Hope and Realization (Christmas Eve)

Biblical Text: Luke 2:1-7

The service is lessons and carols, so there are a multiplicity of texts. The real text is the Day – Christmas Eve – and the entire biblical story. This sermon is a reflection upon the dance between Hope and Realization. We really want the realization, but God likes Hope. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of realization, but not completed. And until it is complete, we live in Hope and Faith.

Advent Experiences

Biblical Text: Isaiah 64:1-9

It is the first Sunday of Advent. I typically use the traditional text for the Gospel lesson of the day, the Triumphal Entry or Palm Sunday. All the best Advent hymns for the day are keyed to that text. The story being told is the welcoming of the King. But I chose the Old Testament text to preach from today. This text is from the “third Isaiah” which I simple think of as the portion the prophet addresses to the those who have returned from exile yet find the experience not what was hoped for.

Isaiah’s plea feels like the plea of all those who believe they have the answers but are ignored. “Would that you would rend the heavens and come down.” It is not the lament of unbelief, nor is it the prayer of those persecuted. It is the cry of the dismissed. It is the ask of those more zealous for the Lord than maybe the Lord himself. Think Joshua running to Moses about Eldad and Medad. Or James and John seeking fire from heaven on a volunteer disciple. The plea is not in itself sinful, but we should examine our motivations. Do we desire God’s presence that we might be proved right over our enemies? Or do we desire it for the sake of His promises? This sermon meditates on faith, the promises of God and our desire to seem them in power.

Hope or Optimism?

A fellow pastor made a blanket statement recently, “Optimism is mandatory.” It is one of those statements that I could immediately intuit what he was getting at.  He flipped it around and said “you are not authorized to despair” which I found completely without problem. Because when I think about despair it’s opposite is hope.  And as a Christian we have hope.  What I balked at was the equation of Hope and Optimism. Now I hear you already.  There you go pastor, splitting hairs that can’t be split.  But at least some part of the preacher gig is based upon words.  Upon having an understanding about the shade of meaning words have and how they are used.  And to my ears Hope and Optimism had different domains of use.

Optimism to me is based in the gut or in our feelings.  At its most pagan it is simply the feeling that fortune favors me right now.  It could come from a feeling of karma.  “I deserve something good.” It is Norman Vicent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking.” And honestly I don’t want to be too negative on some of these.  A positive outlook on life is an endearing American trait.  Even if you just call it the Dunning-Kruger effect – irrational confidence – it often works. Fake it until you make it is good advice.  Nobody likes hanging around Eeyore. But ultimately Optimism is based only on ourselves. It is the advice of Self-Help.  If I only follow this seven-step plan everything will be perfect.  And the problem with self help stated as boldly as “Optimism is mandatory” is that it makes it a law.  And we can’t keep the law.  We do not have a promise from God that everything in this world is going to be peachy. For lots of people commanding optimism would be like the drowning hand meme. Sometimes self-help works, but many times down you go.

Contrary to Optimism which is not based on anything solid, Hope is based on the promises of God and His self-revelation.  And the Christian Hope is as the creed defines it, “I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” This Hope is solid because Jesus is risen.  We have already seen the first fruits.  We have also been given the Holy Spirit, the deposit of that World to Come. God is not saying to us, “get up” while we are laying dead.  God himself shall raise us.  Likewise God is not demanding that we build the Kingdom under our own effort.  He has already made the Kingdom.  We only wait for its full appearance. The entire creation groans waiting for the revelation. When Jesus compares building on the sand and building on the rock, to me this is the difference between optimism and hope.  Optimism is the sand.  You can build on it for a while, but eventually the water rises higher and the building goes down.  Hope is the rock.  Even when the water comes up, it is Jesus who can command the wind and the waves to be silent.  The prophet can part the sea.  We have been provided an ark.

We absolutely need to be told to have Hope.  And if we think God isn’t living up to his promises, take it to Him.  He might come back at us in a whirlwind.  We may be talking words without understanding.  But this is also the God who promises “a bruised reed he will not break.”  And it is exactly that testing of hope that builds it up.  “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. (Rom. 5:3-4)”  It does this because the rock like nature of the promises of God are made real in our lives.  We have not been abandoned, neither is it all on us.  I balked at optimism, because it comes up short. The Christian has hope.

Hope Amid the Weeds

Biblical Text: Matthew 13:24-45

The gospel lesson continues the parable sermon of Jesus, the 3rd of 5 sermons that make up the Gospel of Matthew. The parable is often called: the wheat and the tares. I remember it by a line from a hymn – the wheat and weeds together sown/unto joy or sorrow grown. It is a hard teaching parable, as may or may not be apparent from that hymn line.

The background summary that I’ve taken in my sermons on the parables is that these are some of the deeper teachings that would be taught to newbies in the faith. The sermon on the mount is rather straightforward first teaching. The missionary discourse (Matthew 10) is a presentation of how the Word comes to us from outside of us and how the call to discipleship is not all sunshine and roses. But then Jesus turns to parables for what are harder questions. Why are the reactions to hearing the word all over the place? (The Parable of the Sower and the Soils). And the biggie of the Wheat and Weeds – Why is their evil in the world?

