to be sincerely looking for the signs of God’s kingdom to be able to see them. Wherever God’s love is shared freely with those who may not deserve it, there is the kingdom. Wherever words are spoken and encouragement is given in such a way as to renew faith and strengthen hope, there is the kingdom. The signs that “the kingdom of God has come near” are the same now as they’ve always been. We have to be truly looking for them in order to see the ways that Jesus continues to unveil the kingdom’s presence in our lives.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/11/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Talking about Jesus

Talking About Jesus
Mark 1:29-39[1]
I ran across a surprising statement this week. Comedian and Actor Russell Brand was quoted in an article as saying, “My personal feeling is the teachings of Christ are more relevant now than they’ve ever been.”[2] If you are at all familiar with Mr. Brand, you may find yourself equally surprised. If you’re not familiar with him, he is this generation’s version of Howard Stern. He made a career as a “shock jock”—basing his comedy on extremely vulgar and crude antics. Which, of course, explains his success among adolescent and young adult males! I would have to say that, not knowing Russell Brand personally, he’s the last person from whom I would have expected to hear about the importance of Jesus.
But then, if you think about it, that might not be so surprising after all. When it comes to actually talking about Jesus publicly I would say that we have “delegated” that role to celebrities. But the fact that we don’t really know them personally makes their “testimony” shallow at best and merely sensational at worst (Mr. Brand is promoting a new book). Those of us who have been around the block a few times have been stung by celebrity evangelists. They may flourish for a while, but it seems that their true motivation is always about themselves. I have no way of knowing whether that’s true in this case. But then, I think that’s part of the problem.
Our gospel lesson for today is about the importance Jesus placed on carrying out the task of publicly telling people the good news. After a hugely popular reception to his ministry of healing in Capernaum, Jesus up and disappeared. In fact, he had gone out of town to pray alone—perhaps to have the strength to resist the temptation to bask in his success! That this was an issue he faced is, I think, illustrated by the fact that Peter and the others “hunted him down”—most likely because they wanted him to come back and continue to draw crowds where he was.
But Jesus responded in a very strange way.  He said, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mk. 1:38).  In effect, instead of staying in Capernaum where he already had a receptive audience, he felt that he must be going, leaving behind the crowds to preach his gospel message elsewhere! For him, it was more important to fulfill the task of publicly spreading the good news than to stay in a place where he was apparently a big hit!
I don’t know about you, but this interesting episode from Jesus’ life makes me wonder what we’re missing about the importance of talking about Jesus. It would seem that Jesus viewed his preaching of the good news as something so vital that he would leave behind crowds clamoring for healing. I think we might be excused for wondering why he would do that. At least part of the answer was that Jesus saw himself as the one appointed by God as the messenger of “the good news” (Mk. 1:14) that “the kingdom of God has come near.” It would seem that Jesus insisted he must be going to other places because were many who still had not heard his message.
In our day, we may not think Jesus made a smart choice. We place a value on actions rather than words. But the words Jesus was speaking were no ordinary words. It would seem that he viewed speaking the gospel publicly as one of the important means of spreading God’s kingdom and bringing freedom and peace and new life to the people of his day. Rather than being “mere words” that have little or no effect, Jesus believed that his preaching of the good news was crucial. And so he told Peter and the others that he had to spread the word elsewhere.
If that is true, it means that we have an important task to fulfill. The good news still has not been fully proclaimed. There are many in our day who have no idea that “the kingdom of God has come near.” And even if they did have an awareness of that, I doubt that they would understand the implications for their lives. In order to address this problem, we have to give substance to Jesus’ message that “the kingdom of God has drawn near.” I think we do that by first learning to live our lives in the freedom and peace of the kingdom ourselves. But we have to go beyond that. We have to find a way of putting our experience of that freedom and peace into words, words that we speak to those around us.
We may not like to hear it, because we much prefer to stay in our “comfort zones” than to take the risk of talking to anyone about our faith. But just as Jesus knew that he must be going to other places to tell the good news about God’s kingdom, so we must leave behind our personal comfort. I don’t think we have to make it all that difficult. It’s a matter of simply sharing our experience with faith. Many of us may think we’re not qualified to do that.  But the truth is that one of the most powerful things we can do is to simply speak out of our experience of living the Christian faith. And each of us can do that. Just as Jesus knew he had to spread the word, so we must be going to share the good news with our world. The place to begin is to start talking about Jesus.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/4/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Jesse Carey, “The Second Coming of Russell Brand,” RELEVANT Magazine, Oct. 8, 2017.


