Monday, October 22, 2018

Giving Ourselves Away

Giving Ourselves Away
Mark 10:35-45[1]
When you look at the way we live our lives these days, it’s hard to dispute the conclusion that we as a people are to a great extent driven by our own self-interest. All around us we can see evidence of the fact that “self” exercises a powerful influence. From the way we spend our money to the choices we make about our time to the challenges of getting along with the others, “self” seems to raise it’s ugly head wherever we look. The simple truth is that we want what we want, and we don’t want anyone to stand in the way of our getting it. We are a people for whom “self” is at the center of much of our lives.
The sad fact about that is that we pursue our own wants and desires because we think that by doing so, we will find fulfillment and meaning in life. But whatever satisfaction we may gain is short-lived. When I was in seminary, I worked as a security officer for a family of billionaires. They had the money to get whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it. But the individual families within the clan couldn’t stand to even talk to one another. Taking this approach to life misses one of the most fundamental lessons we can learn: our lives are not just about us and getting what we want. They are about much more than that. In particular, they are about serving others by giving ourselves away.
In our Gospel lesson for today, James and John, two of Jesus’ “inner circle” of disciples along with Peter, denied him in their own way with a rather audacious request. They asked Jesus to do for them “whatever we ask of you” (Mk. 10:35)! Now, he had already taught them that if they wanted to follow him they must “deny themselves” (Mk. 8:34) and “lose their lives” for his sake (Mk. 8:35). He had also already taught them that “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk. 9:35). So  I think it’s safe to say that their request shows they had missed the point just as much as Peter had when he denied even knowing Jesus.
What they asked of Jesus is truly astounding. They ask for the privilege of sitting at his right and left hand when he came in his “glory.” James and John, like the rest of the disciples, still thought that Jesus had come to restore the glory of David’s kingdom in all its might, wealth, and prestige. Even though Jesus had just warned them again that he was going to be condemned and beaten and killed, they simply could not hear that. That doesn’t happen to the Messiah. In their minds, when the Messiah comes, he ascends to the throne of David, throws off the yoke of their enemies, and reigns forever!
This was no small favor that James and John requested. They expected him to rule over the Kingdom of God forever, and they wanted to be the ones to sit at his side. In other words, they wanted their share of the glory they expected him to receive! To grasp the audacity of this request, we only have to think about all the heroes of the faith that had gone before them: Abraham, Moses, and David, not to mention prophets like Jeremiah. And there were James and John, wanting Jesus to move them to the head of the line so they could share his spotlight. It’s hard to imagine a more selfish request.
In response, Jesus tries again to teach them. He points out how “among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them” (Mk. 10:42). The way he words this statement implies a critique of power at all levels. On the surface, it’s clear what Jesus thought about the way in which those in power throw their weight around. Beyond that, the phrase “those whom they recognize as their rulers” could be translated more literally “those who seem to rule.” That could simply mean that they’re the ones in charge. But the way Jesus worded that phrase was a strange way to put it if that were all he meant to say. It is likely that he was alluding to a significant theme in the Jewish thought of the day: the rulers of this world only “seem” to rule, because God ultimately rules over them all, and God’s rule has the last word.
I think Jesus was trying to help the disciples see through the external trappings of power and glory for the sham that it is in the light of God’s Kingdom. And so he tells them bluntly: “it shall not be so among you” (Mk. 10:43, RSV)! Once again he tries to break through all their pre-conceived notions of what he had come to do. More than that, he tries to break through their own egos to impress upon them that if they want to follow him, they must be prepared to give themselves away as servants and even “slaves” of all (Mk. 10:44). And to reinforce the lesson, he once again pointed to his own destiny—giving his life on the cross for the sake of us all. Following him would entail no less for them. It would mean giving themselves away for others.
