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Promised Hope

This post contains the sermon preaching on November 29, 2015, at The Patterson Avenue Baptist Church.  The sermon is titled:  “Promised Hope” and is based on Jesus words recorded in Jeremiah 33:14-16.

This is the sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, focused on the HOPE.  You can see the video read the manuscript below.

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PROMISED HOPE – JEREMIAH 33:14-16

“‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.

15 “‘In those days and at that time     I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line;     he will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved     and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called:     The Lord Our Righteous Savior.’

A skeptic wrote:  “What else is there to make life tolerable?  We stand on the shore of an ocean, crying to the night, and in the emptiness sometimes a voice will answer out of the darkness. But it is the voice of one drowning and in a moment the silence returns and the world seems to be quite dreadful.  The unhappiness of many people is very great, and I often wonder how they endure it.”

 

What a thoroughly unpleasant way to start our trek through Advent.  This is supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year.”  Yet I am starting out our journey using words about darkness, dread, and despair.  It seems just a tad out of place.

 

Now we know that stuff is real, right?  We know what it’s like to face the waves during the proverbial “dark night of the soul,” listening for a voice of hope rising over the tumult,  only to hear others crying in the despair of their own drowning.  We know that the unhappiness of many is real.  We just don’t want to think about it.  We don’t want t see it.  We don’t want to listen to it.

 

The problem is that these tough questions refused to be ignored!  In fact, the reality of human misery is often accentuated when set in juxtaposition to the Advent message of hope.  So, rather than gloss over the reality of human misery, let’s face it head on.  Let’s acknowledge what we already know to be true.  Let’s admit that sometimes the world can be a dreadful place to live.

 

I got a small taste of that this past week.   Late Sunday, about midnight, I realized that I had left my wallet in the compartment between the two front seats of our car.  It was cold and I did not want to get up, get dressed, and go outside.

 

“It’ll be fine ‘til morning,” I thought to myself.  “People are basically good.  Nobody is going try to break into my car.  It’ll be fine.”  Then I rolled over and went back to  asleep. The next morning,  I noticed that the contents of the glove box were on the floor of my car.  It seemed strange, but I thought little of it.   Then I noticed my wallet was gone.  I started to second guess myself.  “Maybe I did bring it in the house.”  At lunchtime I went home and searched the house.  No wallet.  So, I filed a police report, cancelled all my credit cards, changed the account information at my bank, and went to the DMV to get a new driver’s license.  Late in the day, the police returned my wallet.  It was found a couple blocks from my house, on a street I have never been on.  The thief  had rifled through its contents, looking for cash.  They left everything else in a pile on the ground.

 

When the officer handed me my wallet,  I felt stupid for leaving it in my unlocked car.  That night, however, the real frustration kicked in.  Somebody had violated  my privacy and security.  If they would do that to my car, they might also do that to my home.  A few years ago, you might remember, I told you about the late night that somebody tried to break into my house.  I kept thinking about that.  I investigated every sound I heard throughout the night, worried that might be breaking into my home.

 

Now I understand that in the great scheme of things, this was a minor problem.  But it was a real problem.  If we were to quiz all the people we might meet during the week ahead, I would imagine that we would find a lot of people  struggling with sadness and darkness.  It might be over bigger things than my wallet being stolen.  It might be over the piling on effect of lots of little things.

 

The reality is that our world is populated with many people for whom life appears hopeless. 

 

Several years ago, off the coast of New England, a submarine had mechanical problems and sank to the bottom of the ocean.  Such accidents are rare.  Unfortunately, successful submarine rescues are even rarer.  The complex variables of depth, pressure, temperature, and times conspire to doom most trapped sailors.   During one attempt to rescue the crew of this sub off the New England coast, tapping could be heard from within.  One sailor, probably realizing his dangerous predicament, had tapped out in code the question:  “Is there any hope?”

 

That’s the question many people are asking in today’s world.

 

“Is there any hope?”

