Text: Hebrews 6:13-20
Theme Verse: “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain.” (Hebrews 6:19)
Hoping and waiting. Hoping and waiting. A child hopes for something tangible and repeats aloud the hope over and over again thinking he can speak the hope into reality. We age. Hopes change. We learn that waiting patiently is the adult response to hope. We do our best to be adult-ish in the waiting. Deep down, however, the waiting is often excruciating. The Hebrew people awaited a Messiah, and still do. Christians claim that waiting ended in the arrival of Jesus and yet, we now wait in hopes that he’ll come again. What are we to do with all of this hoping and waiting? 'Tis the season to find out.
reader : Lance Goll
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
It’s November 25th. 2:02 PM. I’m sitting poolside in a land some have come to call Baptist Las Vegas. You may call it Branson, Missouri. The sun is shining. Half of the leaves have already leapt from their branches for the season, the other half still hanging on, afraid of heights or better at planking than the other leaves. This is my view.
Will they jump?
Of course. Its 50 degrees if you have a seat in the sun.
I parked next to one of the out buildings needing the outlet to supply power to my laptop. I huddled in the windy shade that must have been a good twelve degrees cooler.
Much of the family sat poolside – not your typical tropical locale so to speak. But there we are; family and all that comes with the term. When your family grows and expands through the years, your odds increase for the number of hardships your family might experience – illness, relational mishaps, someone wins the lottery, another goes bankrupt. You likely know the stories. But love grounds it all – it’s there – and a hope that the hard things will improve. She’ll come around. His job will improve. Her surgery will fix the problem. They’ll finally get the kids to church.
So I’m poolside after three repeat meals of the Thanksgiving usuals and I’m hoping and waiting. Hoping for some inspiration. Waiting on said inspiration knowing you’d arrive today with some Advent expectations. How do you handle hoping and waiting? Do you tap your fingers on the table? Click the pen top over and over again until someone gives you the death glare? Do you close your eyes? Meditate? Do you pray or think about your favorite food? Do you go to a ‘happy place’ – memories that always remind you of the times you truly felt alive in every sense of the word? Do you get impatient? Frustrated? Do you think about your undone to-do list? Do you re-hash an old argument or regret a love lost? Hoping and waiting. It’s not really for the faint of heart.
When I get together with my in-laws at Thanksgiving there are a few traditions that take parts of the crew in different directions. There’s the shopping contingent. They get their game faces on mid-afternoon with a strategy of which store to hit when and in the most successful order. There’s the ‘Oh, look, another old John Wayne movie on the western channel’ contingent. We lose them about the same time the shoppers take off and they don’t resurface until the late night re-heating of the green bean casserole. Then there’s me and eight or nine of the kids – depending if any of them have made the cut to join the shopping crew or have matured into a John Wayne phase. I generally take them to the movies or to a park or on an adventure of some kind. Their idea of hoping and waiting is different than mine. I always have to have the talk with them before we head out. “Gang – this is going to be an epic adventure – a holiday memory for the ages – but I need you to listen to my voice. You outnumber me in a major way and I can’t keep you all together if you don’t listen to my voice.” They hear me. They consent to my request. And then we open the front door and it’s all out the window. They just can’t wait. Their hopes are too high. They run ahead into the unknown world. Hoping and waiting. Hoping and waiting. How does your spirit do with hoping and waiting?
I have always learned a lot from the fishermen among us. Hoping and waiting seem to be characteristics they all share. I don’t know many fidgety, impatient fishermen. The payoff is often slow. Some have called fishermen the incurable optimists. I asked a friend once how the fishing was going, knowing he was getting out often at the time. “Better,” he said. “Last week I went out for four hours and didn’t catch a thing. Yesterday, I got the same result in only three hours.” Hoping and waiting. Are you that optimistic in your hoping and waiting?
One biblical scholar suggests that we tend to confuse optimism and biblical hope. Biblical hope is optimistic of course but it differs greatly from a worldly optimism that simply hopes for the best. It’s not just about the power of positive thinking. Biblical hope is an optimism based on a certain truth or claim that is beyond a cheery disposition that looks on the bright side. It’s not a hope built on fantasy. It’s a hope built on faith; grounded in the promises of God.
Today we begin the season of Advent – a journey that leads back to that animal trough in Bethlehem where a birth built on a perceived scandal results in a refugee family fleeing for fear of the threats on their lives back home. The events of that night, however mysterious they were, set into a motion an influence the world had never experienced before and will never be replicated again. For the next four weeks, we’re calling that incarnate event, “A Stable Influence.” For all of the chaos that ensued, there has been no greater influence on the faith of those who claim Christ than the influence of God moving into the neighborhood in the flesh and blood of humanity. What if God was one of us? On this side of it all, we know the answer to the what if. Jesus is the what if – God was one of us – and we are left with the what now? The what now is a challenge isn’t it? Trusting and obeying and faithfulness are not that easy when the there’s too much month at the end of the money or when she says, “I can’t do this anymore,” or when the rightsizing at the company means you’re not right size any more. How can we buy into hoping and waiting when “It’s complicated” is our life motto?
