Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Corrective Steps

Corrective Steps
Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79[1]
I’m told that when I was born, both of my feet were turned to the right. In the early 60’s, the solution the doctors recommended was to have me wear two left shoes. What they did not know is the effect that would have on my body. All of my life, I’ve had problems with my right ankle and knee. Any sports that involved running were a challenge for me. I must add that the “corrective steps” the doctors applied to my feet must have done some good. They did enable me to walk! I have had to take further “corrective steps” as an adult. As a serious bicyclist, I found it helped to get fitted for custom orthotics. These days, my practice of yoga has benefited me greatly. The stances we do in yoga have probably helped the most in strengthening my right leg.
At some point in our lives, most of us will be advised to take corrective steps with some facet of our health. Some of those measures bring relief. Others may be a nuisance, or even downright unpleasant. Many of us know that some corrective steps doctors recommend can actually debilitate the patient. The treatment for cancer can be like that. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments are meant to kill the cancer, but they don’t have the ability to discriminate between malignant and healthy cells. The treatment for some diseases can be quite burdensome. Although the goal is to heal the body, the steps taken can be quite painful.
Our Scripture lessons for today address “corrective steps” that were needed among the people of Israel. In this respect, they don’t seem to fit the season of Advent. More than that they seem to be in tension with each another. Malachi speaks of one who will prepare the way for the Lord in fearful tones, warning of judgment. The song of Zechariah in Luke’s Gospel joyfully welcomes the birth of John the Baptizer as the one to go before the Lord. If you find yourself puzzled, you’re probably not alone. A pastor friend of mine mentioned to me this week that these were not her favorite texts to preach! How does judgment go together with salvation?
The prophet Malachi addresses the people of Judah at a time of disillusionment and complacency. It was some time after the exile in Babylon, and they were weak, poor, and relatively disorganized. That their commitment to God was failing can be seen from some of the practices that Malachi criticizes. It would seem that they had placed all their hopes in God to intervene. And so Malachi promised that God would indeed send a messenger to prepare for him to come to the people.
Although this was the focus of their hope, they thought of the Lord’s coming solely in terms of their deliverance. But Malachi speaks pointedly about some things that needed to be corrected in order for that deliverance to take place. He warns that God would come to judge those who were faithless, those who broke the bonds of fidelity, those who distorted the truth. He would come to judge “those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice” (Mal. 3:5). All of these practices directly contradicted specific instructions God had given his people in the Torah. The fact that failed to obey these instructions demonstrated, according to Malachi, that they did not truly honor the Lord with their lives. And so Malachi speaks of the one who would come in ominous tones, asking “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (Mal. 3:2).
This seems quite a contrast to the joyful song of Zechariah about his son, John the Baptizer. Zechariah viewed his son as one who would prepare the way for the Lord in that he would “give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins” (Lk. 1:77). He saw the birth of John as the dawn of the “tender mercy of our God” that would bring light to those in darkness and guide the people to walk in “the way of peace” (Lk. 1:78-79). On the surface of things, it seems difficult if not impossible to reconcile these two visions of the one who would prepare the people for the Lord’s coming.
And yet, when you look at John’s ministry, you find that he sounds more like the messenger of judgment Malachi describes than the bringer of salvation and forgiveness. Luke’s Gospel tells us elsewhere that when John saw the crowds coming to be baptized by him, he turned them away, calling them a “brood of vipers” (Luke 3:7)! In order for them to experience the salvation of the Lord they would have to “Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Lk. 3:8) by making some of the very same corrections that Malachi addressed in his day. How could this message of judgment and the call for a radical change of life have anything to do with salvation? In the words Luke quotes from the prophet Isaiah, for the people to experience God’s salvation, first that which was crooked must be made straight (Lk 3:5-6). The corrective steps that might sound harsh were intended to lead the people to once again love the Lord their God with all their hearts. Then they would know the salvation for which they had hoped so long.
As we celebrate our Lord’s coming to live among us on that first Christmas long ago, so we can also look forward to his coming again to complete the work of salvation. But we must remember that in order to experience God’s salvation, all of us will have to undergo some kind of correction. That which is crooked within us must be straightened out. The ways in which we live our lives that do not honor God will have to be purged, and that may be painful. There are “corrective steps” that we all need to take in order to truly love the Lord our God with all our hearts and truly love our neighbors as ourselves. But the end result of these corrective steps is that, on that final day, “all flesh will see the salvation of God!”