Mark 1:21-28[1]
You may find this hard to believe, but I’ve always been something of a skeptic. Especially when it comes to matters of spirituality. Whenever people use “churchy” language I wonder what it really means, if anything at all. I’m the same way with “signs and miracles.” Of course, in one sense, every new day is a sign of God’s love and a miracle in and of itself. But I’m talking about the “special” signs that some people use to bolster their faith. Bleeding statues and unusual phenomena in the sky don’t really do much for me. I’m interested in more meaningful signs of God’s kingdom at work among us.
It may not be obvious at first glance, but that is the purpose of the stories about Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels. Jesus’ miraculous deeds served as signs to demonstrate the presence of God’s kingdom.  They served as concrete examples of the message Jesus preached, that “the kingdom of God has come near.” And where the presence of God’s kingdom is, there is healing, there is freedom, there is life, there is joy.  Although we live in a time when miracles seem rare, in Jesus’ world, a world filled with domination and death, his miracles made an important point. They were meant to show that when God’s kingdom comes near, the powers of domination and death must retreat.
That’s why the Gospels put so much emphasis on Jesus’ ability to cast out demons. It’s not an attempt to convince us to believe in an unseen realm where angels and demons battle each other for the souls of men and women.  Pretty much every one in Jesus’ day and time believed in that.  The reason why the Gospels emphasized Jesus’ power over the demons was because they were the most powerful adversaries anyone could imagine. Some did resort to various magical techniques to ward off evil spirits. And there were others who were thought to be able to expel demons, though it took a great deal of “smoke and mirrors.” But for the most part people saw themselves as basically defenseless and helpless against attacks from demons. 
 In this respect “demons” represented the power of evil in the world, and it seemed to many that its power was unstoppable.  That’s why it’s important to notice two features of the stories where Jesus expels demons.  First, unlike the so-called “exorcists” of the day, Jesus did not resort to elaborate rituals to compel the demonic spirits to leave.  As in our Gospel lesson for today, he simply spoke the command and they left.  Second, the stories where Jesus expels demons often conclude with a description of the person fully restored to health and wholeness of mind.  In other words, Jesus actually succeeded in setting them free from whatever it was that was afflicting them!
I think that’s why the people who witnessed these events were amazed by Jesus “authority” and power.  Compared to the impostors who used “every trick in the book” and charged handsomely for it, the presence of God’s liberating kingdom in Jesus simply released those who were living under oppression from the chains that bound them.  In a very real sense, Jesus “practiced what he preached” by effecting the healing and liberating presence of God’s kingdom in the lives of those who were subjected to the powers of evil.[2]
It may be hard for some of us to swallow stories of demons being expelled, but the point is to show that God’s kingdom is truly present. And the good news of the gospel that “the kingdom of God has come near” is that Jesus established a “kingdom” and a “lordship” free from any kind of domination—patriarchal, political, moral, or religious. Thus the sign of God’s kingdom is not one of slaves cowering in fear of an absolute monarch who is able to wield power and hold lives in the balance, but rather the sign of God’s kingdom is a community free from all oppression, where we are all beloved children and friends of our merciful Creator and crucified Lord, living in the freedom and joy and life of God’s presence.
In fact, I would say that one of the key defining elements of the “kingdom of God” is freedom.[3] But the kind of freedom that defines the kingdom of God has very little to do with “rights” or entitlement.  True freedom is about being free to love, free to serve, free to hope and dream, free to create. It is not about being “free” to do whatever you want with no consequences, but being free to be who you were intended to be by God. True freedom is about fulfilling God’s purpose in creating us in the first place. True freedom, the freedom of God’s kingdom, is about enjoying God’s life and God’s love in a community of people who are free to love and to serve.
That kind of freedom is one of the most compelling signs I can imagine that “the kingdom of God has come near.” Unfortunately, I’m not too sure that many people today associate religion with “freedom.” I think many see the Christian faith as something restrictive. But that’s where we come into the picture. As we live out the freedom to love and serve one another in this community of faith, we truly become a sign of the “reign” or the kingdom of God. That applies to our worship as well as our ministries. It applies to our big projects and the ones that may barely get noticed. As we worship God and serve our community with the freedom God has given us, our hope, our joy, and our love become a powerful sign that “the kingdom of God has come near.”

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/28/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 104-105, 107-108.
[3] Indeed, my favorite Reformed theologian Jürgen Moltmann defines the “kingdom of God” as “The Kingdom of Freedom.” Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 191-92, 202-3, 209-222.