Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Part of the Solution

Part of the Solution[1]
  It’s not hard to see that our country, our communities, and even our families are deeply divided by social and political issues facing us. Many cultural observers say that we are more divided now than we were during the 1960’s, which saw the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and the Vietnam War. Some even suggest we may be as divided as we were during the Civil War. A wise friend of mine once noted that we don’t have States seceding from Union. But, of course, the division isn’t across State lines. It crosses cities and towns, congregations and families.
  There are also many who are trying to find a way for us to come together again as a nation, as communities, and as families. I was listening to someone the other day, and he talked about the way compassion and generosity can help. Compassion is the ability to see things from another person’s point of view. Compassion understands that they have hearts like us, and they have minds like us.
  Generosity is a quality that relates to many aspects of life. But when it comes to approaching what divides us, generosity can also be helpful. When we approach someone with generosity, we acknowledge that they are human beings just as capable of happiness and love and goodness as we are, no matter what their opinions may be. Generosity enables us to give those who hold different views the benefit of the doubt.
  Unfortunately, we don’t typically respond to those with whom we may have strong disagreements with compassion and generosity. We’re much more likely to react with anger, which often serves as a mask for fear or hurt. We’re also much more likely to insist that we’re in the right and “they” are in the wrong. This leads us to point the finger at those with whom we disagree and blame them for the problems in our society.
  If, however, we can learn to respond with compassion and generosity, rather than reacting with fear and blame, it can change the whole situation. Instead of getting angry we can simply recognize that we have a difference of opinion. Rather than attacking the “others” out of our own discomfort, we can remain calm and try to understand their point of view.
  When that happens, rather than pointing the finger of blame, perhaps we can ask ourselves how the disagreement we may have with others can motivate us to find our “better selves,” and to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” Perhaps then, instead of arguing angrily, we can learn to listen to one another, to respect one another, and to seek to serve the common good in this way. Hopefully then we can refrain from the attitudes that create the divide and become part of the solution.
  Thanks, and I wish you peace and joy!                 
  Pastor Alan                     

[1] ©2020 Alan Brehm. A newsletter column written by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm 1/15/2020 for Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

