Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Finding Life

Finding Life
Deuteronomy 10:12-22[1]
It’s hard to mention Moses without thinking about the Ten Commandments. And the Ten Commandments may remind us of Judge Roy Moore. He’s the former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice who commissioned a 5,000-pound monument depicting the Law of Moses. What you may not know is that “the Rock,” as it has been called, went on tour. That may not seem like a big deal, until you think of what it takes to lug around two-and-a-half-ton sculpture. It rode on a flatbed truck and had to be lifted off and back again with a five-ton, fifty-seven-foot crane![2] What a perfect image to portray the commandments as “burdens, weights and heavy obligations,” as one commentator put it.[3]
That’s how we tend to think of the Ten Commandments, the Law of God, and the Hebrew Bible in general: as a burden. We tend to think that the people of Israel labored under the burden of demands they could never fulfill, trying to win God’s love, trying to earn salvation by their good works. And we see Jesus as the one who set us free from that burden by bringing salvation to us as a gift. As a result, we might be tempted to think that the Ten Commandments, the Law of God, and the Hebrew Bible in general are pretty much irrelevant.
But that’s not what our prophet for the week, Moses, has to say about the matter. We may not be accustomed to thinking of Moses as a prophet, but in the Jewish world, including that of Jesus’ day, Moses was the prophet above all others. He spoke the word of God to the people. In our lesson for today, he begins with a question: “What does the Lord require?” (Deut. 10:12). It’s a straightforward question and at first the answer sounds clear enough: “to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”
The problem comes when we read on: “and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being” (Deut. 10:13). That doesn’t compute for us on several levels. Most of us don’t equate “loving God and serving him” with keeping the commandments. But the witness of Scripture is clear that loving and serving God means “walking in all his ways.” Knowing God truly has always made a difference in the way people live out their lives—in every aspect of life.
Part of the reason why our Scripture lesson doesn’t compute for us is because it seems like Moses is saying that finding life depends on what we do. Somehow, it seems that our salvation is a matter of earning God’s love. And yet, Moses specifically says that the Lord chose people to live in relationship with him because he “set his heart in love on your ancestors” (Deut. 10:15). The original covenant with Israel was based on the same love as the new covenant. Keeping God’s commands was never a means of gaining or achieving salvation apart from God’s grace. 
If that’s the case, then why were the commands given at all? Why did Moses insist that the people keep the commandments? While it was never a matter of earning a relationship with God, the commandments were a way of defining what a genuine relationship with God looks like. They spell out in daily practice what it looks like to “walk in all God’s ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” The Bible teaches that it’s a part of God’s original intention for the human family: to lead us into a relationship characterized by love and faith that are not coerced and by heartfelt obedience that puts God’s will into practice in daily living.
I think the final aspect of this passage that doesn’t compute for us is found in the line that keeping the commandments is something that was intended to be “for your own well-being” (Deut. 10:13). They were meant to instruct us about how to find the life that is truly life, the life that God intended for us all to have in the first place. That is the heart of what the Law or Torah was about: instructing us in what it looks like to “walk in God’s ways.” And when we do so, we realize that God’s ways are not burdensome at all, but rather they are paths that show us the way to find life.
We’re not used to talking about the commandments in this way.  We’re much more familiar with talking about them as a burden, a weight, or a heavy obligation—like a 5,000-pound monument made out of Vermont granite.  But that misunderstands their role in God’s purpose for his covenant people, both then and now. The purpose of that covenant is to form a relationship. Not surprisingly, what God looks for is for his people to commit themselves to this relationship wholeheartedly. In that context, the purpose of the commandments is to spell out what it means to live a life defined by love for God. They were given as the parameters within which to live our lives—parameters that are intended to enable us to find a life that is full of living hope, lasting joy, and genuine love, both toward God and others. Elsewhere, Moses calls this way of living “choosing life” (Deut. 30:19-20). As we learn what it means to love God, to serve him wholeheartedly, and to walk in his ways, we find the life that is truly life.

[1] © 2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/5/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Joshua Green, “Roy and his Rock,” The Atlantic Monthly (October 2005); .
[3] Cf. Thomas G. Long, “Dancing the Decalogue,” in The Christian Century (March 7, 2006):17.


