Sunday Jan. 20 Sermon, Psalm 130 and Matthew 11:1-6, Race Relations Sunday and Christian Unity Week
Shortly after the New Year, a Elizabeth and I and a group of college students from the church joined 800 people at the Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina for the 2008 College Conference: Hope Has a Voice. During the opening session, the lights were turned down and a video began to play of various news clips about genocide in Darfur, refugees in Sudan, the victims of war in Iraq and in the final scene an NBC reporter uttering the words “hopeless.” The screen faded to black and the word “hopeless” in white lettering appeared. Then the “less” flickered away leaving only the “hope.” A few seconds later “hope” was joined by the words “has a voice.” And then questions flashed across the screen: Have you ever wondered…
How could this happen?
Why is there such injustice?
When will there be peace?
Do I make a difference?
Where is the church?
Where is Jesus today?
Where is Jesus today?
Where is Jesus today?
With the final question imprinted on our brains, the video ended, an opening prayer was given and the lights slowly came back on. A group of students from Virginia Tech and their pastor Alex Evans of the Blacksburg Presbyterian Church, walked up to the stage to lead us in worship and to reflect on that terrible day last April when a young man’s shooting rampage on Virginia Tech’s campus claimed 32 lives. Evans, a chaplain for the Blacksburg Police Department who helped identify bodies and notify families at the local hospital, addressed the Montreat crowd by saying, “We are called to be a people of hope, and hope often comes from the deep hurting places. Hope is the essence of life. It’s the stuff that we struggle with. It’s where God always calls us to be.”
Two video presentations of the April 16 tragedy followed and then some of the Virginia Tech students spoke about the chaos and agony of that day. Afterwards, Evans opened a Bible and explained how this book is filled with people who struggle with hope and hopelessness in their daily lives. He said we in our struggles are called to add our voices—our questions about injustice and pain and faith—to the voices in scripture who cry out to God and who pray for peace to end the suffering. Hope has a voice, Evans said, and it’s you; it’s your voices joining the voices of those in scripture and God’s voice.
Many of us here today know what it’s like to cry out for hope from the deep hurting places. We hear our voices echoed in the words of the psalmist in Psalm 130 who cries:
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
… I wait for the Lord,
my soul waits and in his word I hope;
My soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning…
O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord, there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
Thomas Troeger, in a beautiful commentary on the Psalms, reminds us that this hope in the Lord is not the same as other hopes we have in life:
“We hope for so many things in life,” Troeger writes. “We hope it will be a nice day for the picnic. We hope our son or daughter will make it home for Thanksgiving…We hope our candidate will win the election…We hope we will receive a raise. We hope our child will soon get over a pouting moody stage. Is hope in the Lord just one more hope next to all the others we have? No. Hope in the Lord is trusting that behind the universe lies a friendly power who will someday conquer every evil and destructive force…We endure the frustration of our human hopes because we draw strength from our more fundamental reliance on God…It is not that our human hopes are wicked or unworthy. They simply lack something. All of them taken together cannot speak to the ‘depths’ of being a person and being estranged from the source of existence. Prayer is facing up to the inadequacy of our everyday hopes. It is crying out of the depths and finding a hope that that keeps life from overwhelming us.
Troeger’s interpretation of “hope in the Lord” is reflected in a message I received this week from a high school senior, one of several church members who were asked to describe what God’s hope looked like to them. The youth said:
“Hope is knowing that there is some greater existence than humans themselves. However it is left up to us to believe in God and to know that He will help pull us through anything, good or bad. Hope can look like anything, you just have to allow yourself to see it.”
Seeing hope appears to be the focus of today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 11:1-6. In prison for angering King Herod, John the Baptizer, who baptized Jesus in the Jordon River, hears the wide-spread news about his cousin’s ministry. Wanting to know more about Jesus’ identity, John sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus this question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And Jesus replies: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
John’s question is kind of peculiar considering that he was there in the Jordon River when the heavens opened up and the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus like a dove and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Doesn’t John know that Jesus is the one who has come? Maybe as time went by in his prison cell, John lost hope that life was going to change. Jesus wasn’t outside the prison with protestors demanding his release or ripping apart the steel bars to free his cousin. Maybe John doubted Jesus was the Messiah he had been preaching about for years in the wilderness. Whatever the reason, John’s not so sure who Jesus is at this point in the gospel. John is in a hopeless situation and yet he is unable to see the hope much less cry out for it.
That’s exactly why Jesus tells John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” Jesus, God in the flesh Immanuel, the embodiment of hope itself, wants to give hope to John who is hopeless. Jesus wants John to hear and see the hope of God that is happening outside the walls of John’s prison, that is bigger than John’s own existence.
Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.” Jesus doesn’t describe something that is going to happen. He is telling John and us what is happening! Jesus is saying, you want to see hope. Look. Listen. Here it is everybody. Oppressed and mistreated people are being lifted out of the deep hurting places by the unconditional love of God who is within me. That is hope, hope in the Lord!
Seeing hope is what ultimately helps us and others crawl out of the deep hurting places. Consider for a moment the life of author and humanitarian Ishmael Beah who shared with the conference participants his story of being swept up into the vice of hopelessness, death and destruction of Sierra Leone’s Civil War in the 1990s.
