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Worship and Sermons
December 2, 2018

“Living in Between” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, December 2, 2018, Year C / Advent 1 – Jeremiah 33:14-16  •  Psalm 25:1-10  •  1 Thessalonians 3:9-13  •  Luke 21:25-36

THEME:  Prepare for Christmas and Christ’s return by living with Christian hope, seeing God’s goodness and sharing it with others.

Have you ever known someone who is a true, dyed-in-the-wool optimist?  The kind of person who, no matter what gets in their way, can see a path through it?

I ran across a story this week of someone who may be the most famous optimist of all time.  Her name is Hellen Keller.  You may remember seeing the story of her life in a movie called “The Miracle Worker”.

Keller was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1880.  She was healthy at birth. She started speaking when she was just 6 months old, and began walking at the age of 1.

But at 19 months, things changed.  She contracted a disease – probably Scarlet Fever or meningitis.  It caused her to lose all her sight and her hearing.  From that day on, her childhood became chaos. 

Her parents were desperate to help her.  They took her to the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston.  

The director there suggested that Hellen work with one of their recent graduates, a young woman named Anne Sullivan. And so began an almost 50-year friendship that would transform both their lives.

They developed a system of communicating by feeling objects and then associating them with words spelled out by finger signals on Hellen’s palm.  Hellen was very bright.  In short order, she learned braille and then lip reading.  Never before had someone with her disabilities developed such skill.

By the time she was ten, Hellen made so much progress that she could attend schools for the deaf in Boston and then New York. 

The more progress she made, the more confident and hopeful she became.  Determined to go to college, she was admitted to Radcliffe and graduated with honors at the age of 24.  She became the first deaf-blind person to ever earn a BA degree. 

Along the way she not only learned English, but Latin, French German and Greek.  As a junior, in her spare time, she wrote her biography.  It’s still in print today in over 50 different languages. 

She would go on to write a dozen books and give lectures all over the world.  

Along the way she wrote an influential essay called “Optimism.”  In telling her own story of growing confidence and hope, she wrote “a man must understand evil and be acquainted with sorrow before he can write himself an optimist and expect others to believe he has reason for the faith that is in him.”

That sort of optimism is just what Jesus is encouraging in our gospel text.

He begins with some dire warnings to his disciples.  He tells them Jerusalem will be sacked and the Temple destroyed.  As if that’s not alarming enough, he goes on to tell them about the return of the Son of Man.

He paints the picture of the apocalyptic messiah-figure described so vividly by the Prophet Daniel.  When he descends on the clouds in glory, the Son of Man will bring with him God’s end-time judgement and salvation for the faithful.

The disciples will know this is about to happen because of the signs:  eclipses, meteor showers and other astrological convulsions.  Hurricanes and epic flooding.  People all over the world will panic.  They’ll go weak at the knees from fear, asking one another, “What is happening to our world?”

But that’s not how the disciples are to react.  Amid all these frightening signs signaling the coming of the end, Jesus tells them “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  In other words, what terrifies others is good news for them:  God’s Kingdom is near!  

But it’s not here yet.  While they wait, they’ll need to remain watchful and read the signs closely.  Just as certainly as the budding leaves on a fig tree promise the coming of fruit, so do these events signal the coming of God’s Kingdom.  So, by all means – and in all ways – they should stay alert.

 On this first Sunday of Advent, we, too, are reminded to be alert and watchful. Jesus’ warning to his disciples is his word to us.  The best way to get ready for the celebration of Jesus’ birth is by preparing for his return.

But what happens when time passes, the world worsens, and, still, Jesus doesn’t return?  That’s the question Luke’s audience is asking. 

For them, it’s been two generations since the events he writes about.  Should they still hang on to the hope of their faith?  Or should they do what everyone else seems to be doing and simply live for the moment.  Carpe deum – eat, drink, pass out, and repeat.

