Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sermon: Hope, Not Fear

Grace Presbyterian Church
November 29, 2015, Advent 1C
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Hope, Not Fear

May I be the first to wish you a Happy New Year?
As I’m sure you know, the season of Advent marks the beginning of a new liturgical year; we commence with a time of waiting and anticipation of the coming of Christ, followed by the celebration of Christ’s birth. That season of anticipation marks the beginning of a new cycle of scripture readings that lead us through the life of Christ, culminating in his death and resurrection, and then through early church history; and also lead us into a fairly (but by no means completely) exhaustive survey of the scriptures.
That season of anticipation, though, is a two-headed coin. Our scriptural choices direct us through many Old Testament passages that recall for us the waiting and anticipation, and even hope, that the people of God experienced in the years of the kingdoms of Israel in anticipation of the coming of the long-anticipated Messiah. But they also look forward to life reunited with Christ, the Advent for which we ourselves wait.
It is a brief excerpt that we read from Jeremiah, but one that covers much ground. Jeremiah speaks to the people of both Israel and Judah, not in this case to chastise them for their failures but to remind them of the promises of God and the faithfulness of God to fulfill those promises. It seems simple enough, in a way; the Lord will provide a faithful, righteous leader (in the lineage of David, as Jeremiah’s hearers would understand), who would “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” The kingdom would live in safety, and the Lord would be the righteousness of the land.
Sounds simple, but in the time in which Jeremiah wrote such promises seemed unbearably remote, and perhaps even cruel. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah were no more. Israel, the northern kingdom, had been overrun almost two centuries before, and Judah, the southern kingdom in which Jeremiah lived and wrote, was being conquered even as he wrote. For that matter, Jeremiah himself lived in what should have seemed a personally hopeless situation, imprisoned by the failing king for the unforgivable crime of speaking truth and prophesying honestly, as the Lord led him.
To proclaim safety, to preach justice and righteousness in the face of such devastation must have seemed foolishness indeed. And if those prophecies had been dependent on the faithfulness of the people of Israel or Judah, or even of Jeremiah himself, they would have been foolishness indeed. But the promise, the hope, is not of human hands. The hope Jeremiah proclaimed was solely grounded in the faithfulness of a God Who insistently remained faithful, who insistently fulfilled the hopes of the people of God no matter their foolishness and disobedience. The hope was not that everything was going to change immediately; the hope was in a faithful and loving God.
We could stand to be reminded of this, you know. Our situation is not quite like Jeremiah’s, but we are surrounded by situations and voices that would encourage us to give up hope in favor of its enemy, fear.
Let me be blunt here. We see awful destructive things happen in the world. Only two weeks ago we were reeling from the news coming out of Paris, the horrific attacks in that city, not to mention other attacks in Beirut and Baghdad. In those two weeks we have been subjected to a belligerent cacophony of voices encouraging – no, demanding – that we fear. And these loud voices always have a convenient target to offer for our mandated fear, even if they aren’t remotely the ones committing those acts of terror we are supposed to fear. But never mind that – be afraid!
No. That’s not how it works.
We don’t live in fear. Not if we are following Christ, not if we are trusting in God, not if we are living in hope. It is not possible. The two cannot exist in the same space.
We live in trust. Today’s psalm makes that clear. Our soul is lifted up to God; we trust in God. We live in humbleness before the Lord. We submit ourselves to God’s instruction, trusting God to teach us the path in which to live. We wait upon God’s salvation. We rest in the mercy and the love of God. To do these things leaves no room for fear.
We live in gratitude towards God and towards each other. This is the lesson from today’s epistle reading. Written from an apostle bound in prison because of his witness to a congregation facing the first struggles of living faithfully in a world that doesn’t encourage it, this letter shows us how Paul – the imprisoned apostle – is consumed not with fear or anger or despair, but with love, gratitude, and hope expressed towards that congregation in Thessalonica.
If we are truly going to live into the hope of Advent, the hope of a God who is faithful even when we aren’t, then we will not live in fear, no matter how much fear is shouted at us. That is what Advent is. That is what keeping Advent calls us to do.
The painting you see in the narthex, by our own Jay Collins, captures this so well with the image of a lighthouse. When the weather is fair and seas are calm, lighthouses are pretty. You can climb to the top and see for miles. You can take pictures. It’s pleasant. But when skies darken and seas are storm-tossed, the lighthouse matters. It’s not cute anymore; it’s a lifesaver. So it is with the hope we proclaim in this season of Advent. Hope isn’t about the good times; hope is for the stormy times.
So I invite you to be countercultural. Live in hope, not fear. Live in hope because God is faithful, even when we aren’t.
And for that, Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Hymns (all PH ’90): “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (9), “Jesus Comes With Clouds Descending” (6), “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” (1)

Jay Winter Collins, "Hope ... Advent painting #1"
(used by permission -- I hope!)

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