ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH NOVEMBER 29, 2015
SOMETHING TO LIVE FOR
Jeremiah 33: 14 – 16; Luke 1: 68 – 79
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Recent global events have raised the anxiety levels of many people. The terrorist attacks in France, the attack in the Mali hotel, the shooting down of Russian planes, bombings in Beirut, the highest state of alert in Belgium, the wars in Iraq and Syria and the threats of retaliation have people wondering what’s next. Some fear we’re ramping up for WW3. When we consider the question, “when will it all end?” the answer seems hopeless. Looking at statistics only confirms our concerns. Since 3600 B.C. the world has known only 292 years of global peace (excluding wars between remote tribes). During this period there have been 14,351 wars in which 3.64 billion people have been killed. The value of the property destroyed would pay for a golden belt around the earth 97.2 miles wide and 33 feet thick. Over 8,000 peace treaties have been made and broken. In the novel, Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., an important book comes to light. It is titled “What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?” The chief character opens it to find the book consists of one word: “Nothing.” That’s a pretty grim view of existence. Without hope life loses meaning. If we can hope for nothing we have nothing for which to live. (So, we’ll be handing out the Kool-Aid now…) G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all… it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength.” The question is: in what do we hope? What gives us the optimism to remain expectant? What gives us something to live for? Humanity seems to be an “iffy choice”. A person apt to promise is also apt to forget.
God, of course, has made a number of promises. Scripture is filled with them. Is a God who makes promises also apt to forget? For the Israelites it certainly seemed that way at times. According to scripture the Israelites where enslaved in Egypt for 430 years – during that time they came to believe God had forgotten them. They wandered the desert for another 40 years. They were captive in Babylon for 70 years. All the while God had been promising deliverance. By the time of Jeremiah the Israelites in exile in Babylon were beginning to wonder if God had forgotten them. In chapter 33 God has a word of hope for them. He promises to keep his previous promises. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made…” (vs. 14). If nothing else God assured his people he had not forgotten them or his vow to them. God’s promise was to send a Messiah: “I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (vs. 15). The outcome of this promise would be for them to “be saved and live in safety.” (vs. 16) 500 years later Israel was occupied by Rome. In the midst of Roman oppression Zechariah, the father of John the Baptizer, recognized the fulfillment of God’s promise to keep his promise was at hand. God “has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant” (Luke 1: 72). Zechariah praised God because, “has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us” (vs. 68 & 69). The Messiah, Jesus, was to come first for the Jews but also for the Gentiles – for all people everywhere, for the world God loved. God wasn’t limiting the hope of salvation; Jesus had come for anyone who wished to follow him and trust in him. In a hopeless world, God’s promise gives us hope. Safety consists not in the absence of danger but in the presence of God. In the midst of a world in turmoil, God came as an infant to be present with us. A photographer took a picture of an old burned-out mountain shack. Only the chimney remained – the charred debris of a family’s sole possession. In front of the ashes stood a grandfather with a crying boy. Beneath the picture were the words the man was speaking to his grandson, “Hush child, God ain’t dead!” As long as God is with us, alive in Christ, there’s hope. There is a reason to keep going and to rebuild. There is something to live for.
A little town named Flagstaff, Maine was flooded to build a dam. In the months before the flooding, all improvements and repairs in the town were stopped. What would be the point? Within a short time the whole town fell into ruin. “Where there is no hope for the future, there’s no power in the present.” Zechariah grasped that in the coming of Jesus, there was hope for the future, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (vs. 78 & 79) A new day was at hand! Peace would be a possibility because of “the tender mercy of our God.” Because of the Messiah’s redemption there is power for the present. Jeremiah described that power:
“that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” (vs. 74 – 75)
In the present day, while we wait for the fulfillment of God’s final promise to return and create “a new heaven and a new earth, how do we live? Many people of both Christian and Muslim persuasion seem to look forward to the Apocalypse with glee. They eagerly await the destruction of the world by way of a mega war so Jesus can return to create peace. Isn’t there something upside down about obtaining peace by joyfully creating Armageddon? In the end this may be exactly what happens but God isn’t telling us to bring it on. He’s calling the world to salvation. God’s will is for hearts to be changed. Jesus asked us to pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6: 10) Jesus came so a new day will dawn, giving light and hope in the face of darkness and death. Jesus came to guide us to peace.
Peace is possible when we trust in Christ’s absolute deliverance. Peace is possible when we serve God without fear. When we do not allow our fear to block out his light. When we do not allow fear to be the power that controls the present. Richard Rohr in his book Falling Upward says “too many in our world have learned to do their survival dance but not their sacred dance.” Survival is a mindset that grows out of fear and leads us downward into death. When an organization is operating doing a survival dance, as so many churches are today, it’s a matter of time before they close their doors. When a country reacts in fear and goes does a survival dance we lock our doors to protect ourselves – to survive. We fail to live. When we do a personal survival dance, our world becomes very small. Survival fails to give us something to live for. Like the Israelites in the desert, those who do the survival dance may exist but they wander around without direction. They lack purpose. They lose hope.
In order to have hope we need to learn a sacred dance. We need to journey into God. We find something to live for only when God is with us and we’re present to him. There is hope as we learn to live in the presence of God in holiness and righteousness. 19th century Theologian John Brown wrote, “Holiness does not consist in mystic speculations, enthusiastic fervours or uncommanded austerities; it consists in thinking as God thinks, and willing as God wills.”
In this world there doesn’t seem to be a lot of people living like that, but there are signs of hope. There’s hope every time we pray for our world asking God to give us love for our neighbor and our enemy. There’s hope when a local mosque is attacked by arsonists and Christians lead a fundraiser that collects $97,000 in a couple days. There’s hope when Christians and Jews open their places of worship to those same Muslims and they accept. There’s hope when refugees are welcomed into our country and they gratefully welcome a new day. There’s hope when we, like God, learn to keep our promises. There’s hope when we discover the power of forgiveness. There’s hope when we prepare the way of the Lord so that salvation may abound. There’s hope when human hearts are transformed. And for Christians the greatest sign of hope, of course, is the fulfillment of God’s promise in Christ.
I want to end with a little story. A Jew, a Christian and a Muslim go into a coffee shop. They chat, share stories about their lives and their families, tell jokes, buy each other refills and share their hopes for the future. When it’s time to leave, they hug and head home. There is no punch line.
We live for the day when that is no longer a story but a reality because God, in Christ, has kept his promise to redeem an otherwise hopeless world. We live with hope because, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1: 78 & 79)