A Thrill of Hope

This is the time of pre-Christmas festivities when we all hunker down to watch our favorite Christmas movies. The weather is less favorable to outdoor activity, we are enjoying the beauty of our brightly decorated homes, and everyone longs for the nostalgia that these movies bring.

Whether you are an Elf/Grinch fan or lean toward the old black and white classics like Miracle on 34th Street, all of these movies have one thing in common…hope.

Hope for a better tomorrow.

Hope in humanity.

Hope in a future that is less complicated than the present.

Hope that we will get it right this year and turn our hearts toward the good things, the righteous things, the important things….the things that last.

Even the ubiquitous Hallmark Christmas movies echo these articulations of hope…albeit in the same story format. There is a girl (often played by a forgotten actress from the ‘90’s) who is recently widowed, separated, or divorced. Looking for a fresh start, she leaves the big city/corporate job and moves to a town with a name that sounds like the latest version of a Bath and Body Works lotion followed by the word Springs, Glen, Falls, or Woods. (“Welcome to Mistletoe Kiss Falls!”) There she meets an incredibly good-looking single man. Both of them are wearing sweaters. One of them hates Christmas. There is a business/community fair/school that has a crisis, and the girl and the guy come together to solve it, and eventually fall in love. (Don’t hate me! You know it’s true!)

We just can’t resist a good story about hope.

Psalm 85 is a psalm of hope, and it does not disappoint. It begins with a re-telling of God’s redeeming of Israel in the past, and points to the hope of salvation in the future.

Psalm 85 (New Revised Standard Version)

Lord, you were favorable to your land;
    you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people;
    you pardoned all their sin.

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
    for he will speak peace to his people,
    to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
    that his glory may dwell in our land.

Watch what the psalmist does next. The interactions between steadfast love and faithfulness, and righteousness and peace are portrayed as beautiful meetings between two love interests:

10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
    righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
    and righteousness will look down from the sky.

Even Hallmark would approve of this plot line.

Then comes the hope:
12 The Lord will give what is good,
    and our land will yield its increase.
13 Righteousness will go before him,
    and will make a path for his steps.

Friends, the Lord WILL give what is good. He is giving it even as we speak. In the midst of a pandemic, hope arrives in the form of vaccines that will be available in no time. In the midst of a pandemic, we have learned the importance of family time and real connections. In the midst of a pandemic, we have learned to hope again.

When God’s people turn to him and follow his steps toward righteousness, hope reigns. What do you need to do today to correct your steps? Where are you wandering off God’s path? Where do you need hope?

Return to God in a spirit of faithfulness and he will meet you there with his steadfast love. Surely his salvation is at hand when you fear him…turn to him with all your heart.

Morning Hope by Anne Pokorny

Prisoners of Hope

I recently did a children’s sermon on the word “hope” and used it as an acronym to explain what it means. I said that hope is wanting something to get better. So we can have HOPE when we remember that there are always (H)elpers who will come alongside of us when we are in trouble. And if we remain (O)pen to seeing what God is doing all around us, it can help us to realize that God is working for good in our situation. Of course, HOPE comes to us when we (P)ray, and we should always (E)xpect that God is listening to us and will answer in his time, because his Word promises exactly that. That’s hope!

As I’ve been following the lectionary in these daily devotionals, it has been amazing to see how many times the assigned passage has spoken directly into the pandemic that continues to rage on. Today’s passage does not disappoint.

But I also want you to think of places in your life where you are lacking hope. Perhaps your job situation or your business is crumbling around you. Maybe your marriage or a relationship is in trouble. A challenging child or your teenager might be a dark place for you today. The prospect of remote learning this school year may be getting you down. Or maybe a betrayal or argument has kept you up at night.

Whatever is going on in your life that has left you feeling hopeless, this scripture is for you:

Zechariah 9 (New Revised Standard Version)

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
    Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
    triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Does that sound like Jesus? Zechariah was an Old Testament prophet, proclaiming the coming of the long-awaited Messiah. With New Testament hindsight, we can see Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday in this passage.


10 He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
    and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
    and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
    and from the River to the ends of the earth.

As Christian readers, we see a prefiguring of Christ’s second coming in this verse. We all long for the day when Christ’s dominion will rule the earth and his peace will be known in every nation. Come, Lord Jesus, come!

