Wednesday, December 28, 2016

December 25, 2016 Building Christmas

As we continue with our theme of Building, today, on Christmas day, we consider the topic of Building Christmas.  Perhaps Rebuilding Christmas would be a more appropriate title, as Christmas has been remade, rebuilt, and repurposed into something very different from the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem.  Christmas, as we often note, has become so busy, so commercialized, and so far removed from its origin that we sometimes struggle to recognize it as a holiday that celebrates the central act of God’s redemptive work with humankind.  And sometimes we find ourselves as active participants in the repurposing of Christmas.  I wonder if God will say to me one day in eternity, you know when you talked about the simplicity and humility of the first Christmas?  You had that right, so why did you help to make it so complicated?

I should add that I am not at all a scrooge when it comes to our modern Christmas.  I watch the Hallmark Channel movies, I go to the malls, and I enjoy giving and receiving gifts.  I like a nicely decorated tree (and I don’t even mind our Yoda tree topper, light saber and all), but I do, at times, wonder about what seems to be the rebuilding of Christmas into something it was never intended to be.  As C. S. Lewis once wrote, once in our world, a stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world.  Lewis was right – Christmas is far, far bigger than what is often made of it.  Too often, our modern version of Christmas is an impoverished version.
Our Scripture text for this morning is a portion of the most well-known Advent passage, Luke 2:1-7.

1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

This morning, I want to think of Building Christmas in relation to three themes, themes that are taken from three phrases in this passage of Scripture –

1.  And it came to pass…

I often feel a measure of guilt about looking forward to the Christmas season coming to an end.  Does anyone else feel that way?  Sometimes, it seems as though Advent is an endurance contest more than a spiritual experience.  It is a very tiring time in the life of a minister, I can assure you that.  Sometimes, on days when I feel very tired, I hold to the Biblical admonition of this too shall pass.         
It is then that I like to turn to what is one of my favorite verses in all of the Biblical passages relating to the birth of Christ – the first phrase of Luke 2:1 – and it came to pass.  That verse presents to us not only an important reminder of an historical fact, but also of a promise yet to come.  It tells us of the reality of the birth of Jesus, but it also reminds us that the plans of God do come to pass; they do take place; they do happen.  It is God’s assurance that all of his promises will come to pass.
This verse carries an important message for all of those who have any doubts about God’s promises coming to fruition, and there are certainly many in our world who are skeptics not only about God’s promises, but of God himself.
Several years ago I read a fascinating book – The Fingerprints of God:  What Science Is Learning About the Brain and Spiritual Experience by Barbara Bradley Hagerty.  Some of the questions she ponders in the book are questions often asked by researchers – why are some people more attuned to spiritual matters than others?  Why is it that some people have an innate interest in spirituality while others never seem to think about anything spiritual?  They are interesting questions, but I’m not sure they are ones that science can answer.
Undoubtedly, we live in a time of some measure of skepticism about spiritual matters.  In our modern era it seems as though that skepticism feeds upon itself, growing more prevalent as more people express skepticism.  Unfortunately, some of those skeptics will claim that if we have any doubts or and questions about our faith there is something deficient in our faith.  These skeptics will point to those doubts and questions as evidence – in their minds, at least – of a loss of faith.  But we all ask questions and we all, at times, have doubts, and there is nothing wrong with doubts or questions.  In fact, I would say that doubts and questions are signs of a living and vibrant faith, because it they are signs of taking faith and its implications seriously.  I would also add that doubts and questions do not have an impact upon God’s fulfillment of his promises.  To assume that they do is to make the mistake that reality is based upon what we believe, what we can prove through evidence, or by what we can feel (these are a few of the mistakes of skeptics).  If one does not believe in God, for instance, one would then claim God must not exist.  But the existence of God is not predicated upon what one believes, because our beliefs do not alter reality.  Similarly, if one cannot produce irrevocable proof – absolute, can’t miss proof – of God’s existence, then one would claim that God must not exist.  But again, reality does not conform to what we can either prove or disprove by evidence.  And, finally, if one does not feel God’s presence or feel the reality of his existence, then one would conclude that God must not exist.  But, once again, reality is not dependent upon what we feel.
When I attended seminary I was put through the rigors of considering, examining, and defending my faith.  It was a difficult process for me and one that required me to think very seriously about what I believed.  One of the conclusions to which I arrived was that the existence of God, and God’s promises, were not predicated at all upon what I believed.  God’s existence, and his promises were either true or they were not true, regardless of what I thought or believed.  It was not up to me to make a case for their reality, but to choose whether or not I would accept their reality.  Obviously, I chose to accept those realities, and continue to do so.  I believe very strongly that reality is true whatever we believe, or don’t believe, and this verse reminds us that God not only exists, but he guarantees that his promises will come to pass.
And it came to pass is testimony to a reality that is true not because of what we feel or what we believe, but what is true, and that is the truth of God’s reality, and the truth that he entered into his own creation.