At the age of 12, Ishmael life changed in a heartbeat when attacking rebels ravaged his hometown and the countryside. One minute he and his friends are on their way to perform some popular American rap songs at a talent show in a nearby town, and the next minute they are dodging bullets and explosions; watching neighbors fall to the ground; hearing the news that their families were dead, and witnessing gruesome acts of human violence on men, women and children. One minute happy without a worry in the world. And the next minute, these teenage boys were scared and hungry and worried what would happen to them.
By thirteen, Ishmael had been recruited by the Sierra Leone’s government army to fight the rebels. Soon he was toting an AK-47, taking drugs forced on him by his superiors and wandering around with a band of trained teen and pre-teen killers, killing any person in sight. Ishmael doesn’t recall how many people he killed over the next two years because he had become a “brutal killing machine.”
And yet even in the midst of that hopelessness and the deep hurting places, Ishmael saw glimpses of hope. “One of the things I learned as a kid when dragged into war as a child soldier, was the strength of the human spirit, and the strength of the human spirit to find hope even in hopelessness itself,” Ishmael told the audience at the conference. “We would go days and days without food. When we could find an orange or some other scrap of food, that gave us hope. It helped us keep running away from the war.”
At 16, Ishmael was removed from the fighting by UNICEF and through the help of the staff at his rehabilitation center, Ishmael learned how to forgive himself, regain his humanity and to heal from the terrors of war. Ishmael’s rehabilitation, however, wasn’t easy nor did it happen quickly.
Being removed from the fighting was traumatic for Ishmael because it was the only life he had known for three years and it marked the second time he had lost “a family.” And rehabilitation meant that Ishmael had to endure withdrawals from drugs and violence. As a result, Ishmael and others like him, lashed out at the UNICEF workers who were trying to help.
Ishmael recalled a particular UNICEF worker and nurse named Esther who overwhelmed him with care at the center. “I tried to tell her the most horrible stories, so she would be afraid of me but that just made her more curious and wanting to be closer to me.” Reflecting further on the UNICEF workers, Ishmael said, “Their willingness to see us as children even though we had become such horrible people—that changed me. We would bite staff members and stab them. They would come back with bandages and the first thing they would say was, “It’s not your fault. Have you had any food today?”
The UNICEF workers were willing to see Ishmael and the other boy soldiers not as condemned killers but as precious and beloved children of God. The UNICEF workers were shining examples of hope—of what can be seen, is being seen and will be seen of God’s loving and merciful work in the world.
Another church member, a devoted mom and wife, responding to the question of what God’s hope looks like said:
“Having and expressing hope gives us a way of seeing the future in a positive way, to lift our spirits in the darkest times, to be optimistic, to HOPE for how we would like things to be. But the real power of hope is that it can spur us into personal positive action…I believe that hope empowers us to rely on ourselves and others. Through the gift of hope, God has given us personal strength and direction.”
God gives us strength and direction to HOPE for how we would like things to be. The UNICEF workers didn’t toss Ishmael Beah aside or give up on the rehabilitation of those child soldiers as their country of Sierra Leone did. The UNICEF workers saw a different reality—God’s reality of what the world could and should be. They became the eyes and voices of God’s HOPE.
We are called to be the eyes and voices of hope, to go and tell others what we’ve seen and heard! And what we’ve seen of God’s HOPE might not be as dramatic as what the UNICEF workers’ saw or what the residents of Blacksburg, Virginia saw. But there are things to be seen and heard, to be witnessed and spoken about God’s HOPE that is in the here and now. You can even do it while you’re working the drive-thru at Chick-Fil-A as one member, a college student, shared with me when asked what hope looked like to him. The student said he felt happy the entire day he took orders for the drive-thru:
“It showed in the way I talked to the customers through the headset. We were laughing and joking around. I’d take their order and tell them the price and they’d drive around to the window to pick up their food and pay.
“I ended a conversation with one customer by saying, ‘God bless you.’ When the customer drove up to the window, he asked another employee to get my attention. I came over and the customer said, ‘I don’t know if I heard right, but did you say ‘God bless you’ when we finished talking?’ I said ‘Yes,’ and the customer replied, ‘Thank you so much. You never know when someone needs to hear that and I needed to hear that today.’
“I guess the customer was going through something in his life that day and by me saying ‘God Bless you’, he realized that he could turn to God or be reminded him that God will help him pull through…We can give hope to people…God was working through me that day to show someone HOPE!!!”
There is much HOPE to be seen in this world that we live in. God is doing amazing things and God is calling us to be a part of them. Jesus says, Go and tell what you see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.
Let us respond to our calling to be the eyes and voice of God’s HOPE in the world, to help make the world the place God intends it to be. As another church member and college student put it, “God doesn’t ask us to sit around waiting for things to be done. We are supposed to get up and confront the problem at hand and in doing so hope is created. Going out and doing what needs to be done gives hope for the world and ourselves.”
The great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who we remember and celebrate this weekend for how he spent his life confronting the problems at hand once wrote, “If you lose hope you lose that vitality to keep life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of all.”