Sunday, December 5, 2010

A PRAYER FOR HOPE

A Sermon Based upon Psalm 72
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A
December 5th, 2010

Sometimes it’s hard to be hopeful.

Over Thanksgiving, my brother-in-law and I were talking about the current economic and job situation.  He’s in grading and construction and hasn’t had steady work in over 2 years.  I spoke about my own concern of having a house on the market that won’t sell.   He was investing in a property that will not sell and has declined in value, as has my own.  Both of us live carefully and conservatively.  Both of us were doing the right kinds of things with the little money we had.  Neither of us are wasteful or reckless in our spending.  But that doesn’t matter now.  Today, we are both stuck and there are very little signs of hope.

The continual news from around the world still looks bleak.  Though experts tell us that the economic recession has hit bottom, there are little signs of it.  Weaker European nations are struggling and having to be bailed out of debt.  First there was Greece, now Ireland.  Some say that Spain and Portugal are next. The United States also owes more than it is bringing in with Revenue.   The debt continues to grow and there is also growing civil unrest and the war keeps going on and on.  What is there to show for it?  Our “Weaki” is still leaking.  Our military tries to deal with one threat in one part of the world, like Iraq or Afghanistan, and then, suddenly, a new threat pops up in another part of the world like Yemen or North Korea.  How can we find hope in a world that seems bent on destruction, darkness and death?  When will we learn that the answer is not bullets and bombs?  

Closer to home, last month my Aunt had to put her husband into a nursing home.  She had to do this, of all times, on her birthday.   My last remaining uncle is now locked up in a unit due to severe Dementia.   Within in 6 months, he lost his ability to recognize his family.  The day before they put him into the nursing home, I went to the hospital to sit with him and my cousin.  She could not hold back the tears.  It was a hard time to be hopeful.   Where do we go to find hope, when hope seems “practically” impossible---impossible have, impossible to see, and impossible to find?  

Back in the early 1980’s, Southern Baptist Churches were involved in a revival and evangelistic campaign, entitled:  “Here’s Hope!”    We even had New Testaments to hand out to people with those words written on the cover.  But can we say today that our churches are truly “beacons of light and hope” for our world that has become so suddenly, so deadly, so dark and so difficult?  Can we open the doors of our churches and our hearts and let the world peer into the practice of our faith and our peace of our fellowship and honestly say to them; Here’s Hope?   If we do believe this is our message—to give and to share “hope”----what does a “hopeful message” look like as it is displayed in our own witness, our own discipleship, or the core faith we exhibit as the “good news” of God?  In other words; Do we have any hope to show and to share?

HOPE MUST BE REALISTIC
One of the Bible texts for the second Sunday in Advent our text for today, Psalm 72.  It is a prayer for hope.    As a prayer of hope, the heading of the text claims it is a prayer of Solomon, but at the end of the prayer, we also read it to be the last of the prayers of David (72: 20).  So which is it; a prayer from Solomon or a prayer of David?   Bible scholars say the confusion of dual authorship is surrounded by an even greater mystery: This prayer for hope transcends both of them; for neither David nor his son Solomon ever completely fulfilled the hopes contained within this text. 

What should first grab our attention is that this prayer displays a “hope” that is very earthy, very practical and, we might say, incredibly “real.”   It opens with this prayer:
 “GIVE THE KING YOUR JUSTICE, O God and your righteousness to a kings’ son.  May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.” (vs. 1-2).

Since when was “justice” on your Christmas list?   Maybe it hasn’t been, but it will be.  This week a Christian mother of 5 in Pakistan, Asia Bibi, has been denied a pardon that the president wanted to give her, but due to political pressure, cannot.  The pressure of the clerics and the Muslim masses will not allow him to extend it.   It is claimed that in 2009 this 45 year old mother committed blasphemy against the prophet Mohammed and Islam when she got into an argument with some women working in the field.  She had taken them water to drink and they told her they would not accept water from the hands of a woman who was Christian.  Her infidel faith made her hands “defiled” and made her gift “unclean”. An argument over faith ensued and this woman stood up for her faith and ended up being charged with blasphemy and now has been sentenced to hang.  The president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardara, has attempted to pardon the woman, but as it now stands, all efforts to pardon and release her have been obstructed.   For her faith, she will have to “hang”.  http://www.aolnews.com/world/article/pakistani-christian-woman-wrongly-sentenced-to-death/19728899.

