Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Seek the Lord

Seek the Lord
Isaiah 55:1-9[1]
I’d say we’ve all been there. Someone has done something to offend us, and our first impulse is to vent. We want to justify ourselves, and cast blame on the “other.” And we want someone to confirm our insistence that we’re right and we’ve been wronged. These days the question, “who you gonna call?” can be answered by the simple press of a button on your cell phone. And if the first person doesn’t answer, surely someone down the line will, because in these days of instant gratification, “everybody lives on their phone,” right? Justification is only a phone call away.
Many of us have probably also been in the position of overhearing such a conversation. Not that we wanted to. But when you’re in a public place and somebody is going through that whole process within earshot, it’s hard not to. It’s amazing how much different the whole thing sounds from that perspective. Even the tone of voice makes it so very obvious that the “complainant” is presenting the case for his or her “innocence” in the most favorable light possible, while outlining the “guilt” of the offender in the most negative way. Unfortunately, as common as this may be, it’s probably not going to actually help us in any meaningful way. We may go away from it “feeling better.” But that’s probably not what we really need.
Our lesson from Isaiah addresses a people who have run the gamut in their relationship with God: from a self-satisfied and complacent people convinced of their own righteousness to a broken people hauled away into exile with their faith in tatters. And at every stage, the word of the Lord to the people through the prophet addressed their need. To those who were self-satisfied, the word of the Lord was one of judgment: “Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand” (Isa. 6:9). The prophet’s calling with a people who sought to justify themselves was to “Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes” to keep them from turning to God and being healed (Isa. 6:10).
Although this doesn't sound much like the God of love, the problem was not with God, but with the people. God had not changed his mind or his purpose for them. It was not as if God were incapable of fulfilling the great promises he had made to the people of Israel. It was not as if God had somehow forgotten to make good on the offer of grace and mercy. The problem was that the people were convinced that they were in the right and they were innocent. When we are convinced of our own self-righteousness, we are not in a position to receive God’s grace and mercy. We have cut ourselves off from the life God offers.
But now, to a people who had been humbled by the devastation of conquest, deportation, and exile, the invitation to receive the gift of new life comes again. Those who are thirsty are invited to drink freely. Those who are hungry are invited to enjoy a lavish feast at no charge. And the only “requirement” to partake is that they be hungry and thirsty![2] Those who had shut their ears to the word of grace and mercy and had been prevented from finding life are now invited to “listen carefully … so that you may live” (Isa. 55:2-3).[3] God’s grace and mercy continue to be extended even to those who may have hardened their hearts.
In order to accept this invitation, however, a change of heart is required. Rather than seeking our own “way” and clinging to our own “thoughts,” those who would accept the gift of new life through God’s grace and mercy must “seek the Lord.” In the Hebrew Bible, seeking the Lord implies giving up other paths, paths that may seem attractive and yet in reality are destructive. Seeking the Lord here means giving up the stubborn insistence that my “way” is right and my “thoughts” are true. Instead, we are to acknowledge that God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts (Isa. 55:8-9). This implies that in order to seek the Lord and the life he offers us freely, we must abandon all thoughts of justifying ourselves, and we must abandon all efforts to maintain our self-righteousness.
The impulse to justify ourselves is a powerful one. Whenever we are attacked, or feel offended, or think ourselves to be otherwise slighted, it seems that the first thing we think of is how to justify ourselves. It’s a kind of defensive mechanism that almost automatically kicks in whenever we face opposition. As much as we would like to think that we are being entirely rational when we “rationalize” our way through something like that, I’d have to say that our response is primarily driven by our emotions, especially the desire to feel “right.”
But that impulse to feel “right” truly blinds us to those aspects of our own behavior and character—our “way” and our “thoughts”—that we need to examine continually. In order to accept God’s “way” of grace and mercy that bring new life, we have to acknowledge that our “way” and our “thoughts” fall short. Beyond that, especially when they indulge our desire to be “right,” our “way” and our “thoughts” prevent us from hearing the offer of grace and accepting the gift of new life. The Scripture calls us to repent: to “forsake” that path and seek the Lord instead. When we do so, we find an open invitation to receive the gifts of grace and mercy and new life God offers us all freely.

