December 11, 2016

“The Thrill of Hope”


Psalm 146:5-10

The person whose help is the God of Jacob—
the person whose hope rests on the Lord their God—
is truly happy!
God: the maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
God: who is faithful forever,
    who gives justice to people who are oppressed,
who gives bread to people who are starving!
The Lord: who frees prisoners.
    The Lord: who makes the blind see.
The Lord: who straightens up those who are bent low.
The Lord: who loves the righteous.
    The Lord: who protects immigrants,
who helps orphans and widows,
but who makes the way of the wicked twist and turn!

10 The Lord will rule forever!
Zion, your God will rule from one generation to the next!


Last Sunday, I got to watch one of my favorite Christmas movies – Home Alone. Emily and I attended movie night at the Nashville Symphony, or, to more accurately describe it, the only time we go to the Symphony and not dramatically drop the median age. It was Home Alone with live music so we had a great time.


The movie elicits a lot of emotions for anyone who has struggled with the busy anxiousness that sometimes interrupts Christmas joy. The entire plot is based upon a child getting accidentally left at home over Christmas while his family is in Paris. During a pivotal moment in the movie, when Kevin visits the local church after he hears a choir singing carols, a special feeling finds me. The tone of the movie shifts to the heartwarming embrace of neighbors acting like neighbors, and around that moment, the choir begins singing “O Holy Night.” “O Holy Night” isn’t my favorite carol – that would be “The Carol of the Bells” – but it has my favorite line about Christmas that I’ve noticed has become more and more popular to reference this year among Christians: “the thrill of hope.”


I have been really hounding our society’s collective lack of theological reflection in my past couple of sermons during Advent, and I realized that line is exactly why. It has become somewhat passé for pastors to gripe about the commercialization of Christmas, and honestly, it would be hypocritical of me to do the same. I really want that pasta maker I asked my mother to get me for Christmas. Think of how fat I’ll be by next Christmas!


The reason I get a little grinchy is that I wish we focused more on the thrill of the season that surrounds the hope found in Christ. Much of my angst about being a proper preacher who instills the mystery and hope found in the season comes from the fact I don’t really have the vocabulary to express how I feel about it. How can I describe what it means to have the thrill of hope?


Well, thankfully, I can rely on our church’s history to offer the words for me. In his sermon on salvation, John Wesley talks about the deliverance Christ’s promise offers us: “By salvation I mean, not barely, according to the vulgar notion, deliverance from hell, or going to heaven, but a present deliverance from sin, a restoration of the soul to its primitive health, its original purity; a recovery of the divine nature; the renewal of our souls after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness, in justice, mercy, and truth,” (The Works of John Wesley, Vol.8, page 47). Christ’s coming to earth in the form of an infant sets off the necessary absolution of our sin, that is, salvation from ourselves.


Many preachers find themselves stuck here with the question of, “What does that matter, if I and others reach righteous purity, in a world that does not reach that same purity and continues to take advantage of, oppress, swindle, hurt, and kill us?” That’s where the second line comes in – “the thrill of hope, a weary world rejoices.” We can’t get much more weary than we are now. Our world is run and operated by people who makes decisions that help themselves before they help us. Not many of our leaders are looking out for the average person and especially not looking out for our poor and marginalized. We have even been duped to blame the most vulnerable as the primary source of our problems while the rich get richer. A weary world indeed, and I’m tired of preaching about it.


And yet, the same Christ that comes to us as a baby and lives to save all of humanity will be relentlessly chasing after and transforming those with the most power just as relentlessly as he comes to transform you and me. Now that is a thrill. I want to see the world where the thrill of hope exists and flourishes. I want to see the thrill of a church that grows to be so powerful that governments and leaders look at how effective we are at transforming hearts and lives and finds Christ’s message as the one worth pursuing. The almighty dollar will cease to be our prime motivator – it is the spread of hope and the exuberance of a world saved that will end our pain.


We are longing for a way to end our pain, which brings me to something interesting I saw. I was reading an article this week about smart ways to save money during the holidays.  The most effective method, they said, was to reconfigure how we think about gifts and gift-giving. When we look to the newest gadgets and latest trends to give us happiness, they do, really well even. But that only lasts on average for a few hours to a few days. After that, the same stresses of life take over and we lose all the excitement of Christmas, and that’s a shame.


The gifts that speak most to us are backed by thoughtfulness and connection. Some of the greatest gifts I have ever received were by people who wanted to show me that I mattered.. The spirit of the season is charity and relationship, which is far more powerful in creating lasting happiness.


It is that longing for relationship and good will that brings us to today’s verse. Today’s passage from the Psalter comes from an early period in the Hebrew Bible – long before the passage we read in Isaiah last week. The psalmist, often credited as King David, names all the ways God has blessed the people by being kind to them and delivering them from the weary world. It was written as a way to push back against the ever-present feeling of being left by God and the world.


People then, just as they are now, suffer from moments of hopelessness. The seasons of celebration can even bring out the worst of loneliness, because as we watch others being happy, we see how unhappy we are. What’s even more sad is the number of people who feel like they must fake happiness so as not to stick out. The Psalter speaks against that as a reminder that much of our pain is self-inflicted and must be offered up to God.


I think the thrill of hope supersedes all of our typical stresses that bring us down. For every lonely feeling, for every heartache, there is a blessing in our lives. Living with our past heartaches and pains is a normal human expression, but we cannot let those moments overshadow the blessings we also have.


I know well the tendency to let life take over and overshadow the present season, especially in the wake of heartache and the anxiety of keeping life normal. I constantly struggle with keeping the mantle of Christ in front of me. I struggle with not letting my schedule pull my attention from watching for the coming of the Lord. And I can only imagine the struggles some of you must face in your lives. That being said, my job remains the same. I am to point you to the star – not as an act of obedience or tradition, but as an act of wonder. I long for the thrill of hope that the birth of Jesus bestows on us. I long for the weary world to rejoice. I long for that new and glorious morning promised to us not only in the hymn but also in the gospel declaration that God is with us in real, human form.

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