We confront that same question every year about this time.  We’ve been seeing Christmas commercials since before Halloween.  The whole world seems to be conspiring to encourage us to get busy buying presents, planning parties and scheduling dinners.

And, just like in ancient Rome, the secular powers in our world scoff at the mere idea of coming judgment and redemption.  The worldly wise roll their eyes at this fundamental hope of our faith.

Truth be told, don’t even we ourselves sometimes wonder?  Afterall, it’s been two millennia and still Jesus hasn’t returned.  The passage of time has a way of dulling our senses.

But we’re not blind.  We see the same signs around us Jesus warned his disciples to look out for.  The raging seas.  Deterioration in our skies and atmosphere.

To be sure, the damage we have wrought on God’s creation is causing changes that are warning us, in no uncertain terms, to repent and change our ways; to stop taking for granted the life that creation sustains, before it’s too late.

But, even as frightening as the effects of climate change are, addressing them with the urgency they need does not mean allowing ourselves to be ruled by fear.  In fact, climate scientists and advocates are increasingly learning that motivating humanity to make the changes necessary to fight climate change requires that fear be balanced by hope.

And that is exactly what Jesus is advising his disciples.  Stay alert.  Read the signs for what they are:  not simply causes for fear, but reminders to keep your Christian hope alive. 

Hope is a powerful thing.  When we live with hope we become optimists.  That’s what Helen Keller meant when she famously wrote, “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.”

Modern science has proven her right. Researchers find that, compared to others, optimistic people are happier and healthier, both physically and mentally. They live longer. They’re more successful in relationships, school and work.  They even make better athletes.

        As you would expect, optimists tend to distort reality.  They don’t see things exactly as they are.  But, it turns out, they’re better off for it.

        Even when events seem to be going against them, optimists still have hope.  

Few people understood that better than Dr. Rick Snyder.  Before his death a decade ago, he was a distinguished psychology professor and pioneer in the field of positive psychology.  He specialized in hope and forgiveness.  

What he found was that hopeful people engage in something called “pathway thinking”.  That means they’re able to conceive of many different ways they can successfully reach a particular objective.

Their hope then motivates them to take action to pursue these pathways of possibility, and to keep at it until they’ve reached their goal.

That is the true power of hope.  Even in the most difficult and uncertain times, when we seem to be swimming against the current, hope gives us the motivation to find new ways to make it to shore, and the power to persist until we get there.

        Friends, that is what you and I need in this Advent season.  We need to remind ourselves of the power of the Christian hope within us.

        We need to be optimists, seeing in the signs of a fallen world not only the presence of sin and evil, but the pathways leading to the promise of redemption.  And then we need to pursue them.

As Hellen Keller wrote in that famous essay on optimism,

“My optimism . . . does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good, that it may prevail. I try to increase the power God has given me to see the best in everything and every one, and make that Best a part of my life. The world is sown with good; but unless I turn my glad thoughts into practical living and till my own field, I cannot reap a kernel of the good.”

In the midst of all our holiday preparations, let’s take time each day to see God’s goodness and cooperate with it by making it part of our practical living. 

Where is God’s goodness happening in your life?

In the birth of a new child, or celebration of a new couple?  In the lingering memories of a lost loved one that make us smile, even as we grieve their absence?  In the warm embrace of a good friend, or reconciliation and forgiveness from a former foe?  In the unexpected kindness of a stranger, or the hoped-for answer to prayer?

All these are sure signs that God’s Kingdom is near.  Let’s see them for what they are:  affirmation of our hope, hope that we have indeed been given new life in Jesus Christ.

But let’s not stop there.  Let’s seek out ways to sprinkle the seeds of God’s goodness into the lives of others. 

That’s how we prepare to celebrate when we look at the little babe in the manger a few weeks from now. 

In the meantime, may we live in such a way that we’ll be ready to celebrate even more when he returns.

May it be so.

  

 

 

Last Published: December 4, 2018 9:41 AM
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