We still seem to be dazzled by power and glory. It appeals to the selfish desires of our egos: to have whatever we want in this life. But that is not the way of following Jesus. The way of following Jesus is the way that leads to a cross. It is the way that leads to becoming the last of all, the way that leads to becoming the servant and even the slave of all. I would say that just about everything within us resists this kind of self-denial. But Jesus not only called us to give ourselves away, he also demonstrated what that looks like by laying down his own life. If we are going to follow Jesus, it means that we will have to give ourselves away. That’s not an easy path. I can guarantee you that if you choose to follow Jesus in this way you will find yourself weary and frustrated and discouraged at some point. But Jesus didn’t promise that following him would be easy. He promised that if we follow him in the path of giving ourselves away for the sake of others, we will truly find life.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/21/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Pioneer of Salvation

Pioneer of Salvation
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12[1]
When you think about what the original pioneers who settled this land went through, it is amazing what they accomplished. I’ve made several cross-country moves in my life. That kind of move is challenging for most of us to consider. But we have the benefit of knowing that we can make the trip in the relative comfort and safety of a car, never too far from fuel and food and a motel to spend the night. The original pioneers had none of that. Those who first blazed the trail westward didn’t even know if they were on the right track. Those who followed the trails after they were reasonably well marked were risking everything when they took the journey. It is truly amazing to think about what they accomplished.
When you consider what motivated the pioneers to make such a journey, I’m sure you would find a variety of answers. Some were looking for the promise of prosperity. Others were just looking for a place to settle and raise a family. Whatever motivated them, I have to wonder whether they knew what they were in for. The stories of the pioneers make it clear that some did not. They were not prepared for the hardships and sacrifices required to carve a livelihood out of the wilderness. It’s hard to imagine that any of them were fully prepared for what lay ahead. But some of them persevered, and they made it possible for others to follow, and to settle this land.
Our scripture lesson from Hebrews for today speaks of Jesus as the “pioneer of our salvation.” It’s a unique way of understanding Jesus. In fact, this theme is only found in the Letter to the Hebrews. I think it likely that has something to do with the context in which the letter was written. Christians faced increasing opposition to their faith. Many were becoming discouraged and losing heart due to the hardships they faced on a constant basis. The Letter to the Hebrews was written to encourage them to persevere in their faith despite the obstacles they lived with.
In that setting, the Scripture speaks of Jesus as the “pioneer of our salvation” (Heb. 2:10). The idea is that Jesus has “blazed the trail” for us to experience salvation. He has opened the way for us to know God in a life-changing way. But Hebrews not only calls Jesus the “pioneer of our salvation.” The Scripture also speaks of him as “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2). The idea is that he not only blazed the trail for us, but he has also completed the journey, and stands as a living example of how we can complete our journey—by following him in single-minded devotion to God’s will and ways.
I find it remarkable that in both settings where the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus as the pioneer of our faith, suffering plays a significant role. In our lesson for today, the Scripture speaks of Jesus being “perfected” for that task through what he suffered. Specifically, he tasted death for us all in order to open the way for us to God. Again, in the other setting where this theme occurs, those to whom the letter was addressed were encouraged to look to Jesus and what he endured on the cross as encouragement to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). And so, as the pioneer of our salvation, Jesus continues to encourage us to finish our pilgrimage of faith—a journey that will last our whole lives.
I’m not sure we realize it, but I would say that we all are like the pioneers in some ways. We, too, are “on the way,” taking the journey of faith. And while we have many examples to follow, each of us has a unique path to take. For most of us, we really have no idea where that path is going to lead us. And none of us can know what hardships or sacrifices we will encounter on the way. I think it’s safe to say, however, that all of us will come to a time in our journey of faith where what we have to endure on the way will leave us discouraged. It’s common to find ourselves, after having worked so hard for so long, to simply grow weary of the journey.
In a very real sense, this not only applies to us as individuals. It also applies to us as a church family. Like most churches these days, we find ourselves  trekking into a wilderness of sorts. The landscape in which the church finds itself situated in this culture is one that has changed dramatically, and those who are open enough to be aware of this change find themselves blazing a trail into the future of what the church will become in this strange new world. At this point, I would say that none of us can say where this journey will lead or what the church will look like as we adapt to a new environment along the way.
