Hope After Hope

I found out something very important this week.

Scientists and philosophers have been researching this theory for years and it has finally been proven as fact. There is universal consensus on this matter. I guarantee that this fact will change your life:

Life doesn’t always turn out like you planned.

I know that’s a lot to think about, so I’ll give you a second to let it sink in.

It’s true: life doesn’t always turn out like you planned.

This fact is a big problem for us modern folks, who are so attached to getting concrete ‘results’ from their plans and endeavors. When things don’t go our way, we have a tendency to get frustrated and cynical about life in general. We say things like:

It’s a dog eat dog world!”

Nobody cares.”

You’ve got to look out for number one.”

You’ve gotta get it while the gettin’s good.”

Do you know people who talk like this? Any really honest folks out there want to admit to thinking like this sometimes? I know I do (usually when I watch the news… especially this week). I admit that I get really cynical like this sometimes. I lose hope.

And that’s really the crux of bitterness and cynicism: the loss of hope. We lose hope when things don’t turn out the way we’d planned, when that business deal falls through, when that relationship doesn’t work out, when we don’t get the acceptance letter we’d been waiting for, etc. We lose hope because we don’t get the results we were looking for. And that’s where our main problem lies: Our definition of hope is too attached to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Any hope that is primarily based on results and circumstances is, in my opinion, false hope (because we never really know how our circumstances are going to work out).

But there is another kind of hope. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “In the struggle for existence, it is only on those who hang on for ten minutes after all is hopeless, that hope begins to dawn.” This is the other kind of hope. This is what I’m calling hope after hope.

Our Old Testament reading this morning comes from the book of Lamentations. That book gets its title from the word lament, which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.” The book of Lamentations was written by Jewish people during a very dark and hopeless period of their history called the Babylonian Exile.

Here’s what happened: in 587 BCE the Babylonian Empire invaded and conquered the kingdom of Judah in southern Israel. The Jewish people were carried off to Babylon where they were expected to work as slaves and assimilate into the culture of their captors. Their beautiful capital city, with its walls, palace, and temple built by King Solomon, was burned to the ground. Those people who survived the battle lost their land, culture, and religion.

Up to that point, Jewish religion had been centered on priests performing animal sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple. Without that building, those rituals, and the priests to perform them, the people didn’t even know how to practice their faith or worship God. This became a particularly problematic issue because their Babylonian overlords were doing everything in their power to erase Jewish culture, religious freedom, and sense of human dignity. Talk about hopeless…

When we listen to the words Lamentations in the scriptures this morning, we can hear the sorrow and the pain of the Jewish people:

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!

She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks

she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place…

her lot is bitter…

My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.

If we look over at the Psalm we read this morning, which was written during the same period of time, we can hear the sorrow turning to anger:

By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!

Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

I think most people would agree that these passages were written by people living in a situation that looked pretty hopeless. But the amazing thing is that the people were not hopeless. Even in these bleak circumstances, the Jewish people found something to hold onto, something worth hoping in. The author of Lamentations says:

this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

This is a different kind of hope. It is the hope that comes alive after hope has died. The thing about this kind of hope is that, if you haven’t lived through it, you can’t understand it. If you haven’t been through the experience of poverty or failure, if you don’t what it’s like to lose everything (even your sense of control over your mind and body), then this idea of hope after hope doesn’t make any sense.

Hoping in God” is not some meaningless, trite religious slogan that belongs on a bumper sticker. In the theological language of our Christian tradition, it means this: Wherever the creative energies of life are concerned, there is always a Plan B. To elaborate using Christian language: there is no situation so bad, messed up, or complicated that God cannot bring good out of it. In other words, God can work with whatever we bring to the table. When things don’t go according to plan, God always has a Plan B (or C, D, E, F, G… and God’s alphabet never runs out of letters). You can’t mess your life up (and life can’t mess you up) so bad that God says, “I give up. You’re on your own.”

This kind of hope is not based on circumstances. This the hope that comes alive after all those other false hopes have died. This is hope after hope. This kind of hope, which is superior to simple optimism and more than just “pie in the sky in the sweet by and by”, keeps holding on when things don’t go according to plan. This kind of hope looks for the opportunity in the crisis and seeks out the creativity in the chaos of life. The hope that comes after hope says, in the words of civil rights activist Rev. Ralph Abernathy, “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.”

Hope in God transcends optimism over our circumstances.

This is the kind of hope that the author of Lamentations was talking about when he or she said, “the Lord is my portion… therefore I will hope in him.” Indeed, this is the hope that sustained the Jewish people during their time of struggle and slavery under the oppression of the Babylonian Empire. Their circumstances didn’t work out like they planned, but their hope stayed strong.