The Light of Life

The Light of Life
Isaiah 42:1-9[1]
  Photosynthesis. It’s not a word we use in our daily conversations. But it certainly is a process we rely on daily! In a simplified version, photosynthesis is the process by which plants use sunlight to produce the food that enables them to grow and the oxygen that we breathe. Even young children who have never heard of the word “photosynthesis” see its effects every year as the weather turns warmer, the trees and shrubs and flowers put out green leaves, and the crops grow and produce food. Photosynthesis is what fuels this process. But more than that, this cycle in nature sustains all life on earth! We may not use the word “photosynthesis” very often, but we certainly depend on it!
  As important as that fundamental process in nature is to sustaining life, as the Scripture says, “one does not live by bread alone” (Deut. 8:3). It takes more than sunlight, air, water, and food for us to thrive. We need to know that there’s someone who cares about us. More than that we need regular doses of kindness, love, goodness, and mercy from “significant others” in our lives in order to be able to reach our full potential for living. Living in a setting where we feel valued, where we feel empowered, where we have hope for the future; these are essential to our well-being. It seems to me that regular doses of kindness, goodness, mercy, and love enable us to have that sense that life is worth living. 
  In our lesson from Isaiah for today, this is precisely the mission of the “Servant” of the Lord. This servant is the one whom the Lord has chosen to “bring forth justice to the nations” (Isa. 42:1). I know that “justice” is a word that sounds somewhat harsh to our ears. But the mission of the Lord’s servant was not a harsh one. He would “bring forth justice” through kindness and mercy. The Scripture says it this way: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (Isa. 42:3). In The Message translation it says: “He won’t brush aside the bruised and the hurt and he won’t disregard the small and insignificant.”
  The kind of justice the Lord’s “servant” was called “bring forth” would mean “opening the eyes that are blind” and “bringing out the prisoners from the dungeon” (Isa. 42:7). I’ve said many times that doesn’t sound very much like our idea of “justice.” But in the Bible, God’s justice is defined in terms of feeding the hungry, freeing the prisoners, restoring sight to the blind, lifting up those who are bowed down, and caring for vulnerable: refugees, widows, and orphans. The kind of “justice” the Lord sent his “servant” to “bring forth” consists of kindness, mercy, and love. It’s intended to enhance the life of all people.
  In fact, the Scripture tells us that the Lord had called his “servant” to be a “a light to the nations” (Isa. 42:6). Like the light of the sun brings new life to the world of nature every year, so the work of the Lord’s “servant” was intended to be like shining a light that would bring new life to all people. And, Lord knows that we can all use some light to brighten our world and to renew our sense of fulfillment in life! We oftentimes look in all the wrong places for that “light of life.” Only through the experience of genuine goodness, kindness, mercy, and love can we find the light that truly enhances our lives.
  One of the interesting features of the “servant” of the Lord in the book of Isaiah is that it has more than one meaning. In some places, when Isaiah talks about the “servant,” he seems to be referring to himself as a prophet called by God to deliver a message to the people. In other cases, the “servant” seems to be someone who is yet to come, who will bring true justice, peace, and freedom to the oppressed people of God. But in other settings, the “servant” of the Lord is the people of God. They are the ones who are called to bring light to the nations, to make the peace that enables all people to thrive, and to share the mercy of God they have been given so freely.
  While we recognize that Jesus fulfilled the role of the Lord’s “servant” in Isaiah in the fullest sense, I think we also have to embrace that fact that we share that calling as the people of God and as disciples of Jesus. We who have experienced the goodness, kindness, mercy, and love of God through Jesus his “servant” are called to share this life-giving light with all those around us. We’re the “servants” of the Lord who are called to enhance the life experience of the people we encounter. We’re the ones who are called to share the “light of life” with those who may be struggling with the darkness of doubt or despair.
  When we rise to the call to be “servants” of the Lord, we play a crucial role in God’s work of bringing light to all those who are living in darkness. So many people in our world live in constant fear, unrelenting pain, and deep sadness. They’re plagued by a sense of hopelessness about their lives. It’s as if they are stuck in a perpetually dark winter that literally drains the life out of them. But when we accept the call to be “servants” of the Lord by bringing goodness, kindness, mercy, and love, it’s like we’re bringing the light of the sun back into their lives. And just as the sun brings new life to the natural world every Spring, so we can be God’s “servants” who help bring new life to those who are hurting around us. We can help those who are struggling to feel empowered; we can help them have sense of hope for the future; we can help them regain the confidence that life is worth living. When we shine God’s “light of life” into the lives of hurting and hopeless people all around us, we are acting as the Lord’s “servants,” bringing new life to all people.

[1] © 2020 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/12/2020 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.

