Acting on Hope

I’m going to change things up a bit and read our second scripture lesson during the sermon.
Since this is a continuation of the theme I preached on last week, here’s a quick review. The sermon was called, “God’s Got This.” It was about the people who’ve worried over the years about the end times and when Jesus will return. In 2 Thessalonians, Paul told the Christians to calm down and carry on, something we are still called to do until Christ actually arrives. Only God knows the day and the hour of that holy event. Until then, worry is a waste of the precious time God gives us to do the work of the Kingdom. We need to pray and encourage one another in the meantime, maintaining our gratitude for our blessings.
In our Luke passage today, the disciples were gazing around in awe and wonder at the huge and elaborately decorated temple they were visiting in Jerusalem. Jesus wasn’t impressed by it, because he knew the end from the beginning. He foretold the destruction of the beautiful temple, a symbol of the history of Judaism and the current prosperity of Israel, a building that had been a source of hope for their people. It had taken 80 years to build.      
But the hope offered by our relatively modest constructions compared to God’s wonderous creations is fleeting and false. As Jesus foretold, the temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Christ sees beyond the temporary and knows that what God has planned is beyond our comprehension. He knows that God also lives in the humble and modest places, in ghettos, suburbs, and homeless camps, and that how we treat each other is more important to God than what we build.
Jesus went on to say that terrible times will precede His return, with wars and earthquakes, famines and plagues. Even more frightening to his followers were his predictions that they would be arrested and persecuted because they followed him. Rather than a dire warning, however, Jesus saw this as giving them the opportunity to testify, to spread the Gospel. Jesus told them in verse 14 to decide in their hearts, which is a better translation than their minds, not to prepare their defense in advance. The Greek word here is kardia, the heart, only in the first century it meant the whole inner life of a person, including the will, thoughts, imagination, memories and feelings. In other words, prepare your whole essence to be ready for whatever comes.
Most of us remember where we were on 9/11/2011 and the fear brought on by the hijacked planes flown into the World Trade Center. Now hurricanes, tsunamis, and wars continue to dominate the news. Only God knows when the true end times will arrive. Jesus wants us to be steadfast, not afraid.
In modern American society, the law and the odds are against us being legally persecuted or killed for believing in Christ, at least for now. But there are dozens of countries in the world where that threat is real and persistent, including Nigeria, China and North Korea. Many Muslim countries actively discriminate against and persecute Christians within their borders. American Christians can also encounter hostility when speaking openly about our faith, since that is no longer considered politically correct. But when we think about what our brothers and sisters are enduring, how can we keep silent? It takes courage to talk about Jesus.
Our fears and bodily instincts tell us to defend ourselves against any kind of attack. We want to plan our defense in advance, to be ready for any possible scenario. Jesus, as he often did, turned conventional wisdom on its head by saying not to defend ourselves, not to orchestrate the outcome of the confrontation we foresee. Instead, we are to trust Him to give us the right words to say and then offer ourselves as living sacrifices and heroic witnesses for Christ’s kingdom. Like modern-day firefighters, we must have the courage to go against the crowd and enter the burning building, braving the danger that awaits us from those who hate us for spreading the Gospel.
Our words and actions should witness to these truths: God is love, God is in charge, and Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. We are to act with the reassurance, conviction and hope that Jesus grants us, trusting the Holy Spirit to give us the right words and trusting God to be with us. God may not keep us from physical harm, may allow us to be injured or even killed, but we know that ultimately we will be transformed into heavenly beings rather than destroyed. Heaven is the place where not a hair on our heads will be lost. We can’t prove the truth, that we will live on. But we can stubbornly refuse to submit to fear. Courage isn’t an absence of fear, but taking action in spite of it. We can live out the hope that comes from our belief in the eternal life purchased for us by Christ, a hope that was first prophesied in the Old Testament.
            Isaiah 65 is so wonderfully poetic, speaking about the glorious new creation to come.
Listen to the word of the Lord from Isaiah 65:17-25
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;  they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord—  and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
    but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.