 

George Gallup has concluded, “People in many nations appear to be searching with a new intensity for spiritual moorings.  One of the key factors prompting this search is certainly the need for hope in these troubled times.”

 

“Is there any hope?”

 

There is a family in a hospital ICU this morning who are asking that question.  The doctor has just left them with the news that there is no course of treatment that will help their loved one recover.

 

“Is there any hope?”

 

There is a woman weeping over her morning coffee today, wondering when her husband will come home and who he’s been with through the night.

 

“Is there any hope?”

 

There are people who work for decades, faithfully saving a portion of their income to plan for retirement, only to have their life savings lost because of a the mismanagement of some unscrupulous investor.

 

 “Is there any hope?”

 

There are victims of terrorist attacks in places like Russia, Paris, Mali, Beirut, and Iraq.  Terrorist attacks perpetrated by small fanatical hates groups like ISIS, Hamas, and Boca Haram.  These groups have left hundreds dead, thousands grieving, and tens of thousands feeling fearful and hopeless.

 

“Is there any hope?”

 

Everywhere we turn we find those who feel fearful, defeated, abandoned, lonely, ashamed, embarrassed, and depressed.  It was that way with Jeremiah.

 

Poor Jeremiah—he was known as the weeping prophet and he had every reason to cry.

 

For forty years, Jeremiah had been begging the people to come back to God, but every time he gave the invitation, nobody responded.  Can you imagine what that must have been like?  Can you imagine what it must be like to be a preacher every Sunday?  You try to call people to the central things of life.  You try to call people to the things that give life meaning, purpose, and direction.  You stand up in the midst of the distractions and business of our world and say, “Here’s what is really important.  I want to call you back to God.” Every Sunday, when the invitation is given, people are looking at their watches, putting on their coats, and looking at you as if to say, “Hurry up!  It’s almost noon.  Don’t you realize that we’ve got more important things to do with our afternoon?”  Can you imagine what it would be like to be a preacher?  Imagine proclaiming the word of God, calling people to pay heed to the important things in life, and nobody ever responds?

 

That is the way it was for Jeremiah.  For four decades he preached to anyone who would listen, to anyone who would give him an ear.  For forty years, he stood before the people, saying,  “I want to call you back to God.”  But whenever the invitation was offered, nobody responded.  Jeremiah wonders, “Is there any hope?”

 

In his darkest hour, Jeremiah cursed the day he was born.  He spent most of his life telling the Hebrew people to shape up, but nobody listened.  He warned them that the path they were traveling would end in doom, but they did not listen.  Then it happened.  The Babylonians demolished Jerusalem.  They destroyed the temple.  They looted the wealth of Israel.  They kidnapped its greatest thinkers and sent them into exile.  The lives of his people seemed hopeless and filled with despair.  Jeremiah feels this despair deep down in his bones.  He writes a funeral dirge over Israel found in the Book of Lamentations:

 

How deserted lies the city, once so full of people!  How like a widow is she who once was great among the nations!  She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave.  Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are upon her cheeks.

 

“Is there any hope?”

 

Sinclair Lewis closed one of his novels with a successful businessman telling his beautiful wife, “Deep down we are all just the same. We are desperately unhappy about something—and we don’t know what it is.” 

Woody Allen once said:  “Civilization stands at the crossroads. Down one road is despondency and despair, and down the other is total annihilation. Let us pray that we choose the right road.”

 

“Is there any hope?”

 

Sometimes life seems to be nothing more than a choice between hopelessness and death, between despondency and total annihilation.  An atheist friend said to me, “You live and then you die!  There isn’t anything else.”

 

We might not want to admit it, especially in the hallowed walls of the sanctuary, but we understand that sentiment.   In fact, it is the foundation upon which many of us have built our lives.

 

“We live and then die—there isn’t anything else.”  

 

So, in our despair and despondency…

 

We bury our treasures.

We become intimidated by the abilities of others. 

We become incapacitated by our lack of discipline. 

We become mesmerized by the darkness.

We are put out of action by our fear of failure.

We feel tied in knots by our trials, troubles, and tribulations.

