Sermon for March 17th, 2013

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Romans 8:18-25

18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Psalm 126

1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
   we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
   and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
   ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’
3 The Lord has done great things for us,
   and we rejoiced.

4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
   like the watercourses in the Negeb.
5 May those who sow in tears
   reap with shouts of joy.
6 Those who go out weeping,
   bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
   carrying their sheaves.

Psalm 126: Growing Hope

Everything I know about hope I learned from my three children. My oldest son, Grady, came home one day a few months ago and said, "Dad, I'm going to Washington DC!" "Really? How's that going to happen?" "Well, my class at school is having a spelling bee. If I win the spelling be in my class, I get to compete in the school spelling be, and if I win that, I get to compete in the El Paso spelling bee, then if I win that I get to compete in the Texas spelling bee, and if I win that, I get to go to Washington DC and compete in the national spelling bee. So I'm going to Washington DC!"

My daughter Abby was at her grandparents' house a few weeks ago and decided to gather some sticks and grass together and make a birds' nest in their backyard...so yesterday when she saw her grandparents, she of course wanted to know if any birds had moved into it yet, and how they were getting along, if any improvements needed to be made, (I think she might also have been considering raising their rent...)

And my youngest son Jonah is convinced that the only legitimate reason anyone could possibly have for walking into a room where he is present, is to pick him up. If you leave this hope unfulfilled, he makes sure you know about it.

There is, of course, a difference between hope and unrealistic expectations. But it's a very fine line, I think. When we put our hope in something, it almost has to be just a little bit unrealistic. Not many people spend their time hoping fervently that the sun will rise in the morning, or that 2+2 will equal 4, or that April will come after March. Even those who hope for seemingly ordinary things, like a long and healthy life, do so because they know we have no guarantees of these things, it is unrealistic to expect them with complete confidence...so instead, we hope.

In a game of poker, if you have a Royal Flush, you do not "hope" you are going to win. You know you are going to win. Hope is for those of us with lesser hands--it fills the gap where things are beyond our control. I don't know that I will win...but I hope I will win. Robert Browning, one of my favorite poets, put it this way: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" Put simply, hope is where our work ends, and where God's work begins.

For the past three weeks, we've been exploring the ideas of Faith, Hope, and Love through the lens of the Psalms, which offer us models and examples of how to live, how to grow in these areas, in our relationships with God and with each other. Today, we turn to Psalm 126, to see what it has to teach us about growing hope.

The word "hope" doesn't actually appear anywhere in this psalm, and yet I think the idea of hope is dripping from every verse. This is a later psalm, not written during the time of David or Solomon, but probably over 500 years later--after Jerusalem was sacked, the people of Israel carried off to exile in Babylon for several generations, and finally allowed to return to their ancestral home. I think this is hard for us to understand; we really don't have anything to compare it to. Imagine if the United States of America were invaded by a foreign power, utterly defeated, destroyed, and then abandoned. Imagine your great, great, grandchildren someday returning here to rebuild a land they only knew from stories and faded memories. Like I said, it's hard for us to imagine.

But this is the place where the writer of Psalm 126 finds himself in the first three verses: "When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced."

I said it was hard for us to imagine...as a country. But maybe not so hard for us to imagine...as a church? Those who have been members here for many generations remember a time, many years ago, when these pews were filled to the brim with hundreds upon hundreds of people. At time when the message and the ministry of First Presbyterian Church was known throughout the city, when through her influence hospitals and schools and orphanages and churches were raised up in El Paso, in Juarez, and beyond.

And then there were years of trouble and strife. For two decades, we watched as members left--some for other, newer churches, some for other denominations, while some just dropped out and left church altogether.

More recently, I have heard the stirrings of hope in this place, as some long absent have begun to return. Sometimes its the children of long-departed members who come back, looking for a place to raise their own children in the Christian faith, as they were raised. Sometimes it is people entirely new to First Presbyterian Church who wander through our doors seeking a message of faith, hope, or love. But even they eventually hear the old stories about the church we used to be. Vicariously through the memories of others, they too relive our past and participate in the hope that, like Zion, the Lord may restore our fortunes so that all the nations (or at least all the other churches) will say "The Lord has done great things for them."