It’s not easy to be a pioneer. It takes constant commitment to persevere along a difficult path. It’s easy to get discouraged and lose heart along the way. Fortunately, none of us has to make this pilgrimage of faith on our own. Most of us have the encouragement of friends and family as we face the hardships of the journey. We also have the encouragement of the family of faith to help us along. But perhaps more importantly, we can look to Jesus when we lose heart. As the “pioneer of our salvation,” Jesus has marked out the path. As the “perfecter of our faith” he has shown us how to complete the journey, and he continually encourages us as we seek to finish the path. We are not left to make this journey alone. As the “pioneer of salvation,” Jesus leads us to our final destination.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/7/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Monday, October 01, 2018

The Stone is Lifted

The Stone is Lifted
Mark 9:38-50[1]
I wonder whether we as a people have become immune to scandal. In the days of Watergate, when the Senate hearings were broadcast on TV every day, we were shocked at the abuse of power that went all the way to the top. These days, it seems we have lost our ability to be shocked. We have grown so cynical about power and those who use it or abuse it, that we almost expect anyone in such a position to be caught in a scandal at some point. I might go even farther, and venture the opinion that many of us don’t care about scandals any more. We’ve heard so much about Iran-gate and Nanny-gate and Whitewater-gate that our eyes glaze over and we tune out at the very mention of another scandal.
Perhaps I should amend that opinion to say that we don’t care about the scandals that apply to the people we support. We pay plenty of attention to the abuses of power on the part of those we see as the “bad guys.” But if someone is on our “good guy” list, we will suspend judgment and give them the benefit of the doubt over and over again. As a fan of world class cycling, I myself didn’t want to believe the accusations that Lance Armstrong was using performance-enhancing drugs to win an unprecedented 7 consecutive titles in the Tour de France. That is, until he publicly admitted that he had done so and was stripped of his titles and awards.
In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus talks about what happens when we abuse our power to take advantage of others. It might not seem obvious at first glance, because this is one of the most difficult passages in Mark’s Gospel. It talks about stumbling blocks and self-mutilation and being thrown into hell and being “salted with fire.” And the combination is confusing to the best of us and difficult to sort out. But the central concept in this passage has to do with “stumbling,” either causing someone else to do so, or stumbling ourselves. The Greek word is to “scandalize,” but the meaning is different from our understanding of a scandal. It’s talking about causing others to sin, or falling into sin ourselves.
I think in order to understand any of this, we have to have a clear perspective on the biblical concept of sin. While many religions have identified sexual outcasts as the chief of sinners, the Bible points instead to the “wicked” ones who abuse their power to take advantage of others. As some have put it, the Bible is more concerned about what happens in the boardroom than what happens in the bedroom. Jesus followed this pattern by saving his harshest criticism for those promoted injustice, those who diminished the lives of the least and the lowest in society. And, sad to say, typically those who were guilty of this kind of behavior were the “leaders,” both religious and political.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus says that “it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” than to “put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me” (Mark 9:42). I think you would have to say that Jesus was serious about confronting those who used their power to take advantage of others. And to emphasize the point, he follows this up by saying that if your hand or your foot or your eye causes you to take oppress someone in this way, you would be better off simply removing that part of your body! Now, Jesus knew that “sin” isn’t located in any particular body part. He was exaggerating to make a point: spare no effort to avoid the selfishness, the unbridled greed, and the total lack of concern for the welfare of others that leads to this kind of abuse.
Unfortunately, we are surrounded by the monuments memorializing the fact that our society has had its fair share of “captains of industry” who made a fortune and rose to power on the backs of thousands who labored in poverty. Names like Carnegie, Mellon, Rockefeller, Hearst, and Vanderbilt can be found on buildings all over the country as testaments to their “generosity.” But I doubt that the people who had to endure harmful working conditions, substandard housing, and malnutrition would have seen them in that light. The simple truth is that they used their power to enrich themselves by taking advantage of others.
It’s easy to look back and point out those who have abused their power in the past. It may be harder to recognize that we have tycoons today who are enriching themselves by taking advantage of others. But even more difficult is the realization that all of us have diminished another person at some time in our lives. And we’ve felt the weight of our misdeeds like a heavy stone around our necks. I think that’s why Jesus said it’s better to be drowned in the sea than to carry the burden of knowingly taking advantage of another human being. It’s a burden that can be crushing to bear for those of us with a conscience.
It’s also easy to point an accusing finger at “others” as the culprits in the predicament we find ourselves with our fellow human beings. But Jesus didn’t come to bring release to the oppressed and heap vengeance on the oppressors. Injustice of any kind oppresses both those who have to endure it and those who perpetrate it. Jesus came “to free the oppressors and the oppressed” from the burden of injustice.[2] When we allow the weight and the “fire” of our guilt to cleanse our hearts, we find freedom from the need to take advantage of others. Then the stone of injustice is lifted from us all.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/30/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 307.

