Tuesday, April 30, 2019

This is the Day

This is the Day
Psalm118:1-2, 14-24[1]
I wonder whether we have the capacity to be amazed any longer. All our various sources of information have placed not only events happening around the world literally at our fingertips in real time. We also have access to images from the far reaches of galaxies that previous generations could not even imagine. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s a good thing to have access to information from around the world and images that show us the beauty of the cosmos. But I wonder whether the steady stream that we have become accustomed to consuming in our social media feeds has saturated our capacity to find anything wonderful or marvelous.
Of course, this isn’t a modern, first-world problem. Part of the human problem is that we have a tendency to let ourselves get caught up in what we deem urgent. That sense of urgency often gets in the way of our ability to appreciate what is truly important. And it also gets in the way of our ability to marvel at the wonders around us: the beauty of a sunset, the miracle of shrubs and trees putting out blossoms, the enthusiasm and energy of a child. And, unfortunately, this spills over from our “normal” lives into our relationship with God. When we can’t even be amazed by the events of the world happening around us, how can we expect to sense any mystery or wonder or awe about something like Easter?
Our Psalm for today is one that is familiar to us. At least one verse is. If you go to any Christian gathering anywhere and say the words, “This is the day the Lord has made,” you know that that audience will respond with “we will rejoice and be glad in it.” And you can count on that because that’s the way the King James Version rendered that verse 400 years ago. That’s a long time to set a precedent. I think for many of us, that refrain from Psalm 118 serves as a reminder of the wonder of creation. Some of us may like to use it on a daily basis to remind ourselves that all of our lives are in God’s hands, and that God is still working at creation every day. It’s a way for us to receive a new day as a gift from God. All of that is good.
In fact, in many churches it has been traditional to introduce worship with this call and response. That tradition started long ago for a particular reason. As the day that was originally the first day of the week, Sunday was the day on which Christians celebrated the resurrection of Jesus.[2] And so, to begin worship with “This is the day the Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it,” was a way of calling attention to something special that God has done: raising Jesus from the dead. And with that special act, God has given us all a hope that continues to sustain our faith come what may, even in the face of death itself.
I’ll have to confess, however, that I don’t think that the scholars who translated the King James Version got that particular verse right. The whole of Psalm 118 is about the work of God’s salvation. From the beginning refrain, which affirms that “God’s faithful love endures forever” (Ps. 118:1-3, NLT), the whole Psalm is a declaration of thanks to God for what he has done. And what God has “done” above all is to provide the gift of “salvation.” More than that, the Psalmist praises God because “he has become my salvation” (Ps. 118:14, 21). Apparently, the Psalmist was in such dire straits that he thought he was going to die. But instead, as he affirms, God “became” his salvation, and delivered him from the danger he faced.
So unexpected was this reversal of his fortunes, that the Psalmist quotes what very likely was a proverb in that day: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (Ps. 118: 22). This proverb celebrated something that happened time and again in the history of God’s relationship with his people: one who was seemingly rejected was honored by being chosen for a special purpose. The Psalmist certainly had not lost the capacity to be amazed. In fact, this reversal was so astounding he says in the next verse: “This is the Lord's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes” (Ps. 118:23). Because the whole context of the Psalm is about what the Lord has “done” on this day, I prefer the translation in the NIV (and others): “The LORD has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad.” (Ps. 118:24, NIV).
It is fitting that this verse is one that is chosen to be read on Easter Sunday.[3] The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the one event above all in which God demonstrates that “he has become our salvation.” In this most dramatic way, God demonstrates that “his faithful love” truly “endures forever.” Easter Sunday is the day on which it is truly right to say, “the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. The LORD has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad” (Ps. 118:23-23, NIV)! Jesus, the one who was written off by Jewish and Roman authorities alike as just another messianic pretender, was “the stone the builders rejected” who had been exalted in his resurrection to the right hand of God and has “become our salvation.”
This is a message that most of us have heard over and over again all our lives. Sometimes that kind of familiarity leads us to cherish this message, and sometimes I fear it leads us to discount it. After all, we have so many other, newer, more pressing matters right at our fingertips. In the midst of all that “static,” this is the day for us to remember the truly amazing message that is the basis for our faith and our lives. Not only on this Easter Sunday, but throughout the Easter season, we can remember that this is the day on which God has acted to break through all the vicious cycles of life that can seem to bind us in despair. In fact, one could say that every Sunday is the time to remember that “this is the day” on which our Lord Jesus Christ has “become our salvation.”