2.  And all went to be taxed…
If it came to pass is one of my favorite verses, this is one of my least favorite, because I am like everyone else and I complain about paying taxes.
When our children were young, Tanya and I opened a tax business.  It was quite a surprise to me that we had our own business, because I had never envisioned myself as an entrepreneur.  While it was a good experience, I learned that I did not have the mind of a tax preparer.  Tanya is very good with business and numbers, while I am not.  Preparing tax returns was easy for her.  She enjoyed working with numbers and could get them done quickly, which was important during the peak of the tax season.  I approached tax preparation much differently.  For me, it was an opportunity to engage in pastoral care.  I sat with clients and talked with them about their lives, listened to their problems, and offered counsel.  Sometimes, Tanya reminded me that I was there to prepare tax returns, not to be a marriage or family counselor.
But what I like about the phrase and all went to be taxed is this – for all the ways in which the powers of the world believe they dictate the destiny of the world, they do not.  Caesar Augustus might have decreed that the world was to be taxed, but Caesar was not the ultimate authority.  Where is Caesar now?  Where is the mighty Roman Empire now?  Caesar and the Roman Empire that not only ruled the world but also sought to vanquish the church are long gone.  The other empires that sought to vanquish the church are no more.
Psalm 2:1-4 tells us – 
1 Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together
    against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
“Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.”
The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.
There are certainly consequences to the decisions of the rulers and the kingdoms of this world, but that does not mean they have the ultimate power, the ultimate control, or the ultimate destiny.  Their decisions can have very serious consequences and that is why we, as God’s people, should always stand apart from the powers of this world and serve as a voice for the voiceless, as an advocate for those who have no advocate, and a voice for justice when there is no justice.  But let it be known that God is in control.  The Romans might have decreed that all were to be taxed and must return to their own towns, but God decreed that the actions of the Romans would be part of his instrument for how he would enter into the world.  While the Romans decreed power, God decreed love.  Even today, in Aleppo, where Assad’s regime decrees ruthless power, God decrees love.  Everywhere and in every time, God declares love.

3.  And laid him in a manger…
It’s an amazing thought to imagine God in a manger as a tiny, helpless infant.  As one writer put it, God became not just the author of the human drama but an actor in it.
There is nothing else in the history of humanity that even comes close to matching the story of Jesus.  There are so many deeply theological ways to attempt to explain that story and in college and seminary I waded through many of those explanations.  I read the systematic theology and grappled with the depths of the explanations, but there is one story that helps to explain it better than perhaps any other.  Some of you will remember Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story.  Some of you will hear me mention Paul Harvey and think I must really be old.  That may be the case, but in one of his broadcasts he tells a story that very clearly explains the nature of the Incarnation. 
The story goes as follows – a mother and her children were preparing to attend the Christmas Eve service at their church.  The father was not going, as he never attended the service or any church service.  To him, the idea of church was silly, filled with silly beliefs for which he had no time or tolerance.  After his wife and children left for the service, it began to snow.  Very quickly the snow turned into quite a storm, with the wind blowing and the snow falling and quickly becoming deep.  As he watched out the window at the snow he looked in the direction of a barn near their house.  A light on the front of the barn illuminated a scene that grabbed his attention.  Struggling with the wind and the snow was a group of birds, searching for shelter.  After watching them for several minutes, the man had an idea for how to help them.  His idea was to go outside and open the door of the barn, allowing the birds to fly to the shelter of the barn.  Though it seemed like a reasonable plan, it didn’t work as he hoped.  When he opened the door, the birds continued to fly around outside of the barn, struggling against the wind and the snow.  The man ran around, waving his arms, hoping that would corral them into shelter.  Once again, his plan did not work; in fact, it seemed to make matters worse.  Standing in the snow and the wind, frustrated at his lack of success, he thought to himself, if only I could become a bird, like one of them.  If I were one of them I could lead them to safety, shelter, and security.  At that moment it suddenly occurred to him – that was the nature of the Incarnation.  This is exactly why God had become part of his creation.  Go become one of us in order to lead us, to bring us to safety, and to save us.
That, indeed, is that nature of the Incarnation and the reason why Jesus was laid in a manger.  As we celebrate Christmas today, let us commit ourselves anew to the message of Christmas, and proclaim the good news that Christ has come!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