We are hesitant to do good, afraid that we might be cheated.

We fear the stranger and the evil we think they have planned.

 

“We live and then die—there isn’t anything else.”

 

Or is there?   Is there something more?  “Is there any hope?”

 

Of course, we are going to say “Yes!”  Especially here.  But let’s not be too flippant about.  Before we can shout with confidence, “Yes, there is a reason for hope!” we must first acknowledge that the depths of the darkness is real.  Otherwise our affirmation of faith will seem trite and hollow.

 

For Israel, the worst happened.  The nation was taken captive.  The people were exiled from their homeland.  The absolute worst that could befall them befell them.  And it was in the midst of that sadness and sorrow that Jeremiah learned a wonderful lesson about the goodness of God.  He learned that when the world is falling apart, God is still a God of HOPE.  He learned that at the darkest of moments, there is still a promise.

 

From captivity, Jeremiah speaks of hope. Listen again:

 

“‘The days are coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah.

 

“‘In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land.  In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness.’

 

Jeremiah’s proclamation of hope is that there is a day on the horizon when God shall see to it that His people will be no longer be enslaved. It’s a message of grace.  It is the promise of hope.  It is the assurance that in the darkest of days, salvation will come.

 

The news is made even greater by the fact that God’s saving act is in no way dependent upon the actions of the people.  When the “righteous branch” sprouts forth to bring salvation, there will be no  agreements to be followed, no bargains to be keep, no covenants to be observe. There is only grace, freely given to those who do not deserve it.  As somebody once said:  “This kingdom is dependent not on the goodness of its subjects, but rather upon the love of its King.”

 

That’s the promised hope that Jeremiah foresees.

 

Jeremiah had wondered, “Is there any hope?”  And he realized after four decades of preaching that if it was up to the people to make themselves right before God, there was no hope.

It was only when the bottom had fallen out that Jeremiah fully recognized that God is at His best when humanity was at its worst.  Israel has fallen, it best and brightest have been taken away into exile, the city lays desolate and in ruins, just as he had foretold.   But now from the other side, of that desolation, there was the promise of hope.

 

Speaking on God’s behalf, Jeremiah says:  “There is a day coming when I will fulfill my gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah.” That’s a promise of hope.

 

It is like a simple little candle bringing light to the darkness of a great room. According to historians and biblical scholars, here’s what was happening.  The armies of Babylon, under the command of  Nebuchadnezzar, were advancing on Jerusalem.  Many of her people had been killed in the initial onslaught, their corpses littering the cities highways and byways.  Those who could escape the desolation found refuge behind the city wall, but the end result was inevitable.   The wall would fall and the city would be overthrown.  It was just a matter of time.

 

Just beyond the walls  were the great orchards which once had helped supply the people with food.  But now, Nebuchadnezzar  had ordered them chopped down – the wood to be used to build the ladders to send his troops over the wall to capture the city.

 

Notice how Jeremiah transforms this imagery of despair into a promise of hope.  He says, “‘In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout…”  Imagine the people of Israel, hiding behind the walls of Jerusalem, looking out at the stumps that were once their beautiful orchids, which now had been chopped down to build the instruments that would seal their fate.  It was a picture of certain doom and damnation.  But look more closely.  “From one of those stumps,” Jeremiah declares, “From one of those stumps sprouts a Branch.”

 

Of course, he’s pointing to something even bigger.  Using his prophetic imagination, Jeremiah offers hope to the whole of Israel.  The righteous branch will sprout from the “from David’s line.”  From the offspring of David will sprout another great King.

He will do what is just and right in the land…(and) the name by which (this Branch) will be called (is) “The LORD Our Righteousness.”

 

On this First Sunday of Advent, a day that is focused on the promised hope of God’s appearing, we read those words about a “righteous Branch” and we know them to reference a promised hope of a Messiah appearing.