Psalm 145:1-10; Jeremiah 23:1-6[1]
Over the course of the last 40 years, I’ve taken a number of personality inventories. It’s something that most denominations require pastoral candidates to do. I guess some folks must think pastors may be “crazy.” Imagine that! If you’ve ever taken personality inventories, you know that they measure things like whether you like being around people, how you process information, and how you make decisions. One of them measures whether you like structure or whether you prefer to improvise. You will probably not be surprised to learn that I like structure. I’m a “planner.” I think I’ve shared with you the fact that, at the ripe age of 31, as a new Seminary professor I proceeded to plan the next 30 years of my career. Needless to say, my life didn’t unfold “according to plan.”
If we’re honest about it, I think most of us would have to admit that our plans for our lives don’t turn out the way we envision them when we are young. I think it’s just a fact of life: we mortal beings predict the future rather poorly. And yet, we make our plans. That’s not a bad thing. I think the problem comes when we hold tightly to our plans as if our very lives depended on them. When that happens, we can behave in ways that aren’t very constructive: we can become tense, rigid, selfish, and even at times mean and bitter. Planning is a good thing, as long as we have the wisdom to hold our plans loosely.
The people of Judah whom the prophet Jeremiah addressed were definitely not living out their lives “according to plan.” They had been torn away from their homes, uprooted from their land, and forced to live in the last place on earth they wanted to be—Babylon, modern day Iraq. The temple in Jerusalem lay in ruins, and with it, their faith that God would never let an enemy army destroy them. I would imagine they felt their lives were over.
It’s not that Jeremiah didn’t warn them. Like other prophets of his time, Jeremiah confronted the people of Judah with the fact that they had been “faithless” (Jer. 3:12) toward God. They had given themselves over to the worship of false gods. They had broken the covenant with God with their blatant disobedience. In spite of that, they assured themselves that they were safe because they believed that Temple and the throne of David would protect them (Jer. 7:4).
In our lesson from Jeremiah for today, the prophet lays much of the blame at the feet of the “shepherds” of the Lord’s people. In other words, the leaders: both the religious and political leaders, both priests and kings. In this, Jeremiah reflected a theme that is found in the books of Kings and Chronicles: as the leaders went, so went the people. When the leaders did what was right in the sight of the Lord, the people did also, and all was well. When the leaders did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, so did the people, to their mutual ruin. Of course, life isn’t always that cut and dried. But in the case of Judah, Jeremiah made it clear that the “shepherds” were the ones responsible for scattering the flock and driving them away into exile.
Despite the seemingly hopeless situation, the Lord promised through Jeremiah that he would gather them from the foreign land and bring them back. He would raise up leaders who would truly shepherd the people. And most importantly, he would raise up a king who would practice righteousness, and bring safety to both Judah and Israel. In another chapter, the Lord promises through Jeremiah that “surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jer. 29:11). Although their lives had not gone according to their plan, the prophet Jeremiah assured them that God still had plans for them.
And yet, the fact of the matter was that they were going to have to live out their lives in exile, far away from anything they knew to be “home.” The people who had been taken captive to Babylon would not live to see the return to their own land. That’s why Jeremiah gave them some very practical advice. Instead of wasting their lives in grief over broken dreams and unfulfilled hopes, he instructed them to build homes, get married, and have children, and to see that their children built homes, got married and had children (Jer. 29:5-6). The lives they had may not have looked much like their plans, but they could still find meaning and purpose in the lives they were given.
Our confession of faith today affirms that there is nothing that can happen to us that “God does not bend finally to the good.” I would imagine that plenty of us have been through experiences that make that hard to swallow, let alone believe. When that happens, I think we need more than just the shallow comfort that “it’s for the best,” or “it’s God’s will.” We need to know that God will not abandon us, and our lives still have meaning.
When all of our plans have been thwarted, we need a way to hold on to the confidence that God truly is the one who “keeps faith forever.” We need something to reassure us those words mean something real to us right here and now. The real challenge when it seems that all is lost is how to see that our lives still have meaning and purpose. We need the courage to hold onto the faith that, even when our plans fail, God promises to fulfill “plans for our welfare …, to give us a future with hope.”

[1] © 2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/29/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

The Plumb Line

The Plumb Line
Amos 7:7-15[1]
As many of you know, I spent a year studying in Germany over 25 years ago. It was an amazing experience in many ways. The pace of life was much slower, by design. I lived there the year “the Wall” came down and East Germany along with the rest of Eastern Europe opened their borders. One of the interesting aspects of living abroad was getting accustomed to the housing arrangements. Some aspects of that experience were more “interesting” than others. If you’ve been abroad, you know what I’m talking about!
One of “weird” facts about the apartment we lived in is that the building was 400 years old! It was prime real estate, because it was right in the heart of the “pedestrian zone” of Tübingen. And yet, because the building was 400 years old, the corners weren’t quite square and the walls weren’t quite plumb. To be sure, the building had been renovated, probably more than once. It had all the necessary appliances and the décor was fairly modern. And I’m sure the walls were straight up and down when they were built. But after 400 years, those picture-postcard buildings in that quaint German University city were all leaning on each other! Four Centuries offers a lot of time for buildings to settle!
Amos, our prophet for this week, lived in a time when the commitment of the people of Israel to “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with your God” had had time to “settle.” Those who were at the top of the social ladder were living in relative prosperity. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, prosperity has a way of undermining spiritual and moral values. As Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24). Amos could see by the conditions of the day that especially the leaders of Israel were more concerned about serving their own wealth than about serving God.
Unfortunately, that kind of obsession with wealth has a way of blinding us to our own spiritual poverty. The word of the Lord that Amos received was almost “sneaky,” in that he began by predicting the downfall of Israel’s enemies. One by one he declared God’s judgment on the nations surrounding Israel. And I can imagine that as he proclaimed his message of judgment on those around them, his audience nodded in approval. They were blind to the condition of their own spiritual house.
But Amos finally came back to the people of Israel. And he pronounced even stricter judgment on them because they should have known better: they were God’s people. And yet they failed to practice the most basic principle of God’s justice: to show compassion to the most vulnerable among them. This was the “plumb line” by which God measured their lives. But instead of practicing compassion, their mistreatment of the poor echoes like a refrain throughout the book of Amos. He said that they were “trampling on the needy, and bringing ruin to the poor of the land” (8:4). The corners of their spiritual house were not square, and the walls were not plumb.
In all of this, the prophet’s message of judgment was this: “You twist justice, making it a bitter pill for the oppressed. You treat the righteous like dirt” (5:7, NLT). And perhaps the most shameful aspect of their behavior was that it was all so that the powerful in Israel could further enrich themselves. It was all so that they could live in the lap of luxury: they built “houses of hewn stone” (5:11), feasted on couches made of ivory (6:4), and drank wine by the bowlfuls (6:6). And yet, because they had not followed the “plumb line” by caring for the most vulnerable, the walls of their spiritual “house” were leaning so badly they were on the verge of collapse.
I don’t think there is much debate about the fact that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer in our country. Income data over the last several decades makes it clear that a greater portion of wealth is concentrated in the hands of the very rich. And with some notable exceptions, they seem to be using their influence to continue to enrich themselves. In Amos’ day the solution was straightforward: “establish justice in the public square” (5:15). In our day, it may seem more complicated. But the plumb line remains: showing compassion to the most vulnerable in society. Jesus said it this way, “as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:40).
When I was in Germany, I also witnessed the fall of the oppressive regime in Romania. In the aftermath, humanitarian aid came pouring in from all over Europe. And my church in Germany sent several of us with supplies to some churches. Along the way, I met with a missions supervisor in Vienna. He observed that the church in Eastern Europe had thrived under communism: the churches were bursting at the seams. But he said the church in Western Europe had languished under capitalism. I’m afraid that prosperity tends to have a deadening effect on our relationship with God.
The antidote has always been to serve the needy. We live in a time when the most vulnerable in our society seem to be getting poorer and needier every year. And, of course, the real question is how to find true and workable solutions to poverty. I don’t pretend to know the answer. But it seems to me that the walls of our spiritual house are leaning. It is a time when, perhaps more than ever, we must hold fast to the plumb line of God’s justice: showing compassion to the most vulnerable in our world.