[1] ©2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/21/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] James L. Mays, Psalms, 380.
[3] J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:1156.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Into Your Hands

Into Your Hands
Luke 23:46[1]
This is the week when we remind ourselves that the one whom we follow as Savior and Lord was executed as a common criminal. He died surrounded by those who heaped scorn and abuse on him for the way he lived his life. Depending on which account you read, he died abandoned by everyone he knew, everyone who claimed to follow him as disciples, everyone who supposedly put their faith in him. The one who had been greeted just days earlier with cries of “Hosanna,” which was a shout celebrating the arrival of God’s salvation, was subject to cries of “crucify him.” And that’s how he died: on a cross.
I think many of us have become expert at distancing ourselves from the fact that following Jesus makes no sense. We may think that his death was his mission, and he had to go through it for us. But he also said that if we were to follow him, it would require us to give up our lives as well. He called those who would follow him to take up their own crosses. We’ve sanitized that notion to the extent that it has become an idiom in our common language: it’s just a “cross we have to bear.” That phrase betrays the fact that we don’t take seriously the full weight of Jesus’ death on the cross, and his call to follow him to a similar fate. But St. Paul took it seriously. And he knew that, to anyone with sense enough to pay attention, following Jesus looks “foolish.”
For most of us, there’s an ulterior motive to following Jesus. We’ve been taught that if we believe in Jesus, we’ll “go to heaven” when we die. And so we go through the motions of living out our faith with one eye, or perhaps both, set on that ultimate goal. But as anyone who studies human behavior can tell you, when you use some kind of external reward or punishment as the means of motivation, you may get right actions, but only as long as the reward or punishment remains effective. In other words, you can’t mold character, you can’t instill a way of living, unless you give someone a reason to have a change of heart.
I would have to say that Jesus’ death on the cross was a result of the way of living he chose to follow. And we see that way of living reflected in his last words according to our Gospel lesson for today: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). I think that, here as well, we hear the words, but they probably don’t sink in. We’re used to thinking of Jesus dying with a cry of anguish, as Matthew and Mark report. We may be tempted to think that Luke is just trying to soften the perception that somehow God might have abandoned Jesus on the cross. We may think that this is a “kinder, gentler” version of the story.
But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here at all. Jesus’ last words according to Luke are quoted from Psalm 31. The full text of the verse reads, “Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God” (Ps. 31:5). One of the details of this verse is that the Hebrew word translated “spirit” can also be translated “life.” So in a very real sense, with his last breath Jesus was entrusting his whole life to God. The words Jesus uttered as he was dying were essentially “it is up to you, God, what becomes of me, and I am willing to have it so.”[2] I would say that Luke wanted us to see that Jesus died the same way that he lived his whole life: seeking to follow God’s way and God’s purpose, and entrusting his fate into God’s hands.
When we pay attention to Luke’s version of Jesus’ dying words, we see that his cry, “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk. 23:46), is not a dying prayer, but a life motto. That’s precisely how it reads in the context of Psalm 31. The Psalmist recounts all the hardships of life, enemies who sought to undo him, the anxiety and sorrow he bore from opposition. And yet, in spite of all the afflictions he endured, at the end of the day he could pray, “my times are in your hand” (Ps. 31:15). The whole Psalm is a prayer of trust, of confidence in the “faithful God” (Ps. 31:5), and the prayer “into your hands I commend my spirit” is a life motto.
We have been schooled to think that if we live that way, life will turn out basically good for us. After all, those who obey God are rewarded, both in this life and in the next. Or so the presumption goes. But this week especially we are reminded that when you take the prayer “into your hands I commend my life” as seriously as Jesus did, it’s likely to lead to a cross. Actually seeking to make God’s ways and God’s purpose our way of living in our day-to-day reality usually goes against the grain of our culture. We will very likely find ourselves swimming against the stream. And in some cases, as Jesus said, we will have to give up what we cherish most in this life.
I realize that not much of this may count as a very successful way to persuade you to adopt the life motto, “into your hands I commend my life.” As a long-time student of the Bible, I can’t say that if you adopt this motto, you will find yourself rewarded for it. It may be more likely that you will suffer for it. But then there are some things we do in life simply because they’re the right thing to do. Living out of the commitment to entrust your life into God’s hands may not lead us to any tangible rewards, but it is a path where we find God’s grace sustaining us, and nothing can take that away.