A cry for justice is building in our land too.  Justice is a theme that is even building in the minds of many evangelicals who are starting, for the first time, to get involved in what has been called, “The Justice Project.”  Like I said, maybe a “cry for justice” has not been on your radar screen, but it will be.  (See the book “The Justice Project,” edited by McLaren, Padilla, and Seeber, Baker Books, 2009).  The more justice slips away, the more we will find ourselves hungering and hoping for it. 

Do you remember Hurricane Charley that roared into Florida back in August of 2009?  The storm caught Florida off guard, but it wasn’t just the wind and rain.  Taking advantage of a bad situation price gouging was rampant.  Some stores were charging $2,000 for a $250 dollar generator.    One Tree Cutting Company charged $23,000 thousand dollars to get a tree off a roof.  (I had a tree fall on my roof in 2007 and thought $500 for removal was high).  In another situation right after the Hurricane, a Florida hotel charged $160 for a $40 dollar room.   Was this fair?  Was this supply and demand?  This is what the sellers claimed later when they were investigated.  They claimed that there was no such thing as a “fair” or “just” price.  The rules of free markets are that you can charge whatever people can stand to pay.  That is how the “market” works, they argued.  You can do whatever you want and that’s fair.

That same kind of logic went on in the Mortgage and Banking Industry on Wall Street.   All kinds of “unconventional loans” were sold to people to get people into houses they could not afford.  The logic was, “whatever you can get them to buy, let them buy it.   It seemed also in the economic world that there were no rules, not laws, no regulations, and no sense of fairness and justice.   What was “good” was decided only upon what you could get someone to pay or what you could get by in charging.  The whole lust for freedom and wealth in America has been expressed in the slogans of one of it’s most popular restaurants: No Rules, Just Right!   That is the American dream.  Bringing justice and fairness into the world has not been our national radar screen lately, but it will be.    

Did you know that the most popular course at Harvard University for the past few years has been Michael Sandel’s course entitled, “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?”  (www.justiceharvard.org) .    That course has been the one of the largest in Harvard’s history, being attended by over 1,000 students per semester and has now has been taught to over 14,000 students since its inception.  Now it is being released as a course for the entire nation on PBS.  One of the major arguments that Sandel makes is to get students, who have all grown up in world of wealth, where hard moral questions have been avoided, he teaches them the shocking truth that before you can decide what is fair and just, you must decide what is good and moral.  In other words, in this course the professor teaches that we humans are not free to choose what is right and wrong, but we must find what is right and we must practice it, or else.  That is quite a powerful message to a world that, for the last 200 years at least, has become drunk on its own desires.  “You can’t just live anyway you want!”  You must live and do what is “right!” That is the shocking message of “justice” that is starting rise up in our world.

But what is right, fair and just?   That’s the catch, isn’t it?  But according the great prayer of today’s text we don’t have to guess.   The cry for justice comes through loud and clear as this prayer for a “just” King becomes a prayer for a King who will rule his people with “righteousness” bringing “prosperity” and “justice” to the poor: “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. “    (vs. 4).

Words like this have not always been on my “radar screen”.   But in the Bible, on many pages even on pages that many churches still ignore, God’s number one concern is always for righteousness and for justice.  In the Bible there is no “heavenly” salvation, without an earthly call for repentance and justice.   There is no redemption in Jesus without the call for repentence from John the Baptist.  In the Bible, which consists of both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, God has a preference for the poor, the needy, the weak and the oppressed.   Even the gospel itself, as Jesus told us, is message that shouts, “Blessed are the “poor” and it is a gospel that finds its focus, not among the rich and powerful, but among the “weak” and “powerless” (1 Cor. 1:27).  As the apostle Paul wrote: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”
(1 Cor. 1: 26-27).   And the very first message of good news announced at the Holy Spirit conception made “justice” more clear and concise, as Mary sings, “My soul magnifies the Lord….(because)…He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…“  (vs. 52). 