Light Drives Out Darkness

Light Drives Out Darkness
John 1:1-18[1]
I’m pretty sure that most of us have lost the ability to appreciate the power of a single candle to bring light into a dark room. We don’t use candles for light anymore. We use them for decoration, or for the fragrance they give. We use electricity for lighting, and even a relatively dim 60-watt bulb is the equivalent of 70 candles. And we typically have much more brighter light going in most rooms of our houses. We have flashlights on our phones that easily overpower a single candle, and there are some spotlights that can be positively blinding! We don’t even use candles for emergencies; instead we buy battery-powered lamps. I’m pretty sure we don’t view a candle as a source of light any longer.
By contrast, all of the Bible was written in a time when there was no artificial lighting. Candles and oil lamps were the only sources of light in the darkness. I think it’s hard for some of us to relate to a world not filled with artificial light. We’re so dependent on flipping a switch and having instant light. I would say that many of us aren’t really comfortable with darkness. It feels oppressive, or depressing, or even frightening. But if you were to turn off all the light bulbs and try sitting in a room lit only with candlelight, you might be surprised at the effect.[2] 
John’s Gospel presents the good news of Jesus Christ in terms of light shining in the darkness. Not only do I think that we have difficult appreciating the light, I think that many of us have a hard time grasping the darkness of our world. But make no mistake about it: we live in a world full of darkness. We’re surrounded by it—violence in our schools, poverty that reduces working people to living in their cars, and racism that sparks hate crimes against people of color and of different faiths. But the darkness is within as well. Many in this community live in constant fear. They struggle with loneliness, depression, and even despair. Then there’s the darkness that exists in our world on a broader scale, from the corruption of greed to the destruction of warfare. We live in a dark world.
The good news of our Gospel reading for today is that Jesus came into this world as light. The light that he brings is called “life,” and it’s for all people (Jn. 1:4). John’s Gospel wasn’t talking about “life” in terms of everyday, walking around, living-and-breathing life. The point was that Jesus came to bring a different quality of living. Rather than living in the darkness of fear and greed and hatred, Jesus came to bring a quality of living defined by God’s grace and truth (Jn. 1:14). God’s truth calls us to a life defined by love—the love Jesus demonstrated by giving his life for us all. God’s grace assures us that there’s nothing we can do to make God love us more and there’s nothing we can do to make God love us less. This grace and truth offers us a quality of living that shines like a light in the darkness.
The phrase in this passage that sticks in my mind is the one that says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5). There are some difficulties with this verse, including even how to translate it.[3] But I think the more pressing problem we have to deal with is that Jesus, the light of the world, was brutally executed on a Roman cross. Despite the faith that Jesus was raised from the dead and lives even now, some still today would say that the light of God’s grace and truth and love that Jesus brought into this world has been extinguished by the overwhelming power of darkness in our world. I think those whose lives have been “overcome” by darkness may have difficulty putting their faith in Jesus as the “light of the world.”
But you don’t have to have been totally overcome by the darkness in this world to have known its effect in your life. I would say that most of us here today have experienced some form of darkness in our lives. Whether it’s the greed that deprives us of home or career, or the fear that violence in its many forms can instill, or the anger and even hatred we may feel toward those whom we see as a threat, we have known the power of darkness. I don’t think the promise of the gospel here is that we will never have to suffer from the power of darkness in our world. It is that the darkness, however powerful it may be, does not overcome the light. I like the way the Good News Bible says it: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.”
However dark our lives in this world may get, the light of God’s grace and truth and love in Jesus Christ always shines, and the darkness has never put it out. The faith, hope, and love that God’s love in Jesus brought into this world live on in our hearts, no matter what we have to endure. And the darkness has never put it out. The quality of living that Jesus brought to us through God’s love is like a candle that gives its light to all in darkness, and never stops shining. It’s a different kind of light than what were used to. Candle light is soft, gentle, and reassuring. We may have to look harder for it in the midst of all the other sources of so-called “light” in our world. But the light of God’s grace and truth and love is there, a light shining in the darkness. And that light will continue to drive out the darkness in our world until there is no more darkness. And the darkness will never put it out.

[1] ©2020 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/5/2020 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2]I got the idea from Linda Geddes, “What I Learned by Living without Artificial Light,” BBC Future, April 25, 2018. Accessed at https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20180424-what-i-learnt-by-living-without-artificial-light.
[3] Some versions, like the King James, New King James, and New American Standard, translate the verse, “the darkness did not comprehend it.”


