Endurance, Encouragement, and Hope

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Endurance, Encouragement, and Hope
Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12;Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Second Sunday of Advent (Year A)
Homily delivered at Trinity Parish Ashland (Oregon)
4th December 2016: 8:00 a.m. Said, 10:00 a.m. Sung Eucharist

The Rev. Fr. Tony Hutchinson, SCP, Ph.D.

God, give us hearts to feel and love,
Take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.

“The scriptures from past ages were written down to instruct us, so that by the endurance they teach and the encouragement they give, we might live in hope.   May the God who gives endurance and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with each other, as Christ Jesus wants, glorifying together with one voice the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  …   May the God who gives hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope, empowered by the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:4-6, 13; my translation)

Today’s scriptures are all about hope.  John the Baptist proclaims the coming of the great Day of God when all things will be set straight.  He declares, “Change the way you think, for the Reign of God is near!”  Instead of urging people to go to the Temple, compromised by a corrupt and venal political establishment, to purge sins and guilt in the old traditional way of offering sacrifice, he asks people to perform a once and for all ritual washing and bring forth in their lives fruits that show just how much they have turned away from their old ways.  Hope for setting things right means change in the way we think, believe, and behave.

The Isaiah reading is about hope for national recovery after the devastating reign of the wicked King Ahaz. A sprout will spring up into a great tree from the dead, rotten stump that Ahaz has made of the Davidic line.

The reading from Romans teaches that God is the God of hope.  If you trust in God, then you will expect that in the end all will be well. The Holy Scriptures help us in this: they teach us patience, endurance, and steadfastness through their stories of the faithful few who keep on keeping on despite darkness, suffering, and turmoil.  Such stories give us encouragement.  No matter how dark things appear, there is light behind it all, waiting to burst forth. As Desmond Tutu wrote, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” 

There are moments when we seem to lose hope, when the darkness about seems to overwhelm.  Whether it is dealing with old age or illness, or the death of a dearly loved friend or companion, or what seems to you the unthinkable happening in our national life, we can lose hope.  But our underlying trust in God encourages us and teaches endurance.    Remember that the basic Latin meaning of the word patience is suffering: steadfastness means enduring through the suffering, indeed, that why they call it long-suffering.  The Chinese character for patience, rěn, is the symbol of a heart with a knife above it:  you keep on going, no matter how deeply your heart is wounded.   As Churchill said, “When you find yourself in Hell, all there is to do is to keep going, and get through.”

This is one of the reasons that Christians have over the centuries come back again and again to the sufferings of Christ on the Cross as a point of contemplation and meditation:  it is not ghoulish pleasure at witnessing the horrible.  This story of ultimate suffering encourages us and give us hope because we know that the story ends well on Easter.  And we know he did it for our sake.  When the sky is darkest is when you see most clearly the brilliant stars.

At the age of 30, St. Julian of Norwich was faced with a terrible illness that threatened her life.  Her mother was called to her bedside, as well as many of Julian’s sister nuns.  Delirious and in pain for over a week, having received last rites, Julian was sure she was going to die.  Lying in great weakness, she was overwhelmed by a sense of the love of God, and had visions.  They gave her hope, and gradually she recovered.  Remembering that during the visions she was told to write them down, she recorded the visions in her book, “Showings of Divine Love.”   In it she tells of the priest setting a crucifix before her eyes as she loses all feeling in her upper body and the ability to adequately draw her breath.  But instead of dying, she draws from the image of Jesus a sense of union with God on the Cross, and a desire to share his wounds and sufferings.  Seeing the blood of Jesus come flowing down, she is reassured that no matter what evil or terror she may encounter, she is safe. Then she writes,

“As I saw this bodily sight, I caught a spiritual glimpse of his love and affection for us.  He is to us everything that is good and comforting, to our help.  He is our clothing, the love that wraps us and enfolds us, embraces us and guides us, surrounds us in kindness, so tender that he will never desert us. In this I saw that he is in fact everything that is good as far as I understand that word … Then he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand. … I looked at it and thought ‘What can this be?’  And then the answer came: ‘It is everything in creation.’  I was amazed that something so little and fragile could last, and not fall suddenly into nothingness.  And then the answer came to my understanding:  It lasts and will last, because God loves it.  [I realized that] everything has its being through the love of God.  In this little object I saw three things: God made it, God loves it, and God preserves it.”

She has further visions of God’s love, seen in the wounds of the crucified Lord and the sorrows of St. Mary the Virgin, his Blessed Mother.   And Julian hears the voice of God telling her, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Writing much later, Lady Julian reflected on what this all means: “Know it well, love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love.’ … God did not say, ‘You shall never be tempest-tossed, suffer, or be diseased’; rather, God said, ‘You shall not be overcome.’”  Because of this, “The greatest honor we can give Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love.”

Sisters and brothers at Trinity, we must not lose hope. We must not be discouraged.  As Langston Hughes wrote,

“Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird,
That cannot fly.”

I invite us to trust the loving God that Jesus taught.  I encourage us to realize when suffering that God is on the cross along with us.  I beg that we realize with Julian the whole of universe can be summed up in God’s love and care, and that all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.   No matter how troubled and painful the present, in the end God will bring us to joy.  And if we do not yet have joy, then we are not yet at the end.   I invite us all to endurance, encouragement, and hope.
In the name of Christ, Amen

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