“Worship as an Expression of Our Hope”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
Advent 1A, Narrative Lectionary
Holy Habits – Worship, Week 5 of 8
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Mark 8:27-29

We’re in Week 5 of our 8-week exploration of the Holy Habit of Worship.  As we heard last week, after decades of wilderness wandering and trusting in God for their daily provision, the Israelites were eager to take possession of the Promised Land.  Before they entered, God commanded through Moses that the first act of worship they were to perform after settling and raising a crop was to bring the first-fruits of their labor to the Temple.  And such an offering was to become regular from that point forward.  Also as part of their offering of thanks-giving, they were to recite the story of their ancestors and themselves.  To remember out loud how God had been faithful to all of them during periods of extreme hardship, and had ultimately delivered them into a surpassing way of life.  God didn’t prevent adversity from besetting them, but instead offered them strength during the harsh and unrelenting times—and, equipped them to claim a reality even greater than they could have imagined.

When we recall aloud, and together, the ways God has been faithful in the past, then spotting where God is active right now and imagining where and how God will work in the future is easier—even when present circumstances might suggest that God has somehow abandoned us or otherwise given up.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and as our Advent wreath lighters acknowledged at the very beginning of our service, this week is all about hope.  The verse that was read before the first candle was lit came from the Book of Lamentations: a whole Biblical book filled with passionate human expressions of grief, anguish, and sorrow.  And yet, almost as though between hiccups in his miserable sobbing, the author suddenly proclaims, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”[1]  The author worships and praises God, chooses to recognize love and to express hope, despite the easier choice, which would be rejecting God and indulging in bitter resentment.

In a commentary he wrote, the Presbyterian pastor Gary Charles observed, “The stories of Advent are dug from the harsh soil of human struggle and the littered landscape of dashed dreams. They are told from the vista where sin still reigns supreme and hope has gone on vacation.  Many prefer the major notes of joy and gladness in the Christmas stories to the minor keys of Advent.”[2]  And it’s true, isn’t it?  How many of us wouldn’t prefer to focus on the narratives about Jesus’ birth than on the stories of hideous human behavior and hardship that made (and makes!) us desperate for a Messiah, a Savior?  I’ve lost count of how many times across the past couple decades that I’ve heard the comment, “I don’t like it when pastors preach on the unpleasant stories in the Bible; why can’t you just stick to the happy ones?”  As if, by not paying attention to the difficult stories of human life, we might somehow diminish or deny the pain of suffering.  As if our denial somehow deprives suffering of its power or impact.  But it doesn’t; it merely stuffs it down, silences it, and contributes to yet another sort of torment.  We’d also like to deny that we participate in causing suffering—though we do—in conscious and unconscious or ignorant ways.

Most of all, we’d like to deny that suffering is inevitable in a world where God is in charge and God truly cares.  Which is strange, because if the story of Jesus Christ is about anything, it’s about the truth of human and divine suffering—and the fact that, as fearful as we are of suffering, God chose shed glory and to suffer with us as one of us in order to prove that divine power and love is greater than all of it, and though we can’t imagine it, can transform even our worst imaginable experience into something from which new and stronger life emerges.

In our Old Testament lesson this morning, we heard Jeremiah, “with the world that he has known crumbling around him, [pushing] his people to see a future, God’s future, which seems laughable given the current circumstances.”[3]  The numerous descendants of Abraham and Sarah, having firmly established themselves in the Promised Land, and having enjoyed the gift of righteous and faith-filled leadership by King David, had since largely abandoned their covenant with God.  And, by the prophets’ reckoning, were now enduring the punishment they had brought upon themselves as a result.  The Babylonians had crushed them in battle and, as a final humiliation, had scattered the Jewish people so that they could not attempt to reclaim their homeland.  Having excoriated the exiled people for their selfishness and unfaithfulness toward God in prior verses, in the passage we heard, Jeremiah’s voice of prophetic frustration gives way to God’s vision of healing.  As the first, lone candle of our Advent wreath burns, the prophet recalls his own city burning, and yet he speaks not of destruction but of God’s future in his cry of longing.[4]  In it, we hear a blessed note of hope, a renewal of God’s promise to remain faithful despite the horrible treatment God’s people have served up to each other and to God: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made…. 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.”[5]

“No wonder,” Rev. Charles quips, “[that] Jeremiah is the church’s usher into Advent.  In a couple weeks, we’ll hear Mary sing about God’s future, despite her own laughable circumstance.”[6]  And, if you’re reading Light of the World: A Beginner’s Guide to Advent by Amy-Jill Levine this week, you’ll be reading about the story of Elizabeth, Mary’s much older cousin, and Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah.  The couple was heartbroken by their infertility, but Luke tells the story of how God was not confined by the impossible, and in their old age they welcomed a son who became known as John the Baptizer.