[1] © 2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/15/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Thus Says the Lord

Thus Says the Lord
Ezekiel 2:1-5; 36:25-28[1]
I wonder whether we really believe in the possibility of new life any more. I wonder whether we ever believed in it. When you listen in on conversations about people, or about communities, or about society as a whole, there’s not much hope to be found there. It’s my impression that the way we talk about others can be rather negative. I’m not sure where this cynical approach to our fellow human beings comes from. I would say there’s probably not one source, but many. And chief among them would be the experiences of our own interactions with people who are less than kind to us, to put it mildly. Our experience makes it hard to believe in new life.
I find this to be troubling, because at the heart of our faith is the promise and the hope of new life through our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. That new life isn’t something we wait to receive when we pass from this world. It’s something that’s meant to change the way we live here and now. And the message of the Scriptures is that there is no one who is ever “too far gone” to find new life in Jesus Christ. But our negative outlook on people, as evidenced by the way we talk about them, flies in the face of our faith. I wonder if we really believed in the promise of new life whether the way we talk would take on a different tone.
The prophet Ezekiel had plenty of reasons to have a rather negative outlook on his situation. He, along with a fair amount of the people of Judah, had been conquered by the Babylonians. And as a result they had been deported to Babylon, a place far away from everything they knew. That included, in their minds, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Like most other people in that day, the Israelites believed that their God ruled over their land. But they were a long way from their land. They were living in forced captivity in a foreign land ruled by foreign gods. Given that assumption, you can understand why they might have given up hope.
Right into the midst of that seemingly desperate situation, Ezekiel had a vision that must have knocked his socks off. It was a vision of God: not tied to the land of Israel far away, but right there with him in Babylon. And the gist of the vision was that God is not restricted to one land, but rather he can go wherever he wants. In addition, the vision assured Ezekiel that his people were not “out of sight, out of mind” to a God dwelling way back in their homeland, but rather he is a God who sees what is happening everywhere. Ezekiel, along with many of his people, may have given up hoping in God, but God had not given up on them!
Like many of the prophets, the book of Ezekiel recounts his “call” by God to speak on his behalf. God was well aware of the spiritual condition of his people, and he was sending Ezekiel to confront them about it. In our lesson for today, God instructs Ezekiel to tell them “Thus says the Lord GOD” (Ezek. 2:4). And in fact, that phrase becomes a refrain throughout the book of the prophet Ezekiel, along with “The word of the LORD came to me.” God was not finished with his people, and he sent Ezekiel to be the one through whom God would declare his message of hope and new life to them.
One of the central passages where Ezekiel expresses that hope is in chapter 36. There, Ezekiel reminds the people that because of their failure to live for God with all their hearts, they had “profaned the name” of God in their exile. And yet, despite the people’s failure, through the prophet God announces that he is going to renew his people. He says, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you,” and “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you” (Ezek. 36:25-26). The idea is that, by his Spirit, God would radically and thoroughly change his people so that they would live for him. And they would live for him not because of external demands or the threat of punishment, but because God would change their hearts and give them his Spirit. The idea is that they would then want to live for God.
Many of us even in the church live our lives with a kind of “functional atheism.” We speak the words of faith when we come to church, but we live our lives as if there were no God. Or at least as if whatever God there may be doesn’t really make any difference in our lives. Bad things still happen to good people. Those who are truly wicked in this world seem to get along just fine, thank you very much. And those who are truly good struggle and suffer at the hands of the power-mongers. If we believe only the evidence we see that powerful people tend to take advantage of others, it’s no wonder we wind up with a negative outlook on the prospect of new life.
But just as in the days of Ezekiel, so today the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ will not leave us with hardened hearts. God continues to work in each of our lives by his Spirit to give us new hearts—hearts that love God and love our neighbors because we have experienced God’s love for us. Hearts that know the joy that comes from seeds of new life that God’s Spirit continues to plant within us. Hearts that continue to hope that the suffering we see in this world is not God’s last word on humanity. Perhaps when we let that really sink in, we will have a different outlook on life in general. Perhaps when we learn to trust the promises made in the name of the Lord, we will be open to new life in ourselves and in others.

[1] © 2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/8/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Only Believe

Only Believe
Mark 5:21-43[1]
There are some experiences in life that take us to the very edge of our ability to cope.  You lose your job and wonder how in the world you’re going to find another one. Or you learn that the cancer has metastasized. Or you look at the person you’ve shared your life with and realize that it’s over. It may take a while, but in situations like that, the stress you feel can easily push you beyond the limit of what you think you can endure. We have a word for it: finding yourself at the end of your rope. Most of us either have faced or will face this kind of situation. And, unfortunately, when that time comes, our faith can seem pretty empty.
Our Gospel lesson presents us with a couple of people who had reached the end of their respective ropes: a father whose daughter was dying and a woman whose life had been almost literally consumed by her illness. The lesson begins with a prominent man in the community coming to Jesus and asking him to save his daughter. As they were on the way, however, a woman who had been afflicted with an illness for 12 years came and touched Jesus. The woman was so desperate, she believed that all she needed to do was touch Jesus’ clothes, and she would be healed. And in fact, she was! Jesus told her that it was her faith that healed her. 
It’s hard to know what it was she believed in. The fact that she thought she would be healed if she only touched Jesus’ clothes makes it sound like she had some kind of magical view of who Jesus was and what he could do for her. But I think more important is the faith and the courage it took for her to take the step of venturing into the crowd and reaching out to touch Jesus. Her particular illness rendered her, for all practical purposes, an outcast. She was perpetually “unclean,” and therefore unable to take part in any of the normal activities of life, even the worship of God at the synagogue! Rather than giving up, she had the faith and the courage to seek the one who was healing people in God’s name.
Unfortunately, although the father came to Jesus first, during the time Jesus was healing the woman, his daughter died. One would think that would be the end of it. But Jesus told the father, “Do not fear, only believe” (Mk. 5:36)! That seems to me a strange response to death.  Normally we would say something like, “I’m terribly sorry for your loss.”  Or “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.” But to say, “Do not fear, only believe” strains the imagination. The fact that he, an influential leader, came personally to beg Jesus for healing suggests that he was just as desperate as the woman. What was this father supposed to believe in now that his daughter was dead? 
I think the answer has to do with the whole purpose for miracles in Jesus’ ministry. They were not meant for show, or to convince skeptics, or to gain notoriety. They were acts of compassion in response to human need. But they were also more than that. They were individual demonstrations of the new life of God’s Kingdom. So in a very real sense, what Jesus was asking this grieving father to believe in was that God had begun working to make all things new already in the here and now. And that Jesus was the agent through whom God was bringing this new life into our world. And that somehow all of this would make a difference even for him.
What do we believe in when we reach the end of our ropes? Many of us these days have a hard time believing in miracles. When life brings something so painful, so devastating that it feels like you’ve gone beyond what you can humanly endure, what then? For many of us, if we’re honest, we’d have to admit that our faith tends to evaporate. But is there some way to face that kind of devastating loss without giving up our faith? I guess what I’m asking is what we can believe in when it seems like we have nothing left to believe in. 
We may have to start with the people around us.  We can believe in the people who continue to show us love and compassion and support—those who walk with us through the valley of the shadow of death. That’s something we can believe in. And we may also have to take a hard look at ourselves. When we go through our own end-of-the-rope situations, we can believe that our life isn’t over. One chapter may be coming to a close, but as it does, it opens the way for another chapter to begin. Ultimately, however, I think what we can believe in is that the one who has carried us from the day of our birth will continue to carry us all the days of our lives. We can believe that God can and does bring something good from what seems to be our worst nightmare come true. We can believe that God is working in and through all the heartbreak and suffering in this world to make all things new. 
There are times in our lives when things happen that press us to our limits and beyond. When that happens, we have a choice.  We can pull the covers over our heads, isolate ourselves, and try to escape from it all. Or we can embrace what we’re feeling and move forward in faith that God has a future for us. Just because we experience devastating loss doesn’t mean our lives are over. It could very well mean that our lives are just about to truly begin!  If we can only believe, and open our hearts to see the new possibilities, it may just be the greatest miracle of all!