And the answer of the parable isn’t the most satisfying, but it is an answer. While that might be the question that the parable is an answer to, the parable wants to turn our attention to something better. Yes, there is evil. Yes, we live amid weeds. But there will be a harvest. The weeds do not stop the wheat from being fruitful. And polished by the parables sandwiched between the parable and explanation, that eternal hope is not all we have. The Kingdom is working now, like a mustard seed, or like leaven. The devil sowed his weeds, but the kingdom has its own trickery that overgrows those. And that is Hope. The eternal Hope seeps and grows into this life. And Hope does not disappoint us.

Anxious Hearts

Biblical Text: John 14:1-14

What do we really want? Another way of saying that might be what are we aimed at? The fancy term here is teleology. What completes us? Such questions typically fascinated most peoples. We are strange in that we’ve ruled out thinking about ends/goals in anything other than temporal and vague ways. And it is that refusal to think seriously about such things that I think puts all kinds of anxiety on our hearts. Jesus’ words in this gospel passage are a direct balm. “Let not your hearts be troubled.” Why? Believe. The rest is in the sermon.

Them Bones

Biblical Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14

The text is one of the most famous in all of scripture – Ezekiel’s Dry Bones. It’s famous, because of how it works on the heart if you allow it. If this field of scattered bones is the whole house of Israel, if the chosen people can come to this, what about us? And you’ve got to think about it because the Spirit takes you there and places you in the middle of it. And God asks you the question, “Can these bones live?”

Ezekiel has a reply, not an answer. The answer is God’s. But it is not the easy triumphalism we want. Nor is it a counsel of despair. It is a promise. It’s the Word proclaimed. This sermon hopefully opens the heart and lets that work on it.

A New Hope

Biblical Text: Isaiah 2:1-5, (Romans 13: 8-14)

It is the first Sunday in Advent, the church new year. Advent is a season set aside to prepare for Christmas. Like the secular New Year that looks backwards and forwards, Advent as a season looks at the past and then toward the future. At least for me its overriding theme is about Hope. The Bible is a book grounded in our human reality. If you think GRR Martin is salacious, read the Bible. Although the players in that Game of Thrones have reasonable motivations behind actions. In the bible the motivations are as often as not that we are just sinners and like sinning. And that we are all in this Empire of Sin. Advent is about the hope, the rebellion of the Kingdom against that Empire. The downfall, already accomplished and yet to come, of the tyrant and the coming of the Reign of Justice and Peace which is founded on love. Things are broken, but there is a New Hope.

It’s Free; and Costs Everything

Biblical Text: Mark 5:21-43, Lamentations 3:22-33

The text is one of the “Markan Sandwiches” – an outside story interrupted by an inside story. That gives us a chance to reflect on things exterior and things interior. In the biblical text the the outside and the inside stories interact and intensify each other. They are told in this way because we are meant to understand them together. Likewise our internal and external selves. The first reflection this sermon delves into is the contrasts between Jesus and the Crowds in the external story in regards to hope. Internally it is the difference between hope and despair, externally it is the difference between the acts of horror and serenity. The second reflection contrasts the woman and the disciples in the internal story in regards to cost. What is the cost of this hope? There are only two answers. Give the sermon a listen to hear.

A New Want-er

Biblical Text: Exodus 20:1-17, John 2:13-22 (1 Corinthians 1:18-31)

This sermon might be a bit intellectual, but it is lent which is a season for some challenging fare. The challenge here is to think about what does the cleansing of the temple of our body. Our first answer is always the law. We think that we can control the passions. We think that our heads control our hearts. After that falsehood breaks, I think we often pursue some “middle ground”. We want to build a temple or sacred booth in this world. We clear out a bit of the world. We put our hope in something like “beauty” or “the arts”. And it is not that the law, or “the arts”, or any of these things are wrong. It is just that tomorrow, all the money changers are back anyway.

Our hope isn’t in anything in this world. Not in the law which is written on our stone hearts, although that dead thing can’t follow it. Not in the prettiest work of human hands, even though those might move the heart occasionally. Our hope is in faith in the cross and resurrection – the work of Christ – alone. We need a new heart, a new want-er. And that only comes about by the foolish work of the Spirit.

A Voice Says “Cry!” What Shall I Cry?

Biblical Text: Isaiah 40:1-11

This is the call of 2nd Isaiah – a much better call than the first one. It is completely absorbed into the New Testament story in John the Baptist, but treating it as good news in its own right brings out a different emphasis. That is what this sermon does. Instead of a people already experiencing the inbreaking of the Kingdom, in its own context it is addressed to those who might rightly be despairing. The LORD has always claimed two things: 1) His love for his people is steadfast and 2) He is the only God of all the nations. Sitting in exile, neither of those seem right. But God tells his prophet to “Cry”. And the message is Good News.

It might be pride, it might just be the poorness of my file in general, but after delivering this one, it immediately feels like one for the portfolio.