Most of us have lived in the richest nation on earth, and for the most of our lives, justice has not been on our radar screen…..   But now, as the powerful start to fall, as the American experiment struggles and finds itself on the edge of collapse, and even as Christianity moves away from the West, away from Europe, and away, even from what is still a very “religious” America, and moves to Africa, to South America and to Asia----and as all the “blessings” and “riches” of our past, seem to be moving to the poorer parts of the world, suddenly “justice” is a “hot” topic.  Now, the farthest  thing from our minds, concerns of justice and fairness, will stare many in the face for the very first time and become the first thing on our minds.  Let me ask you again:  Is a cry for “justice” on your Christmas list, this year?  If not, one day it will be.

However you understand this ancient royal prayer for “justice”, what you can take from it is that, if we are going to have any hope, or share any hope, it must be real.  It can’t be business as usual, serving only ourselves, serving only our desires, or giving in to our demands.  The world we once knew is slipping away.  And if hope is going to be hope, it must be concerned about the very core things that God is most concerned about.  That is the way this “royal” prayer has begun to “shake my world” and will ultimately shake yours.

REAL HOPE ONLY COMES WITH GOD’S HELP
 The second great lesson from this prayer is that, though it is a prayer for a King to establish justice in the world, it is mostly a prayer asking God to “give” what no king, no person, no nation or no people can imagine or realize on their own.  A hopeful, just, fair and peaceful world is a world that can only come about with “God’s help.”  As the the prayer says, “The God of Israel alone does wondrous things?  This is what is in the prayer, but the truth is that today many believe that God and religion are our main problem, not part of the solution.

The major backlash that is growing in our world right now, especially since 9/11, is not a return to faith in the God of Israel, but it is a growing sentiment that “religion” is what is wrong with this world.   Many are saying that what has happened in Islamic Fundamentalism is the final warning of what is wrong with all religion, even the Christian faith, which, during the Inquisitions and Crusades of yesteryear killed as many or not more innocents “in the name of God”.    This Christmas season a new billboard was put up near the heavily trafficked area around the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City.  With the image of Wise men on camels following a star, the words on that Billboard give this simple message:  “You Know It’s a Myth…This Season celebrate Reason!”  That billboard was put up by a group that call themselves part of a rising movement of “New Atheists”.  The old Atheist were those people who said they didn’t believe in God.   The new Atheists are different.  They want to attack God and get rid of him altogether.  And did you know that the fastest growing religious group in America?  It’s not the Muslims.  It’s not the Mormons.  It not the Jews or the Christians.  It’s not the Baptist anymore either.  Today the fastest growing religious group are called the “NONES”.  Those who have nor religious preference at all.  Some of them are your children and they are mine.

I guess, if you could qualify what is happening in our world right now is this:  Fewer and Fewer people have hope, while more and more people need it, and at the same time, less and less feel the need to pray and ask God for it.   What is happening in our world makes this prayer seem strange and foreign, doesn’t it?  This ancient prayer, “Give the king your justice, O God…. seems so out of place.   Once upon a time someone, somewhere believed that there could be no good king, no good world, and no real hope without God’s help.  Everything that this prayer hopes comes down to one final phrase in verse 18: “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things!”   This whole vision of hope rests upon the faith that hope will only comes fully when his “name is blessed” and when “his glory fills the whole earth.”   