11 As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
    I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
12 Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
    today I declare that I will restore to you double.

Here’s where it gets personal. You have a blood-covenant relationship with Christ if you are part of his flock. He is active right now in setting you free from the waterless pit of your despair. So return to your stronghold of looking for helpers, opening your heart to God’s activity, praying without ceasing, and expecting God to restore you. Hope is your stronghold. Cling to that.

In times of great distress, God calls us to be prisoners of hope. May we never let go of that chain.

Hope’s Still Water by Jamie Mathis

Perseverance

Batman and Robin decided to go camping. They set up their tent and went to sleep. A couple of hours later, Batman wakes his faithful friend. “Robin, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”

Robin, who is used to these midnight lessons, replies, “I see millions of stars.”

“What does that tell you?” asks Batman.

Robin ponders for a minute. “Well, astronomically speaking, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, it tells me that Saturn is in Leo. Chronologically, it appears to be about 3:15AM. Theologically, it’s evident that God is all-powerful and we are small and insignificant.”

“Why?” continued Robin. “What does it tell you, Batman?”

Batman is silent for a moment, then speaks. “Robin, you’re an idiot. It means somebody stole our tent while we were sleeping.”

How many of you grew up watching the television show “Batman?” Batman began as a comic book, evolved to TV, and is the recent subject of several new movies.

His story is first told in a twelve-frame comic strip in 1939 in issue #27 of Detective Comics. He and his parents are walking home from the theater when an armed robber accosts them. His father steps in front of his mother and takes a bullet. Then the gunman turns the gun on his mother while he watches. The robber runs away, leaving him standing over his dead parents. His guilt over standing by helplessly while his parents were murdered turns the boy Bruce Wayne into the superhero crime-fighter Batman. He dedicates his life to stopping criminals and defending the helpless.

Batman embodies the notion found in verse 3 in our scripture this morning:

Romans 5:1
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.

3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope.

Suffering produces perseverance. Perseverance produces character. Character produces hope. Lord knows, we are in a season that requires a lot of perseverance right now.

Can you recall a time in your life when you had to persevere through something? Maybe it was as transient as enduring the awkwardness of Middle School, or as life-changing as the kind of perseverance that families learn when they are battling cancer. Some are dealing with the challenges of raising a special needs child or a rebellious teenager, while others are honing their character by being caregivers to a parent who is struggling with dementia. Suffering that produces character that teaches us perseverance takes many forms. As this pandemic continues without an end in sight, we are all learning perseverance.

Many of you know that our family learned about perseverance when our daughter was diagnosed with cancer. It truly is in these moments that God teaches us so much about himself. Even the worst of times can be a blessing in the end, for it is often in those seasons that you learn who you are, and WHOSE you are.

I say this to everyone today who is enduring something: God is with you. Even in your darkest moments, God’s light can be found if you look up and study the heavens.

Robin was right: the bright, shining stars and the vastness of the universe remind us that God is all-powerful and we, and our troubles, are small and insignificant by comparison.

5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

May you persevere through whatever it is you are suffering through right now, and find the hope that comes from God. Hang in there. God is with us.

Moonlit Night

Singing Hallelujah

Isaiah 9:2, 6-7 (NIV)

“The people walking in darkness

have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of deep darkness

a light has dawned.

For 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.

Of 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.

It is so tempting to hit the “Publish” button right now. What could possibly be added to the glory and beauty of that Isaiah passage? It gives me chills to read it. I can hear the echos of Handel’s Messiah as I read it: those gloriously phrased notes of “Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God! The Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace!”

I had the unexpected blessing of standing next to my sister-in-law and singing the Hallelujah Chorus at the end of a performance of the Candlelight Processional at Disney World this week. Yes, Virginia, they do read scripture at Disney World. It is accompanied by a full orchestra, a 200-plus choir, six herald trumpets, and a deaf interpreter signing each note and word from the stage. All hope is not lost in this world. My sister-in-law is an excellent alto, and our voices combined in harmony with hundreds of others as we sang the truth about why Christmas happened.

It is important for us to sing the truth this season.

In the midst of the world’s cacophony, we need to sing, and sing loudly. We need to be that light in the darkness of commercialism and secularism. It is good for us to remind each the world that Christmas is still Christ’s Mass, a celebration of his birth. We need to complain to school boards that remove every sacred song from school Christmas productions and feed our children a sugar-diet of “Jingle Bells,” “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas,” and “All I Want For Christmas is my Two Front Teeth.” OK, I get that the last one is relevant to the Elementary School set, but still….

