Birthing Moments of Hope; at Ginter Park Baptist Church

This is the sermon I preached  at the Ginter Park Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.  It is titled: Birthing Moments of Hope

Isaiah 9:1-7 – 1Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress.

In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan-

2The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

3You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder. 4For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.

5Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. 6For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.

The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.

“Birthing Moments of Hope”

In a Peanuts comic Lucy is seated under her sign that reads, “Psychiatrist – Advice: 5 cents.”

Charlie Brown comes to Lucy, nickel in hand, and says, “Lucy, I need help.”

Lucy responds, “What can I do for you, Charlie Brown?”

“I’m confused. I can’t seem to find a direction, a purpose for my life,” replies Charlie.

Lucy answers, “Oh, don’t worry, Charlie. It’s like being on a big ocean liner making its way through the sea. Some folks put their deck chairs to face the bow of the ship, and others place their chairs to face the side of the ship or the back of the ship. Which way do you face, Charlie?”

Charlie Brown looks despondent, and finally says, “I can’t even unfold the deck chair.”

Last week I sat with you in worship. I sat right over in that back corner with my family. I listened attentively as Pastor Mandy told stories and shared statistics.

She told stories about injustice against people of color.

She shared statistics about acts of violence perpetrated against members of the LGBTQ community.

She told the story that was still fresh on our minds about a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX.

She added the statistic that since 1968 nearly 1.6 million people were killed in gun related deaths (more than in all of the wars of the United States combined).

As I listened to those stories and statistics, I thought ahead the passage I would be preaching about this morning. I thought about the words of Isaiah about people walking in great darkness. And I also remembered Charlie Brown’s despondency at trying to find a purpose for his life on this great cruise ship called life, but not even able to “unfold (his) deck chair.”

But it’s not just mega-stories from the national or international scene. It’s also the micro stories from our own day to day existence.

You might have seen me on television or in the Richmond Times Dispatch back in August. Up until August 20th, I was the pastor of the Patterson Avenue Baptist Church here in Richmond. On August 20th our church worshipped for the last time. Then we disbanded as a congregation, and gave our property to a new, younger congregation.

That was the last day of a long journey. For the several years prior we had been walking in darkness and despondency. In the final few years prior to our final gathering, our congregation travelled from one graveside to another. We buried nearly 75% of our active membership. We died well. We died with an eye toward mission. We died in a fashion that served to advance God’s reign in our community. But we did die. And since that Sunday, I have been trying to figure out how to open my deck chair.

Shakespeare wrote: “Bubble, Bubble, toil and trouble.”

I’ve experience some of that – the toil of trouble and the trouble of toil. How about you? Is there some sore spot in your life that is seeking to rob you of your ability to stay focused and move forward? Have you experienced the despondency of not being able to open your deck chair? Have you ever felt like you fumbling around in great darkness, trying to find the light?

It seems to pile up, sometimes, doesn’t it? “The bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” just seems to pile up. And over time it can lead to what Dr. Carl Jung called “a neurosis of emptiness.” Jung wrote,

“When goal goes, meaning goes; when meaning goes, purpose goes; when purpose goes, life goes dead on our hands.”

We gather as a people devoted to casting seeds of justice and peace. We pray that our acts of kindness, goodness, and mercy will not return to us void (empty). And we gather each looking for a message that will give birth in our lives to a feeling of hope when we just can’t seem to get that stupid deck chair to open right way. We need to be counted among those of whom the Prophet spoke when he wrote:

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

You have tasted that hunger  for hope. That’s why you keep coming back to worship. You want to be reminded that no matter how tough the circumstances, we are never left alone in the dark. We are never without hope. God is with us. God will never desert us.

Our text promises us the Divine’s presence. But to understand the promise, we need to step back a few chapters to the beginning of Isaiah 7 which sets for us the context. In Isaiah 7 (and 2 Chronicles 28) we learn about Ahaz, who was the king of Judah. We learn that unlike his predecessors, Ahaz “did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” He began to adopt some of the religious rituals of his pagan neighbors, among these human sacrifice. God was not happy.
On the political and international front, things were not working out for Ahaz. After coming to power, he chose to continue Judah’s policy of appeasing Assyria, rather than entering into a coalition with Israel and Syria against Assyria. This so angered the kings of Israel and Syria that they gathered invading armies to overthrow Ahaz and institute a regime change in Judah.

Ahaz heard of their plotting. Fearful, Ahaz contemplated establishing an alliance with the Assyrians to defend his reign.

One day, while Ahaz inspecting the defenses around the water supply of Jerusalem, the prophet Isaiah came to Ahaz. He brought a message from God, aimed at calling the king back to faith. Isaiah told the king that the plot against him would fail. God would protect him. He should not form an alliance with the Assyrians.
Despite Isaiah’s best efforts, Ahaz ignored the prophet’s message. He began negotiating a treaty with the Assyrian’s to aid in his conflict with Syria and Israel. But Isaiah refused to give up. He went back to Ahaz and demanded that the king request a sign from God to confirm that his prophecy was true. Ahaz refused to request such a sign (v 12).
Isaiah offered such a sign anyways. In Isaiah 7:14 we read:

“A young woman shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel” (v 14, RSV).

The prophet says further that this child would not even be old enough to comprehend the difference between right and wrong before the plans plot against Judah would fail. And the mother of that child would be so grateful to God for God’s Divine protection that she would name her child Immanuel which means “God is with us.”

Isaiah’s message was that no matter how bad things appeared, hope is never lost as long as God remains actively involved in the world. And God is always actively involved in our world.

Right now, that’s a message I need to cling to. How about you? Do things sometimes seem hopeless to you? Does it ever seem to you that the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train? Do you ever feel like Charlie Brown, trying to open the deck chair?

Here’s the thing: God has not given up on you. God has not given up on me. We have never been deserted by God. God’s Divine presence is always with us. Even when we are rebellious and disobedient, like King Ahaz, God does not turn the Divine presence away from us. Even when the whole world seems lined up against justice, peace, and righteousness, God never deserts us.

God is always at work, birthing new hope in our lives. It’s the week before Thanksgiving. Maybe this would be a good time to take stock of our lives. Maybe it is a good time for us to count our many blessings to see what God has done. Maybe this would be a good time to examine the new movements of God, to name them Immanuel (God with us), and celebrate the hope they bring.

That’s what Mary did. In the New Testament we hear a story about a birth of a child in Bethlehem of Judea. The text’s say that humanity would call this child Immanuel, which means “God with us!”

This one we call Immanuel is the promise of God’s presence This child challenged the dark despair of our world with a hopeful message that “the reign of God was at hand.”

The darkness tried to silence his message. It tried to silence his proclamation of hope. It tried to snuff out his very existence by nailing him to a cross, but the New Testament tells us that even the darkness of death could not hold him down. Immanuel defeated for us the darkness and despondency of death.

That is our greatest hope. That is our reason for gratitude. This is why we never give up. That is why we should continue to stand for peace, justice, and righteousness. This is why we should continue to declare the bountiful blessings of grace.

Here is the good news:
Even when we are rebellious
Even when we are afraid
Even when it feels like the darkness surrounds us
Even when we can’t open our deck chair

God is still with us. God is still with us. There are always signs of new hope being born in our midst. When we see those signs, let’s name them Immanuel – and let’s be grateful that they are a reflection of the one born in Bethlehem, whom we call Immanuel.

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