In our gospel reading, we see how easily people mistake the presence and identity of their Savior.  Jesus asked his disciples who others said that he was, and there was a host of guesses; Peter alone identified him as the Messiah.  And even Peter, we come to discover, did not fully understand what God had in mind with Emmanuel.  It begs us to question how often we ourselves might overlook or misinterpret the presence of the Christ-child in our in our own life, today.

Throughout the Scriptures, we read story after story of how human suffering is understood and also experienced by God, who from the beginning has loved humankind with infinitely greater faithfulness than we have ever honored God.  And, we read story after story – culminating in the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of the One whose sweet birth we so love to read and sing about – story after story of how human tragedy and suffering has been transformed into an opportunity for new and more abundant life to prevail.

It is because of these stories, because of the truth of God’s faithfulness to all generations, and at a particular church family’s request, I will share with you what I’m about to say and urge us all to embrace hope in the God of our past, our present, and our future.  Our congregation has been praying for Adam—the 8-year old son of Joel and Kim, and brother to 11-year old Luke and 5-year old Josie.  Adam is one of the sweetest, most loving human beings I have ever encountered—and I’m not just saying that because he’s very sick.  Even before his diagnosis, for all the years I’ve known him, he has embodied a pure, Christ-like love that is patient, peaceful, joyful, gentle, kind, and always focused on helping others.  He’s a child who talks about how much he loves Jesus, and how much God loves us.  He loves the stories of the Bible (his dad said there’s a nightly plea as the Bible storybook is being closed: “Please—just one more, just one more!”).  Anyone who knows Adam will say the same.

Kim and Joel have felt the power of your prayers and are deeply grateful for this community of faith during what has been an unimaginably difficult year for them.  Adam was diagnosed with a brain tumor in early May of this year.  Across the late spring and into summer, he went through radiation therapy and this fall he started chemotherapy.  On Wednesday afternoon he wasn’t feeling well, so they went down to Children’s Hospital, where he underwent several MRI’s across the next 18 hours.  On Thanksgiving morning, the doctors told Kim and Joel that the chemotherapy doesn’t appear to be working, and they don’t think there’s a cure for this cancer.  The tumor, an extremely rare and unusual type, is lodged in the center of his brain—it’s inoperable, and it’s growing rapidly.  They’re unable to guess how much time he might have, but he came home on Friday afternoon with daily Hospice Care assistance, and the plan to keep him as comfortable as possible.

I have no theological explanations or answers for why this sort of thing happens.  I do believe that God is abiding with them, and feels the Verrecchia family’s anguish even more poignantly than you or I possibly can.  I also believe in the powerful, amazing love I have seen demonstrated by their family members and by many in this congregation—love that Kim and Joel have said represents the love and presence of God to them, which is why they need you to know their story.  It is an encompassing, sustaining force far greater than the cancer that may well claim Adam’s body and tender being in this world.

It’s normal and appropriate under these circumstances to feel hurt and angry with God.  (I know I do!)  To question the wisdom of it, to ask why?!  Why Adam, why this family, why not others whom our minds will suggest are somehow more “deserving” of such suffering (as if such a thing were possible)?

Not that there will be answers, any more than the Israelites had answers for why they had to sojourn in the wilderness for so long; or, later, why the Babylonians were permitted to devastate them so completely; or why so many others in our world are allowed to suffer in countless unjust and incomprehensible ways.  But to demand answers from God is a greater act of faith, hope, and genuine worship than is turning away and deciding that because of our suffering, God is dead to us.  Declaring our contentions with God in worship is an expression of our hope in, and expectation of, God’s justice and mercy, as surely as asking God to grant us peace expresses our hope.

Friends, as part of our worship, God wants us to tell the true story of our ancestors, and our own story.  In order to fully remember God’s faithfulness, an important part of the story is an acknowledgement of our suffering—the suffering we know from our history that God feels with us, accompanies us through, and delivers us from into an even greater life, though we cannot imagine it in this moment.  Crying out in our confusion, pain, and anguish to the One whose ways are not our ways and whose wisdom is beyond us is as much an act of hope and expectation in the God we worship, as is singing with joy, clapping our hands, and saying “Hallelujah!”

And, with its emphasis on the unsteadiness of our existence, on our need for a Savior from the incomprehensible realities of this life, the Advent season invites us to give every bit of ourselves – even wounded, confused, and angry parts – over to worshiping the One whose birth and salvation we long for with hope, even as we proclaim that He’s already been born, and still is being born in us.  Amen.
[1] Lamentations 3:21-23, ESV

[2] Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, p. 3.

[3] Gary Charles, Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 1, p. 5.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jeremiah 33:14-16

[6] Gary Charles, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, p. 5

 

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