[1] © 2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/24/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 177; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 283.
[3] Cf. Christopher R. Seitz “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI:482.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Now is the Time

Now is the Time
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10[1]
We live in a “throwaway” culture. That’s not a particularly original observation. In fact, the first use of the phrase was in an article called “Throwaway Living” in the August 1, 1955 edition of Life magazine. Ironically, at that time, “throwaway living” was something that was celebrated. The article opened with a picture of a family tossing plastic goods into the air that would have taken hours to clean. Instead, they could just throw away these items and devote their time to something other than the “tedious” chore of cleaning. Unfortunately, I think the idea of throwing away something instead of taking the time to clean or mend or otherwise make it useful again spread from simple items used in everyday living to a broader mindset about life in general.
It seems to me that these days we are more aware of the problems created by throwing away packaging waste and plastic or Styrofoam utensils. That’s a good thing. But I fear the “throwaway” mindset has migrated into more important areas of our lives. Relationships these days seem to be viewed increasingly as something that one can simply “throw away” if they get too unpleasant to manage. I’m not talking about the fact that some relationships have serious flaws. I’m talking about the casual way in which people approach relationships. The attitude seems to be “If it works out, great. If I have to put any work into it, I’m outta here!”
We’ve seen before that St. Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth was a difficult one. Paul was their spiritual “father,” so to speak, in that he was the one who had brought the gospel to them in the first place. In spite of the fact that Paul founded the church, it would seem that a majority of them had been turned away from him by other teachers. These others came to Corinth and scorned Paul for the fact that he didn’t “throw his weight around” as an Apostle apparently “should have.” The idea seems to have been that if he were truly an Apostle of Jesus Christ, he would have demanded to be treated with the proper deference. Instead, by his own confession, St. Paul served them in “weakness” and humility. And his opponents used that to turn the church against him.
As I have mentioned before, the tension between St. Paul and the church at Corinth came to a breaking point. We have to do some “reading between the lines” in 1 and 2 Corinthians, but when we do, a troubling story comes to light. Apparently, on one of his visits to the church, the majority of the believers at Corinth, led by one only known to us as “the one who did the wrong” (2 Cor. 7:12) openly spurned St. Paul and his ministry among them. As we might expect, Paul speaks of this as a painful experience. Some might think he should have simply “shaken the dust from his sandals” and moved one, treating his relationship with the church at Corinth as something that he could readily “throw away.”
But as his letters demonstrate, St. Paul never did that with any of the churches he served during his ministry. No matter what kind of opposition he faced, his letters display a determination not to let any of these relationships go without making every effort to reconcile whatever differences or problems there may have been. And in this case Paul goes to great lengths to argue that his ministry among them was not fraudulent, as his opponents claimed. Rather, the mark of the authenticity of his work was precisely the fact that it was accompanied by “afflictions, hardships, [and] calamities” but also by “patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, and truthful speech,” among other qualities (2 Cor. 6:4-8). Paul turned the very accusations leveled against him—that he was weak—into proofs that he truly was a “servant of God” (2 Cor. 6:4).
I don’t think this was just a matter of St. Paul defending himself. His primary concern here was for the fact that when the churches he served rejected him, they were also rejecting his message. And it was their adherence to the message of the Gospel that he was his primary concern, not his personal reputation. And so he made every effort to call these believers to reconcile with him, that the gospel seeds he had planted among them would not go to waste. He made every effort to reconcile with them, so that their reconciliation with God through his gospel would not be endangered.
Being reconciled with someone with whom you may have difficulty is not easy. It takes work. Sometimes it can take months of work to heal the broken relationships we have with others. That was true in this case as well. St. Paul spared no effort in his appeal to the people at Corinth. In fact, by the time we get to Paul writing the Scripture before us today, there had been a significant amount of work behind the scenes to make amends. All of this took place while Paul was working with other churches. He could very well have delayed the effort while he was busy elsewhere.
But the gospel message would not allow him to do so. He knew that if they spurned him they were in danger of spurning the offer of being reconciled with God he brought them in the gospel. Rather than putting off the work of reconciling with the believers in Corinth, he knew that it was something that needed immediate attention. It was something that had to be done “at the acceptable time,” and that time was now. His determination and persistence point us in the same direction. When it comes to being reconciled, whether with God or with others, the right time is always “Now”!