December 18, 2016 Building Peace

One of my favorite places to visit is Washington, DC. I must confess, however, that on our first visit I was a rather reluctant traveler. Washington is a city of which I have often complained, in terms of the politics that take place there. My response to the idea of visiting Washington was something along the lines of, what’s wrong with visiting a beach? Are they all closed? Upon arriving in Washington, I was hooked. It is a fascinating city to visit. Wandering around the city, visiting the monuments, it struck me that so many of them commemorate war, suffering, and death. The pinnacle of this is certainly the Holocaust Museum. If you have visited there, you know what an overwhelming experience it can be. To encounter the history of hatred and violence on such a scale is an incredibly sobering moment. I have visited that museum on two occasions, and I can’t get that experience out of my head. To walk through one of the train cars that carried people to the concentration camps, to see the piles of shoes that came from those camps, and to see the entrance gate to Auschwitz are sobering experiences. As you walk through the Holocaust Museum there is a phrase that often appears – Never Again.
Never Again is a powerful phrase, but it is one that carries some measure of indictment, because there are predecessors of the Holocaust all through history and echoes of it until now. At the time of the birth of Jesus, the Roman Empire maintained their control by a brutal use of force, and they were the most recent in a long line of empires up to that historical moment. As they found it necessary, the Romans would use force with such efficiency and brutality that all of those under their power had no doubt about who was in charge. The Romans did not hesitate to exercise absolute force and they did so in such an unflinching manner that it is hard to fathom how any power could treat other human beings in such a way. 
Closer to our own time, World War I was supposed to be the “war to end all wars.” Some of the statistics from that war are incredibly sobering: half of all French men who were aged 20 – 32 at the beginning of World War I were dead by the end. Half! More than one third of all German men between the ages of 19 – 22 were killed. As tragic as World War I was, the “war to end all wars” was surpassed by World War II only 21 years later. Never again happened again. Never Again happened again when the country of Yugoslavia disintegrated, it happened again in Rwanda, and it is happening again, now, under the watch of the entire world, in Syria. 
War, with its violence and genocide, has been a scourge throughout history, and that it continues to take place on such a large scale drives home to us just what an entrenched and disturbing problem it continues to be. And the most difficult question of all is: what do we do about it? 
As we continue through Advent, we come today to the message of the angels to the shepherds, the message of peace.
Luke 2:8-20 – 
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.
Peace means to – 
1. Fear not.
The first words from the angels were fear not (verse 10). I’m going to assume the shepherds had seen a lot of things that made them fearful. They lived in a world where life was very fragile and tenuous. Life was lived under constant threat. We live with the miracle of antibiotics; they lived in a time and place where they could easily sustain a cut, out on a hillside, dealing with sheep, that could lead to the end of their lives. They were exposed to the weather that could bring to them a deadly case of pneumonia. They could be injured. And, certainly, there was always the danger of what the Romans could do to them. The shepherds lived with the constant fear of the precarious nature of their lives.
And then comes the appearance of the angels. And, in considering the angels, doesn't it seem that they should have appeared in Rome, the seat of the power of the Empire? Why appear to a bunch of shepherds, who could do nothing to bring about peace? Why not send the angels to the seat of the world's power? That's how I would have done it, but obviously, God had another plan, and a much better plan. I would imagine that the appearance of the angels to the shepherds would be more than a bit disconcerting, don’t you? How often do we have such an experience? But I think drastic times call for drastic measures, and the appearance of the angels was certainly a dramatic measure for a dramatic time. The appearance of the angels was God taking dramatic action and saying, it’s time for a change. In the midst of the uncertainty, in the midst of the fear, in the midst of the violence, in the midst of so much struggle, God showed up, as he always does. Now there’s a good reason not to fear!
