January 3, 2016
Jeremiah 31:7-14, Psalm 84, Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a, Matthew 2:13-15,19-23
Did you make any New Year’s resolutions? As Americans we believe in our ability to control the future so it only makes sense to resolve to be agents of change in our lives at the beginning of the New Year. But there’s a problem.
I remember leading a vestry retreat years ago in which we ran into a fundamental problem. We all agreed we wanted to help our church to grow—to grow in size, in faith, in outreach. Yet, we also agreed we didn’t want our church to change, because we liked it just the way it was. After all, what happens when strangers start sitting in my pew and demanding different worship and programs?
We’re all for change but only when it suits us.
Instead of resolving to be agents of change this New Year’s our readings today call us to be people who hope in God.
Of course, we can’t create this hope, it must be given to us, but fortunately we worship a God who specializes in hope.
So let’s look today at a miracle we don’t often talk about.
I’m not talking about the miracle of the virgin birth or the miracle of the wise men and the star. Rather, I’m talking about the miracle reported in the Bible of Israel’s hope in God over a thousand years.
Think about it.
If our friends, family, and nation suffered under a brutal slavery in Egypt for 400 years, would we still worship the God of our fathers and mothers?
I’ve known people who give up on God after a couple of car wrecks.
Or what must it have been like, 800 years later, for Jerusalem to be conquered by the Babylonians? Solomon’s temple was utterly destroyed and all their leaders and their leading citizens taken into exile in Babylon.
Psalm 137 describes their suffering:
By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, *
when we remembered you, O Zion.
2 As for our harps, we hung them up *
on the trees in the midst of that land.
3 For those who led us away captive asked us for a song,
and our oppressors called for mirth: *
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
4 How shall we sing the LORD’S song *
in a foreign land?
And yet this psalm shows that they keep singing to the Lord even while in exile.
How is this possible?
It is possible because for over a thousand years God creates and sustains Israel as a people who hope in God even in the midst of their sin and suffering. God says through the Prophet Hosea: “When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. I took them up in my arms.…I led them with cords of kindness, with bands of love.” Hosea 11
Israel’s master story is of this God who hears their cries in slavery and sets them free, and therefore whenever they are suffering they turn to God, in anger, confusion, confession, and with pleas for release.
So during their captivity in Babylon, God says through Jeremiah: Thus says the LORD
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
Surely there were those who thought Jeremiah was out of his mind, yet after 70 years in captivity the Persian empire, modern day Iran, conquers Babylon, modern day Iraq, and lets the Jews return to their homeland to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple.
Unbelievable, yet it happened.
This trust and hope in the faithfulness of God would be tested many times, until the greatest test came one Friday when Jesus, the Messiah, is arrested, beaten, tried, condemned, and then crucified like a slave. There was no more shameful way to die—naked and exposed, in front of the whole city, left to hang till he suffocates or bleeds out.
In this moment, the disciples abandon Jesus and probably abandoned their hope in God. All they have to offer God is their utter humiliation, fear, and grief—they loved Jesus but he was obviously a false Messiah!
But on Sunday God acts decisively to vindicate Jesus through the resurrection, and recreates the disciples into a community that once again is called and sustained by hope in the living God.
And God continues to act this way today. This past August when I was back in my former parish in North Carolina to baptize my grandson, I noticed in the chapel that all the stained glass windows had been repaired and restored to their former beauty. An old friend showed me a small plaque under one of the windows: it said the window had been restored to the glory of God and in loving memory of her son, who had tragically died at the age of 21 in August 2004. Like the Jews in exile inscribing their pain into Psalm 137 that heart-broken family inscribed their pain in that window. That small plaque was not about glorifying the family or the son, but about glorifying the Crucified God who enters their pain on the cross and metabolizes it by the fire of divine love. That mother will forever be broken-hearted, just as she will be forever held and healed by the hope placed in her heart by Christ. She will be with her son again—and not in some abstract invisible heaven, but in the New Creation where there is no more sighing and weeping and God wipes away every tear.
Paul today prays that the Church in Chelmsford will share this gift of hope. He writes:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give the people of All Saints a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you….”
Because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we too have hope for the future, and therefore we can be people of hope in the present who are called to work for the Kingdom that is to come.
When I was fifteen, my summer job was working for Six Flags over Georgia, which is west of Atlanta. I had the glamorous job of standing in the massive parking lot directing cars to the closest parking spaces. I was not building Six Flags, I was working for Six Flags, and my work, small as it was, was a help to many people.
As followers of Christ, we do not build the kingdom of God, but rather we work for the kingdom of God. As N T Wright puts it: “What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. Surprised by Hope, page 193, italics original
Like the Jews we bear witness to God’s miracle power to raise us out of our rebellious narcissism into a people of hope, who hope no longer in themselves, but in the triune God.
And like Mary and Joseph who become refugees as they flee to Egypt, we listen to God, because we have a higher calling than being agents of change—for by grace we are agents of God.