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

More Than We Can See

More Than We Can See
2 Corinthians 5:7-9, 14-17[1]
Most of us, I think, are people who process information through what we see. I would say that the advent of television shifted the test of what we believe from “I heard it” to “I saw it.” Personally, I don’t remember a time when television was not a daily part of life in our society. I think that the developments with the internet that I’ve seen in my lifetime have only made us even more dependent on what we see. We have access to live video feeds from all over the world, almost as soon as events are happening. This is a reality that my children have grown up with.
The problem is that you can’t base your faith in what God is doing in our lives and in our world on what you can see. Think about it, it really isn’t that hard to believe what we see through various media—news, internet, or social media. But anyone with experience in photography can tell you that the lens can dramatically alter how we understand life. We are actually taking a step of faith to believe that those media are accurately depicting the events they portray. That’s just as true for our faith in God as it is for what we choose to believe about our world. It depends to a great extent on the lens through which we view our faith. Believe it or not, that can make all the difference in the world in where we come out with our faith.
I think St. Paul was continually trying to get the people he was serving to adjust the lens through which they were viewing their life and their faith. There were all kinds of competing “visions” of reality in his day, just as there are today. For some, the notion of a crucified Savior was utter foolishness, if not outright blasphemy. For others, the idea that a dead man could come back to life was simply “non-sense.” These weren’t theoretical obstacles; St. Paul had actually encountered people who raised these and other objections to his gospel.
In the face of the skepticism and cynicism of his world, Paul continued to declare the good news of the resurrection of Jesus from death to new life. For him, that becomes the lens through which to view all aspects of our faith in what God is doing in our lives, in our world, and ultimately in all creation. If we do not view our lives through the lens of the resurrection, then as St. Paul says elsewhere, our faith and even the gospel itself are useless, and “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). But, of course, the Apostle would never concede that to be the truth. He never stopped insisting that we view what we can see through the lens of what we cannot see: that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead on the third day, and is alive and working in each of us to this very day.
And so it is that St. Paul insists that “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). One of the most important aspects of this faith is the conviction that, just as God raised Jesus from death to new life, so he will raise us to new life as well. In one respect, this applies to what happens to us after we die. And, unfortunately, the Bible is perhaps unnervingly silent about just exactly what that looks like. But here, St. Paul says it in a memorable way: to be “away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). While he doesn’t describe it in detail, I think the image of being “at home” is one that can help us to be “confident” as he was.
But St. Paul goes beyond what our faith means for the afterlife. He insists that our confidence extends to this life as well. And he expresses that confidence in this way: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17). St. Paul reaches back to the prophet Isaiah for a concept that may be hard for us to grasp: the idea of a new heaven and a new earth. According to Isaiah, what God is up to is nothing less than the complete renewal of everything and everyone. And for St. Paul, that constituted a whole “new creation” that has already begun in our lives here and now. But here as well, we have to be able to put our trust in more than we can see!
I think this is difficult for most of us. We live in a “matter-of-fact” world, where we look for results that can be measured. “What have you done for me lately” becomes the basis by which we evaluate the people, ideas, and experiences we encounter in life. But the problem with this approach is that when all you have to go on is what your eyes can see, then the story of our lives really is nothing more than you pay your taxes and then you die! Might makes right, cheaters prosper, and money talks. While there may be many in our world who embrace that outlook on life, it can only end in despair, both for this life and for the next.
What St. Paul wanted the people of his day and ours to understand is that God does not operate within the limits of what we can see. God demonstrated that conclusively by raising Jesus from the dead! And that means we are called to put our trust in “more than what we have yet seen.” At least part of that “something more” is that God is working in this world to bring about a whole new creation. The first act of that new creation was raising Jesus from the dead. But God didn’t stop there. God continues to work in all of our lives and in the whole creation to “make all things new” (Rev. 21:5). It may seem too good to be true. If so, it means that we are called to stretch our faith beyond the confines of our doubts to trust in more than we can see.