Sometimes, when we look around at our lives, they feel a bit precarious, don’t they? We feel as though we are teetering on the edge of disaster, as though at any moment life is going to come apart at the seams. And the fear sinks deep into our very bones. Though we do not face what the shepherds faced, we still live with a great deal of fear. But then the peace of God enters into our lives, so that when we feel that deep sense of anxiety and that deep sense of fear, God says, fear not. When you think life is overwhelmed with uncertainty, God says, fear not. When you fear for the future your children and grandchildren face, God says, fear not. When you are tempted to believe that instead of getting better the world will only get worse, God says, fear not. 
Fear not!
2. Be a peacemaker.
You would probably be surprised to know that when I was much younger I had a bad temper. You would probably be more surprised to know that for a time I was often in fights, generally on the losing end. Actually, always on the losing end, but that didn’t seem to deter me. One day, however, the futility of fighting became obvious to me. One of my friends was the middle linebacker for our high school football team, and for some reason, which I can’t remember, I tried to provoke him into a fight. It was very foolish, as I was absolutely no match for him, but I continued to provoke him. I remember him saying, over and over, Dave, I don’t want to fight you, but still I continued to provoke him. I provoked him one time too many and when I did, I knew it was time to run. And I ran. Really fast. But not fast enough, unfortunately, and so I learned the futility of fighting and the importance of working to live in peace.
Why is it so hard for humanity to live together in peace? Why must we provoke and fight one another?
On earth peace (verse 14), proclaimed the angels. Peace is one of the great hopes of humankind; it may, in fact, be the greatest hope. It is also one of the most elusive of all hopes. The Scriptures have many references to peace, one of the most famous coming from Isaiah 2:3 – "He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore."
The temptation is great to live by knee-jerk reactions in life. React in anger to the person who treats you poorly. React in bitterness to the person who hurts you. React in violence to the person who brings violence. Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). Paul wrote that as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Romans 12:18). Jesus and Paul walked this earth at a time when it was very difficult to be a peacemaker and to live in peace with others. It was a tough, difficult, mean, and violent world, where any sign of weaknesses could cost you dearly.
But being a peacemaker is not weakness; it is strength.
3. Peace is here.
I know that statement sounds strange and may makes you wonder, "is Dave crazy? Peace is not here! What are you talking about?" The coming of Christ into the world brought many hopes, and certainly the hope for peace was paramount to many. World history had been one long story of empire after empire, wreaking havoc on millions of people, tearing asunder families and taking countless innocent lives. The people of God had certainly seen their share of violence, and in the coming of the Messiah many hoped that peace would finally come and that violence would cease.
It did not. But though peace did not come as hoped, it did not mean that it was absent. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but it is not. In the coming of Christ, I believe, we find that the seeds of peace were planted. Once those seeds were planted, it became necessary for humanity to water, nurture, and nourish those seeds. Peace is not truly peace unless humanity pours itself into the peacemaking process. Yes, God could enforce a peace of his own, but would it be true peace? No, it is only peace when it is accepted and practiced by humanity. 
So, in that sense, peace is here. Peace is all around us. It merely has to be embraced and practiced. Peace is not missing from our world; what is missing from our world is the willingness to lay down our provocations and fighting and warfare and to take up our embrace of peace.
I tried to write a column recently about the tragedy taking place in Aleppo and struggled with what to write. I tried to write about my belief that something should be done, but all I could think was, what do we do? The solution that seems to rise to the top is military force, which doesn’t seem to be much of a solution upon further examination, as force only begets more force and violence and aggression only beget more violence and aggression. And o while we watch, our Never Again has once again been proven to be a time and again. But last week, our Week of Compassion approved its largest ever emergency grant for relief efforts to those displaced by the war in Syria. That’s something! That’s sowing the seeds of peace, that is working as a peacemaker, and that is seizing the peace that Christ brought into the world in order to make it a reality for those who are suffering in that terrible conflict.
Two weeks ago I spoke about hope; perhaps the greatest act of hope is to believe we may one day have peace in the world. The promise of Advent, the promise of Jesus entering into the world, is that peace not only will come, but that peace has come. It is ours to take hold of and live. May we do just that, not only at Advent, but all days!

