Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
December 9, 2001
I begin with Brother Paul's reminder: "Whatever comes from former days is for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and encouragement we might have hope."
The issue of hope is a key one which pulls together our past and our present. Whatever elicits from us hope, prepares us to live and act in the world we are given.
We find the stirrings of hope in the scriptures and elsewhere. This morning we heard a stirring of hope with Isaiah holding out the possibility of a holy environments, both physically and relationally. The final measurement of that holy environment will be the way in which what once were enemies or polarities find room for one another.
Isaiah images that with leopards and lambs and with our GOD-given imagination can expand that to Democrats and Republicans and Americans and Afghans and Iraqis and the Classes of Rich and Poor and those who are Always Heard and those Never Heard.
We can go on to any of the distinctions we draw between ourselves -- where we fall on the continuum of human sexuality, whether we speak one language or many, what generation we were born into -- and find hope that we will find the commonality of being human takes precedence over our gender attractions, that the issue of communication takes precedence over the style and media in which it occurs, that whether we went through the Great Depression or the New Society or Electronic Age or whatever we will be able to share and learn from one another's experience and not claim our own limited experience is the norm for everyone else.
Isaiah stirs our hope that all the things which have kept us apart will be done away with and we will have the wisdom and understanding and counsel and knowledge to lead us to the unity of love rather than the disunity of greed and possession.
We have heard the stirring of hope from Paul with good news for Jew and Gentile alike.
I began with one line from Paul as he began the section we read today. Let me remind us of how Paul ended this section: "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit."
We need to wrestle with what we believe. Some beliefs lead us away from hope and some beliefs lead us toward more hope. The issue of faith alone is usually not helpful for us because the question always comes about the effect of our belief.
If our belief structure always places us in the place of honor it is not hopeful for the other people and parts of creation we will need to interact with. If our belief structure always places us as a no-good, sinning worm of a person it is not hopeful for ourselves.
It always amazes me how the issue of faith or what we believe is taken so seriously. Paul asks us to have "joy and peace in believing." If we are not believing a difference of joy and peace can be made in the lives of other people or in our own life, we have missed the point.
Without joy and peace we are not ready to be lit to give the light of good news to those in need of it or to receive it ourselves. Somehow joy and peace and believing all need to learn to lie down with one another. They could take a lesson from the leopard and the lamb.
We have heard again the stirring of hope as Matthew has John the Baptizer deal with the regular people and the religious leaders of his time. Regular people knew things were awry in their life. The Romans were in charge of their political and economic life. The Pharisees and Sadducees were in charge of their spiritual life. The regular people had nowhere to turn but to hope. Where would they find hope? All they could see was a terrible time to come.
In fact this is a key point in our own Methodist history. The phrase, "fleeing from the wrath to come" mobilized the people of John Wesley's time the same way they were mobilized around John the Baptizer. In the 18th century regular people had lost control of their politics and their economics with the coming of the Industrial Revolution which was as destructive of local control as were the Romans in their day. Spiritually there was a great gap between the institutional church and their everyday lives.
John Wesley and John the Baptizer both addressed the issue of living today in such a way that we will be able to avoid the wrath to come. If you were a Methodist 200 years ago you would be interested in getting your life straightened out. You would go out of your way to meet with others of like mind and heart. The Methodist class meetings of old brought people together around the issue of avoiding the wrath to come by changing their lives today.
A key question is whether this is still a key question for you? Do you sense that things are completely beyond your control? What do you believe about the political decisions and the economic realities of our day? Is your religion meeting your spiritual needs or not? Do you know that to get your spiritual needs met you will have to do something beyond coming to church on Sunday, having communion once a month, and reading the Upper Room for 5-minutes a day? There is a greater discipline which has to do with gathering with others to commit to a new way of living.
In John the Baptizer's day folks went to the desert. In John Wesley's day folks went to their homes to meet with neighbors with similar concerns. The question is how do we do this business of living disciplined lives today?
I don't have a magic answer to that as I am not fit to tote John the Baptizers sandals any more than he was fit to tote Jesus' sandals.
But I do know that if we are going to prepare to be a light to the northside of La Crosse or a beacon to the nations (both important beliefs which will build hope rather than snatch it away) there are some key issues we need to address.
First, with Isaiah, we need to have a larger vision of hope.
Second, with Paul, we need to know we are in this vision with all other peoples.
Third, with John the Baptizer and Jesus, we need to know that a starting point is repentance or knowing that the way things are does not lead to hope. So, while we may not know exactly which way to go, we definitely know which way not to go.
Here then is the challenge as we prepare for something beyond Christmas Eve -- GOD desires to light your life up, to have you be so much a part of life that meaning and purpose will bubble to the surface of your life and help bind together all those extremes of life. GOD desires you not to live your life controlled by the politics or the economics of your time, but to live free and responsible lives. GOD desires set your spirit soaring by helping to see that the spirits of others are as able to soar.
All of this and more is found in our recent church slogan of: "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors."
Let us pray:
Copyright 2001. Wesley White, Pastor of St. Luke's United Methodist Church. 1022 Caledonia Street, La Crosse, WI 54603.