Sunday, December 03, 2006

Living in the Kingdom of Hope

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, during worship celebrations on December 2 and 3, 2006.]

Jeremiah 33:14-16
It had become a Christmas tradition for John William Smith and his niece, Priscilla, and once again during the Christmas season in 1992, as he and his wife headed for his sister’s home, he was looking forward to reenacting the tradition. Priscilla was a particular favorite of Smith’s, a young woman who had already suffered from a neuromuscular disease for thirteen of her then-twenty five year old life. She was confined to a wheelchair and spoke with a slur that made her words difficult to understand. She lived with great pain.

But Smith says, there are two things one must understand about Priscilla. “First,” he writes, “I have never known her to use her condition as a tool to manipulate people and get what she wants. Second, with all of her physical problems, it would be expected that Priscilla would be totally self-centered.” But that couldn’t be said of her. Instead, Priscilla was, he says, “thoughtful, patient, sensitive toward others, and full of hope--her relationship with Jesus [Christ]...made her this way.”

The Christmas tradition of Priscilla and her Uncle John was a simple one. On Christmas Day, they took a walk, just the two of them. John would push Priscilla’s wheelchair and he, with his failing hearing, she with her slurred speech, would talk. Sometimes, Smith says, he had to ask Priscilla to repeat herself several times. But she never seemed to mind and often when her uncle didn’t quite get what she was saying, Priscilla would laugh, the way only hopeful people can, even in the face of difficulty.

When the two took their walk this year, it was clear to John that his niece’s condition had worsened considerably. He notes: “As we strolled through the neighborhood, we were greeted often by friendly people. Priscilla said, ‘Uncle John, do you think people are more friendly to me because [of my condition]?” “Yes,” he replied. “...and it makes me glad to think so. Most people have more of God in them than they suspect. If you remember...Jesus always showed special attention to those who had special needs.”

As they walked on, Priscilla asked her uncle if he remembered the place in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where Bob Cratchit told his wife what Tiny Tim had said to him on their way home from church on Christmas Day. “He told me...that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was crippled, and it might be pleasant to them to remember, upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.” Priscilla told her uncle that she hoped people would have the same reaction to her and so, be reminded of how much God loved them and wanted the best for them.

That was to be their last Christmas walk. The following February, Priscilla died. As for any family that loses loved ones, Priscilla’s family missed her at Christmastime. “We are made sad by her death,” notes Smith, “but we are also made glad--because we know that now she walks and talks freely and without pain and because, while she was with us, she filled our hearts with hope and reminded us on Christmas Day [of the One] who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”

Several decades ago, psychologist Erich Fromm noted that hope was a disappearing feature of life in the western nations of Europe, the United States, and Canada. He said that if we continued moving in a state of “unconscious hopelessness,” we would bring about out own destruction. It can’t be a coincidence that we supposedly sophisticated countries are foundering in hopelessness at about the same time many stopped hoping in the God we know in Jesus Christ. We’ve forgotten the One “who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”

Our Bible lesson was written at a time when it was difficult for God’s people, the Jews, to have hope. Written sometime in the sixth century BC by a prophet who sat in prison, these words came when their nation and their temple was no more, their country, the land by then known as Judah and the place God had promised to them, overrun by conquering armies. As the writer of our lesson from Jeremiah, chapter 33, prayerfully considers these events, he understands why things have gone so horribly wrong. The kings, the priests, and the people of Judah themselves had long ago put their hopes in things other than God. They built their lives on faith in money, power, military might, and in the thousands of little deities and good luck charms that beguile people even today. They’d forgotten God. God is for people and God wants to be in relationship with us forever. But God will never force His way into any of our lives. Without God at the center of its life, Judah stood powerless before its enemies. Now what?

In his prison cell, the prophet sensed that even now, God was sending a message of hope to His rebellious people. There was no getting around the consequences of their sin. But they could be forgiven. They could let God back into their lives and God would restore them as a people who loved others as God loved them, a people who treated their neighbors with justice. Read the words of our lesson out loud with me now:
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”
God wanted Judah to know what I think God wants us to know today: People who turn from sin and follow the one true God of the universe always have hope!

Shortly after Jesus died, rose from death, and returned to heaven, the Church came to understand something about Jeremiah’s words of hope. This was more than an oracle about Judah in sixth century BC. It was also about Jesus. Jesus is the righteous branch of David, the great God and King born into this world into the family of ancient King David. And one day, when the life of this planet comes to an end, Jesus the King will execute justice and righteousness. All with faith in Him will live in His Kingdom forever. And even before that end comes, everyone who trusts in Christ have a promise to be with us always.

The promise and the hope of the God we know in Jesus Christ is something that you and I have experienced repeatedly within the fellowship of Friendship Church. Because we follow an eternal God, we have infinite hope!

As I look back on 2006, I realize what a great year this has been for our congregation. In spite of challenges and some setbacks, we have learned that God is still in control and God still has our backs. We’ve learned the truth of Jesus’ promise about the Church when He said of our faith in Him: “the gates of [hell]...will not prevail against it.” This year, as never before, our members embraced the joy of service in Jesus’ Name. But we can’t stop there.

Over these weeks of Advent, the Servanthood Team joins me in urging you to open up some special gifts from God to you. They’re your spiritual gifts, the special custom-made skills God has given to all believers in Jesus so that we can play our God-given roles in the mission of Christ’s Church. People who find and use their spiritual gifts are dialed into God’s will for their lives. They find fulfillment. And because they walk so closely with God, they never lose their hope.

Opening Your Spiritual Gifts, the daily devotions I’ve prepared for you to use from now through December 24, will help you understand and find your gifts, meaning that in 2007, you and I will be more fully prepared to pursue the vision I outlined last weekend.

That vision includes:
  • exalting the Lord
  • each one reaching one to bring new members into our congregation
  • embracing servanthood as a way of life and
  • expanding our vision of what God can do among us
Just this past week, two different Friendship folks approached me with new visions for ministries in which our congregation can be involved. I was able to enthusiastically affirm both of those people as they expanded their vision for our church. Each is preparing to put their ideas into action. That’s exciting to me, proof that the God Who made His incredible promise to a prophet sitting in a prison twenty-seven centuries ago, is still in the business of dispensing hope to His people!

We follow a God Who, on the first Christmas, became one of us;
a God Who makes “lame beggars walk and blind men see”;
a God Who forgives the sin of the repentant and gives them life beyond the grave;
a God Who gives us all a part to play in His Kingdom;
a God Who lives within His people and lives right here, in the people of Friendship Church.

No matter what the world around us may think, when we follow a God like that, we followers of Jesus always live in hope!

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