Monday, December 05, 2016

December 4, 2016 Building Hope


Has there ever been a word filled with so much promise, so much longing, so much, well, hope?
As we continue with our theme of Building, this week’s message is Building Hope.  Our Scripture text comes from a time when hope was in short supply among God’s people.  Centuries had passed and there was nothing but silence from the heavens.  The prophets, encouraging as they might be, had no new word to offer from the Lord.  Faith, no doubt, had entered a time of struggle.  To make matters even more discouraging, years of living under the rule of the mighty Roman Empire brought a greater sense of despair upon the people.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blessed:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come,

So wrote Alexander Pope.  Pope’s immortal first words, that hope springs eternal, are not true, however, because hope does not spring eternal.  Hope can be extinguished.  Hope can fall victim to the struggles of life and to the day in and day out pressures that bear upon us.  Scores of people, indeed, have lost hope throughout history.  Living in war zones, beset by famine, disease, and all manner of suffering, many people in our world have simply given up any hope they might have once entertained. 

In the centuries before the birth of Jesus many had also, no doubt, lost hope; perhaps even Zechariah, of whom we will read in a moment.  It was no small surprise when an angel appeared to Zechariah with the announcement that Elizabeth, his wife, would have a son.  It was such a wondrous possibility that Zechariah could not believe this news of hope; in fact, he expressed outright skepticism that such a wondrous, miraculous event could happen.  Such is the nature of hope; its promises can at times be so amazing that we can’t bring ourselves to believe they could ever be true. Listen now to our Scripture text, and listen for one statement in particular.  It is a statement every one of us would love to hear.

Luke 1:5-19 –
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.
Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.
But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God,
he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense.
10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.
12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.
13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard (Emphasis mine). Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.
14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth,
15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born.
16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.
17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? (Emphasis mine) I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
19 The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel.  I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.”

I want to offer you three challenges this morning.  The first is –

1.  Dare to have hope.
The statement to which I hoped would stand out to you in the Scripture reading is verse 13 – Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.  Isn’t that a great statement?  Those are some of the most powerful words in all of Scripture.  Here’s a guy who went about his work, day-after-day, week-after-week, month-after-month, and year-after-year.  He had many reasons not to have hope, one of which Luke tells us was that he and his wife, Elizabeth, had no children, and they had given up hope that they would.  When the angel tells Zechariah they would have a son – who would be John the Baptist – you can hear his hesitancy not only to believe the news but the hesitancy to embrace hope in his question – how can I be sure of this, he asks.  Give me some proof before I will believe.  I’m not going to get my hopes up only to be disappointed.  Before I will even entertain the possibility of hope, you have to give me something that would justify that hope.  But all he received was a promise.  That’s not much to go on, is it?  But that’s what hope asks of us.  Trust, believe, hope.  We’ll take that, won’t we?

A promise can be enough, and that’s what hope is – a promise, and we must dare to accept that promise.  Zechariah was given the promise, and wouldn’t you like to hear that same promise?  Don’t be afraid, Dave, your prayer has been heard.  Isn’t that a beautiful affirmation?  Wouldn’t you love to hear those words?  Don’t be afraid, Jim, your prayer has been heard.  Don’t be afraid, Betty, your prayer has been heard.  Imagine – that for which your heart has so longed, that for which you dared to dream, that for which you have so hoped, has been heard and will come to pass.

But we too are tempted to say how can I be sure of this?  Sometimes we can’t bring ourselves to hope; it’s simply too much to dare to have hope.  Why hope if you’re only going to be disappointed?  It’s easier to never hope than it is to have hope and then have those hopes dashed.

One of the most radical, resistant, defiant, rebellious acts we can commit today is to have hope.  That’s one of the things I love about faith, it dares to have hope.  Faith dares to fly in the face of popular opinion and to hold to hope.  Faith dares to reject that human reason tells us there is no evidence as to why we should embrace hope, but faith can see there are a multitude of reasons.  Dare to have hope!

2.  Never give up hope.
People often come to me looking for many things.  They come with questions, looking for answers; they come with needs, looking for provision; and they come with grief looking for comfort.  I’ll be honest with you and say that there are many times when I feel totally unequipped to answer their questions, to meet their needs, or to have adequate words of comfort.  Totally unequipped.  Sometimes I have to say, I don’t know the answer to your question.  Sometimes I have to say, I don’t know how to meet your need.  Sometimes I have to say, I don’t know how to take away your hurt and your pain and how to remove your loss.  But what I can say is, I don’t have the answer, I don’t have the provision, and I don’t have the comfort, but I know who does!  And there was a time when I felt as though that was such an inadequate answer, to say I don’t have what you need but I know who does, but over the years I have come to understand how often people are really asking for hope more than anything else.  They are not looking for an answer to every question as much as they are looking for someone to tell them there is One who can provide hope.  They are not looking for someone to make provision for every need they have but to affirm there is One who can make provision.  They are not looking for words of comfort as much as they are looking for One who is a comfort.  They are looking for someone to say to them, don’t ever give up hope.  There is One who justifies and makes real that hope!

