"The Hope That Never Changes"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 11/30/1997
Psalm 25:1-10; Luke 21:25-36
The other day an article appeared in the Washington Post entitled "And They Lived Happily Ever After. Yeah, Right." Melanie McFarland recounted all of the Hollywood-style endings that have been attached to: Anastasia, Pocahontas, The Little Mermaid, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Snow White. She contrasted the newly-created endings with those written by the original authors.
For children, perhaps the most heart breaking is the actual ending to The Little Mermaid. In Hans Christian Andersen's creation, the mermaid lost her voice and, indeed, found her prince. If the prince married the mermaid, she would receive an eternal soul. If not, she would dissolve into sea foam. When the mermaid discovered that her prince had no desire to marry her, she perished and melted into sea foam.
Perhaps the granddaddy of all stories is the 20th century version of the nativity scene. It would not be right to portray Mary as a woman who had not bathed for weeks, whose clothes were badly soiled from a lengthy journey, and who gave birth to Jesus in a smelly, dark, filthy stable. We want the mother of our Lord dressed in bright colors and in a well-lighted stable. We have her surrounded by adoring animals, sanitized shepherds and wise men who are dressed to the nines.
This morning we lighted the first candle of Advent, the candle of Hope. When our Scripture lesson was read, however, we heard words that described how all of creation one day will cease to exist. This is not the kind of ending we would write. This is the first Sunday of Advent, a time of preparation, a time of hopeful waiting. Why did the lectionary assign a Scripture lesson for today that described the end of creation?
Biblical Scholars have called this passage, "The Little Apocalypse." These verses appear to have been inserted into Matthew, Mark and Luke having been lifted almost word for word from a body of literature that was created during the period of time between the writing of the Old and New Testaments. This literature was even called "Apocalyptic Literature."
The writers had become convinced that the human condition could not be salvaged. To help them make sense out of their experiences, they developed the belief that their rescue was only possible by God. To accomplish this, the writers foretold the coming of "The Son of Man," a divine being who, when he appeared in the clouds, would represent the end of the physical universe. At the time of his arrival, the writers believed that the faithful would rejoin God.
If these words actually came from Jesus why would he use them while instructing his disciples? When we understand what Jesus taught throughout his ministry, these images fit perfectly into his message. "The Little Apocalypse" was not meant to evoke fear in people, an understanding often missed by teachers of the faith through the centuries. This passage was a statement of fact. In a vital, historic sense, Jesus' coming into the world represented an end to how humanity had commonly understood life and the dawning of a new age where truth was present.
Jesus taught us repeatedly not to place our confidence and trust in the things of this world where "moth and rust will corrupt." Yet, repeatedly we do this. We don't listen. We train ourselves and organize our lives around goals that are not found anywhere in the teachings of Jesus. God said, "Thou Shalt have no other gods before me." Repeatedly, we place our confidence, our faith, hope and trust in all kinds of things just as humanity did before Jesus' coming. We do this even though we know Jesus clearly brought something else.
Sometimes in order to understand what Jesus brought into the world, we must look at what he did not teach. For example, he never taught that to ensure happiness we should search for a mate who is a perfect match. He never instructed anyone on how to find the right job. He never hinted that financial security was even relevant to life. He never addressed the importance of having a scholarly education. Furthermore, as a teacher Jesus never accomplished even one of the goals toward which we generally strive. Such an insight should say something to us.
In our fascination with happy endings, we build into our lives all that enhances the comfort and security we believe we cannot live without. We teach our children that they must do the same if they want to succeed in life. Knowing this, Jesus borrowed symbols everyone would recognize and dismissed their importance. Even the sun, moon and stars will fall from their places. If they will one day cease to be important, so will all the aspects of our world we have empowered to enhance life.
During my years at Capitol Hill, I met a fascinating woman. She was brilliant, beautiful and had a very engaging personality. She was a nationally recognized nutritionist who practiced what she taught. She ate well and she was exceedingly physically fit. She radiated well-being except for one thing; she had developed cervical cancer. She had no family history of this condition, no abnormal stress, and no unhappy marriage, yet cancer arrived and stood right in front of her.
Once when I was with her she placed her hand over the visible protrusion on her abdomen and said, "I am a very healthy woman with a physical problem." She and her husband proceeded to find the best medical advice and treatment. They relocated to their home in Kansas where they remained very confident of her eventual return to health.
Doubt about her recovery never entered her mind as she wrote to me about how she intended to carry this cancer until it was cured. However, the last time she was able to write to me, I noticed that the source of her hope had transcended surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
She wrote, "Now I am exhausted all the time. My doctors have told me that all they can do at this point is to make me comfortable. Obviously you know what that means, having heard it many times from others. The way I am currently thinking about this recent news is that I will be a winner no matter what happens. While regaining my health would be wonderful, I will always be whole regardless of what happens to my body." Notice where she had placed her hope.