Hold on a minute, though. This is not an entirely new creation, a different planet with new creatures and aliens, strange and foreign. God won’t be starting from scratch. Jerusalem is still there, portrayed as a joy and its people as a delight. It is the current world made better, re-created without weeping or distress, without invasions or robbery or mistreatment. Everyone lives to a ripe old age, and they and their descendants are blessed. There are still animals. The predators are vegans, and the snakes eat dust! I’d like to have a lion that eats straw for a pet.
This isn’t the cartoon vision of heaven we often think of, with fluffy clouds and people wearing white robes and wings and halos. This is earthly life 2.0, the new and improved version. God isn’t going to do away with what was created in the beginning, but renew and revitalize it, turning it back into the paradise God wanted to give us originally in Eden that has since been ruined by evil and sin. God is in the business of redemption. A beautiful world with a perfect, peaceable kingdom of people enjoying it is not just possible, it’s what God wants for us. It will be a life of peace and joy, work and play, good food and family, friends and music and laughter, only better than anything we’ve ever known before. We will live and dream and treat each other with kindness and respect. Because Satan will be defeated, all that is good in creation will flourish.
            Theologian Scott Hoezee points out that “the reason prophets like Isaiah ultimately predict that one day we will beat swords into plowshares is not only to end bloody warfare but also to enable us to return to our true calling: earthkeeping, tending the garden of God’s creation!”
            We Christians often forget this, get so focused on what’s wrong with the world now that we can’t believe God has something so wonderful planned. We must believe that beauty and goodness can come down from heaven and will again, because we know that Jesus came down to be our example of beauty and goodness, of love and hope embodied. We have the best reason in the world for being grateful believers in God’s provision – a Savior who died in our place so we may have grace and life everlasting. Marcia Laycock said, ”There is always hope for a new day, hope that the darkness won’t always seem impenetrable. There is always hope because our Redeemer lives.”
            Hope by itself cannot be just a passive emotion. It cannot provide food or shelter or warmth on a cold night. It can feel impractical and dreamlike. The current world, version 1.0, is full of shadows and hardships, evil and need. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
Hope must motivate us to act, to change things for the better in the world we inhabit now. God invites us to help bring the new kingdom we hope for about by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, living into our hope by taking action. Hope is the tiger in our tank, the motivation from the Holy Spirit that keeps us moving forward even when life is frustratingly difficult.
It can help to take things one at a time. A man was walking down a beach one morning and noticed hundreds of starfish washed up on the sand. Then he saw another man throwing them back into the  water, one at a time. The first man asked, “What possible difference can you make? There are too many of them to save.” Picking up another starfish, the other man replied, “I can make a difference to this one.” And the second man picked up a starfish and joined him.
When we talk about what we can do in new or better ways to be St. Andrew Church, we’re channeling our hope for the future, the idea that God has a wonderful plan to keep us thriving and growing. More than that, we must team up to put these plans into action, spend more time working and less time worrying, spend more time encouraging each other and less time talking negatively about our future. We need to think of ourselves as a small but mighty team. Although one person can’t do much alone, there is power in combining our efforts.
Jesus said in Matthew 18:19-21 “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
There are two parts to this idea. The first is that we agree to pray to together and to discern what God wants us to do, asking for Jesus’ power and continued guidance. We must have true unity of purpose when we expect God’s help.
The second is that we must be gathered in Jesus’ name. Our egos can’t be in the way. We can’t be trying to enhance the reputation of St. Andrew, but that of Christ. It is Christ we serve. He must be our joy, our focus, our motivation, and our hope. I invite you to commit your heart, you kardia, your whole being, to the future of God’s mission for us as a community of believers.
Let us pray. We live in hope, Gracious God, because we follow the crucified and resurrected Christ, whose sacrificial love wrapped all of creation in grace, mercy, and compassion. We live in hope, knowing that you never abandon us. We live in hope, clinging to your promise to redeem and make whole. We live in hope, believing that you will give us courage, gather us in and heal us. We live in  hope because we all belong to you.
May our living in hope make evident to the world that our hope is not in vain.
And all God’s people said, Amen.

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