Sunday, December 31, 2017

Keeping Hope Alive (a sermon from Luke 2:22-40)

In our Gospel story today Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple. Interpreters point out that Luke collapses two different Jewish rituals into one – the purification of the mother and the redemption of the first born. These were actually two separate rituals observed at different times, but in this story Luke combines them, reminding us that for the Gospel writers the proclamation of good news was always more important than getting history and the traditions right.

The offering that is presented by Jesus’ parents tells us something about the economic conditions in which Jesus was raised. The law required a lamb for the offering, but it had a poverty clause that permitted the offering of turtle doves or pigeons for those who could not afford to bring a sheep. And this is what Mary and Joseph bring. I suspect growing up poor helped to nurture within Jesus a real passion to help the poor. He knew how systemic poverty entraps and diminishes people. When Jesus sets forth his agenda in Luke’s Gospel, he defines his mission in terms of Isaiah 61. He says that the Spirit empowers him to bring good news to the poor, to open the eyes of the blind, to free the captives, and liberate the oppressed. Blessed are the poor, says Jesus, for the kingdom of God belongs to them. God’s kingdom is the great equalizer where the first will be last and the last will be first, unlike the kingdoms of the world where there is huge disparity.

Luke mentions Israel’s longing for God’s future liberation through two expressions. Simon speaks of “the consolation of Israel” and the prophet Anna speaks of “the redemption of Jerusalem.” But clearly Luke does not limit this future hope to God’s covenant people. He says that the child will be a light of revelation to the Gentiles for God’s salvation is prepared for all peoples. God’s plan is all inclusive. It is universal, not exclusively limited to one group of people, even if that group of people played a special role in the unfolding of God’s salvation. God’s salvation is for all.

When the early followers of Jesus spoke about the future salvation of the world they employed a popular language or form of expression that developed in the intertestamental period called apocalyptic. To us it seems a very strange way of communicating. Apocalyptic is a highly hyperbolic or exaggerated language often employing strange and bizarre imagery and symbolism – angels blowing trumpets, beasts arising out of the sea, stars falling from the heavens, and the like. Paul, for example, is using apocalyptic language when he says to the church at Thessalonica,
“For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air.”

I grew up as a conservative evangelical where belief in a literal, bodily, personal second coming of Jesus was considered one of the fundamentals of the faith. I believed that the heavens would split apart and the glory of Jesus would appear in the sky as he returned to the earth to judge the world and set up his kingdom. I suspect many of you were taught this and probably still believe this, which is okay. I don’t believe in a literal second coming of Christ, which is okay too. That is the neat thing about our fellowship. We welcome diversity of belief. Being a Christian is not about believing all the right things; rather, being a Christian is aspiring to live and love like Jesus. Everything else is open for discussion. Now I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but I do think I owe it to you as your pastor to explain why I don’t believe in a personal second coming of Christ. Please understand that my intent here is not to convince you to change your belief, but simply explain why I see things differently at this stage in my faith journey.

First, second coming language is apocalyptic language and I see no reason to take some things symbolically and other things literally. I interpret it all symbolically. Apocalyptic language is the language of parable and poetry. It’s metaphorical, not literal. Second, I see no reason for Christ to return, because Christ is already here. Now, I do not mean to say that the man, Jesus of Nazareth is here, who was crucified by the powers of the world, and whom God raised from the dead. Yes, Jesus is called the Christ, but it is clear in the writings of Paul that Paul understood Christ to be a broader reality than the divine/human man Jesus. Paul spoke of Christ being in us and our being in Christ. He called us the body of Christ in the world. So if Christ is here, with us, among us, in us, being incarnated through us, then the Christ does not need to return.

The third reason I am not looking for a personal return of Jesus (and this is the real clincher for me) is because I don’t expect God to engage humankind in the future in a dramatically different way than God has engaged humankind in the past. If 99.9 percent of all the scientists in the world are correct (and I believe 99 percent of the scientists), then human life evolved over a course of millions of years. I believe science and religion should support one another, that they should be complementary not contradictory. I have no reason to doubt these scientists. It doesn’t seem likely to me that God is going to change so drastically how he relates to the creation. I see God as intimately involved in this whole process. I don’t believe God is somewhere out there stirring the pot with God’s finger (that’s a metaphor by the way). I believe God is right here with, among, and in the creation moving us forward. God is such an intimate part of this whole process that God experiences both the pain and joy of the creation. Clearly, this is a slow process and all part of the great Mystery. It is interesting, I think, that when Paul speaks of the redemption of the world In his letter to the Romans he includes all creation. He says that the whole creation groans in labor pains awaiting full redemption.

So, for these reasons I believe that if God is going to bring about a just world, a world of peace and righteousness, God will do it through you and me. God will do it through Christ’s body in the world. We are God’s plan for the redemption of the world. I can understand why many Christians are afraid to even entertain this idea, because it puts an awful lot of responsibility on us doesn’t it? It’s a whole lot easier to believe that Jesus is going to come back to earth and do this all for us so that we don’t have to. Whatever Paul may have believed about the second coming he emphasized our responsibility in the redemption of the world. Listen to what he says to the church at Corinth: “I have made myself a servant to all, so that I might win more of them.” That’s a heavy load to bear isn’t it? He says, “To those under the law [the law of Moses] I became as one under the law . . . To those outside the law I became as one outside the law [then he says that he is under the law of Christ which he calls God’s law – that is, the law of love]. . . To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.” Then he concludes by saying, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings (see 1 Cor. 9:19-23)” I suspect what Paul means by “blessings” here is very broad, but certainly this includes the blessings of a just world, a redeemed world, a world healed and made right and whole, a world of peace and righteousness.

When we consider our spiritual and moral evolution as a species it can be discouraging. We can’t be much past adolescence can we? Our intellectual and technological evolution has obviously outpaced our religious and moral evolution. We have made great strides in extending life expectancy and fighting diseases that once cut life off prematurely. And yet, millions of people still are not able to access these resources. That’s a moral problem because of systemic injustice. We have used our technological know-how to create weapons of mass destruction, and we have amassed enough weapons of mass destruction to destroy the planet several times over, and still we think we have to make more of them. And we all know how systems large and small – governments, corporations, all kinds of political, economic, social, and religious systems, global, national, and local, can become pervaded by injustice and evil. When a system becomes saturated by sexism, or racism, or nationalism, or exceptionalism, or materialism, or any other destructive or deadly “ism” that system can do great harm.   

So how do we keep hope alive? How do we sustain hope that the world can be different, that we can be different? How do we nurture hope in Life when the powers of death appear to be so prevalent and dominant? Without a whole lot of elaboration I suggest three practices we can engage in to keep hope alive.

First, we can learn how to listen to the Spirit – to the still small voice of God. Contemplative prayer is about listening rather than asking. I still ask God for things. I make requests. But I am learning to listen more than I ask. Sometimes we are the answer to our prayers, but we don’t know it, because we haven’t taken the time to listen. I think of the man who had a lakeside cabin and liked to go for a brisk swim in the mornings. One morning he took to the water earlier than usual. While he was some distance from shore, a late morning fog, thick and dense, came suddenly rolling in over the water.  He could barely see a few feet in front of him. Then he realized that he had lost his bearings; he did not know where the shore was (which, by the way, is a very apt description of where we are as a nation today). He started to panic and began thrashing about in the water, starting this way, then stopping and launching out in another direction. Then he realized how foolish this was and became very still. So still he could hear birds singing in the distance. Then he heard a car horn and next, he heard his wife calling for him, and he was able to make his way back to shore. And you know sisters and brothers, nurturing this capacity to listen is not just for own salvation. The redemption of the world may depend on enough of us developing the capacity to hear God speak and then the courage to follow God’s leading.

Second, we keep hope alive by learning how to live responsibly and lovingly within a community. Living and loving responsibly within a community enables us to focus beyond our private ego and moves us beyond our preoccupations with our personal wants and interests. A church, a faith community when it is actually being the body of Christ in the world grounds us in God’s larger story – what Jesus called the kingdom of God.