Last of All

Last of All
Mark 9:30-37[1]
We don’t much like not being first. For most of us, there seems to be some situation or other where not being first gets under our skin. And we certainly don’t like being last. That can be downright humiliating. It’s embarrassing. We associate being last with “losing,” and most of us don’t like to lose at anything. Some of us really don’t like losing! We associate being last with being worst, and that really gets under our skin. In the right settings, the ones that really push our buttons, being last can seem like a threat to our very sense of self. That kind of threat to our well-being is something that many of us will actually fight to avoid. Being last of all is a bitter pill to swallow for most of us.
I think one reason for this is we are such a success-oriented people. The very idea of being last just doesn’t make sense to us. We assume that those who are last in this world got there because they never really tried hard enough. By contrast, most of us spend our whole lives trying to be first and best. We’re a “go big or go home” kind of people. It feels powerless to be last, and we don’t like feeling powerless. It strips us of our self-worth. It generates shame, which is more intense than guilt. Shame is the feeling there is something wrong with us at a basic level. It calls into question our very existence. Being last equates in our minds to the feeling that we’re just not good enough.
Our Gospel lesson for today brings together several episodes that may not seem to go together. It begins with Jesus, whom Peter has already confessed to be the Messiah, telling the disciples that he is going to be killed. In their minds, Messiahs don’t get killed; they conquer and liberate their people from their oppressors. The idea of a Messiah being killed simply made no sense to them. Messiah’s don’t get killed; they usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. I think when the Scripture says, “they did not understand what he was saying” (Mk. 9:32), it may be an understatement!
Hence the fact that in Mark’s Gospel, right after Jesus gives his disciples this somber news, they are engaged in an argument about “who was the greatest” (Mk. 9:34). In this context, the Scripture doesn’t specify the greatest at what. It simply says they were arguing about who was the greatest. Set alongside Jesus’ prediction of his impending death, that in and of itself seems odd. Matthew’s Gospel brings the disparity into sharper focus: there they asked Jesus outright, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of God?” (Matt. 18:1). It seems clearly implied that they thought the “greatest” had to be one of them! More than that, it illustrates their total lack of understand about what Jesus was trying to accomplish.
Jesus’ answer to them makes it clear that they had missed one of the most important lessons he tried to teach them: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). And to emphasize the point, Jesus seeks to correct his disciples’ misguided ambition by embracing a child, and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37). We might see that as a “cute” or “warm and fuzzy” experience, because that’s the way we see children. But for most of human history children have been seen as having no value in society. They were simply mouths to feed and were put to work as soon as possible. They were the least and the last of all in that day.
But Jesus not only said to embrace the children—who represented the least and the last of all.  In Matthew’s Gospel, he told his disciples they had to become like children in order to enter the Kingdom of God (Matt. 18:3). Again, we make this “sugary sweet” by thinking he’s talking about the trusting nature of a child. But the disciples would have not found the idea of becoming like the child very inviting. The role of a child was one that was precarious in the ancient world. A child was someone to whom an adult could do just about anything and get away with it. They had no recourse, because they had no legal rights. They were the most vulnerable, the weakest, the lowest, and the last of all in the world of Jesus’ day.
In holding out children as an example for his disciples to follow, I think he was saying the same thing he had tried to teach them in many ways.  I think he was telling them that if they wanted to follow him they had to become the least, the lowest, and the last of all. That’s about as contrary to our way of life as you can get. We praise ambition and we honor those who are “winners” and those who are first. These attitudes are woven into the very fabric of the way we live our lives. But while we spend our efforts seeking to be “on top,” the “best,” and first of all, Jesus calls us to a very different path.