We turn to the wisdom well of scripture to stabilize the influence of a faith perspective. The author of the letter to the Hebrews was writing to people just like us; facing hardships and complicated life scenarios. More so than us, however, one of their most significant “It’s complicated” realities surrounded their Christian faith. You can imagine some of the choices being made. There was temptation to abandon this new movement of accepting Jesus as the awaited Messiah and return to Judaism. It’s natural to want to return to comfortable and easy when everything else in your life is challenging. The letter writer is urging them to stick to it, however, not giving up on the promises of Christ that they had begun building their lives upon. How would you begin such encouragement but by building on a promise they all can get behind.
The biblical witness is a book of hope. From Abe and Sarah to the present day, the people of Israel have placed their hope in the promises of God who has entered into covenant with them. The writer draws their memories back to Abraham – the father of their rooted faith – who built his life on a promise that God had directly put his entire reputation on the line. The promise? “I will surely bless you and multiply you.” And Abe, spending a lifetime of hoping and waiting – having ‘patiently endured,’ obtained the promise. He’d be a father in his old age – and leader of a people who would number the stars. And, as any good writer would, the Hebrew writer says – “In the same way…” there’s a promise for you. In the same way God made good on the promise to Abraham – and everyone was seemingly in agreement that God’s promise to Abe was the real deal – our hoping and waiting will also pay off. Then the writer could have demanded and implored or strong-armed the readers to get on board but he “strongly encouraged” them to “seize the hope set before us.” What hope is to be seized? The hope Jesus stood for, lived for, died for and offered to any who was up for the payoff of hoping, waiting, enduring the ills and injustices of this world for such fulfillment to come.
We focus on hoping and waiting this first Sunday in Advent – not just to celebrate what hoping and waiting was fulfilled that first Christmas – but to be strongly encouraged to seize the hope that is before us still. This is not an “Okay, okay, I’ll think positive that it’s all going to work out just fine.” It’s active living even amidst the hoping and waiting. Before the season consumes us with all of the norms and expectations we fall into willingly or unwillingly, we can confront our own souls to say, “Soul – where am I on all of this hoping and waiting and accepting the promise Christ holds for us” stuff? Hanging out in the Ozark Wilderness for a couple of days this week, I was reminded by one of my mentors, Gary Straub, how every year in that area “there is a band of “scripture-quotin’, gun-totin’ survivalists who have set their sights on doomsday and warn America: ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord!’ and they mean ‘stockpile beans and bullets.’ Their preparation always includes military drills.” That’s pretty serious prepping. It makes our hanging a few greens and lighting candles seem pretty tame; a hoping and waiting that’s a bit too cozy – too Chestnuts roasting on an open fire and not enough big gulping and hope seizing. The prophet Isaiah says to prepare the way we should “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” John the Baptist comes along later claiming some of the same but upping the ante a bit more when he says, “The ax is laid to the root. Every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:9). Come on, John. He would be a big buzz kill at his family’s Thanksgiving gathering don’t you think? Even so, we could benefit from some of his intensity when our approach to faith becomes too lackadaisical. Hoping and waiting isn’t settling for a Michael Buble Christmas special as faith enough. Our faith prophets say there’s not growth in that kind of waiting – there’s got to be some radical pruning. Making the rough places smooth doesn’t come without some friction.
Maybe your soul needs some friction as you start into this season. I’m not advocating for creating conflict with others. I’m talking about stirring your own soul intentionally, doing some necessary repenting. Repentance always begins by opening our eyes to the truth about the dark sides of our souls; recognizing we need to 180 some bad habits, some bad attitudes, some dark anger. Robert Fulghum employed a reality test to get real with his own spirit saying, “For 30 years now, in times of stress and strain, when something has me backed against the wall and I’m ready to do something really stupid with my anger, a sorrowful face appears in my mind and asks … “Problem or inconvenience?” I think of this as the Wollman Test of Reality. Life is lumpy. And a lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat and a lump in the breast are not the same lump. One should learn the difference.” This is in part, about perspective, but maybe it is more than that. Maybe it’s doing the tough inner work asking ourselves, “Where have I overindulged my fears, my appetite for the material, my anxieties and resentments?” JtB (John the Baptist) says, “Nope – too much dead wood my friend. Get out your ax.” If this trek to Christmas – this Advent season – is going to shape our hopes, we need to truly address the rough places in our lives where we aren’t being who we need to be. My buddy Gary joins JtB in saying it plain and straight: “Ax to the roots, people. Radical inner re-ordering with Christ as the center.” That’s how you hope and wait with purpose to make the rough places plain and the pathway for Christ to meet your Spirit as accessible as possible. Don’t waste this day built on hoping and waiting.