Perhaps we can identify with this Psalm after all. But there is a second half to Psalm 126, another three verses that are parallel to the first three, but also take things in a new direction. Both halves begin with the restoration of fortune, and both speak of shouts of joy and laughter. But listen for the other emotions in the second half, too: "Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves."

The first half of the Psalm is about hoping and dreaming. The second half of the song is about hoping...and working. Rebuilding Israel at the end of the Bronze age means mostly rebuilding agriculture: planting seeds, watering fields, harvesting crops--and all these actions are present in the second half of the Psalm. Notice that the hard work is often accompanied by tears and weeping. Notice also who does what: The people are responsible for planting the seeds and then harvesting what grows. But in between, God is responsible for the watering, for the watercourses in the Negeb river.

So, too, we are called to work hard--sometimes through tears and weeping--but no matter how hard we work, there is always that one piece (the watering) that is beyond our ability to control. And so we place our hope in God.

Hope is usually thought of as a future-oriented thing. We hope for things that have yet to happen. But it's not quite that simple. As we see in Psalm 126, hope is pretty strongly tied to the past as well. At our best, we learn from the past what is possible, what is good, and we hope that these things will be somehow present in the future as well. But at our worst, our love for the past can devolve into nostalgia, and we simply hope to recreate the past 100%, in a place where it no longer fits or works.

The Lord restores Zion's fortunes, but he does not restore things completely to the way they used to be. There is never again a United Kingdom of Israel under a King like David or Solomon. And that's a good thing: Instead (and another 500 years later) they get a United Kingdom of Heaven under a King like Jesus Christ--which is, of course, not at all what many wanted or hoped for. The Pharisees of Jesus' day hoped so much that God would just make things the way they used to be again, that they missed the new, amazing, hope-filled thing God was doing in their midst.

So what can we learn from Psalm 126 about being hope-filled, hopeful people? What can we learn about the process of growing hope? As I conclude, I want to leave you with five principles I see at work in this Psalm--I think they are principles that would work just as well in our church, in our jobs, and in our families, too.

  1. Hope is a Gift from God. Notice that it is only in the second half of Psalm 126 that the Psalmist asks God to "restore our fortunes." In the first half, he begins by acknowledging that God has already done this. In other words, hope doesn't begin with us. It begins with God's action, in his own time, and in his own way. Everything that comes after that is our response to the hope God has given us. So...
  2. We Respond to God's hope with Gratitude, Praise, Worship. It's fitting that this comes first. When God gives us hope, we drop everything and give thanks. We laugh, we shout with joy. These are acts of worship, and necessary for hope to continue to grow within our hearts.
  3. We Respond to God's hope with Hard Work. Dreams are good, but eventually they must give way to hard work, and this too is a fitting response to all God has given us. Sometimes our work in this world is accompanied by tears and weeping, but through our work, our hope continues to grow.
  4. We Put our Hope in God to fill the gap. Ultimately, we recognize that even our hard work must always fall short. There are always things outside our ability to control, and when we get to that place, the best thing we can do is to place those things in God's hands. We plant, but God sends the water.
  5. Finally, We Let the Past Inspire our Hope, but not Limit it. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are not so much interested in Restoration of the Past: We're interested in Resurrection of the Dead. And once there is resurrection, things are never quite the same again. God's plans for us are much bigger than the plans we make for ourselves, so while we will always remember the past, always be informed by it, while we will always carry the past with us into the future, we also trust God to lead us into new adventures that may or may not resemble the things we have known and loved before. And that's ok. Because the one in whom we place our hope...created the past, the present, and the future. He created the universe and numbered the stars. And yet his eye is on the tiniest of sparrows, and his love for his children knows no end.

This is a hope worth hoping for. This is the Word of God for the People of God.