“Hope and Salvation”
Rev’d. Tanya N. Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
2 December, 2018
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Each year, the first Sunday of Advent initiates a new liturgical cycle: the Church starts back at the “beginning”, tracing our human experience from bondage to freedom, from certain death to salvation, eternal life. Biblical stories and testimonies from thousands of years ago still offer up abiding truths regarding how people then, and people still today, perceive God’s presence, absence, and activity in our lives.
Each year, across the month of December, we gradually light four candles symbolizing our deepest human longings. Those four candles also represent the most powerful gifts we receive from God. Our deepest longings, and our most satisfying gifts: hope, peace, joy, and love. All four are revealed in Christ—which is why we focus so much attention in the church on re-enacting the anticipation and arrival of the infant Jesus. His birth and life, his teachings and his example, his ignominious death—which failed to claim the final word: in all of these, we witness hope, peace, joy, and love at their human best. The greatest of all, of course, is love. But we begin with hope.
Today’s lectionary texts each offer us a scene of human experience that we can relate to. The stage may look different in 2018, but the fundamental emotional and spiritual experiences still resonate.
Some six hundred years before Jesus’ birth, Jeremiah was addressing an audience who recognized themselves to be a community divided and diminished. They were struggling to find hope for their future: they saw the ways that the changing world had intruded on their cherished traditions and undermined old ways of being, and they weren’t sure they could be redeemed. They worried about how their children would relate to God, or whether they had somehow contributed to the sense that God and religious community was no longer relevant.
But isn’t that similar to the cries of concern we raise as a church? How many of us have lamented the ways that soccer, baseball, gymnastics and other sports activities have intruded upon, and increasingly coopted, our Sabbath time? Less than a century ago, Sunday mornings were considered sacrosanct, and most Christians knew the stories of the Bible that guide and shape our Christian worldview, because it was considered a priority to teach and learn them. The secular world has a way of penetrating the lives of faithful people in 2018 A.D. as powerfully as it did in 600 B.C. Today, churches everywhere are grappling with the impact of the growing disconnect between what we say we believe, and the ways we actually live outside the walls of the church, just as surely as the people of Jeremiah’s day struggled to reconnect themselves and their loved ones to the truth and relevance of God’s word in their life and in the wider world.
That’s why Jeremiah’s words, conveying God’s gift of hope, can still resonate deep within our souls more than two-and-a-half millennia later. He wrote: “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.” He spoke of a “righteous Branch” who would “execute justice and righteousness in the land” and promised that “Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” In the divine assurance, we get a glimpse of God’s vision for humankind: promises kept, reunion, harmony, a sprig of new life emerging from what appeared to all the world to be dead or irrelevant. And best of all, in a time when corruption, deceit, and abuses of power were commonplace among worldly leaders (then, but no less so today), God’s word of hope is a promise of salvation from all these things.
It’s powerful stuff, the stuff of hope. It’s what allows us to identify with the Psalmist, whose fervent prayer, his hope-filled entreaty for salvation, is almost universal. It’s hope that gives us the courage and the resolve to reach upward when we feel beaten down. The Psalmist puts us in touch with our personal fears of feeling shame, or failure, or judgment from others for the choices we make or the ways we live—because the world around us can be brutal and unforgiving. Jeremiah, and the Psalmist, and Paul (all three writers of today’s lections) knew this all too well. But they also knew and proclaimed hope and confidence in the love, the forgiveness, the graceof God, which is more powerful and life-changing than the judgment or condemnation of any single human being or group of people.
“To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. O my God,” the Psalmist writes, “in youI trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.” And then he expands his appeal to include the whole community of the faithful, as he beseeches God: “Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.” He’s expressing what all of us have experienced in those moments when we’ve felt defeated, or at least vulnerable.
Human beings have all sorts of ways of making others feel small, of demeaning, and disrespecting, bullying, dehumanizing each other. Most of us understand that adults who regularly treat others with such contempt are themselves miserable, almost always fearful of their own brokenness or vulnerability being unveiled. But even if we know this, it doesn’t diminish the fact it’s still hurtful, or offensive, or disturbing when we’re the victim of the other’s meanness, or when we observe it and can’t figure out how to respond.