Jesus calls us to a path of self-sacrifice, a path of making ourselves vulnerable, a path of giving up the ambitions that call to us from this world. Instead of pushing and shoving our way into first place, Jesus calls us to a path of taking last place. It’s a path that not only leads us to care for those who are most vulnerable in society. It also leads us to take our place alongside the weakest, the lowest, and the last of all. Although it goes against the grain of everything that is instilled in us from childhood, that is the path Jesus calls us to walk if we would follow him. It’s a path that leads us to give up striving to be first and best, and instead take our place with him as servant of all, and last of all.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/23/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Words of Life

The Words of Life
John 6:58-69[1]
These days, most of us have someone whose words we tend to take to heart. Whether it’s Sean Hannity or Rachel Maddow, or someone in between, we all have a spokesperson whose voice carries more weight than anyone else’s. I suppose that’s always been true—whether it was a parent or a teacher or a pastor. For many of us, Walter Cronkite was the voice of truth. For many of his almost 20 years as the CBS news anchor, he was known as “the most trusted man in America.” His candid reporting style was summed up best by his signature sign-off, “And that’s the way it is.” If Walter Cronkite said it, people tended to believe it.
While we may not be used to thinking of our final prophet in those terms, I think it’s fitting to conclude our series with Jesus of Nazareth. While we believe he was more than a prophet, he was certainly not less than a prophet. He spoke God’s truth to the people of his day in a way that turned their world upside down and captured the hearts and minds of many who followed him. To be sure, there were many, perhaps the majority, who rejected him and his teachings. But for those who had ears to hear his message, it changed their lives for good. Jesus delivered a message that was at times shocking, and at times comforting. But in every way, Jesus’ prophetic ministry powerfully impacted people’s lives. And his words still have the power to change lives today.
In our Gospel lesson for today, we step into an episode from Jesus’ life that marked a significant turning point in his ministry. After an amazing event in which he fed a huge crowd that was following him, many of them tracked him across the Sea of Galilee to hear and see more of what Jesus might do. When he challenged them, they asked what they must do. His answer was to believe, and in what seems like typical fashion for them, they asked him to produce a “sign” to convince them. They even suggested one: more food! They asked him to reproduce the miracle of the manna in the wilderness. But Jesus was always wary of faith that depended on proof.
Instead he called them to simply believe in him and in his words. In fact, he went beyond that and claimed to be the true “bread from heaven.” He told them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (Jn. 6:35). They had all kinds of problems with that. They argued that he came from Nazareth; therefore claiming to be the “bread from heaven” offended them. He said that only those who ate this true “bread from heaven” would live forever. They responded to his implication that they were to literally eat his flesh with disgust. And as a result, John’s Gospel tells us that “many of his disciples turned back” (Jn. 6:66).
Of course, the truth was that Jesus was not calling his disciples to literally eat his flesh. He made that clear when he said, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (Jn. 6:63). What Jesus was looking for was a kind of faith that would hear his words as “words of life.” He was looking for disciples who would hear his words so well that they would transform the way they lived their lives. And in the process, they would find the power of his words giving them a whole new kind of life.
What we may not expect to hear about this is that it wasn’t entirely unheard of. The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel both called the Jewish people receive a “new heart” that would bring about a fresh commitment to God. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says time and again that what he did and said was only what came from “the Father.” When he broke the Jewish traditions of keeping the Sabbath to heal a paralyzed man, he said, “I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (Jn. 5:30).  When the Jewish leaders came right out and asked him who he thought we was, Jesus replied, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me” (Jn. 8:28). Jesus’ teachings were “the words of life” because they came from God.
At the end of the episode in our Gospel reading, after the Scripture says that many turned back and followed him no longer, Jesus put the question to the twelve. He asked them straight out, “Do you also wish to go away?” (Jn. 6:67). I find it interesting that it is Peter who answers for them: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn. 6:68). Peter, who would deny even knowing Jesus, and then return to feed his sheep, is the one who acknowledges the life-changing power of Jesus’ words: “you have the words of eternal life.”