[1] ©2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/14/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 144.  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, “Good Friday: Birth of Hope from the Cross of Christ,” in The Power of the Powerless, 120, where he calls this “believing with one’s whole life.”

Tuesday, April 09, 2019


Philippians 3:4-14[1]
When I was younger, I did something some of you may have done. I used to look over my resume from time to time. I had worked hard from before I even graduated High School, and it was satisfying at times to “review my progress.” I’m not particularly proud of that fact now. As I continued to “rack up” achievements—degrees, publications, speaking engagements, and honors—I continued to “review my progress” with satisfaction. And I expected that progress to continue. At the ripe old age of 31, as a brand, spanking new Seminary Professor, I had my whole career planned out before me. Of course, as it so often does, “life” intruded in my plans.
While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having goals and feeling the satisfaction of meeting them, that aspect of my life just stopped being important somewhere along the way. It’s not that any of my achievements or plans were selfish or harmful or in any way dishonorable. I started serving the church before I graduated from High School! I simply lost interest in “reviewing my progress.” Maybe it was that life changed my plans so drastically I recognized that I needed more. I’d like to think that I “grew up” a bit and learned that life isn’t all about achievements. At some point I started focusing more on the present moment with the prayer, “into your hands I commend my life”! I realized that I needed God more than anything else.
It may be hard for us to understand St. Paul’s reasons for “boasting in the flesh” in our Scripture lesson from Philippians for today. His achievements belong to a very different time and place. But in essence, Paul is saying that came from an elite family, he attended the finest prep school, he knocked the top out of his test scores, made it into an Ivy League University, and graduated at the top of his class. Among the leadership of the Jewish people, he was known as a rising star. But on the road to Damascus, he met the living Christ, and everything changed for him. All that he valued previously suddenly became worthless in his eyes.
Again, it’s not as if there had been anything inherently wrong with most of Paul’s achievements. They were all noble and honorable. But they were his achievements. When he met Christ everything changed. In comparison with the amazing gift of new life through faith in Jesus Christ, Paul says that he counted everything he once saw to be an advantage to him as a “loss.”  In fact he uses much stronger language than that. The holy Apostle himself says that in comparison with knowing Christ he now considered his previous achievements as rubbish, filth, or as the KJV so bluntly translates it, as dung! What he had previously valued was now worthless to him.
Part of what we have to understand here is that Paul was in the middle of a serious debate about what constitutes true faith. Other Christian preachers in Paul’s day were demanding that Gentiles first had to convert to Judaism before they could truly embrace the Christian faith. To some, that might have seemed logical. After all, the Scriptures of the Law and the Prophets served as the foundation not only for the teachings of the Apostles, but also of Jesus himself. And so it seemed logical that a person who came out of a pagan context would have to embrace the truth of the Jewish Scriptures before coming to faith in Christ.
But I think Paul knew by personal experience the major pitfall with that kind of approach. It makes salvation all about what we do, not about what God has done for us in Christ. Paul knew what it was to do one’s best to fulfill all expectations and yet to find that seeking your life in those self-achievements is ultimately hollow. He knew that it’s impossible to build one’s own “stairway to heaven” through doing all the “right” things. He knew that when it comes to ultimate things, like life and death, salvation and eternal destiny, we have to rely on God’s grace, not the works of our own hands.
So one side of Paul’s personal revelation is that it’s impossible to ever do enough good to earn God’s grace. But the other side is that we don’t have to! The reason he knew this was because he had discovered a whole new way of life centered in Christ. In this new life he found the fulfillment he could never find on his own. And it came to him purely as a gift from God, not as something he had reach for or work hard enough to achieve. In comparison with what he had gained in Christ, Paul could write the word “worthless” across his whole previous life.
That’s the way life works. When we accept it as a gift, we find the joy and peace we’ve always been looking for. When we go out and try to force life to work out the way we planned, we only make ourselves miserable (and perhaps those around us). To some extent, this Scripture lesson cuts against the grain of what makes sense to us. We think we’re supposed to do our best to work as hard as we can. And in fact, there’s nothing wrong with seeking to do well. But life teaches us that we can never find our sense of worth solely from these things.
That especially includes the notion that we could somehow “earn” God’s grace. If anyone could have done this, it was St. Paul. But as he discovered, it’s impossible to ever do enough to earn God’s grace. When it comes to our relationship with God, it’s not about what we do at all. In Christ, we receive everything God has to offer us as a gift. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says it, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more” and “there is nothing we can do to make God love us less."[2]

