Christ Reformed United Church of Christ

This Sunday's Sermon




Message for Sunday,  November 28th

First Sunday of Advent


DETOUR TO A PLACE CALLED HOPE

 

     Luke begins his Jesus story, not with the birth of Jesus, but with the coming of another preacher, who will grow up to be called  "The Baptist..Here’s how the story commences: "During the time when Herod was king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah… His wife’s name was Elizabeth; she also belonged to a priestly family. They both lived good lives in God’s sight and obeyed fully all the Lord’s laws and commands. They had no children because Elizabeth could not have any, and she and Zechariah were both very old” (Luke 1:5-7).

 

     Now Melissa and I decided at the time of marriage to delay parenting.  Our first born didn’t arrive until 7 years later. At the birth of Elizabeth, it became evident that people had - during those years - been feeling sorry for us, assuming that we couldn’t have children. So it’s not hard to imagine how it was for Elizabeth and Zechariah. They were carrying into their twilight years the burden of pain and disappointment: even shame, given the cultural expectations for childbearing. It seemed as though their course was set: they’d live out their advanced years without children to care for them – without even a single child to carry on the family name and legacy. Dare they hope for more?

 

     Speaking of hope… Where’s the hope for a family that’s broken because mom has numbed herself against the stresses of life with beer and bourbon; because the step-dad is chronically depressed, suicidal, and unemployable; and because the biological dad is in prison? I’m describing the predicament of an actual high school student with whom I’d become acquainted some years ago. What astonished me was the degree to which the young man had kept it together enough to have become a caretaker to the adults in his life, even as he tended to himself while at the same time becoming a surrogate parent to younger siblings – feeding them, helping them with homework, getting them to bed and making sure they made it to school on time. How could he have navigated all of that messiness apart from having had one foot in a place called hope?

 

     I shared at a grave-side funeral with Helen’s grieving family and friends – all two of them. She didn’t have children and out-lived her friends. What I remember about the apartment where she dwelled was the photograph of two lovebirds enjoying a day at the Jersey Shore. Helen – already striking in appearance – was made all the more beautiful by the glow of joy etched on her face. She and Alan were, after all, so deeply in love with each other; and from what I could pick up during my clergy visits, she had once-upon-a-time-ago loved life – or, at least, until Alan got sick and died. Since that time, she had become miserably alone and angry: angry at God, angry at life, angry at Alan for having left her alone. Yet she was still breathing; still showing hospitality to her pastor; and still living in a place called hope!   

 

     I spent time in the 1980’s visiting with my cousin who was assigned by the Church of the Brethren Volunteer Service to work in a Haitian church-funded school for deaf children. Haiti was – and is – the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. What I recall with great sadness was the expression of a young Haitian who, on the day of my flight back home, voiced his wish to live in the United States. "There’s nothing for me here,” he lamented. Indeed! What he and other Haitian children had was a nation governed by corrupt and incompetent men; a country where the vast majority of citizens endured – as they do now – the deprivation of food, deprivation of medicine, deprivation of adequate sanitation, decent homes, universal education, and access to clean water, among other markers of killing poverty and broken society. Devastating earthquakes and political upheaval during recent times have made the land of Haiti even more dismal; yet it’s also a place where hope springs eternal. 

 

     Ronald Reagan was a’ year into his time at the White House when I headed off to begin my studies for professional ministry. How could I have known then that the world was about to shift – that the culture in which I learned to be a pastor would no longer exist in the 2020’s?  If a youngster living through the early 1980’s asked Santa Claus for a tablet, he or she would have found under the Christmas tree an Etch-A-Sketch. Back then, I prepared my seminary class assignments on a Smith-Corona electric typewriter; and correction tape was the high-tech innovation used for the correction of spelling mistakes. Church, at the time, was king of Sunday morning. So how are thousands of American churches supposed to grow in the year 2021 amidst the many competing and continually changing desires and schedules of people who find the cyber world more appealing than stained glass windows? But if hope should have its home anywhere it’s in the Christian community. What, after all, did Jesus promise but that "all the powers of hell will not conquer [my church]”? (Matthew 16:18)

 

     God, after all, is in the business of Hope. Just ask Zechariah and Elizabeth. You’ve already heard the beginning of their story; and it continues to unfold in what almost comes across as a bit of comedy. Picture the old priest, Zechariah, coming out of the great Jerusalem Temple playing charades as a way of telling about his miraculous encounter with God’s archangel, Gabriel, who had rendered him mute for refusing to believe the hope-full Message from on High. And of that Message… Let’s just say that 90-something year old Elizabeth DID become "great with child” after all.

 

Let’s take up the story, as found in Luke 1: 57-79…  [READ SCRIPTURE]

 

     Well of course, Zechariah would have preached on what God had already accomplished in the past: remembering that God gave Abraham and Sarah a baby in their old age; remembering that God liberated the captive people of Israel from their bondage in Egypt; remembering that God gave to Israel the hopeful Word of Prophets. By remembering God’s work in the past, Zechariah is given confidence for the future. That’s how hope works!

 

     If, then, God acted to save and liberate the people of God way-back-when, how will it appear when God acts yet again? Zechariah likewise looks forward to the NEW thing of God’s doing – the thing unfolding even as he speaks.  Talking of his own precious baby boy, he tells us that little John will grow up to become the prophet who prepares the way for the coming of God’s Christ who will take away the sins of the world and who will launch the coming of God’s Kingdom come on earth.    

 

     When the Christ comes, there’s bound to be a detour to the place called hope. Remember that teenager from the dysfunctional family? He shared with one of his school teachers that he could never have gotten through that mess without the love, prayers, and support of his church.  Jesus of Nazareth somehow got a hold of him, leading him toward the place of hope and strength.

 

     And Helen? She was angry with God in the same way that I’ve occasionally been mad at some things said or done by my children who I nevertheless love to death. The prayers and sacrament of Holy Communion that Helen and I shared were powerful and meaningful to her. She asked questions and shared deep spiritual insights after having heard the scriptures read to her. What she wanted was a preacher’s confirmation of what it was that she already knew – namely, that Master Jesus would be her Good Shepherd in the depths of hardship and loneliness. She had staked her life on a promise from the Christ to be with her always and forever – that neither life, nor death, nor anything in all Creation could ever separate her from the love of God revealed in King Jesus.

 

     A Christian missionary laboring with my cousin in the mission fields of Haiti asked that I tell you of Haiti’s horrendous poverty; but that I also tell you of the Hope that’s likewise to be found there in abundance: hope that is delivered by Christians from all over the world (including a great mass of Haitian Christians) who are feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and mending the injured; who are offering up pure water and nourishing bread to famished bodies and souls; who teach children to read, write, and do arithmetic thus offering new opportunities for the future; and who preach the Good News from on High.  

 

     When God works toward changing the world – and making something new out of us – it’s certain to transform the way things are and have always been. When Jesus Christ is born anew in human hearts, minds, bodies, and souls – believers are given the promise for freedom and joy, for peace, love, and saving Grace. And surely that promise opens our eyes to a vision of the place called Hope. Faith, after all, is what the Book of Hebrews simply defines as "confidence that what we hope for will actually happen” (Hebrews 11:1). So may it be.  Amen.