In our day, I think if you asked people whether Jesus spoke for God, you would find many people answering, “Yes.” But it’s one thing to acknowledge Jesus as a prophet who speaks life-giving words. It’s another thing altogether to have the ears to hear those words in such a way that we take them to heart. It’s another thing yet to put Jesus’ words into practice in our daily lives so that we actually experience the new life they are meant to give us. Many throughout the ages have admired Jesus as a teacher of great truth. Many have even made the effort to study Jesus’ teachings in order to better understand them. But Jesus calls us to something more. He calls us to make his teachings so much a part of our lives that it changes the way we live from the inside out. Then we too will know in a practical way that Jesus’ words are the words of life.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/26/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Too Small a Thing

Too Small a Thing
Isaiah 49:1-6[1]
Lately we’ve heard a lot of dialogue about “privilege.” I think we as a people have always had to deal with the fact that there are some who seem to have advantages that others don’t. There was a time when it was commonly assumed that privilege was earned and deserved, and that those who lacked privilege had only themselves to blame. Maybe some still hold that view. These days much of the talk has shifted to a critical view of privilege. Those who have privilege have an unfair advantage. They may have gained that advantage by questionable means. And anyone with privilege is certainly suspect for the simple fact of having it.
While it’s true that there are plenty of people out there taking unfair advantage of others, I think our current conversation is too shallow. It fails to take into account the fact that many who have privileges or advantages use them in the service of others. That was the sentiment behind President Kennedy’s statement, “Those to whom much is given, much is required.” And, of course the original form of this was spoken by Jesus: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required” (Lk. 12:48). It’s an approach to privilege that seems to have been overlooked in our current setting—both in the way some talk about privilege, and in the way some approach their own privileges. 
 The prophet Isaiah addressed the issue of privilege among the Jewish people. From the days of Moses, they had a strong sense of being a “peculiar people,” a nation chosen and blessed by God. But as the prophets make clear, the Jewish people had turned that blessing into a right they saw as theirs. They thought that blessing would spare them from all harm, even from suffering the consequences of their disobedience to God. They saw the privilege of being God’s “chosen people” as an advantage they had a right to claim for themselves.
But Isaiah reminded them that the purpose of their calling in the first place was not simply their own privilege, but so that they might be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6). This theme goes back to the days of the Exodus, when Moses had said that they would be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), a whole nation of people who would speak for God and represent God’s saving purposes in the world. It goes back even beyond that to the days when Abraham lived in Ur of the Chaldees, and God called him to leave for a place “to be determined”! The purpose was to make Abraham a blessing to all people: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).
Somewhere along the way, however, that outlook got lost. But the Jewish people weren’t the only ones to take that path. The church throughout the ages has made the very same mistake.  Like the Jewish people of old, Kings and popes and preachers of all kinds have mistaken God’s blessing for a privilege they had a right to claim. And they have believed this privilege gives them a claim to advantages like power, wealth, and influence that is theirs by right.
But the God whom Isaiah called his people to worship is “the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 40:28), the one who “sits above the circle of the earth” and “stretches out the heavens like a curtain” (40:22). The God who called them and us to serve as light to the world is the one who said, “I made the earth, and created humankind upon it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host” (Isaiah 45:12). I think the point is to place the calling of a particular people as the “chosen ones” in the proper context. As Isaiah said so long ago, to view their privilege as something that belongs to them alone is “too small a thing” for the God who is in the process of renewing all creation.
When we walk down that path, we not only make our God too small, we abandon the very lifeblood of the church—our calling to carry out the same task as God’s “servant” of whom Isaiah spoke so long ago. Like God’s “servant” we are called to serve, not to be served. Like God’s “servant” we are called to bring God’s grace, mercy, and love to those who have been written off: to the least and the last and the left out. It’s an approach to “privilege” that sets aside a self-serving attitude and sees God’s blessing as a calling to serve others.
It’s an approach to privilege that recognizes that “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.” It says to the hungry “here’s food,” and to the stranger, “you’re welcome here.” It’s a point of view that says to those who are thirsty, “here’s water,” and to those who are homeless, “here’s shelter.” It seeks to set free all those who are captives and to bring comfort to those who are suffering in any way. It’s a standpoint that helps those in poverty to find a better life. It’s an attitude that views privilege as a means of helping others.