[1] © 2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/7/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, 32.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

God was in Christ

God was in Christ
2 Corinthians 5:16-21[1]
Through the ages, the images preachers and theologians have used to depict God have created some significant problems. One example is Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741). It was required reading in my Sophomore American Literature Class in college. Edwards drew the picture of God dangling sinners over the prospect of an eternity of punishment like someone might dangle a spider over an open flame. Personally, I’d have to say that seems cruel even for a human being, let alone God. It certainly doesn’t convey the idea that God is gracious and compassionate, full of mercy and unfailing love!
Unfortunately, when it comes to Jesus’ death on the cross, many of us have some ideas that are not consistent with the biblical witness. It’s common to think of Jesus, who loved us enough to give up his life for us, standing in the gap for us with God, who is angry enough with us for our sins that he is willing to consign us to eternal flames. Jesus may come off in a positive light from that perspective, but that kind of a God is someone I think we’d want to keep our distance from, rather than embracing as a loving father who will not let anything in all creation separate us from his love.
Then there’s the question of Jesus’ cry of agony from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” I would say that most people take that statement both too literally and not seriously enough. Jesus was quoting the first line of Psalm 22, a psalm that expresses both anguish over afflictions and also trust in God to sustain us. The same Psalm that begins with “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” also affirms, “he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me” (Ps. 22:24). If we really take Jesus’ cry seriously, we have to include this affirmation of faith in our understanding of it.
Again, we have to consider the implications for our image of God if we really believe that God abandoned Jesus on the cross. The New Testament presents Jesus as fulfilling the ultimate act of obedience to God’s will by dying on the cross. Paul said it this way: Jesus “became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). If God abandoned Jesus at the moment of his greatest obedience to God’s purpose, then what possible hope could you or I have that God will sustain us in our hour of need? I’d have to say that’s also not a very inviting image of God!
I think our lesson from St. Paul for today might help us here. As we find in the consistent witness of Scripture, Paul does not set an “angry God” over against a “forgiving Jesus.” Rather, Paul says that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Now this could be read in a couple of ways. We could read it to say that God accomplished the work of salvation through what Jesus did on the cross. That would be entirely consistent with the message of Scripture elsewhere. But we could also read it the way the King James Version rendered it, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself.” In other words, if we take the idea of the incarnation seriously, that God became a human being in Jesus, then God was the one who was hanging on the cross. In Jesus, God was the one who died for our sins. In Christ, God was the one who gave himself up for us that we might have life.
This is an image that might sound strange to us. How could God “die”? We’re used to the idea of God all-powerful as the one who rules over all things, not the one who allows himself to be mistreated at the hands of lowly mortals. We’re used to thinking of God as “above it all.” It may be difficult for us to think of God allowing himself to be humiliated in this way. We’re also used to believing that God is too pure to be tainted by our failures. How could God take on our sins? All this may strain our ability to make sense out of how to hold together God’s love and Jesus’ death on the cross.[2]
But the two are completely consistent with the Gospel message in the New Testament. As our affirmation of faith for today puts it, when Jesus died on the cross, he “was never more in accord with the Father’s will. He was acting on behalf of God, manifesting the Father’s love that takes on itself the loneliness, pain, and death that result from our waywardness.”[3] The Study Catechism puts it a little differently: through Jesus’ death on the cross, we see “how vast is God’s love for the world — a love that is ready to suffer for our sakes, yet so strong that nothing will prevail against it.”[4] The Good News is that Jesus completely fulfilled God’s will for us in his death on the cross.
I think sometimes we would like our faith to be easier. We embrace the good news of God’s love for us. But we shrink back from the full implications of that love. It is a love that will not leave us where we are. It is a love that enters into our brokenness in order to bring us new life. And because “God was in Christ” on the cross, we can also be assured that God’s love is a love that nothing can separate us from. Just as God never abandoned Jesus, so God never abandons or forsakes us in his love. Because “God was in Christ” on the cross, he continues to draw us all into the eternal life he wants to share with us.

[1] ©2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/31/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison. The Enlarged Edition, 360-61: “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 [quoting Isa. 53:4] makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering … Only the suffering God can help … That is a reversal of what the religious man expects from God.”
[3] Presbyterian Church in the United States, “A Declaration of Faith,”117th General Assembly (1977), reissued by Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 1991, 4.4.
[4] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), “The Study Catechism,” 210th General Assembly (1998), question 8.