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Surviving Unhappiness – Second Sunday in Advent

Here’s the sermon  video for the sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent (Peace) on December 7, 2014, at the Patterson Avenue Baptist Church in Richmond, VA. You can watch the video below.  A podcast can be downloaded at the church website:  Patterson Avenue Baptist Church The sermon is titled:  “Surviving Unhappiness.”  In addition to the video, the manuscript is also below.

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“Surviving Unhappiness” Advent 2

Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

How do people endure their unhappiness?

We will not be talking about the people who seem to be unhappy for no reason at all other than that they choose to be unhappy.  You and I know people like that – people who seem to be unhappy for no reason at all, except, that it gets attention from others.  At some point along the way they heard it said that “the squeaky wheel gets the oil,” so they squeak, and sulk, and whine, and complain their way through life because of the attention it gets from others.  The main problem is that such a strategy has a very short shelf life.  People eventually wise up to what is happening, leaving the squeaky wheel with the choice of shaping up or shipping out.  We will not be talking about these people.  Maybe we will talk about them on another occasion, but not in this sermon.

We will also avoid talking about that unhappiness which is really just simply surface disappointment.  I spoke with a friend this past week who is the pastor of a church in Madison Heights, Virginia.  His son plays high school football in Amherst County.  Their team was playing for the State Championship against team from Salem, Virginia.  Salem won the championship as the result of a bad call by an official.  It wasn’t just a bad call – it was a very bad call.  My friend was very unhappy.  His son was very unhappy.  The entire team was unhappy.  They whined and complained about the bad officiating.  Yet they will survive.  This surface level frustration has come and it will quickly depart.  We will not be talking about this kind of unhappiness.

We will also not distinguish between the source or root cause for human misery and unhappiness.  Some folks are unhappy, for instance, because of great tragedies that have occurred to them over which they had little or no control.  Others are extremely sorrow because of difficulties in their lives for which they hold a great deal of culpability.  We will not be distinguishing between these two sources of pain.  That is not to say that such considerations are unimportant.  They are very important.  We simply will not be making such distinctions this morning.

This morning we will keep our attention tightly focused on genuine misery, no matter what its source, and we will ask the question: How do people endure their unhappiness?

In a hospital intensive care unit, a father sits with his two teenage children.  The doctor has just informed them that Mama will never recover from last evening automobile accident.

In a living room today sits a middle-aged father of three with a lit cigarette between his lips.  He has been a smoker most of his life.  This past week the doctor told him that he had lung cancer.

In Louisiana, there is a family lost everything due to Hurricanes Katrina.  They lost their home, their equity, all their possessions, and any sort of gainful employment.  The children still have nightmares.  The youngest cries herself to sleep each night over the loss of the family dog.

In Iraq, a mother put her son on a bus to send him to school.  A few moments later, she hears the explosion of a roadside bomb.

In a small town in middle America there has been a knock at the door.  Mama is playing with her children.  Daddy is a Marine stationed in Afghanistan.  She opens the door and sees two men in uniform.  One is a Navy chaplain.

Everywhere we turn, we find people who feel ashamed, embarrassed, defeated, abandoned, lonely, afraid, and depressed.  Their pain is real.  It goes down to the very core of their being.  We wonder how they survive.  How will they make it through this day when peace and contentment seems for them to be a commodity in short supply?   How will they endure their unhappiness?

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 answers 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.”

How do people endure their unhappiness?

Maybe you would count yourself among such a crowd today.  Perhaps this will be your first Christmas alone since the passing of your spouse.  Perhaps you are facing the struggle of poor health.  Perhaps you feel burdened with the ongoing responsibility of caring for a family member debilitated due to accident or illness.  Maybe you are facing serious family conflicts in your home.  Maybe you are experiencing overwhelming burdens at work.  Maybe you have asked the question about yourself.  How will I endure my unhappiness?

The people of Judah had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Babylonians.  The holy city of Jerusalem was desolate.  The temple lay in ruins.  The city and the temple were not just a place to live and worship.  These were the visible and tangible expressions of God’s presence and blessings.  When the city was destroyed and the temple reduced to rubble, it appeared that one of two things must be true.  Either God was powerless – or they were no longer God’s people.  In either case, the prospects were not very encouraging.

They were not even given the chance to rebuild.  The Babylonians forced them into exile – forced them to leave their homeland.  Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years, and the situation remained desperate.  God had promised to save a remnant.  God had promised that Jerusalem would be rebuilt and the temple restored.  Yet so much time had gone by.  Had God forgotten them?  Was God powerless to save them?

Then something happened that change the political landscape of the world.  King Cyrus of Persia led his army to victory over the Babylonian empire.  His first official was to release all of those who had been forced into captivity.  He even offered government assistance to the people so they could return home, rebuild their cities, and reestablish their religion and culture.

Against this backdrop God calls a prophet to preach a message of peace and hope to the people of Judah.  “The exile is over,” he said.  “The long exile was not a sign of God’s weakness, but rather and indictment of your unfaithfulness.  Yet now God is ready to express mercy.  Now God is ready to restore the people of Judah.  Now you will learn that your sins have been forgiven and the promises of God are about to be fulfilled.  Comfort, Comfort my people.”

Into their darkness, God was bringing light.  Into their despair, God was bringing hope.  Into their pain, God was bringing comfort.  Into their turmoil, God was bringing peace.  Even in exile, God had not forgotten or abandoned them.  The strong arm of God would bring them victory.  “Comfort, Comfort my people.”