The point of God’s blessing on a special people was never to bestow upon them a privilege they could use to their own advantage. Rather it has always been a calling to serve others. It is not about claiming rights we think belong to us, but transforming this world into “the kind of world God had in mind when He created it.”[2] Anything less than that is “too small a thing” for the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ who is working through the Spirit of life to make all things new!  And it’s “too small a thing” for us as well.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/19/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Not in the Drama

Not in the Drama
1 Kings 19:1-15a[1]
One of the effects of our preoccupation with what we see on various screens is that we tend to be fascinated with celebrities. Whether they are actors or politicians or athletes, anyone who has any kind of presence on a screen seems to have a larger-than-life persona. For some reason, the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” seem to grab our attention. Of course, it would seem that many celebrities go out of the way to attract headlines and exposure. Whether they actively seek publicity or not, the fact of the matter is that none of them are truly “larger than life.” They are human beings, flawed and fallible, just like the rest of us. Sometimes the drama in their lives that gets reported so often simply serves to demonstrate their humanity.
I think we may have a similar attitude towards the leading characters of the Bible. Prophets like Moses and Elijah stand out for the extraordinary feats they accomplished. I think we like to see them as uncompromising people who rise above the level of ordinary human beings. Their dramatic personalities only seem to confirm for us that these are no ordinary servants of God. But if you read the Bible carefully, you find evidence of their humanity written into the stories about them. Our lesson for today provides us with an example.
The prophet Elijah comes fresh from what would appear to be a great victory. He has challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest to determine whom the people would serve as God. Each of them were to prepare an altar with a sacrifice and call on their gods to consume the offering by fire. While the prophets of Baal cried out fervently most of the day, nothing happened. Late in the afternoon, Elijah prayed a simple prayer, and not only the sacrifice, but the altar and everything around it were consumed by fire. It was meant to convince Israel to be faithful to God alone.
More than that, Elijah was responsible for the fact that there had been a drought in Israel for three years. Needless to say, he wasn’t the most popular prophet around in those days. After defeating—and slaughtering—the prophets of Baal, Elijah notified the King of Israel, a godless man named Ahab, that the drought was over. And after three years, the rains came back. It would seem that Elijah had demonstrated the power of God in two dramatic events. You would think that he would be celebrating his success as God’s prophet.
But in our lesson for today, we find an episode that “blatantly” demonstrates Elijah’s humanity.[2] In the face of a threat on his life by the Queen, Elijah flees into the wilderness. He makes it a day’s journey before he collapses. And when he does, he prays a prayer that seems strange for so powerful a prophet of God. He prays to die, saying “I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4). I have to wonder what inspired that prayer. It would seem that Elijah was disappointed with God because none of his dramatic displays made the difference in the people of Israel he had expected. Perhaps Elijah thought that the people would return to the Lord as soon as they saw the dramatic signs he had performed. But that’s not what happened.
Despite Elijah’s pessimism, the “angel of the LORD” gave him rest and food for a long journey into the wilderness to the “mount of God.” There, Elijah was permitted to present his complaint to God “in person,” so to speak. And when the LORD asks Elijah, “what are you doing here?” Elijah’s response is a classic expression of self-pity: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:10). It doesn’t sound much like what you’d expect to hear from a bold prophet of the LORD fresh from two apparent “victories”!
In response, the LORD teaches Elijah two important lessons. First came a powerful wind, then an earthquake, and then a fire. But each time, the Scripture says, “the Lord was not in it.” Finally, there came “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12). Elijah came out and found that was where the Lord was. He repeated his complaint, word for word. God’s answer to him was, “Go, return on your way.” I think one lesson was that God is not to be found in the drama of altars consumed by fire, but rather in the patience of faithfully serving him. Later, God assured Elijah he wasn’t the only one left: he said that there were 7,000 in Israel who remained faithful to him. I think the second lesson for Elijah is that it wasn’t all up to him!
When we see how the “movers and the shakers” in our world throw their weight around, we can feel pretty small and weak in comparison. We may think, as Elijah did, that we’re just not up to the task of working for God’s kingdom of peace, justice and freedom. But I think we can draw on the lessons Elijah learned that day in the wilderness. In our day as in his, the success of God’s kingdom is not up to us. That’s God’s business. Our job is to seek to faithfully serve him to the best of our ability. I think the other lesson Elijah learned can help us as well. In a day when celebrities constantly grab the headlines, and everything bigger is seemingly better, even in the church, I think it’s important for us to be reminded that God is not in all the drama. Rather, God is in the quiet, steadfast, faithful efforts of those who continue to serve him.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/12/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Choon-Leong Seow, “The First and Second Books of Kings,” New Interpreter’s Bible III:145.