What do you worry about? What dark conclusions fill your mind at this point in your life? There was a web poll (maybe we shouldn’t trust those things further than we can throw our CPU) but see what you think. The top ten things women worry about – according to said poll — Getting it all done, children, current events, germs, appearance, health, work, age, home and finances. A different poll outlined twenty top worries for men listing these: money, children, sex life, power (being the alpha male), winning, well-being of the family (after death), bets, body, hair, (body hair) different ways to make money, eating, bills, getting old, success, job, well-being of the family (before death), health, respect, legacy and dying. Are these your worries? Are these the things you spend your days hoping to navigate well and waiting for them to happen to you? The Hebrew writer says, “Don’t let those worries anchor you. Instead, seize the hope of the promise of Christ.”
One of my best friends lost his father last week to stomach cancer. Bruce was just 63 years old. The timing of the visitation and funeral were held at the only possible times that Carrie and I could attend in his hometown of Valparaiso, Indiana, part of the greater Chicagoland area. We’d never been to Valpo – a charming little town and home to the Valparaiso Comrades; a university most known for “the shot”: a buzzer beating shot by Bryce Drew clinching an upset win during the first round of the NCAA tournament. Every March Madness, “the shot” gets replayed several times as other Cinderella teams dream of unlikely wins. Bryce and my buddy Jason, played on the Valpo High School team together. We made the eleven-hour drive and drove through the town at night, the Christmas lights already lining Main Street. Surprising our friends with just thirty minutes of the visitation remaining, we got the invite to join the family for dinner after – a famous local haunt that served Chicago style Italian Beef sandwiches and onion rings the family grew up on. We were honored to sit around those tables as they laughed and told old family legends. Stories about Crazy Uncle Rick’s Garfield and Odie shirt that read, “I want to lick your face.” Uncle Rick wore it often and took the liberty to lick the faces of even some he would meet for the first time. You should have seen Carrie’s face when the cousins shared the story and Rick almost licked her face too. There were stories about Jason’s dad large family of ten. Stories of siblings pushing each other out of second story windows as children but also standing united in some of the hardest times of life as adults. There were stories of wins, losses, and enjoying root beer floats on the dock with the grands. After dinner, I drove my friend through town as he was headed back to his childhood home where his mother, a new widow after forty-one years of marriage awaited his return. We drove the backstreets that he grew up on. “That’s the lumber yard where my dad worked for forty-four years – the only job he ever had and the longest tenured employee.” Loyalty meant something to Bruce. “These are the railroad tracks we jumped in my buddies old Dotson when we were teenagers.” You have these stories too. “That’s the station where my dad and I would hop on the train into Chicago to catch a Cubs game at Wrigley. After all these years, I’m glad I got to see the Cubbies win the World Series with my dad.” Hoping and waiting. A lifetime of loyal living, a fisherman with one of the greatest collections of old fishing lures I’ve ever seen.
Both of his sons spoke at the funeral. The pastor spoke of the hoping and waiting that comes with the faith. Bruce’s faith was secure. His hopes now fulfilled. His waiting now over. There’s much that remains a mystery to me but this I know to be true: our lifetime is limited; our days are numbered. What seems to matter most is what we do when we’re hoping and waiting for all that is yet to come. It’s 29 days until Christmas. You can decide today how you’ll approach the season. It’s wide open today. What are you hoping and waiting for? May you hear the voice of God saying what I do to the kid contingent on Thanksgiving. “Gang – this is going to be an epic adventure – a holiday memory for the ages – but I need you to listen to my voice. You outnumber me in a major way and I can’t keep you all together if you don’t listen to my voice.” Don’t let go of the faith. Repent what needs to be repented. Clear the clutter that’s getting in the way of making room for Jesus in your life. And then? Jump in the pool on a cold day with your cousins. Laugh at the family legends that have shaped your family story. Worry less and laugh more. Stand up for someone that needs your support. Choose loyalty. Take the adventure. Seize the hope. Don’t waste all that you can become while you’re hoping and waiting.
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 Partners in Prayer; Advent 2007. Gary Straub. Christian Board of Publicaiton. 2007. Notes from Gary found in his offering for December 5, “Advent’s Inner Work.”