And I don’t know about you, but often compounding the disquiet I’ve felt in such moments is the natural temptation or inclination to either respond with equal and opposite meanness, or to shrink from the one who has intimidated me and take out my hurt and anger on someone else—thereby spreading the darkness, instead of dispelling it with Christ’s healing love and transforming light.
This is why we need the church. This is why we need to gather regularly as members of Christ’s spiritual Body: to experience the power and reassurance of God’s presence with us, and through us. Because that re-connection emboldens us to confront the powers of darkness, treachery, and Godlessness with the gifts of hope, peace, joy and love.
It’s our communion with one another that allows us to lay claim to the hope—which grows into confidence—that God will not let us be put to shame. It’s what reminds us that God’s forgiveness is more meaningful and lasting than human judgment. And it’s in our covenantal life with one another where we sinners learn and practice how to pursue God’s righteous way by, as the Psalmist says, keeping God’s covenant and decrees. (By sinners I mean, those who acknowledge our failure to get it right, though we aim to keep on trying.) It’s where we work at saying, “I’m sorry”, and “I forgive”, and “I’m forgiven; I’m free, saved from the tyranny of others, saved from the fearful ideas I might have had about my past.”
Church is also where we practice acknowledging that we need God and each other: this is a monumental act of hope and courage in a society that venerates the idea of independence and autonomy. Acknowledging we need God and each other is also a mark of spiritual health and maturity. Can you imagine expressing such unabashed enthusiasm about our church’s love and faithfulness as Paul did in his letter to the Thessalonians? They were a fledgling community—only a few years old—but remarkably strong and loving, especially when you consider that they were under duress. Paul, their pastor and teacher, had had to escape in the dead of night because of the persecution they were experiencing. It was so intense that some citizens of Thessalonica wanted Paul dead, along with any other Christians. As their pastor, Paul had taught them about the transforming love of Christ, revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus. He helped them learn new ways of being in relationship—ways that reflected the dignity, healing, compassion, and mutuality modeled by Jesus. And he taught them to pray with each other and for each other, always making room for another, and another, at the table of grace. But when he was compelled to leave to save his life, Paul had no idea how they would fare: would they lose heart and take the path of least resistance after he left, reverting to former habits, thoughts, and religious practices? Or would they carry forward what they had learned, continue to meet and pray with each other, continue learning what they could of Jesus’ Way, and practicing what they had learned? All Paul could do was hope and pray.
As we heard, he was overjoyed with the news that they had remained steadfast in their faith and Christian practice. And he prayed for the Lord to “make [them] increase and abound in love for one another and for all . . .”
How are we doing at communicating and abounding in God’s love for one another and for all—not just with one another in our closest circles, or here in the Meetinghouse on a Sunday morning, but with the world outside our walls? How about when we’re in our workplace, or out on the playing fields, or somewhere else the public square—when we don’t necessarily have our church-going identity on for all to see? Do our lives feel divided? Are our attitudes or behaviors at odds Monday through Saturday with what we commit ourselves to each Sunday when we speak the words of our Common Commission—do we truly go forth from this place in peace? Do we act with good courage, hold fast to what is good? How are we doing at rendering to no one evil for evil? Or strengthening the faint-hearted, supporting the weak? Are we helping the afflicted, and honoring allpersons? This is what we commit ourselves to do as we love and serve the Lord—at least, it’s what we say we’re going to do. If there’s a disconnect between what we say Sunday morning and the way we live the rest of the week, then what can we do about it?
United Methodist Bishop Kenneth Carter writes, “We grow, we flourish, when we know we are loved. Churches have integrity when they love not only one another, but when that love overflows to all people. And we love because God first loved us. This lovestrengthens our hearts in holiness, which means, in a simple way, that we reflect the glory of our Creator, who is love, that we find ourselves, no matter how far flung our journey, back where we began, created in the image of a God who is love.”
Friends, as we embark on a new liturgical year, as we return to the start of our faith story—to the part where we recognize our enslavement to the forces of this world, and our need for a Savior—let us not merely light colored candles for hope, peace, joy, and love. Let’s light up the world around us as we allow God’s presence in us to radiate through us, so that others might know the hope, the peace, the joy, and the love of salvation! Amen.