During their half century in exile, the faith of the Jewish people grew, changed, and adapted. It was during this time that they first became monotheists. Until then, they had believed in many gods, but reserved special loyalty for YHWH as their tribal patron deity. During the Babylonian Exile, they came to believe that there is really only one God who created and sustains the whole earth. This belief in one God helped sustain their faith while the Babylonians claimed that their god Marduk had beaten YHWH in battle. Likewise, their religious tradition adapted to its new situation in exile. Instead of priests making sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple, the people gathered weekly in houses of prayer, called synagogues, to study the Torah under the guidance of teachers called rabbis. This is the basic form of Judaism that continues to exist in the world today. Their suffering during the Babylonian Exile gave the Jewish people the spiritual tools that would go on to shape their faith (and ours) for thousands of years to come.

As it is with our Jewish neighbors, so it is with us. Our hope in God is a hope that begins to dawn “ten minutes after all is hopeless”. It is a hope that is not dependent on our circumstances. It is a hope that continually says, “Where God is concerned, there is always a Plan B.” It is a hope that says, “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.”

That kind of hope has the power to strengthen us for the journey and sustain us through whatever life brings our way.

A Sermon About A Sermon

I imagine there must have been some excitement in the air that morning as people entered the synagogue, dressed in their Saturday best.  Perhaps some of the regulars were shuffling to find a new place to sit, since their usual seats were taken by the folks who normally only show up at Yom Kippur and Passover.  But they came to synagogue that morning because they heard the news about the new guest preacher.  One of their own, a local son, was returning to Nazareth for the first time since he began to make a name for himself in the region of Galilee.

Many of them remembered Jesus as a small boy, running around and playing with his friends while the adults made small-talk after the service.  Now, at age thirty, he was beginning to garner a reputation as an itinerant rabbi, a teacher of the Torah.  There were even some astonishing reports of unexplained, mystical healings associated with his visits.  If even a few of these rumors were true, then surely he was about to save the best for them, the people of his hometown, the very ones with whom he had grown up and lived.

They were good-hearted, hard-working, small-town folk who came together Sabbath after Sabbath to honor their Jewish heritage and listen to the wisdom of the Torah.  They knew Jesus and he knew them.  They were the ones who taught Jesus those old stories of Moses and the prophets.  Now, Jesus was the one who would preserve that history and pass it on to yet another generation, as it had been passed down to them by their ancestors in that very same synagogue.  This was a very big day indeed.

The service itself, like every Shabbat service, featured the singing of the old psalms, praying prayers, and of course reciting the ancient Shema, Israel’s oldest creed: “Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai alone.”  This faith formed the core of their tradition, preserved and passed on from generation to generation.  And now, they were proud to welcome one of their own, Jesus, as the newest defender of the faith and guardian of the tradition.

After a reading from the Torah, there was usually another reading from one of the prophets.  That week, it came from the book of Isaiah.  Jesus read out loud: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Heads around the room were nodding in agreement as the old familiar words washed over them for the umpteenth time in their lives.  They knew the story behind the words as well:

The prophet was writing to a community of Jews who had just returned from multiple generations of slavery in Babylon and Persia.  It was in that place and time of tribulation that their religion had taken the shape it now held for them.  They had come to believe that their God, Adonai of Israel, was the one true deity and all others were mere pretenders to heaven’s throne.  In Babylon, alienated from the land of their ancestors and the Jerusalem temple where sacrifices were made daily, their Jewish ancestors had turned their attention to prayer and the study of the Torah in synagogues under the tutelage of learned rabbis.  As strangers in a strange land, their ancestors had proudly struggled under oppression to preserve their faith and culture.  The very existence of this synagogue in the small town of Nazareth was a testimony to their success.

Finally, after three generations of Jewish children had grown up under a Babylonian whip, the Persians invaded and conquered Babylon.  These more open-minded Persians allowed the Jews to return to their homeland and rebuild, so long as they promised to remain loyal and subservient to the Empire.  The prophet writing in this section of the book of Isaiah directed his words toward these newly returned exiles.  They were faced with the task of rebuilding their country from the ground up.  How would they even start?  What values and ideals would shape this new society?

This particular prophet, writing in the name of another ancient seer, Isaiah of Jerusalem, who had lived and died centuries before, reminded the people of the ancient tradition of the year of Jubilee, a special holiday that came only once every fifty years.  In this year, every debt would be forgiven and every slave set free.  The land and the people would rest and then emerge with a fresh start, a new lease on life.  The onset of this holiday was certainly “good news to the poor” for it brought release to the captives, freedom to the oppressed, and forgiveness to the debtors.  It was a fresh start.  The future was suddenly wide open.  Liberated by the pronouncement of divine forgiveness, a new generation of people was free to rebuild the world anew.  This is why they called it “the year of the Lord’s favor.”  It seemed to them like heaven itself was smiling.