[1] © 2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/17/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

We Do Not Lose Heart

We Do Not Lose Heart
2 Corinthians 4:13-18[1]
St. Paul is famous for having said “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). He’s famous for this because he’s been so often misquoted as saying that the love of money is the root of all evil. No doubt, greed motivates people to do things they might otherwise not think of doing. But so does fear. I believe that fear can be just a powerful a motivator to do evil as greed or lust. We fear what we do not understand, what we cannot anticipate, and what we cannot control. And in our world, there is so much that we don’t understand, can’t anticipate, and have no way to control. I would have to admit that the things I’m most ashamed of having done I’ve done out of fear.
I think one of the main reasons why fear can affect so deeply is because fear converts to anger. To be afraid of something or someone is a powerless feeling, and most of us don’t like feeling powerless. So we convert our fears into anger, because anger feels more powerful than fear. And we usually do so without even knowing it. This dynamic in our human psychology has allowed zealots and tyrants of every stripe to manipulate whole nations of people to do unspeakable evil. It still makes us susceptible to those who point the finger at some particular group as the ones who are to blame for the challenges that we fear so much in our world.
If anyone had a right to give in to fear, it was St. Paul. He recounts that during the course of his service to Christ, he endured “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” (2 Cor 6:4-5). He said it well elsewhere: he was in “danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters” and he carried out his ministry “in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked” (2 Cor. 11:26-27). I think if anyone had a right to give in to fear, it was St. Paul.
Beyond that, he had endured public humiliation and even being run out of town by the people of the church at Corinth. Now this was a church that he had founded, and he continued to serve as a pastor to them for many years through his letters which we have in the NT. But the relationship between them was not always the best. The Apostle recounts one particular occasion when he visited the church in Corinth and was forced to leave by those who opposed him openly. He also chides the church at Corinth for receiving so-called “super-Apostles” who claimed that Paul was a fraud because he was he didn’t “throw his weight around.”
Part of the problem was a question of authority. The “super-Apostles” who attacked St. Paul claimed that his authority was lame and ineffective. They insisted their credentials and performance as preachers of the gospel put Paul to shame. And it would appear that, at least for a while, the people of the church at Corinth were taken in by this scam. But in our lesson for today, St. Paul addresses this: he says, “everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God” (2 Cor. 4:15).
You might think that Paul would give in to fear and move on to greener pastures. But he never gave up on the church at Corinth. He never stopped trying to lead them into the truth of the Gospel, no matter what obstacles there may have been in his way. And finally, after many months of conflict, his efforts were rewarded. That was the whole reason why he wrote the letter we know as 2 Corinthians. And that helps us to understand better the context in which he could say, “we do not lose heart” (2 Cor. 4:16).
This wasn’t the first time or the last that St. Paul was attacked by those who claimed he had no authority to act as an Apostle. Elsewhere, in response to those who were boasting of their perfect “pedigree,” he insists that none of that counts. In a church that follows a crucified savior, St. Paul insists that “the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). I might paraphrase that as “faith serving through love.” Because St. Paul knew he was a living example of “faith serving through love,” he didn’t let those who tried to discredit him divert him from his task. Because his motives were pure and his ultimate confidence was in Jesus Christ, he could say “we do not lose heart.”
I think that’s a lesson that we can learn from in our day. It is a difficult time to be the church. 60 years ago, we were right in the middle of the mainstream of our culture. These days it’s all we can do to try to keep moving forward against the current of our culture. And there are so many voices out there claiming that our mandate for being the church in our world is lame and that we are ineffective at best when it comes to carrying out our mission.
It would be easy to give into fear in this setting. There’s so much about our future as a church that we don’t understand, we can’t anticipate, and we can’t control. But now is not the time to give into fear; it’s the time to follow St. Paul’s example by putting into practice “faith serving through love.” I think that can be one of the most effective antidotes to the fear-mongers in our world who would paralyze us and attack us for carrying out our calling. When we devote ourselves to a life of “faith serving through love,” then we can also have the courage to say, come what may, “we do not lose heart.”

[1] © 2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/10/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Full of Glory

Full of Glory
Isaiah 6:1-8[1]
The temptation to narrow our focus to the confines of our own self-interest is one that I think we all have to face. I find that ironic, especially in this age when we have access to a broad range of information on an unprecedented scale. Our seemingly unlimited reach doesn’t necessarily result in our being more connected with the human family in all its diversity. Instead, we tend to limit our horizons to those who look like us, who talk like us, and who think like us. And the end result is that as our view of life becomes small, so our experience of life becomes small.
Our lesson from Isaiah for today takes us out of that narrow, limited view of the world and places us in the presence of the God who not only inhabits “the whole earth” (Isa. 6:3), but who is also at work among the whole human family in ways we may not even be able to imagine. The vision of our “holy, holy, holy” God whose “glory” fills the whole earth necessarily broadens our perspective on life. We cannot remain in the confines of our own self-interest when we catch a glimpse of this vision. And when the call comes, “Who will go for us?,” a broader vision of what God is doing in our world will compel us to answer, “Here am I; send me!” (Isa. 6:8).
On this Trinity Sunday, it’s important to remind ourselves that the Christian view of God as three-in-one places our understanding of who God is and what God is doing in the world in the broadest possible perspective. Trinity says that God is the one who created all things and all people, and that he made them very good. Trinity says that God entered into our struggle in the person of Jesus in order to heal our brokenness. And Trinity says that as the Spirit is always among us, working to make all things new, this is God’s doing. As a result, it only makes sense to affirm that “the whole earth is full of God’s glory” (Isa. 6:3).
This may be no big deal to you. You may take all that for granted because you’ve spent your whole life in the church. But there are many people in this world who do not have this view of God. Some think our world sort of “happened” on its own, which means that any “God” we might believe in is merely a spectator. Some may affirm that God truly created all things, but the notion that such a God would actually enter our experience to do something about it is completely foreign. Then there are those who think that God may have done some wonderful things in the past, but that was a long time ago. In other words, whatever God may be out there is basically irrelevant to real life.
As we’ve seen, Scripture articulates a far-reaching perspective of who God is and what God is doing by speaking of God’s “glory.” I realize that “glory” is a word that we don’t much use in our everyday conversations. I would say that “glory” is a word that we say only in church, and then it really doesn’t mean much to us. But in the Bible, the notion of “glory” is a wonderful image of our three-in-one God. In some contexts, the word glory seems to refer to the “beauty” of God. In others, it has the notion of God’s “majesty.” And I think that everywhere the word glory occurs, it has the implication of God’s “mystery.”
I think the best way to illustrate this is with nature. This, of course, is not original to me. That creation bears witness to God is a timeless insight. Think about a breathtaking mountain vista with its seemingly immovable firmness and crisp clarity. Imagine a vibrant sunset that re-defines the spectrum of colors from red to purple and stretches across the vast expanse of the sky. Recall a spectacular seascape that gives only a hint of the power that moves such incalculable volumes of water down to the murky depths of the oceans. Visualize the amazing beauty of a nebula in space, massive and stretching its colors over unimaginable distances.  These and many other images bear witness to God’s “glory.”
Of course, the first thing that comes to my mind in this is the beauty of it all. When the Bible speaks about God’s “glory,” it presents God as the author of beauty—all beauty. But perhaps in the same breath, when you speak of the beauty of creation, you also immediately perceive the amazing power that is behind it all. From this perspective, the Bible ascribes “glory” to God as the source and highest embodiment of the power behind all that exists. And behind the breathtaking beauty and the awe-inspiring power there is a “something more.” It is the mystery behind and through all mystery, and we perceive that this presence is what we affirm as God’s “glory.”
I hope this gives new meaning to the affirmation “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost” we sing every Sunday. When we do so, we are affirming that God’s beauty, power and mystery are all around us, all the time. At the same time, we are recognizing that our lives in this world are a part of something much larger than can be contained in our limited horizons. That means we cannot help but say “Here am I, send me!” when we hear the call to join God’s work of sustaining the beauty and life all around us. It means we will look for ways to join in the work of establishing God’s kingdom of justice, peace, and freedom, as well as God’s work of “making all things new.” And as we do so, we will recognize we and all those around us are always “full of God’s glory.”

[1] © 2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/27/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Breath of God

Breath of God
John 15:26-27[1]
I think that fear may be one of the greatest obstacles many of us face in life. I’ve mentioned fear a couple of times in recent sermons. The reason for that is I’ve dealt with fear many times in my life. I’m talking about the kind of fear that wakes you up in the middle of the night. I think fear can also be one of the greatest spiritual obstacles we may face. I know that when I’ve been captive to fear, I’ve had great difficulty being able to simply believe in God’s love, let alone experience it. Fear seems to cut us off from the life-giving presence of God’s Spirit in our lives just as surely as if we were branches lopped from a vine.
I mention this today because it is the day when we commemorate the first Pentecost. That was when the Spirit of God breathed life into the infant church, enabling them to bear witness to all that Jesus had meant to them. And throughout the New Testament, the Apostles affirm that the only way they were able to do the amazing things they did was because the Spirit of God had empowered them to do so. Ironically, before that first Pentecost, the first Christians typically gathered behind locked doors out of fear of being caught and arrested. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they weren’t able to live out their faith when they were captive to fear.
In contrast to that, when the Spirit came upon them, they seemed to lose their fear and became bold witnesses to Jesus Christ. This is precisely what Jesus says the Spirit would do for the disciples according to John’s Gospel. In our lesson for today, Jesus promises that the Spirit would testify to him, and that would enable them to testify as well (Jn. 15:26-27). That follows a pattern in John’s Gospel. Just as Jesus did the work God sent him to do, so they would also do the work Jesus sent them to do (Jn. 14:12). Just as Jesus taught what God had given him to teach, so the Spirit would continue to teach them, and in turn they would teach others (Jn. 16:13).
I’ve always believed that churches thrive to the extent that they become living demonstrations of the love of God, the presence of Jesus, and the new life of the Spirit. That might not sound like a very practical approach to revitalizing a church. Nevertheless it is my firm conviction that while we may generate short-term results through our own creativity and talent, anything lasting that we may do for the sake of the kingdom of God can only be done by the power of the Spirit working through us. Or perhaps I should say, it can only be done as the Spirit breathes the life of God in and through us.
One question I’ve always struggled with is what specifically we are supposed to do about this. Some would answer that we must simply become “filled with the Spirit.” But I’m not sure that really helps most of us. How can average, normal, day in and day out human beings like us become the kind of people who display the love of Christ and the new life of the Spirit? The usual answer is that it’s a matter of practicing the disciplines of the faith: prayer, scripture reading, service, and worship. These practices have sustained the life of the church for centuries, and for some of us, they continue to sustain our life. But the fact of the matter is that they simply leave some of us unmoved. 
That’s why another way to become more “Spirit-filled” is to find the presence of God through the everyday routines of life: from washing dishes to working in the yard to simply taking the time to look people in the eye and acknowledge them as human beings. I personally find exercising to be particularly effective for me —whether practicing yoga or going on a rigorous bike ride, or even walking. The key is to turn off the constant “noise” in our minds that keeps us from being aware of God’s life-giving presence. When we can silence all that mental chatter and simply be in the presence of God’s Spirit, we discover a whole new Pentecost every day—we discover that are constantly living in God’s presence. 
I don’t think there’s only one method for achieving this. And I also don’t think there’s a quick path to getting “spiritual.” In fact, it’s something we really can’t do at all! All we can do is try to “show up.” All we can do is open ourselves to the presence of the life-giving Spirit, praying for the breath of God to breathe new life in and through us. There are a number of ways of doing this, from meditative prayer to simply enjoying the beauty of the world around us. However we may find a way to become more aware of God’s presence, it makes all the difference in the way we live. And it makes all the difference in how we live out our faith.
I would say that most of us have had some kind of experience with the voice of fear. We know how powerfully it can affect us. But the voice that God’s Spirit breathes into our lives is not the voice of fear, but the voice of love. It is the voice that says “I am with you.” It is the voice that says “I will never abandon you.” It is the voice that says, “I have loved you with a love that never ends.” When we can recognize that the voice of fear is not the voice of truth, it can set us free from our fears. When we can listen to the voice of love, we can become more aware of God’s constant presence. Then we can begin to know the new life that God’s Spirit breathes in us and through us.