FINDING HOPE BEYOND OUR OWN DESIRES
Claiming that “God alone does wondrous things” stands at the core of this prayer for hope, but can we still believe it?  Can we dare sing it in these days of hopelessness, cynicism, helplessness and hurt?   And why did Israel hold on to this prayer, even long after the glorious days of David and Solomon were gone?  Why didn’t they just throw it away when one crooked king and corrupt government after another kept ruling and running their nation into the ground?  Those kings of their world were so bad they made, as Brett Younger has said, “Richard Nixon look like Abraham Lincoln.”  Why did some, a faithful few, not most, but only a remnant in Israel,  keeping holding on to hope and to God, even when Jerusalem and all their “earthly” hopes were burned to the ground, not once, but twice during biblical history?   Why are we even reading this strange message at all?    How can smart people like us, dare believe, especially today, that there could be a “king” who might still “fill the whole earth” with his glory? 

This week in, in the Christian Century, there is a review of a book by a very smart, but ‘strange’ man (at least to some people).  He is a successful British scientist named John Polkinghorne. In this “autobiography” Polkinghorne remembers the day when some of scientific colleagues though he had lost his mind.    He was already famous as a physicist for his work in helping explain the existence of quarks and gluons, the smallest known particles in the universe.  Polkinghorne had been selected to be a member of England’s Royal Society, one of the highest honors that can be bestowed on a scientist.  His students at Cambridge  University had moved into leading roles in scientific research.  “It was at the end of the academic year, and he and some other professors had gathered in his office for a brief meeting.  At the conclusion, they gathered their papers, ready to leave.” 

“Before you go,” Polkinghorne said, “I have something to tell you.  I am leaving the university to enter the priesthood.  I will be enrolling in the Anglican Seminary next year.”   There was a stunned silence in the room for several seconds, then murmuring, some of it kindly and supportive.  The lone Scotsman in the room, an atheist, was both wistful and wary:  “You don’t know what you’re doing,” he said.  Others wondered whether or not Polkinghorne was committing intellectual suicide.  

Was he?   Here is what Polkinghorne said:  “I was once specializing one kind of unseen reality, and then I entered the spiritual world to explore other unseen realities.”  Since that decision was made, Polkinghorne has written more than 30 books on the points of connection between Science and Faith, (I have at least 3 of them).   He says he has never seen how “science” and “faith can be in conflict.  People’s ideas and ignorance is in conflict, but not the truth.  “Atheists have their own faith…but in Christianity, “faith is a matter of love, personal relationship, and there is no one at the heart of atheism that can take the place of God.”   (From “Unseen Realities” by Dean Nelson in The Christian Century, Nov. 30, 2010, pp 26-29).   

Did you catch that last word? Isn’t it the same as in our text, which says, “Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who ALONE does wondrous thing?”  There is no one that can take the place of God.   This is especially true when it comes to finding hope, real hope and hope that exists even beyond our own wants and desires.   This thought brings me to another word, often missing from our lives like is missing from the lectionary text.  But it is a word that is very revealing.  What it says about our hoped for God’s King of justice and righteousness, which we believe to be fully and finally fulfilled in the crucified King of the Jews, Jesus Christ; who died on the cross and was raised from the dead.  Notice that the prayer says in verse 17, just before dit blesses the Lord: “May  all nations (that means godless peoples) be blessed in him; may they pronounce him happy.”   This one phrase is as astounding as it is revealing. 

Could it be that the greatest source of justice, hope and peace for the world is not when we keep going after our own happiness and when we start living, being and dying, just to make “him happy”?   This reminds me not just of Jesus, but Jesus’ own prayer which says, “Not my will, but thy will be done?”  Could it be that this is the greatest reason for hope is not when we get all our desires, but when we give our own hearts fully to God?    Nothing and no one can take the place of God, and nothing will give us more hope this Christmas than making God’s happiness; his own Christmas list of fairness, justice, mercy and grace, our concerns as well.   God’s hope and his glory will never fill the whole earth, if we are still holding back our own hearts.   Live to make God happy, that is live to make King Jesus happy, and you will hit the target of both justice and hope every time.   Amen.