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/9/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Standing on the Edge

Standing on the Edge
Jeremiah 33:14-16, Luke 21:27[1]
Promises are powerful words. They can reassure us when we’re feeling afraid or lonely or rejected. They can encourage us when we’re doubting ourselves or wondering whether we are lovable. They can motivate us to act when we question whether anything we do or say matters. Promises are powerful words. Of course, power can be used for good or for evil. Sometimes promises become a means of manipulating people. At times, those promises may stem from good intentions. At times, they may stem from a blatant aim of getting people to do what we want without any thought of fulfilling the promise made. I believe most of us would like to think, however, that we use promises for good. We know that promises are powerful words.
If we take promises seriously, they may leave us standing on the edge of anticipation. After all, a promise points toward the future. Our ability to trust in a promise may rest on past experiences. If we have had promises made to us and broken, it can be hard to trust in any promise at all. When it comes to our faith, essentially we’re trusting in a promise that has not yet come to pass. And when we do so, we’re anticipating an outcome that we hope to see based on the promise made. It can feel a little bit like standing on an edge: the edge of a curb, or the edge of a journey, or the edge of a major life decision. Promises leave us standing on the edge.
I think the promises in our Scripture lessons for Advent function that way: they raise our hopes but they also leave us on the edge of anticipation. In the midst of the brokenness of our world, we greet the promise of something new and better with relief, and joy, and a sense of hope that perhaps all things will, after all, be put right. At the same time, if we are paying attention to the brokenness in our world, these promises create in us a kind of “holy dissatisfaction” with the way things are. They leave us standing on the edge of a whole new world that has been promised, but has not yet fully come to pass. The promises in the Scriptures for Advent raise our hopes, but they also leave us standing on the edge of anticipation.
The promises in the Scriptures for Advent have a different kind of edge to them. They speak of the one who is to come in a way that we may not be able to fully grasp. We seem to want a Savior who will grant to us eternal life and perhaps also the occasional prayer request. But the promised one in our Scriptures for Advent looks different from that. The promise that the Lord says he will “surely fulfill” concerns one who comes to “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” We’re not used to associating a Savior with “justice and righteousness.” But if we pay careful attention, we will find that establishing that which is truly just and right is at the heart of God’s promise.
I think perhaps part of what creates the edge for us here is that we are not used to thinking of salvation in these terms. Salvation concerns eternal life in the hereafter and abundant life now. As it turns out, however, creating the conditions for a life that is truly just and right is actually central to what salvation looks like in the Bible. Part of the “edge” in this promise is that it confronts us all with the ways in which we conduct our lives that are not just and right. It is a promise that contains hints of judgment. When the one God promised comes, he will bring to light all of our shortcomings. In fact, Jesus said that we will all face judgment to the extent of every “careless word” (Mt. 12:36). And yet, we have to remember that it is Jesus who is the one who be setting things right. Nevertheless, that promise has an edge that may leave us all a little unsettled.
There is also a further edge to these promises, in that they point us forward to the hope of the day when the Son of Man will come “with power and great glory.” At this time of the year, we may feel good about welcoming the “baby Jesus.” A baby, as most of us know well, is cute and cuddly and warms our hearts. At least that’s how we like to think of them. Parents, of course, know that babies have their moments that aren’t so cute.
But our Scripture readings speak of a very different person coming. They convey to us the promise of a mighty Savior who will come to establish God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. That may not fit very well with our version of celebrating Christmas. But if we listen carefully to the promises of Scripture, this is the Savior we should be welcoming. He is the one who comes with God’s authority and power to right the wrongs and to bring hope to the hopeless. He comes to fulfill God’s new world.
If we pay close attention, the promises of Advent leave us standing on the edge. They leave us standing on the edge of anticipation. There is something within us all that longs for the love of God that will heal our broken hearts and bring to pass a better world. The promises of Advent leave us standing on the edge of the restoration of what is just and right. As we watch events unfolding all around us, it’s painfully apparent that what is just and right does not always prevail in our world. Perhaps more painful is the realization that we don’t always practice what is just and right in our own lives. Finally, the promises of Advent point us to the coming of a mighty Savior to establish God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. In so doing, the leave us standing on the edge of world we’ve always hoped for but could never quite find. I know this hope is one that is difficult to hold these days, but may the promises of Advent encourage us to live in the hope that our Savior is continually working to bring this new world into our world.

[1] ©2018 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/2/2018 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman NE.