[1] © 2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/20/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Belonging to Truth

Belonging to Truth
John 17:6-19[1]
The concept of “Truth” is becoming more and more challenging in our society. Part of the problem is that many of us seem to have a rather flimsy approach to “Truth.” It seems that everyone has his or her “own truth,” and that no matter what that truth may be, no one has a right to dispute it. This plays out in politics, in religion, and in family life. It seems that there’s no aspect of our lives that hasn’t been affected by the fact that everything seems to be up for debate. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this muddy outlook on “truth” has led to confusion and turmoil. If we can’t even agree on basic convictions that guide our lives, how can there be any stability in our society?
On the other hand, part of the problem seems to be that many of us have a rather rigid approach to “Truth.” We hold fast to the convictions we’ve always believed, regardless of whether the facts may fly in the face of those convictions. This has been a particular temptation for those of us in the church. We throw out some verse from the Bible and assume not only that our understanding of “Truth” is correct, but also that we have God on our side. The problem with this approach is that when we’re not willing to admit that we may not have it all down, we stagnate in our own personal growth, and we throw up walls against those who disagree with us and label them as “enemies.”
As I mentioned last week, the section of John’s Gospel from which our lesson for today comes contains Jesus’ teachings to prepare his disciples for the fact that he would be leaving them soon. Not only is he “pulling out all the stops” in his effort to communicate his message to them. He’s also tying up all the previous hints and clues in John’s Gospel that he had been dropping all along about his purpose and his mission. In our lesson for today, Jesus uses the opportunity to pray for the disciples that they would indeed understand and follow the truth he had sought to teach them.
One of the most important themes in this Gospel is that the “Truth” Jesus taught his disciples was a unique kind of truth. It was not the truth of science or mathematics, where formulas and equations all add up. It was not the truth of philosophy seeking to come up with a rational answer to just about every question one could think. Nor was it the truth of dogma, where scholars try to fit all the teachings of the Bible into a neat and tidy system. Rather, the “Truth” that Jesus came to bring was the truth of a relationship with God whereby we experience God’s grace and we embrace God’s ways and purposes in this world.
I think we see this reflected in our Gospel lesson today in several ways. First, the “Truth” that Jesus taught his disciples was something that Jesus had received from his Father. We see this in an interesting interplay between the “Name” and the “Word” and the “Truth” Jesus says that God had given him. The point of this is, as Jesus says, “Now they know that everything you have given me is from you” (Jn. 17:7). The fact that everything Jesus did and taught had come from his Father reflects the relationship between Jesus and the Father. It was such a close relationship that Jesus could say that what he was doing only what the Father had taught him.
At the same time, the theme is expanded here to include the disciples in that relationship. Interestingly, just as the Father had given Jesus the “Name” and the “Word” and the “Truth, so Jesus says that the disciples were those whom the Father had given him. The reason why Jesus had taught them the “Truth” he had received from the Father was so that the disciples could share the joy of his relationship with God. Jesus said it this way: “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” (Jn. 17:13). The truth Jesus spoke was the kind of truth that was intended to draw the disciples into the same relationship with the Father that Jesus enjoyed.
But there was more to it than that. The truth that Jesus taught his disciples was the kind of truth that would not leave them where they were. It would change them, and it would change them through and through. Jesus said that the ultimate purpose of this truth was that they may be “sanctified in the truth” (Jn. 17:17, 19). In the Bible, sanctification is one of those fifty-dollar theological words that means to set something or someone apart for God’s purposes. I like the way the CEV puts it: “let this truth make them completely yours” (John 17:17 CEV). The kind of truth Jesus brought was intended to make those who followed it into people who belong completely to God.
When we receive and embrace the truth Jesus taught, we are changed so that we become people who belong to God and to God’s truth through and through. We enter into a relationship with God, a covenant, if you will, that both brings us joy and makes a claim on our lives. That may not answer the problem of “Truth” in our world. But God’s truth is a different kind of truth than that. God’s truth gives us clarity, but doesn’t make us into religious “know-it-alls.” God’s truth defines more than what we recite as our creed; it defines how we live our lives. God’s truth is about a relationship, and when we embrace that truth in Jesus Christ, we are changed into people who belong to God’s truth.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/13/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

No Greater Love

No Greater Love
John 15:9-17[1]
I think most of us would agree that friends are a gift. They help make life meaningful, interesting, and fun. Our friends add so much to our lives, just by sharing themselves with us. And as we share the journey of life together, it means the world to most of us to know that we have friends who are there to share our joys and our sorrows. A friend is someone we know we can rely on to be there for us no matter what, even when it may seem like the rest of the world has turned against us. We trust our friends to keep our deepest secrets and to be genuinely happy for us when we find success. Friends like that are true gifts that make our lives so much better just by being there for us.
But I think we might also agree that friendships can be tricky. Any time you are dealing with relationships between human beings, it can get tricky. We all have our flaws, our foibles, and our failings. True friends accept us despite all of that. But even among true friends, sometimes things can get tricky. In part, the fears I mentioned last week can be driven by our broken relationships with others. We can be afraid of our families, because they have the power to hurt us deeply with unkind words and actions. We can be afraid of our friends, because most of us know the pain of having a “friend” betray our trust. Many of us are afraid of others, simply because they are “other” and we assume (whether we know it or not) they pose a threat to us. Friendships can be tricky.
In our Gospel lesson for today, the idea of friendship plays a central role in what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples. This section of John’s Gospel consists of Jesus’ efforts to prepare them for his impending departure. And of course, the most difficult part of that for them would be his death on the cross. Jesus had said many things to them to help prepare them for that crisis. I think one of the most moving statements he made about his death is what he tells them here: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). In this passage, he didn’t say he was rescuing lost sinners. He said he was laying down his life for his friends.
I think this has some significant implications. Besides being Teacher, Savior, Messiah, and Lord, Jesus here says that he is giving his life for them because he is their friend. Despite the beloved hymn “What a Friend we have in Jesus,” I don’t know that we think of Jesus dying for us as a friend. I don’t know about you, but to me that makes a difference in the way I view the cross. Jesus offered himself willingly, even joyfully according to our lesson for today, on behalf of those whom he considered his friends. Not sinners lost and dying. Not wandering sheep gone astray. He “laid down his life” for his friends. Of course that included the Apostles, but it also included everyone else. Jesus “laid down his life” for us as a friend as well.
I think the context in which we most naturally understand someone laying down their life for their friends is in the context of danger. Some of the noblest and bravest heroes throughout history have laid down their lives to save others from danger. And those heroes become living examples of the “no greater love” Jesus spoke of. But I also think we can see examples of this kind of friendship in everyday life. Hopefully we all have known friends who have given of themselves to help us in a time of need. They are the ones who sit by our bedside and take time out of their lives, simply because they are our friends. And they do so without the slightest notion that we’re putting them out in any way at all. They are the friends who willingly and freely take the initiative to give of themselves because of their “no greater love” for us.
When you look at the cross from this perspective, it has significant consequences for us.[2] The goal of Jesus’ gift of “no greater love” for us all was to make us his “friends,” and at the same time friends of God. But I think his purpose was also to make us friends to each other. In the church, we may be used to the language of brothers and sisters in reference to one another. And that biblical theme resonates with us. But at the same time, family imagery can suggest some constraints to our love. On the other hand, I think that becoming friends to each other and to all those around us in the way that Jesus was our friend can inject some new life into our understanding of what it means to be a community that follows Christ.
The message in our Gospel lesson is that the “friendship” we’ve been granted with God through Jesus Christ changes the way we look at the people around us. We become their “friends” just as Jesus made us his friends. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they change how they relate to us. They may not become more “friendly” toward us at all. But if we seek to share God’s love with others as “friends,” then it will necessarily change the way we relate to them. Like Jesus, we will take the initiative to offer ourselves on their behalf freely and willingly.
When we live our lives on the basis of the fact that Jesus “laid down his life” for us as our friend, we find ourselves naturally offering that same “no greater love” to others. We do this because as God’s friends we know the assurance of total and unconditional acceptance. We do it because as Christ’s friends we find ourselves called to follow his example of freely giving ourselves for others. And as friends to all people, we face the challenge of opening ourselves to everyone we encounter—those who are like us and those who are different, those whom we know and those who are strangers to us, those whom we trust and those we avoid. We are called to the practice the “no greater love” that Jesus modeled by living as friends to all those whom God brings into our lives.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/6/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 116-21, 182-89, 314-17; cf. especially ibid., 189: “Christian fellowship is a fundamentally open fellowship and not merely a community of fellow-believers”; and 316: “Friendship is an open relationship which spreads friendliness, because it combines affection with respect.”

