Hope –be careful when you put it to the test – A sermon for First Parish of Newbury

For the people of First Parish of Newbury.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our creator and our redeemer Christ Jesus. Amen

Texts:

How do you like this season of the year? Does it bring you lots of joy? Do you enjoy listening to Bing Crosby crooning Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire when you’re waiting in line at the supermarket or – like me last week – lying in a dentist’s chair? Do you like all the wrapping of gifts and putting up of lights.

What brings you joy at this time of year?

I like this: everybody I talk to is concerned about bringing delight to the people they love. What’s the right gift for my sister, my son-in-law, my daughter, my colleague at work?  Sure, it’s sometimes competitive: who can give the MOST thoughtful gift to Mom?  But, there are far worse things to compete about. When everybody’s hoping to give joy to their friends, that’s good.

There’s something else I like about it, truth be told. The celebration is for the birth of Jesus. I can bear public witness to Jesus in this season without having to thump the Bible too hard. I can say “Merry Christmas” to everybody I meet. So what if they reply “happy holidays.” I’ve still said a word that proclaims the Good News.

Is there anything that bothers you about this season? Anything you wish could happen differently?

Maybe it bugs you that we got ahead of ourselves this morning and sang a Christmas carol – the great Dr. Isaac Watts song Joy to the World.  Aren’t we supposed to keep that music in the drawer until Christmas Eve?  Well, maybe. Certainly it would be a false start if we sang Silent Night this morning.

But Joy to the World fits anytime. It certainly helps us understand today’s Gospel reading.

He rules the world with truth and grace /
the blind receive their sight and the lame walk /

and makes the nations prove /
lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them

The glories of his righteousness
’Behold John my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee

And wonders of his love
The one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John …

Joy to the World fits well with everything in the New Testament (well, it’s a stretch to make it fit with “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me” – but pretty much anything else… )  It’s a way for our souls to proclaim the greatness of God.

Thinking of Mary’s song – the magnificat – we sang earlier. Mary’s humble soul proclaimed the greatness of God, and celebrated God’s presence in her life. I think we can agree she was in a tough spot. In a land overrun with an occupying Roman army, there are plenty of ways for a poor peasant girl to become pregnant, none of them particularly positive.  We could forgive her if she lamented, “why me?”   instead of praising God in that time.

 

When we see a teenage single mother, most of are moved to disgust or maybe pity. Does the sight move us to awe, worship, and praise of God?  That takes very sharp eyes of faith. It takes a willingness on our parts to see both the brokenness of the world and the wholeness of God. Let’s teach ourselves to see that way. Singing “let earth receive her King” helps. Let us always sharpen our eyes of faith by proclaiming the greatness of God, like Mary did, even when we’re in tough spots.

 

Back to the ways of this season.

There is something that bugs me. Doorbuster sales. On Thanksgiving night. Remember that big craze a few years back? Big box store supervisors instructed their employees show up at midnight right after their Thanksgiving dinners (now that is NOT proclaiming good news to the poor, quite the opposite) and then they offered a big discount on some big fancy thing made in China, I dunno, a widescreen TV or something, to the first fifty people through the door.

I did not like that doorbuster craze. Now, sure, I confess I’m a snob. I’m lucky enough not to need a new TV, so I can look down my nose and say doorbuster sales are tacky.   It bugs me that these big retailers didn’t let their employees get more peaceful time with their families for the Thanksgiving holiday.  It bugs me when people go into debt to buy stuff. There are all sorts of things of this world we can say against doorbusters.

On the other hand, they can be practical. If you need what they’re selling,  go for it. But if you do, please be careful. These doorbuster events – get here early and get the best deal – can be hard on our souls. There’s lots of ways in this season that we can be hard on our souls.

Let me explain. It’s not good for our souls to play games with hope.

1. That starts with what we choose to hope for. I can put my hope in getting a gigantic TV. That’s fine. But what if I get it? What will I hope for afterward?  On the other hand, what if I’m 51st in line and I don’t get it? Then my hopes are dashed.   Either way I’ve used hope in a way that comes to an end, in a way that doesn’t lead to joy.

2. Here’s another way the doorbuster hustle can make our souls sick. When we use hope in this way we put the Lord to the test.  That’s not good for our souls.

What do I mean?   Here’s an example: a few years ago Linda, a lady put on a big dinner at the church I served. It was a sendoff for Carl – a helicopter pilot – who was leaving for Iraq the next day with his National Guard unit. Linda organized that kind of sendoff for lots of military people; the point was to pray for them and seal in them the memory that they’re surrounded by love at home. Yes! Fine ministry of the church. Good. Our souls magnified the Lord in those events.

But, Linda, while leading prayers for Carl at that feast,  spoke the words “we haven’t lost one yet.”

Uh oh. This was a slip. She meant no harm. But still, her words put the Lord to the test. What if Carl didn’t return safely from his tour of duty? Would that mean God didn’t love Carl and his family waiting for him? Would that mean we prayed wrong? Were our prayers weaving some protective spell around Carl, and we got the magic wrong? Would the church give up this sendoff ministry?  No, no, no. no. God’s love isn’t contingent on us. We can’t buy it with our good prayers. We can’t alienate God with our bad prayers.   Thankfully, Carl returned safely after his tour of duty, as we hoped. Hope is an act of faith, not of correct praying or hustling.

Putting our hope in that doorbuster TV is the same sort of mistake – even if it’s trivial .  Hope shapes our souls.  It’s best not to shape our souls like the stuff on sale at the big box stores. What if we don’t get up early enough, and don’t get in line soon enough, and don’t get the stuff we wanted? We end up with funny-shaped holes in our souls. Worse, maybe we blame God for that.

3. Third, hope is holy. Hope is shared. Hope is contagious. Hope is for us all.  I can hope for the same things you hope for.  But that can go wrong. When I hope for that last TV set and you do too, our hope can only lead to joy for you.  Your joy means my disappointment.  That kind of hope is bad for my soul, and bad for your soul too. It’s the competitive kind of hope that makes Jesus say “the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force.”

Hope is holy. Hope is shared. Hope is contagious. Hope is for us all.  When hope goes right, it brings forth the kingdom of heaven here and now.

Hope is the prophet’s promise of waters in the wilderness and streams in the desert. We’re all thirsty. We all get joy from that water of life.

Hope is the restoring of sight to the blind. None of us sees very well. We all get joy when, with they eyes of faith, we can see each other, and see God’s glory in people like Mary.

Hope is making the lame get up and dance. We all are a bit lame. So dancing sets us free to rejoice and be glad.

In this season of waiting and hoping, then, let’s care for our souls and the souls of the people around us.

1. Let’s hope for unending things, things full of surprises, instead of things that must end.

2. Let’s hope for things that are freely given gifts of God, rather than things you and I must scramble to fulfill.

3. Let’s hope for the streams of living water in the desert that satisfy all thirsts, not things that satisfy me while frustrating you.

Let’s hope for God’s glory. Hope shapes our souls. Let’s shape them to magnify the glory of God in little ways and big.

Amen.

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