Matthew 1:18-25[1]
At this time of year, it seems that many of us are concerned with surprises. We want once again to surprise those we love with gifts that convey our love, and we want to be surprised again with gifts from them that convey their love. I must confess that I’m not very good at surprising people. Rather than making the mistake of buying someone a gift that I may like but they don’t, I rely on “wish lists” from my children and grandchildren. It would be good if I took notes throughout the year like my son Michael has started doing. Unfortunately, I don’t think of that until it’s too late. I think perhaps I’m not alone in that dilemma!
As we come to the celebration of Christmas, we are reminded that the story of Jesus’ birth is one that is full of surprises. The Savior of humankind comes to us not as a Roman aristocrat, but as a Jewish peasant!  He is born not in the finest villa but in a cave cut out for livestock! He is worshiped not by the “high and mighty” among his people, but by the down and out, simple shepherds. Those nobles who do pay homage to him are foreigners; they are astrologer-priests from Babylon whom we call “wise men” but who would have been considered magicians, enchanters, diviners, and sorcerers by the Jewish people. At least that’s what they’re called in the book of Daniel.
 I think the biggest surprise about the story of Jesus is what it tells us about God. When it comes to imagining a divine being, many of us automatically think of one who is remote and detached. We think of a powerful authority figure who is so busy running the universe that there’s no time to be concerned about “little people” like you and me. At least that has been the image of God that most people have lived with throughout history. God is to be feared because God can “zap” us at a whim. God is to be kept at a distance because if we get too close we might offend God and wind up getting punished for it. Our primary response is to hide from this God for fear that if God really knows us, our ultimate fate will be grim.
But the story of Jesus’ birth is one that presents us with a completely opposite view of God. As our lesson from Matthew’s Gospel demonstrates, the birth of Jesus shows us a God who is “with us” and “for us.” This is a radically different understanding of God, even for people who were raised on the teachings of the Hebrew Bible, as were Mary and Joseph. It’s so radically different that it takes an angelic messenger to make sure that Mary understands what’s going on. And God himself has to come to Joseph in a dream in order to get it through his pre-conceived notions!
The story of Jesus’ birth reveals to us that God is “with us.” That’s literally the meaning of the name “Emmanuel.” It’s from two Hebrew words, immanu, which means “with us,” and el, which is a shortened form of the word for God. This message is not really new. Through the prophets God had been trying to get across that his very identity always has been “God-who-is-with-us.”[2] And yet, we humans have always been slow to believe it. Just emphasizing again that fundamental truth would have been a dramatic statement. But the fact that God came in the person of Jesus, the helpless infant lying in a feed trough, in order to get through to us that he is always the “God-who-is-with-us” was mystifying to those who witnessed it. I would venture to say that it still is.
If we think of God as one who is demanding and punishing, then “God with us” might not be good news. But there’s more to the story of Jesus’ birth. The very fact that Matthew is instructed to name him “Jesus” suggests not only that God is “with us,” but also that God is “for us.”[3] The name “Jesus” in Hebrew was Yehoshua. It was a combination of a shortened form of the name of God, Yahweh, and the Hebrew word for salvation, yeshua. It literally means, “God saves.” Or, in other words, God is “for us.” The birth of Jesus not only shows us the “God-who-is-with-us,” but also that God is “for us.”
In Jesus, God came to once and for all get it through to us that everything he had ever done was intended to make clear that God is always “with us” and “for us.” This is the heart of the good news that we celebrate in the birth of Jesus. It was not something new with Jesus, because God has always been “God-who-is-with-us” and “God-who-is-for-us.” As one of my favorite theologians says it, everything God has ever done has been a kind and loving humbling of himself to give us his saving mercy.[4] But the way in which God demonstrates his love in Jesus is so dramatic that it changes everything. Once and for all, God makes it clear that he is “God-who-is-with-us” and “for us.”
For some reason, I think every time we hear that great good news it comes to us again and again as a surprise. Perhaps we think of ourselves as unworthy. Or perhaps we just cannot wrap our heads around a God who humbles himself. But that’s exactly what we celebrate at Christmas. God comes to be “with us” and “for us.” And he does so by coming as one of the least, one of the last, one of those cast out and brushed aside. God does not come to be “with us” and “for us” by a dramatic demonstration of divine power, accompanied by tens of thousands of his angel armies. He comes to us by taking the form of a helpless infant lying in a feed trough. He comes to us as God in flesh, Emmanuel, “God-who-is-with-us.”

[1] ©2019 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/22/2019 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 2.2:735: “God does not will to be without us, but, no matter who and what we may be, to be with us, that He Himself is always ‘God with us,’ Emmanuel.”
[3] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:174, 4.1:7, 12.
[4] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, 184.