Thursday, December 05, 2019


Isaiah 2:1-4, Titus 2:11-14[1]
The Christian faith has had its share of critics throughout the ages. One of the most strident of those was a German philosopher named Friedrich Nietzsche. Like many others, he called out the Christians of his day for their hypocrisy. Unfortunately, Christians of all eras have been good at doing “lip service” to the faith without actually putting it into practice in their lives. And sadly, that is as true today as it ever was. Nietzsche had a lot to say about this, but one of his more memorable lines was that for him to believe in the Christian Savior, “his disciples would have to look more redeemed!”[2]
I think this sentiment challenges us most deeply at this time of the year. Family gatherings can be wonderful, but they can also be exhausting. Then there’s the fact that it gets dark so early this time of year. Add to that the “hustle and bustle” of getting everything done and getting everywhere we’re supposed to go. And the sad truth is that the “holidays” can be “the most difficult time of the year” for many of us. All of this put together can rob us of the joy that we’re “supposed” to be celebrating in the midst of everything we have going on. It can be especially hard to “look redeemed.”
I think that’s one of the reasons light plays such an important role for us at this time of year. We light up the Christmas tree, and we light up our houses. The lights can help to relieve the rather oppressive feeling the darkness can bring on us. For a while. As much as decorating can help, I don’t think it’s a real solution to our problem. For our faith to show in our lives and on our faces as authentic joy, we have to takes steps that have deeper and more lasting effects than just decorating our homes and stringing lights. If we want our lives to be “radiant” with the joy of our faith, we have to find a hope that cannot be shaken.
I think that was what the prophet Isaiah was trying to do for his people. Despite the fact that they lived at a dangerous crossroads between continents and empires, and despite the fact that even their leaders had seemingly abandoned their faith, Isaiah held out a hope that God was not finished with them. Rather, he believed in the vision that God was working to make all things new. And the specific way in which he expresses that hope in our lesson for today is that through the people of Israel, one day all the nations of the earth would be drawn to the light of God’s truth, God’s peace, and God’s justice.
Isaiah’s vision of salvation was one in which all the different peoples of the world—even those who had been enemies of Judah—would “stream” to Jerusalem as the “mountain of the Lord” (Isa. 2:2). And the reason they would come was “that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isa. 2:3). Isaiah explains that the reason for this attraction is that Jerusalem would be a place where the word of the Lord would enlighten all the nations to “walk in his ways.” And the result would be peace; not just peace as the absence of conflict, but peace as that which transforms people so that they can truly live with joy a life that could be called “radiant.”
This vision of the destiny of the human family is an ideal that has inspired and fired the imaginations of people of faith throughout the generations. Isaiah’s vision was that when God’s truth becomes the light by which we all order our lives, then “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isa. 2:4).  It is one of the more powerful visions of the destiny of humankind, and it has inspired people throughout history to find hope and joy even in the midst of some of the most challenging times of life. This hope can transform us into people who look “redeemed” because our lives are radiant with joy.
It’s fine, however, to think of the great promises that inspire in us hope for the future. But many of us would like to know what we have to help us find joy here and now. I think the lesson from Titus can help us here. It summarizes in a nutshell the good news that we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas: “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2:11). Although that might seem self-evident, I’m afraid the language of grace and salvation isn’t all that obvious. Grace here refers to God’s goodness, kindness, and generosity by which he gives us the gift of love that we don’t have to earn and we can’t forfeit. And while salvation can refer to several aspects of our hope, I think that promise of a love that is unconditional and irrevocable hits the spot for most of us. We can be radiant with hope and joy here and now because of this amazing love God has given us.
Most of us have times in our lives when we don’t look very “redeemed.” What better time than Advent for us to prepare our hearts and lives to truly celebrate the coming of our Savior to bring us hope and joy. Interestingly, both our lessons speak of that hope and joy as training us how to live. In Isaiah it’s about learning God’s ways and walking in his paths. In Titus it’s about God’s grace teaching us to “live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly” (Titus 2:12). In other words, the love that is the essence of who God is defines how we live, so that we now “take on a God-filled, God-honoring life” (Titus 2:12, The Message). I think this is a change that is deep and lasting, and one that can truly enable us to “look more redeemed” because we are radiant with the hope and joy of God’s love.

[1] © 2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/1/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Modern Library Edition, 92.