I’m telling you today, don’t give up hope.  Tomorrow I’ll tell you, don’t give up hope!  Next week I’ll tell you, don’t give up hope!  Next month I’ll tell you, don’t give up hope.  Next year I’ll tell you, don’t give up hope!  When you are in the midst of despair I’ll tell you, don’t give up hope!  When you are struggling to make sense of loss I’ll tell you, don’t give up hope!  When you are wondering how you will make ends meet because the distance between the ends is so vast you don’t think it will ever be possible to bring them together I’ll tell you, don’t give up hope!  When you feel that long ago you surpassed the end of your rope, when you feel that not only is the night dark but the days are dark as well, when you wonder if there is any use in continuing on, when you wonder if anyone cares, when you wonder if God himself cares about you and if he understands your need, I’ll tell you, don’t give up hope!  Don’t ever, ever, ever give up hope!

3.  Be a messenger of hope.
Now, I’ll admit that I am a somewhat of a former hippy.  I was a bit young to be a full-fledged hippy back in the mid to late 60s, but I was a junior hippy.  I had the big hair, the bell bottoms; I had the whole hippy wardrobe.  Over the years I've lost my high school and college yearbooks, but the other evening I found a web site that had my college yearbooks online.  Yes, I did take a look at couldn't believe how I looked back then!  And no, I will not share that web address with you! I came of age in a time that had a level of optimism that now seems to have all but died.  Nobody sings songs about wearing flowers in your hair any more.  I miss those days.  I don’t miss putting flowers in my hair – and yes, I did that a time or two – but I miss the hope and idealism that was alive in those days.  Now it seems as though idealism has died.  Optimism became realism and realism became cynicism and that cynicism has taken hold with a vengeance and has put down deep, deep roots.  It’s not hard for us to become cynical.  We struggle with doing the right thing, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, only to see others get ahead and prosper in spite of questionable ethics, questionable business deals, and uncaring attitudes.  We begin to wonder, is there any reason to hold on to the good as Paul writes in I Thessalonians 5:21?  Is there any reason to worry about anything or anyone beyond myself?  Won’t I feel better and do better if I let go of hope and go all in for myself and what I want out of life? 

We’ve got far too much of that in our world.  We need some more people to be messengers of hope.  You need to be a messenger of hope.  You need to be a messenger of hope because somebody needs you to be a messenger of hope.  I’m not talking about an oblivious naïveté that is willingly blind to the very real problems in our world and in the lives of those in our circle of acquaintance.  Just in case you haven’t noticed, our world is in bad shape, and so are most of us who are living in it.

There are macro concerns, big concerns, in our world – there is war and famine and all manner of struggle, and we must pray for world peace and that hungry children will be fed, and we must have hope that those needs will be met and we must work to meet those needs.  But there are micro concerns, as well, and they are our concerns.  The world has a long list of difficulties and problems but we’ve got our own set of difficulties and problems, don’t we?  The good news is that God is in both the macro and the micro.  God is concerned about the hungry children in the world and the warfare in the world and he is concerned about the problems in your world and in my world.  None of the problems – on a global scale or on a personal scale – escape either the attention or the concern of God.

Someone needs you to be a messenger of hope.  Someone in the circle of your life needs to hear you say, there is hope.  They might challenge you by saying something such as how can you have hope when there are so many insurmountable problems in this world?  How can you have hope when there are so many insurmountable problems in my world?  Are you not paying attention?  Yes, you say, I am paying attention.  I know all about the problems that seem insurmountable, in the world and in your life, and I choose hope.  I believe in hope.  I have hope, and I think you should have hope as well.
Dare to have hope.  Someone needs you to have hope.  The world needs you to have hope.  Never give up hope.  Someone needs to hold on to hope.  The world needs you to hold on to hope.  Be a messenger of hope.  Someone needs you be a messenger of hope.  The world needs you to be a messenger of hope. 

Let us go forth and build hope!