Back in the Nazarene synagogue, the old men heard these ancient words with tears in their eyes and smiles under their beards.  God had been faithful, their people had survived, rebuilt, and passed on their heritage to another generation of Jews.  And now, here was Jesus, the carpenter’s son, the little kid who used to play in their streets, now grown up tall, ordained as a rabbi, and preaching his first sermon in his hometown.  The people survived.  Their tradition lived on.  God be praised!

Jesus finished his reading, rolled the scroll back up, and handed it back to the attendant.  Then he sat down in the rabbi’s chair, which is what they used back then instead of a pulpit, and began to preach.  He gave them the main point of his sermon with his opening remark: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Wait… what did he just say?  Fulfilled?  Didn’t he mean to say Honored, or Remembered, or Preserved?  What does he mean by ‘Fulfilled’?  If those ancient words were being ‘fulfilled’ ‘today’, it would mean that the story of our people is not yet over.  It would mean that the journey home to freedom is not yet finished.  It would mean that the task of rebuilding a new community is up to us, not our ancestors.

Even more importantly, it would mean that the year of Jubilee is now.  All debts are off and all slaves are free.  A fresh start for us, not just a bunch of people who lived once upon a time.

Jesus brought their tradition to life by showing it to be unfinished.  A new world was being brought to birth by the age-old values of forgiveness and freedom.  The same Spirit that animated the ancient prophets like a fire shut up in their bones was ready to set hearts on fire in that synagogue.

By appealing to this passage, Jesus deftly drew from multiple layers of tradition in order to make his point.  Present, prophet, and Torah each represented different strands woven into a single tapestry in this sermon.  Jesus appealed to the very deepest parts of who they were and what they valued as loyal, faithful Jews.  He called them toward their higher calling through a fuller vision of who they were.  He opened their eyes to the presence of a dynamic reality that is still unfolding, still working in their lives in order to bring fulfillment to the prophet’s ancient vision.  Like any good preacher, Jesus brought the past into the present in order to shape the future.  He opened their minds to possibilities that boggled their imaginations.  He showed them a vision of what this world could be like if it were remade along the lines of these Jubilee values instead of the exacting cruelty of the loan shark and the slave driver.

Jesus introduced the people of his home synagogue to a living tradition, a prophetic tradition that reveres the memory of the past by trusting the promise of the future.  Jesus invited his neighbors to follow the trajectory of the prophets rather than standing by their writings.

I believe that same invitation is now extended to us, the people sitting in this church today.  We too can best honor the heritage left by our forebears by tracing the trajectory of their lives, rather than dogmatically hanging on their every word.  To quote the Buddhist poet Matsuo Basho: “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.”

Like those members of the Nazarene synagogue, we have our own tradition that we would like to preserve.  Beginning with Jesus, we might follow our tradition through the likes of the apostle Paul, Augustine of Hippo, John Calvin, and Karl Barth.  Each of these voices (as well as many others) is worth paying attention to.  But it is always a dangerous thing to make an idol of history.  None of these voices carries the last word in matters of faith and ethics.  Every generation of believers is still responsible, as heirs of the tradition, for continuing to interpret spiritual truth (as we understand it) in its day.

Our church tradition has a slogan that reflects this conviction: Ecclesia Reformata, Semper Reformanda.  “The church is reformed and always to be reformed.”

The Reformation never ends.  The story is not yet over.  The Christian faith begs to be interpreted and applied in our day, just as it was in Calvin’s and Paul’s.  Our interpretations will not match theirs exactly.  John Calvin, for example, would shudder to learn that we now ordain women to preach in the very churches he founded.

There are some who argue that we have departed from “the faith once delivered to the saints” because of these and others of our practices that differ from our forebears.  I say that we are not heretics but pioneers, reformers, maybe even prophets.  Our task is not to blindly adhere to the words written on a page, but to critically follow the trajectory of the values expressed in those words.  Following the image of the Jubilee that Jesus used: what does it mean to forgive debts and liberate slaves in 2013?  Following Paul and Calvin, what does it mean for us to be reformers of church and society today?

As we stretch our minds to answer these questions, we continue the living tradition that was handed down to us from our ancestors.  We honor our history by moving it forward, trusting in the guiding light of the Spirit to lead us home to the One from whom all blessings flow.