Earlier this year I told you of the response of parents who had lost their child to leukemia. When they came to the door to greet me all that I could say was, "I'm sorry." They responded, "Don't be! We are so happy that we had him in our lives for as long as we did." Notice where they had placed their hope. Their understanding of creation and God's love was not damaged in the slightest in either situation.
Clearly, such hope from Connie and these parents was not anchored to anything that we can find in this world. Jesus brought this understanding into the world. Jesus taught that everything we know will one day cease to exist. Then he added, "but my words -- the truth that I brought -- will never pass away." The day will come in each of our lives when we will understand this on the deepest of personal levels. The question Jesus would ask us is, "Why wait? Why not learn to live from this source of hope right now?"
In lighting the candle of Hope today we are recognizing that Jesus came into this world to give us this hope. Yet, as students, we can still miss the point. We have allowed everything from fear-based theologies to our numerous mistakes in judgement to convince us that we are separated from God. How can anything God creates and loves ever be separated from God? But many of us believe that such is possible. We have been taught this by representatives of our faith!
Our happy endings will always lack the vitality of truth when we place our hope in what Jesus never brought. Think about this. We are the ones who have given our jobs the importance that they have. We are the ones who have endowed our relationships with the power to make us happy. We are the ones who placed financial security on the pedestal that it occupies. This is why our mind and emotions crumble when such sun, moon or stars fall from their places. When we are hurt by anything in this world, it is because we have misplaced our hope in it. What Jesus brought will never fail us because it never changes.
Those ancient authors who wrote "The Apocalyptic Literature" well understood what was going on in the lives of people. They knew that the human condition was so shattered that it could only be repaired by divine intervention. They were not that far off the mark. It did take divine intervention. But rather than destroying anything, Jesus brought light. He brought understanding. He brought a new way of healing creation. What he destroyed was ignorance!
Many years ago the Duke of Norfolk sent to the King of England a priceless treasure as an expression of his love and admiration. It was an extremely rare antique Portland vase. The King immediately placed it where all England could enjoy it, in the British Museum.
Not long after his giving the gift, the Duke had to terminate his chief of staff for gross misconduct. The man was consumed with hate for the Duke and devised a method to get even. He entered the British Museum and hid himself until all the visitors and attendants had gone. At last his moment of revenge had come. With both hands he grasp the beautiful masterpiece, raised it above his head and hurled it to the floor. The vase exploded into tiny slivers and shards.
When word of this incident reached the King, he ordered the attendants at the museum to save every piece. Then the King sent word throughout the Kingdom that he was searching for someone who might repair it. In northern Scotland a man was found who could do the work. He was a distant relative of the creator of the vase.
He came to London and labored for months. With great skill and endless patience, he picked up every broken fragment and found its place in the vase. Back in the mid-1970s I had the pleasure of seeing that vase in the British Museum. The restoration was perfect. The man who wanted me to know the background of the vase said that I might find the story an interesting metaphor for a sermon some day. He was right.
The great Hope that Jesus brought into the world is that God's will for each of us will be perfectly accomplished. If any other truth were possible, God would not be God. How could God's will not be accomplished? The issue for us is one of delay. How long do we want to forsake what never changes by keeping our hope based in things that are always changing? Our only separation from God is in our belief that such is possible.
Our lives might be scattered and shattered. Our lives might be filled with failed hopes because we invested our energies in the places that were always changing. Nations may be at war. Financial markets may be unstable. So what? Have such circumstances in the world ever been any different?
In spite of all that we experience, remember Jesus said, "I have told you these things so that you will have peace by being united to me. The world will make you suffer. But be brave. I have overcome the world. (John 16:33). He has. And as the Body of Christ, we have been commissioned to share this hope that never changes with everyone.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for creating us with the ability to have hope, to place our confidence in a wholeness of spirit that is yet to be, and to believe in a day when humanity will live together peacefully. There are days when we have doubts. There are moments when uncertainty attempts to cloud our vision. We know that it was into such an unpredictable world that Jesus brought a new understanding. His life radiated from such a new hope for all of us, that today we celebrate that hope with joy and thanksgiving. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Gracious and merciful God, you enter our lives in such obscure ways and we confess that often we do not see you. You hide yourself in the touch of our mothers and fathers, in the words of a friend, in the embrace of a lover, and in the smile of a stranger. So many years ago you came to all of us as a child, in a manger in a little known village in an obscure part of the world. We did not recognize you.
We confess, O God, to be looking for images of you in places that we have chosen. We have defined you in ways that we understand. We have taught ourselves what you are like and wonder why it is we can be in your presence and not find you. You pass by us and your closeness remains undetected.
Open our eyes, O God, to the understanding that you really are everywhere, in everything and in everyone. As we walk through these days of waiting, help us to seek new ways to make you visible. There is no higher calling, and no greater challenge than to make you known to others. Bless us this day with more of that ability. We ask these things through the spirit of Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray...