Sermon for 11-29-09: “Hope”

November 30, 2009

Sermon Text: Luke 21:25-36

Here we are: the season of Advent. It’s a season that is technically a lot like Lent: It’s a time when we get ourselves in shape, spiritually speaking, for the upcoming Christmas season. The Christmas season officially begins at 12:00 a.m. on December 25. Of course, you wouldn’t know this if you’ve been to the mall or a department store. Outside the church, the Christmas season is in full swing. The Christmas season unofficially begins when Santa Claus makes an appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Now is the place where you might expect a good Methodist preacher like me to get on my high horse about how wrong our pop culture is to celebrate Christmas so early; to complain that Christmas is over-commercialized; to complain that we should focus more on Jesus and less on Santa Claus; to complain that we overemphasize Christmas at the expense of Easter, et cetera. But you know what? While each of these complaints has some merit, the truth is that I kind of love that Christmas season starts so early. I would be the biggest hypocrite if I said otherwise. I don’t mind getting a month’s worth of Christmas music. I like the ringing bells and Salvation Army kettles outside of department stores. I like Christmas shopping. I like holiday parties. I like tacky Christmas lights and decorations on people’s lawns. Listen, inasmuch as this season focuses the world on expressing love through giving, experiencing joy, spending time with loved ones, that’s a very good thing, if you ask me.

And, yet, in the midst of all this holiday good cheer, today’s scripture might seem like a bit of a Scrooge—all this talk of  “distress among nations” and people “fainting from fear and foreboding.” The first Sunday of Advent is a time when we often focus on the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world. But as I’ve wrestled with this text over time, I’ve changed my thinking on its meaning. I now agree with scholars like N.T. Wright and many others who see these descriptions as not applying so much to the end of the world and Second Coming as to the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome, which occurred in A.D. 70. There’s other scripture that supports our belief in the Second Coming. I just don’t think this is one of them. The destruction of Jerusalem was a cataclysmic event; it claimed the lives of 1.1 million Jews. The prospect of this terrible destruction moves Jesus to tears in Luke 19, saying, “They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” Jesus’ reference to Daniel 7 and the “son of man coming on a cloud,” therefore, is not a reference to the Second Coming but a message of vindication of the gospel of Jesus Christ over against the religious authorities in Jerusalem who resisted God’s kingdom—to the point of their own destruction.

But there’s no reason to get hung up on that because maybe it’s O.K. that the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world get blurred here. Because for those people living in and around Jerusalem and Judea, the events of A.D. 70 meant the end of the world—the end of their world, the end of the world as they knew it. Even if they survived, their world was forever changed.

Well, today the end of the world is near, at least according to some people. My nine-year-old daughter asked me last week if the world was coming to an end in 2012. I said, “No,” but I hadn’t heard the latest rumor—this one having to do with the Mayan calendar. Here we go again! There’s always some new doomsday prediction in our pop culture, as those of us who remember the “millennium bug” can attest. Still, there are plenty of things in the world that seem very frightening. On a global scale, the threat of nuclear annihilation remains a real and frightening prospect, as every week we hear about new developments related to Iran or North Korea having the Bomb. In the face of this threat, is there reason for hope? As if that weren’t enough, many other authorities warn us of ecological catastrophes, deadly new epidemics, and ongoing threats of terrorism. In the face of these threats, is there reason for hope?

Closer to home, many of us have been affected by this economy. We have a jobs ministry here at church. Last week, at their meeting, I was talking to a very talented I.T. professional, a husband and father, who has been out of work for nine months and whose wife lost her job last week. In the face of this struggle, is there reason for hope? Many people are struggling with crises in their homes, in their marriages, and with their children. In the face of these crises, is there reason for hope? Just a few days ago, I was talking to a friend who’s an EMT—a paramedic. She sees human tragedy nearly every day of work. She described one troubling accident that she witnessed recently and said, poignantly, “Some things you can’t un-see.” Some things you can’t un-see… Can I look her in the eye and say, “You know, in spite of this, there is reason for hope”? Many of us sympathize with the country singer-songwriter who described in one song turning on the evening news. “There’s a half a dozen tragedies from which to pick and choose.” Is there reason for hope?

Every Thanksgiving weekend, my family has a tradition, which we observed last Friday, of decorating the house for Christmas—putting the tree up, trimming the tree, playing Christmas music—followed by watching the movie Miracle on 34th Street. The original black and white movie, with Natalie Wood. There’s no mention of Jesus in the movie; on the surface you’d never know that Christmas was even a religious holiday. Mostly, the movie is about a girl and her mother. This mother is a person who is deeply pessimistic and cynical about the world. In her own mind, however, she’s being “realistic” about the way the world works, and everyone else is naive. Undoubtedly, she would look at the world and say, “There is no reason for hope.” And yet the movie is all about the process of her coming to believe… in Santa Claus at least. Now, I’m not one to mix the sacred with the secular at Christmas. I like to keep Santa out of the manger. And yet… There’s something there in this movie that speaks to Christian faith; it is on one level a joyful story of conversion. By the end of the movie, the little girl believes wholeheartedly in Santa Claus; and even her mother, despite all the obstacles to faith that have been placed in her path, finds that her confidence in her lack of faith is forever shaken to its core: It’s very likely—given the last scene of the movie, which I won’t give away—that she, too, will come to believe. And when I watch the ending, I think, “How different will her future look, how much more joyful and peaceful will her life be, how much happier will her life be, knowing that there’s reason for hope?” Terrible, violent, foreboding events in the world are going to happen as they always have—her newfound faith won’t change that—but she will now interpret these events in light of a reality that transcends them.

And that’s what Jesus challenges us to do here: to see beyond troubling and sometimes frightening signs to the contrary, and have hope. Hope in the midst of what appears to be hopelessness. Hope in the midst of despair. Hope in the midst of man’s inhumanity toward man. In Romans chapter 8, Paul, in other words, describes this hope and says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Paul compares what we’re experiencing now—what the world is experiencing now—to labor pains. Think about that.

I don’t know from experience, thank God, but I’ve heard it said that there’s no pain quite like the pain of childbirth. Can I get an “Amen”? But when we consider the gift of new life on the other side of labor, is the pain worth it? Mothers of teenagers, you don’t have to answer. I’ve heard of mothers in the delivery room say, “I can’t do it. I can’t make it.” And the midwife, nurse, or doctor says, “Yes, you can.” We can make it through. Life is worth the pain. And we can have hope!

We can have hope, not because of what’s happened in our past or where we come from; not because of success or failure in our career or love life; not because of our connections or status or wealth; not because of our 401(k); not because of who is or isn’t in office; not because of what some leader or some country is doing on the other side of the world; not because of whether or not our favorite team won the big game… No, we can have hope because of who God is and what God has done through Jesus Christ!

And if we have placed our faith in Christ and have been baptized, we can have this hope! If you haven’t yet taken that first step of faith, I would love to talk with you about it. You can come see me; you can fill out that card on the inside of your bulletin, and I’ll be happy to contact you. For those of us who are already on this journey of faith, maybe we’re going through a difficult time right now? Are we tempted to give up? Are we experiencing the end of the world as we’ve known it, and we don’t know what to do? God has got the whole world, including you and me, in his hands. God has a plan, a purpose, and a future for each one of us. Jesus challenges us to see the present in light of God’s future. If we can do that, then we can do what Jesus tells us to do: “Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near… Know that the kingdom of God is near… Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

Amen? [Respond by reading together the Apostles’ Creed]

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