A Mighty Savior

A Mighty Savior
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 1:68-79; Colossians 2:11-20[1]
  One of the age-old human desires is for someone to come and rescue us from the brokenness of our lives. At times have looked to our “God” to be the one to save us from the pain and suffering that seems to define our existence. At times that desire has been focused on a specific person—a “hero” who would throw off the yoke of oppressors, or a leader who would step up and set things right, or a spiritual figure who would come and save us. At times, the disappointments of life have driven us to look for our own solutions—some good, some not. But when push comes to shove, we tend to look to God to save us.
  In ancient times, this desire was directed toward the promise of a Messiah. That idea originated because, as Jeremiah declares, those who were supposed to care for the people had failed to do so. More than that, they had taken advantage of the people, “destroying” and “scattering” God’s flock. In response, God promised to send one who would be a true shepherd. This one would enact true justice, rather than exploiting the people for the sake of power and wealth. This one would bring true peace that enabled them to thrive, not just the richest of the rich. This one would be called “The Lord is our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6, NRSV), or “God-Who-Puts-Everything-Right” (The Message)! Jeremiah was looking for a mighty savior!
  So was Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. In Luke’s Gospel we hear his song of praise at the birth of his son. He took that to be a sign that God was in the process of fulfilling ancient promises. Promises to save the people from their enemies and from the hand of those who oppressed them. Promises that God had made to Abraham and David about the days when the people would be able to serve God freely. Promises that light would come to those living in darkness, and peace would come to those who were troubled by violence, or cruelty, or want of common necessities, or simply a place to call home. And Zechariah believed God was going to do this by raising up “a mighty savior” (Lk. 1:69).
  After raising their hopes through the many amazing things he did, Jesus dashed those hopes by going to the cross. “Mighty Saviors” don’t get publicly humiliated by a brutal execution. In the minds of the Jewish people that just couldn’t happen. A truly mighty savior would have the power to overthrow even the Roman Empire, who kept the Jewish people firmly under the heels of their army. A truly mighty savior would bring back the days when the Jewish people were a world power. When Jesus died on a Roman cross, the hopes of those who followed him died as well.
  But that was not the end of the story. By raising Jesus from the dead, God demonstrated that he was indeed doing something “mighty” through Jesus. I think it took the first Christians a while to understand all that meant. It meant that God was doing something much bigger than just freeing the Jewish people. Through Jesus the mighty savior, God was going to free all people. And he was going to free us not just from the political and economic powers in this world, but from all the evil, hatred, injustice, and brokenness that burdens us in this life. Because he defeated death itself, the first Christians began to recognize that there was no victory that Jesus, our mighty savior, could not win.
  As a result, they began to see Jesus’ work as something that would involve a much bigger picture that simply the fate of nations. In Colossians, Jesus’ work as our mighty savior includes nothing less than creating all things in the beginning and restoring all things in the end. Because of Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of God, Jesus’ role as our savior was much bigger than anyone had imagined. As the “firstborn of all creation,” he was the one “through whom and for whom” all things were created by God. We may not understand all that means, but as our mighty savior, Jesus participated with God in the creation of all things.
  Beyond that, Jesus’ work as our mighty savior includes restoring “all things” in the end. Now, in the Greek language “all things” is worded in such a way as to point to the whole created order. It refers to “all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe” (Col. 1:20, The Message). I think that’s going way beyond what most of us can imagine, let alone understand. Somehow, the Scripture says that Jesus reigns as our mighty Savior over the whole universe. And he will carry out his reign “with wisdom, power, and love” by making all things right—throughout the whole cosmos!
  I think our desire for a Savior tends to be focused on ourselves. We tend to want our Savior to help us out of our difficulties. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, of course. But we can’t stop there. According to the New Testament, our mighty savior is engaged in a work that will make all things right again, just the way they were at the very beginning. I don’t think, however, that because Jesus is the Savior of the universe that somehow means that our concerns are too small for him. Rather, I would say that when we turn to him with our burdens, we can do so in the confidence that our mighty savior is the one who is working to restore the whole universe and everyone in it! Surely that means not only that he can help us, but also that he will!