Where is the truth? What is the truth?

Handel knew. He wrote Messiah in just 24 days. He wrote from morning to night. Given the sheer volume of the 259-page score, it is estimated that he wrote 15 notes per minute. In total, he wrote roughly a quarter of a million notes in a little more than three weeks. That is insane. That is the power of the Holy Spirit.

Messiah is in three parts. Part I begins with this prophecy by Isaiah and others, and moves to the annunciation to the shepherds. In Part II, Handel concentrates on the Passion and ends with the “Hallelujah” chorus. Part III tells of the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s glorification in heaven. The story is complete, a reminder to us that when you sing of the truth of Christmas, it is good to tell the whole story, from the Old Testament promise of his first coming at the manger, to the New Testament promise of his second coming.

So go and tell. Go and sing. Go and speak the truth, using both words and actions.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the zeal of the Lord Almighty accomplished it. Hallelujah!

Candlelight Processional by Kenn Haas

A Future With Hope

April 25, 2019

This morning I am waking up in an off-season beach rental, with a cup of caramel flavored coffee in my hand. The early morning sun is streaming onto my propped up feet and I can see that even with a good rinsing, I still have beach sand and tiny pebbles on my feet. As for my coffee, when it comes to mugs, size matters! I like a big mug. It has to be big enough, but not too big. But I dislike the jumbo ones, because the coffee goes cold too quickly. I am a mug snob.

The sun arose and lit up the room with its wake up call. There is no sleeping in at the beach. Even black out curtains won’t prevent its strong alarm, and so I get up to find a favorite chair by the window to write.

God is working something out in me. My journey through the recent Lenten season, when I woke up every morning to post a Lent devotional on my church’s Face Book page, has left me wanting more. I want the discipline of sitting down to write every morning. I want the first thoughts of the day to be focused on scripture. I want to feel the Holy Spirit moving through words, images, fingertips on keyboard, and gazing out my window and looking at the water’s edge where I live in the Outer Banks in North Carolina.

Today I am literally on the water’s edge. The Atlantic Ocean is right outside my open sliding glass door. My daughter and I have “evacuated” to this beach house to escape the repairs to a broken sewer line that are being done on my home by the sound. I can hear the waves and the calls of the seagulls searching for their morning meal. There has always been something calming and inspirational for me whenever I stand on the beach and gaze out at the infinite edge of the ocean. I take deep breaths of salt air and immediately feel centered. God is so present to me by the sea, and has been ever since I was a little girl growing up on the beaches of New Jersey and Delaware.

Writing the daily Lent Devotionals was purely by accident and not by design. After preaching on Ash Wednesday, my music director paid me a high compliment by suggesting that I post the suggestions I had made in my sermon on the 7 Lenten Disciplines. So the next morning I got up, sat in my chair by the window overlooking the marina that leads out to the Albemarle Sound, and cut and pasted. Lo and behold, people asked for a daily reminder of Lenten practices, and thus a 40 day journey began. I was suddenly on task to write something every morning, and when Easter arrived, I realized that God was calling me to continue this discipline in another format.

And so here we are, at water’s edge, looking for hope. A lifetime of standing at water’s edge has led me to appreciate the moment of leaving everything behind and staring out onto a body of water full of possibility, meaning and purpose. I sorted out my relationships, my frustrations, my failures, and my calling while walking the East Coast beaches. Here is where contentment lies.

“At Water’s Edge” is a place you can come to find the peace you lack, the answers you need, and the comfort of searching the horizon and finding a friend. God meets us here to take our hand and lead us through our day. I hope this blesses you as much as it blesses me.

And while I had no plan that first day of writing to spend the next 40 days producing a daily devotional, it appears that it was God’s plan all along.

Our Old Testament friend Jeremiah stood at the edge of Jerusalem and watched it’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. The Israelites had fallen into idol worship and were far away from God. Jeremiah and his people were carried away into exile, leaving the place that they loved. Yet, even then, he wrote these words:

Jeremiah 29:11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jeremiah+29&version=NRSV

God has a plan for you. Let’s find it together at water’s edge.

Photo credit: Michelle Robertson