The prophet proclaimed a message of hope that declared that the promises of God were reliable.  The words of others might “whither away like the grass of the field.”  The words of others might “fade away like the flower.”  The word of the Lord was different.  The promises of God could be trusted.  “Comfort, Comfort my people.”

“God is building a highway,” he said.  “God is building a highway on which he will travel to get you and return you to the land of peace and and possibility.  Comfort, Comfort my people.”

The sad people in life are not those for whom life has taken a sour turn.  In some way and to some degree that has or will happen to all of us.  Sometimes we may experience tragedy of our own making.  Sometimes we may experience what Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.”  In either case, we all have to deal with danger, difficulty, distress, and despair.  We all have to deal with the unhappiness of our brokenness.  The sad people are those who do not believe that even in the midst of their most sorrowful of situations, God can prepare a way of salvation through the desert.

When Crowfoot, the great chief of the Blackfoot confederacy in southern Alberta, gave the Canadian Pacific Railroad permission to cross the Blackfoot land from Medicine Hat to Calgary, he was given in return a lifetime railroad pass.  Crowfoot put it in a leather case and carried it around his neck for the rest of his life.  There is no record, however, that he ever availed himself of the right to travel anywhere on CPR trains.

What good is a free pass on a railway if you never use it?  What good is light in the darkness if we to keep our eyes close?  What good is a pathway of hope through the desert of despair if we choose to take up residence in our despair?

The prophet proclaimed the promises of God.  He called them to return to the Promised Land and rebuild their homes, their city, and the temple.  He pointed to the rise of King Cyrus in Persia and the decision he had made to release all of the Babylonian captives.  He said, “Here is the proof that God is at work.  Here is the proof that God’s word can be trusted.  Comfort, Comfort my people.”

How did the Judeans respond?  The vast majority stayed put in their pitiful conditions – at least as first.  They reasoned that God could NOT be at work through the actions of a pagan idol worshipper like old King Cyrus of Persia.  A way of relief had been given – but it had not been accepted.  At least not at first.

Hillary Little told me about a story that took place in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma.  A Baptist pastor and his church were ready to dispense comfort and cold water to needy and thirsty people.  When the relief truck appeared, the bottles of water had a label from Coors beer.  According to news accounts, the pastor refused to share those bottles of water with thirsty people because of the Coors label.

In the midst of Babylonian exile, the pagan King of Persia took control of the empire and provided freedom and relief to Judean captives – yet many of the people refused to accept this message of hope because it came packaged in the label of King Cyrus.

God used old King Cyrus to accomplish His will.  That fascinates me.  It tells me that God can use bottles of water with the Coors label to bring comfort to those who are thirsty.  It tells me that God can work behind the scenes in any situation to provide a highway through hell into heaven.  I’m even heard that God once used a Roman instrument of torture to provide humanity with the gift of redemption.

The prophet knew that God was on the verge of fulfilling His promises.  The signs were evident for all people of faith to see.  God was about to rebuild the nation.  The temple was about to be restored.  The situation may have appeared hopeless, but true reality it not based on how things appear, but rather upon God’s promises and active presence.  “Comfort, Comfort my people.”

“God is about to make an appearance!”  That was the prophet’s message.  All you doubters and skeptics take note: Nothing is impossible for our God.  The wilderness of our existence may appear rough, but God is coming to smooth out the wrinkles and soothe our sorrow.  “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.  And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it.  For the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.”

“God is about to make an appearance!”  This is a glorious message of Advent!  This is the good news!  This is the gospel!  God is building a highway through the desert of our despair on which God is traveling to meet us.  We can find comfort in our sorrow and peace despite our pain.  God has not given up on this world.  God has not given up on us!

Do you remember the question with which we began this sermon?

How do people endure their unhappiness?

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankel argues that the “loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect on man.”  Because of his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, Frankel contended that when a person no longer possesses a motive for living, no future to look forward toward, that person will curl up in a corner and die.  “Any attempt to restore man’s inner strength in camp,” he wrote, “had first to succeed in showing him some future goal.”

How do people endure their unhappiness?  They hold on to their hope.  That is the only pathway to peace.  That is the only way to survive unhappiness.

People survive unhappiness by remember that as long at God IS – the world remains pregnant with possibility, potential, and the promise of peace.

People survive unhappiness by traveling on whatever road God provides out of whatever territory they reside.

People survive unhappiness by listening to believing voices of hope rather than despair.

People survive unhappiness by listening to and believing the promises of God.

How do people endure their unhappiness?  Those choose to be people of faith.  They believe that God really does enter human history to change people and create a new order.

In C.S. Lewis’ book “The Loin, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” readers are taken to the mythical land of Narnia.  When Narnia is living under the authority of the witch, it is “always winter, but never Christmas.”  It is a land filled with darkness and despair, devoid of hope and without possibility.  That is the way it is for many people in our world.  They live as if it is always winter and never Christmas.

Not us – that is not how we live!  We are Christmas people.  We know there is hope.  We know there is peace.  We know this world is packed full of possibilities because Christmas really does come.  God really does enter the picture of human history.  It happened one day in a manger in Bethlehem — and it continues to happen everyday as God through Christ continues to come to us,

Hear the good news of Advent:  “God has entered human history — and God will do it again — and again — and again!”

 

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