[1] © 2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/10/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019


2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2[1]
We as a people are proud of our “freedoms.” Most of us are familiar with Lee Greenwood’s song, “God Bless the USA.” [2] The first line of the refrain says, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” We’ve been raised on the ideal of American freedom. It’s as ingrained in our culture as Norman Rockwell’s depictions of the “four freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. [3] His inspiration for these iconic portraits was President Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union speech, in which he articulated these freedoms as basic human rights for all nations. Many believe he did so to awaken this country to enter World War II.
Freedom has a long tradition in this country. But I'm not sure we've ever been as free as we'd like to think we are. Especially not from fear and want! There is an equally iconic image from Life magazine in 1937 of a mural boasting of the “American Way” as having the “highest standard of living” with people in front of it standing in line for assistance in Louisville, KY after the Ohio River flooded. [4] To be fair, it was taken during the Great Depression. But these were people who were not free from want and fear. I think true freedom is much more complicated than the sentiments expressed in Mr. Greenwood’s song.
I would say that St. Paul knew that freedom is complicated. In our lesson for today, he deals with one of the central problems regarding freedom in his day: how does a Gospel message that offers freedom to Gentiles apply to Jewish people who are bound by the Torah of Moses? This problem plagued most of the Christian communities Paul served in the First Century. To Jewish people, even Christians, a Gospel that offers salvation to Gentiles represented a casting aside of all their most cherished traditions. It simply did not compute to them, and this caused tension in the churches, most of which combined Jewish and Gentile members.
Paul’s response to this issue was to argue that God in Jesus Christ has set all people free through the Spirit. His logic in this chapter of 2 Corinthians is difficult to follow because he’s interpreting a portion of Exodus chapter 34. One of the central points Paul seems to be trying to make here is to say that the same Lord who set the people of Israel free from slavery in Egypt is the one who in Jesus has set them free from sin and death, from guilt and fear. And this same Lord is the one who in the Spirit makes freedom in Christ a reality in their lives: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17). [5]
The foundation for this line of thinking is found in Paul’s understanding of the resurrection of Jesus and what that means in our lives. As the Apostle makes clear elsewhere, the effect of Jesus’ resurrection is that while “in Adam all die,” “in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Jesus’ resurrection imparts new life to all of us. And so St. Paul can say that through the resurrection, the gift of freedom and new life in Christ come to us through the “Spirit of the Lord.” In other words, “freedom is present where Christ is experienced through the Spirit.” [6]
This way of approaching freedom as a gift from the Lord God of all creation, extended to us by the risen Lord Jesus, and made real in our lives by the Spirit of the Lord is very different from our understanding of freedom. In the first place, we seem to think of freedom as a “right” that we deserve, not as gift. But perhaps more importantly, in this culture we insist that freedom is something that belongs to us by virtue of the fact that we exist. In our world, every person is by definition free. We don’t need anyone, not even Jesus Christ, to give us something that we already have.
By contrast, I would say that many of the people I meet don’t seem to be free. Some are bound by fear—fear of dying, fear of illness, fear of becoming financially destitute, fear of being alone. Some are bound by pain—the pain of some disease, or the pain of trauma. Some are bound by addictions—to alcohol, drugs, pornography, and even electronic games, among many others. Some are bound to a past that they simply cannot seem to shake. Others are bound by the ever-increasing cost of living and by debts that may be more than they can handle. And if you asked them were freedom is to be found, I’m afraid not many people have a very good answer.
But the Gospel insists that freedom is found in Christ through the Spirit who is constantly working in our lives. The assurance that Christ can truly give us this promised freedom is that God raised him from the dead. In raising Jesus from death to new life, God demonstrated for all time that it was his purpose for the human family to give them that new life by the Spirit. [7] As we respond to this amazing gift in faith, hope, and love, we find the truth and the reality of this promise becoming real in our growing experience of the freedom to truly live.

[1] ©2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/3/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Lee Greenwood, “God Bless the U.S.A,” You’ve Got a Good Love Comin’, MCA Records, May 17, 1984.
[3] Published as covers of The Saturday Evening Post, February 20, February 27, March 6, and March 13, 1943. See https://www.nrm.org/2012/10/collections-four-freedoms/ .
[4] Margaret Bourke-White, “World's Highest Standard of Living,” Life, February 1937. https://www.artic.edu/articles/467/worlds-highest-standard-of-living .
[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 120-22.
[6] Ibid., 121.
[7] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:308-9.