 

A righteous Branch will spring up. It is a word of hope, but not naïve hope. It’s not a hope that is based on the goodness of his people and the notion that they might reform themselves and get their lives in proper order. Jeremiah has given up on that sort of dream. This is a hope born of the faith that God’s goodness is better than the worst of our badness. This is a hope born of the faith that God’s grace accomplishes in us a transformation that we could never experience without Christ’s incarnation.

A righteous Branch will spring up.  This is a word of tenacious, persistent, determined, relentless, unyielding hope that stands toe-to-toe against the despair of the circumstances of our lives. This hope never gives in, gives up, or surrenders – because this hope it not a concept, a notion, or an idea. This hope is a person. That person will be the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed, the Savior, the Lord.

A righteous Branch will spring up. It sprouts from the stump of a tree long assumed dead. Isn’t that amazing? The righteous Branch sprouts forth in the middle of the mess of our lives. John’s Gospel declares that “the word becomes flesh and dwells among us.” Another translation says, “The word becomes one with us and moves into our neighborhood.” That’s incarnation. That’s Emmanuel – God with us as one of us. God does not shy away from or avoid our brokenness. God comes right in the missing of all that. Our promised hope is built entirely on God’s grace. We have nothing to do with it. We are only invited to receive it by faith and in so doing to find life.

Have you ever played the game of hide-and-seek?  When I was younger it was one of my favorite games.  It was more fun when my children were younger and I would play it with them.

 

There is one version in which the person who was “it” could shout, “Alley, alley, outs are in free.”  This statement allowed freedom to anyone who was still hiding to return to home base without the fear of being caught.

 

That’s what God’s grace is like, isn’t it?  Jeremiah is saying that the Creator of the universe is standing at the home base of heaven calling “Alley, Alley, outs are in free.”   “The doors of heaven are open.”  “Everybody can come home. The game’s over!”

 

That’s the message of the Gospel.  That’s the promise of the righteous branch.  That’s the hope of Advent.  In the midst of our darkness, we declare that light is about to break in. In the midst of all human despair, we shout from the mountain that hope in Jesus Christ has been born.

 

Now some may refuse to come out of hiding.  Some may refuse to respond to God’s grace.  But we need to know that our refusal of grace does not change the nature of God’s grace. We are forgiven even for putting off the celebration. We are not saved by anything we hold. The One who holds us saves us. We have only to stop rejecting God’s grace and instead received God’s unmerited favor.

 

During the days of sailing merchant ships, one ship was stuck off the coast of South America. Weeks went by without the slightest bit of wind. The ship was helpless and couldn’t move. The sailors were dying of thirst.  It was at this point that another shipped drifted close enough to hear their shouts for help.

 

“Let down your buckets,” those on the second shipped shouted.    When those on the ship let down their buckets, they found fresh water.  All that time they were unaware that although they were at sea, a current of fresh water from the Amazon River surrounded them.

 

Sometimes we may feel that our lives have been cast afloat in a sea of darkness, despair, and despondency.   But the promise of God—the gift of advent – is that all around us during our despair there flows the crystal clear living water of God’s amazing grace.

 

“Is there any hope?”  My friends, there is a river of hope all around us.   “Let down your nets.”  At the end of it all, there is only grace.  That is the message of promised hope we celebrate during Advent.

 

“Let down your nets.”

 

Joy to the World! An Advent Devotional Journey through the Songs of Christmas
by: Ray Pritchard
publisher: Gideon House Books, published: 2015-11-25
ASIN: B018JP6WP4

Christmas and music go together. Most of us can’t imagine celebrating Christmas without singing “Silent Night” or “The First Noel” or “Away in a Manger.” This year we’re going to take an Advent journey through the songs of Christmas. We’ll start with on December 1 with “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and end on December 25 with “Joy to the World.” In between we’ll look at a different song each day. In making my selection, I tried to include most of our familiar carols, but I intentionally included a few newer songs, including “Breath of Heaven,” “A Strange Way to Save the World,” and “Matthew’s Begats.” Each entry includes a link to a YouTube version of that day’s song. Plus we end with a brief prayer.

Please join us on this Advent journey as we sing our way to Christmas.

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