Joan Chittister tells about being a child and having polio the year that would later be described as the last of the great polio epidemic in the U.S. Polio hospitals everywhere were full. Every day brought new patients in on gurneys—men, women, children, infants, people of all ages. She tells of being in a room with sixteen others, too young for adult rehabilitation and too old for the children’s units. She felt lost, scared, angry, and very very alone. Depression hung like a morning mist over that place. They were all strangers quarantined together.

She heard the woman in the corner crying every day and every night. Others lay on their sides in silence. Then one day, one of the men came rolling into the room, tilting the wheels on his chair. “Anybody wanna race?” he called out. “We’re getting ready.”
The woman who cried all the time screamed at him, “Just get out of here. I just want my privacy. Even my husband wouldn’t barge in on me like this.” The man in the wheel chair just shook his head. Chittister spoke up, “I do. I want to race. But I don’t have a wheelchair.” “Don’t worry kid,” he said, “we’ll be back as soon as you get one.” Then he spun around and rolled out of the room. Chittister writes, “Those wheelchair races saved me. I never won any of them but my arms got stronger by the week and I learned to handle the chair. And, most of all, I laughed a lot and made new friends and had a great sense of the possible that carried me for years.” She learned that it isn’t what happens to us that counts, it’s what we do with what happens to us that makes all the difference.” She became involved in that community and it gave her hope.

And lastly, we can keep hope alive by intentionally practicing the golden rule – by doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. The prophet asked the question: What does God require? In response he said, “To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Most of us do a fair job at being kind and expressing mercy. We are not quite as good at walking in humility. And we are even worse at doing justice. And right now at this time in our world and our nation there is nothing more important than doing justice.

Some of us just shy away from the task when we consider how daunting it is to challenge huge systems where injustice is inseparably intertwined within the system – whether it be a government system or social system or even a religious system. But here’s what we can do. We can start right where we are. I hope you are reading some of the stories that are being published about dreamers – undocumented folks who came here as children. This is their home. They were kids when they were brought here. Maybe there parents were fleeing war or poverty or just wanting a better life for there family, but they were brought here as children. They don’t have another home somewhere. Our government has failed them miserably – they are still undocumented because our representatives failed to give them a path to citizenship. And right now unless Congress acts, the present administration will deport them, just as they have already deported many undocumented. They don’t care about separating families. I hope you have read some of their stories. I read this past week that the administration is even making the argument that separating mothers from their infants and toddlers is a good thing. I hope you understand how unjust and merciless deporting these “dreamer” is. We say, “What can we do?” We can speak up and speak out and refuse to be silent. We can at least do that, can’t we? When we are silent we complicit in the injustice. Do you remember those judged in Matthew 25? They are not judge for what they did, but for what they didn’t do. They are judged for doing nothing to help downtrodden. If an acquaintance or friend says something racist or something full of contempt, speak up. Say, “As a follower of Jesus I am offended by that remark” and tell them why you are offended. We who claim to be followers of Jesus need to be followers of Jesus. .

You know sisters and brothers, there are times when it’s no easy task keeping hope alive. When Simon and Anna spoke words of promise and hope to the parents of Jesus and to the people who worshiped in the temple it was during the dark days of captivity to Rome. No matter how dark it gets there is always some light, and we can live and walk in the light if we listen to the Spirit, engage in community, and do unto others what we would have them do unto us. We think of Jesus as being the light of the world, but Jesus said that we are the light of the world and the salt of the earth.


Our good God, help us to see that we have a responsibility for keeping hope alive. We can’t manufacture hope. We can’t magically conjure up hope. But we can create the space for your Spirit to lead us. We can maintain practices of prayer and worship and community, and give ourselves to the kind of relationships that sustain hope. Help us to be faithful to these practices and relationships that nurture hope. Help us to be good and kind and generous and compassionate, to live honestly and humbly, to pursue justice and mercy, so that by loving one another we can create an atmosphere where hope can thrive. Give us the determination and will to say “yes” to life no matter how pervasive death seems, and give us the faith to trust you to fill us with hope. 

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