HOLDERS OF HOPE
1 Thessalonians 3:6-13
6 But Timothy has just now come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love. He has told us also that you always remember us kindly and long to see us—just as we long to see you. 7 For this reason, brothers and sisters, during all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith. 8 For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord. 9 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
14 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”
In the secular world, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas is the season of shopping, feel-good commercials, carols and debates over the propriety of saying Merry Christmas. It is a steady crescendo of Christmas spirit and joy. And while I am well aware of the dismay, fatigue and depression that the season can also evoke, I am glad each year to see people trying to be kinder and extending themselves for others. It is heartening to see, however briefly, that love can overcome fear in the polarized antagonistic climate of our day to day life.
Liturgically, however, the season of advent is quite different. It is the season we acknowledge the darkest and hardest times of our lives. It is a season where we acknowledge that our own resources have failed us. Even the promises of God seem far away, improbable and sometimes, impossible to hold on to. That was the predicament that Jeremiah prophesied to.
Though God promised Abraham many descendants, a mighty nation and a land they could call their own. (Genesis 12:4ff ) But now, Jerusalem was captured, the temple destroyed, the davidic line broken and the people exiled from their land. Trusting in God’s promises certainly did look very sensible.
The biblical story is very much an ongoing story. Imagine the citizens in Paradise, California. You have saved and invested in your future. You have built a beautiful home in a beautiful place but today you return to ashes. The land is scorched; your home is obliterated. Every material thing that mattered to you is destroyed. Even pets and some family members are lost—some never to be identified. How do you hold on to the promises of God in the face of such losses?
There is great darkness in our world. This is but one current example. Each of us have periods of darkness in our personal lives. In Faith in Real Life, we spoke of broken relationships, lost children, divorce and death. We didn’t even get to more global threats, climate change or the raging fears and antagonisms that separate us. These anxieties last for days, weeks and in some cases, years.
For Christians this darkness is recognized every advent. We intentionally enter this space every year. We do not do so because we are masochist— or triumphalist. We do not enter the darkness because we like pain. Nor do we enter the darkness to minimize the pain (‘you may be hurting now but God will prevail—so don’t pay attention to the pain….”) We enter the darkness because darkness is part of every human life—and we believe that God is with us in every part of human life. We do not look for darkness but we do not deny it.
We do not say it is bad even if we we hate the darkness and cannot bear it. Even as we say, ‘Why have you forsaken me?’; we also say ‘Unto you I commend my spirit?’ The two statements– jarringly— belong together. That is liturgical connection between darkness and trust.
In real life, we will sometimes feel so desolate that we lose hope. Those are the times we need someone else to remind us; those are the times we need the community to hold hope for us. Jeremiah and Paul must have known many people in that predicament. They held the hope and promise of God’s presence for people who felt utterly forsaken. Though the forest is destroyed,( “I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David”), God’s promises are still reliable—even though it is hard to imagine. Similarly Paul calls the community to work together to nurture one another—even in the midst of persecution—”For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord.”
We need someone to hold our hope and remind us that hope is possible. Our hope is not founded in wishful thinking nor is it a way to deny the hardships of real life. Our hope is in the life of Jesus the Christ. He showed us that there is no part of human experience that God does not know.
We offer hope by fully entering into the predicaments of life—- and then we wait. That is what God did for us in Jesus and what he calls each of us to do for each other. We trust that being deeply present is redemptive. Jeremiah did not change the pain of the exile but he did remind the people that God was still present. Paul did not stop the persecutions but he reminded the people that by standing firm together, there could be new life.
You cannot be any more present than to literally live in our skin. It is a depth of caring that God offers us and it is a depth of caring we can offer one another. There is nothing that separates us from the love of God. It is how the ancient Jews and the Thessalonians kept faith—- and it is how we are called to keep faith.
Advent reminds us that darkness is part of life. Advent reminds us to hold hope in the darkness. Advent reminds us to stand firm and to stand in community. Wait for the Lord.
God who sustain us in the darkness, help us to stand firm in the Lord. And help us hold hope for all who despair by fully entering the darkness with them. Let it be so.
Below is my charge to Jill Joyner who is specifically called to be a holder of hope. Insert you own name, change the gender if necessary and imagine yourself at the side of someone who is lost in the darkness. Being present is the deepest gift we can ever offer. It is part of every Christian’s call.
Ordination Service 11/25/18
My charge is a simple one but it is one I hope you keep close to you throughout your ministry.
I charge you to be ever mindful that you are a child of God. Be ever mindful that you are deeply loved. In that love, choose vulnerability and trust. It is the pathway to God. It is the promise and challenge for all of us— and it is the particular challenge for the dying.
Dying strips us of everything we humanly value. It strips us of our autonomy, our competence and finally our physical selves—it is the ultimate letting go and letting God. It is nearly impossible to feel valuable when we are completely and utterly dependent.
If I polled this room, almost every single person would say ‘I don’t want to be a burden’. But that reality is one we rarely escape. Trusting God, believing in God’s care in such circumstances is hard.
You are called to minister in the middle of this intense slice of life—-Rarely will you have the time to develop long-term relationships. You hardly have time to meet most of the people and families you care for. But your presence matters. There is no handbook. Losing all that we know, losing people we’ve loved rarely follows ‘the stages of dying”.
Anger, acceptance, resignation, loss and despair intermingle and compete. The Holy Grail of acceptance may occur but it is ephemeral and is rarely shared by everyone in the room. That is the cauldron of your ministry.
But none of this is news to you.
Your life has been threatened. You have felt unsafe—medically and in your relationships. You know what it means to live in uncertainty, to be afraid. These are gifts of God.
The wholeness of your living has brought you to this place.
Let God use you—let God use every part of you.
All caretakers run the risk of being poor receivers—
You will be tempted to lose track of your limitations—-to overextend, to try to do more
And, You will be tempted to judge your inadequacies —to be unduly self critical —-to despair before the enormity of the needs that surround you.
Fight those temptations.
You are more than a technician. You are more than a listening ear. Your presence bears witness to God’s love and presence in every circumstance of life.
WITH ALL YOUR HEART MIND AND STRENGTH, LET GOD LOVE YOU—
YOU ARE GOD’S BELOVED DAUGHTER
WHEN YOU RELY UPON THAT, YOUR SERVICE WILL FOLLOW
May God be with you.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more out about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our Staff Page or FIRL.