[1] © 2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/24/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Hold On

Hold On!
Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19[1]
  These days it doesn’t seem that many of us have much of an interest in questions about our final destiny. The present day offers more challenges than most of us feel we can handle! But even if someone were to be curious to know what our faith teaches about the end of all things, I’m afraid the chances are high they would wind up confused. There are those who speak of the “end of the world” in terms of the vast majority of humanity “left behind” to face whatever painful tribulations an angry God is going to unleash upon them for their unbelief. Then there are those who speak of the final victory of God’s saving love in a world where all people have the joy of sharing a life of peace and freedom together. These two views can be found not only in sermons and theology, but also in Scripture.
  Our lessons for today illustrate this problem. Just from a quick reading, they seem contradictory. The one from the prophet Isaiah holds out a beautiful hope of a new heaven and a new earth. Isaiah describes the destiny he saw as the ultimate outcome of God’s saving purpose in this way: “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isa. 65:25).  It is a vision of children thriving, and of people living full and fulfilling lives. It is a vision of houses built, and vineyards planted. It is a vision that includes even natural enemies in the animal kingdom living together in harmony. Isaiah virtually breaks into song over the awe-inspiring destiny God has in store.
  Isaiah’s vision is filled with the language of freedom, new life, and hope. In a setting where conquerors continually displaced the people, taking their children away from them, throwing them out of their homes and off their own lands, Isaiah envisions a people returned from exile to live in their own land free from fear. But Isaiah’s vision doesn’t just concern Israel; their restoration leads to the restoration of the whole world. Beyond that, this vision of restoration and renewal extends to all creation—even the animal kingdom is to be transformed when God fulfills the promises and liberates the people. Isaiah’s vision is that what God will do at the end of all things will be consistent with what God did at the beginning: create a world full of beauty and love.
  On the contrary, in the lesson from Luke’s Gospel Jesus seems to warn his disciples that the end of all things will be gloom and doom. Rather than being spared from the “tribulations” of the end time, it seems that Jesus was saying his followers would be also be right in the middle of it all.  He said they would be arrested and persecuted (Lk. 21:12), that they would be betrayed even by members of their own family (Lk. 21:16), and that they would be “hated by all because of my name” (Lk. 21:17). It’s pretty clear that Jesus envisioned Christians enduring whatever painful hardships and trials the future holds along with everyone else.  
  Unfortunately, his warnings are easy to misread. For one thing, some of what he says seems to refer to events that would happen in their lifetimes: the Jewish people falling by the sword and Jerusalem being trampled by the Gentiles (Lk. 21:23-24). In fact, about 40 years later the Jewish people fought and lost a war to free themselves from their Roman conquerors. And many of the people got caught up in the violence—Jewish people and Christian alike. But some of this points to a time in the distant future when the nations would see “‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory” (Lk. 21:27).
  So it’s hard to know if Jesus was warning his disciples about hardships of the near future or associated with the end times. I think the answer is that he was talking about both. He knew that the Jewish war would be just as devastating for Christians, and he used that catastrophic event to warn them about the hardships that they would face until the final turmoil associated his return. In the face of this, Jesus urged them to “be alert,” praying for strength, so that they wouldn’t be caught off guard when the day of his return actually would come (Lk. 21:34-36). And he urged them to hold on until the end, promising that the final outcome of all of the trials and hardships they might go through would not be their destruction but their salvation (Lk. 21:28)!
  I think the best answer to the question of our final destiny is one that includes both hardships and the promise of final victory. I’ve spent 40 years studying the Bible, and I even taught the class on Revelation when I was a seminary Professor. And my studied belief is that God isn’t some cruel bully just waiting for the chance to torment the vast majority of humankind, and the natural world along with it. I would say that the torments we have to deal with in this life come from the evil intentions of powerful people. And the more closely we align ourselves with God’s purposes, the more we expose ourselves to the spiteful revenge of those power mongers.
  But when it comes to God’s final purpose for us, I think we’re talking about something very different. We’re talking about the God who showed us what he was like by creating a beautiful world for us all to enjoy. And the Scripture promises that one day he will renew the world so that we can all truly enjoy it. We’re also talking about the God who showed us what he was like by coming as one of us to heal our brokenness and suffering by taking it on himself. And the Scripture promises that one day that work of restoring all things will be complete. And so we can hold on, trusting that God has promised that his good and loving plans for the human family will ultimately win out over all the evil that may be present among us now.

[1] © 2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/17/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.