New Life Through God's Love

New Life Through God’s Love
1 John 4:7-21[1]
I know that not everybody looks at the world this way, but I tend to think that most people have the best of intentions behind their actions. Of course, the best of intentions can often go off the rails. If we’re honest with ourselves, I think we have to admit that having the best of intentions doesn’t guarantee we will do or say the right thing. Unfortunately, having the best of intentions can actually keep us from seeing that we’re going about something all wrong. I know that’s been true in my life more times than I can count. I’ve made so many mistakes thinking I was doing or saying the right thing because of my good intentions. But then I suspect I’m not alone in that. It seems to be something that is a part of being human.
One of the tricky aspects of our good intentions is that they can blind us to what really lies behind our words and actions.[2] Oftentimes, our good intentions become our way of avoiding the fact that we’re afraid. Some of us may be afraid that if people really knew us they would not respect us or find us worthy of love and acceptance. Some of us may be afraid that the world is against us, and that if we don’t fight tooth and nail we will “lose.” Some of us may simply be afraid of the way the world seems to be changing at an ever faster pace. It’s an experience I think we all share at times: due to our fears we miss the fact that the “disruption” of change can lead to a life we could never have imagined would be so good.
I believe our lesson from 1 John for today addresses this problem of fear. Of course, in this particular context, the Scripture is speaking to the fear of punishment. And the point is that because of the love that God has freely poured into our lives through our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, we need no longer fear any punishment. As the Scripture puts it, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). The impact of that love in our lives is that we no longer have to cringe in fear before a God we’re afraid will strike us down in anger. Instead, the message of the Gospel is that “God is love.”
But I think this passage has more to say to us about the power of God’s love to help us find new life than simply freeing us from fear of punishment. The Scripture puts it this way: “God showed his love for us when he sent his only Son into the world to give us life” (1 John 4:9, CEV). There is some significant theology behind this.  We call it the incarnation, the belief that in Jesus, God somehow came to walk in our shoes, to experience the fullness of our suffering, our struggles, and even our fears. And the purpose of all this was so that we might “live”: really and truly live a life of faith and hope and love that God intends for us all.
Throughout this passage there is an interesting interplay between living in love and living in God. Following up on the statement that “God is love,” the Scripture goes on to say “all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them” (1 John 4:16, NLT). “Living in love” and “living in God” seem to be interchangeable in our lesson for today. That may seem confusing, but I think the point is that when we come to know in the depth of our very souls that God loves us no matter what, we find a whole new quality of life. And at the same time, that new quality of life is only possible by experiencing God’s love for us. The two are intertwined: we find new life through God’s love for us.
In this lesson, the new life we have through God’s love for us results in our relating to one another with love. The Scripture puts it this way: “Dear friends, since God loved us this much, we must love each other” (1 John 4:11, CEV). The idea is that if God loved us enough to come among us in Jesus Christ and take the full measure of our brokenness on himself, we can do no less than love one another. The lesson goes on to state it plainly: “We love because God loved us first” (1 John 4:19, CEV). In fact, I would say that one of the primary characteristics of the new life we find through God’s love for us is that we share that love with others.
The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that God freely gives love to each of us. It seems to me that when we really get it in our “heart of hearts” that God loves us no matter what, we are set free from the chains that bind us. That includes the chains of fear that can keep us from living fully into the new life we’ve been given. Bolstered by the assurance of God’s love for us, we can have a whole new basis for relating to life and to those around us. Instead of being driven by the fears that can haunt us, when we find new life through God’s love, that love can become the motivation behind our words and actions.
Of course, even here, we all fall short at times, despite our best intentions. I don’t know many people in this world who make it their purpose in life to go out and hurt someone intentionally. But even when it is our intention to speak and act from the love of God in our hearts, nobody perfectly embodies that intention. I know our lesson speaks of God’s love being “perfected” in us. I think the point of that is that when we seek to share the love we’ve received from God, the purpose for which God intended it is fulfilled in us. It seems to me that, given our human experience of falling short, we spend our lives doing our best to speak and act out of that love. Fortunately, it’s not something we have to do in our own strength. At the end of the day, it’s the power of God’s love working in us that enables us to live this new life.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/29/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] See Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, 85-91.