Jeremiah 33:14-16 & Psalm 25:1-2, 8-10
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
December 9, 2018 – The Second Sunday of Advent
Our great and gracious God dreams of our living uplifted by a happy hope of better days to come – and of living in that upbeat hope even when our present days take a downward turn.
But how can we hold on to that happy hope? By trusting and obeying the God who promises those better days “for those who keep his covenant and his decrees”.
Because God never expected us to bring about those better days ourselves, God promised to bring them about Himself, apart from our doing anything to achieve them or to earn them, by sending His Son, the King of kings and the Person of persons. Better days are on their way to us if we are willing to acknowledge them gratefully as gifts to which we have no right, and to receive them humbly as an end result of God’s loving and wise ways.
We are tempted to think we obtain better days by our willfulness: by our resolute, diligent determination to be good and to do good. But God says we obtain them by our willingness: our consenting to bank on nothing but our believing God’s word, waiting in hope and, in the meantime, faithfully following God’s mysterious plan.
The prophet Jeremiah lived like that.
Jeremiah served the Lord in depressingly dark days which ended up with God’s temple being destroyed, Israel’s king being deposed, and the people being exiled from their homeland. For his faithful obedience, Jeremiah was derided, rejected and imprisoned.
Yet, Jeremiah kept declaring that better days were “surely coming”, days when God would fulfill His promise and raise up for David – the best king Israel ever had and one who suggested something of the ideal King to come – a “Branch” – that is, a descendant of David who would “save” the people in “righteousness” and “execute justice” throughout the land.
Jeremiah held on to his hope of better days, brought about by this supremely better King, by hanging his hope on the objective reality of God’s constancy of character and His faithfulness in fulfilling His promises.
Holding on to hope of course is hard, especially in tough times that tempt us to worry that God will let us down and we will be put to shame. Psalm 25 shows us how David sustained hope against the challenges: David kept the truth of who God is ever before him. He celebrated how God is “good and upright” and His ways are all “steadfast love and faithfulness”. David embedded into his soul the truth of what God is like. by humbly taking to heart what the Lord taught Him, and by living as one of “those who keep his covenant and his decrees”. Obeying God’s commands and following God’s will enabled David to wait with hope for the fulfillment of God’s great promises.
We also will keep our hopes up as we imitate David’s example and likewise obey God’s decrees. Yet, as we follow God’s will, we do well to focus, not on how faithful we might be in doing that, but on how faithful God is in catching us when we are in danger of falling away and in keeping us, despite all our close calls with disaster, moving onward to the goal.
Not long before his death, Henri Nouwen, a former teacher of mine at Yale, wrote about some friends of his, the trapeze artists called the Flying Roudellas.
They had told Nouwen that there’s a special relationship between a flyer and a catcher on the trapeze. The flyer is the one who lets go of the bar and zooms through the air by nothing but momentum. The catcher is the one who grabs the flyer just before he falls and sends him soaring forward once more. As the flyer continues to swing onward, he must again and again abandon caution and arc out without support. His challenge, in these scary moments, is to remain as still as possible with his hands outstretched and open, in the trust that the strong hands of his catcher will grab him, preserve his life, and then propel him forward once more. One of the Flying Roudellas told Nouwen, “The flyer must never try to catch the catcher.” The successful flyer is the one who refrains from grabbing anything but just lets himself be grabbed – who entrusts himself, not to his own strength, but to that of his catcher.
In the same way, to advance toward the fulfillment of our hope for better days, we have to follow the rules of how things work: most especially, the one about depending, not on ourselves, but on Someone stronger than we. We don’t have to do our small part perfectly, but it is crucial we rely on God utterly, and keep putting ourselves in a position where we’ve no hope but in Him.
So we humbly follow the process despite our insufficiency for meeting its challenges successfully.
We give ourselves over to this daunting process because there is no other way to reach the better days we dream of – and because the rewards for taking the risks far exceed the costs of going through them.
Furthermore, the hope of better days ahead not only gets us to them, but also makes the process of getting to them better itself. It consoles us in the face of our fear, and grants us joy in the face of our pain. It gives us foretastes about what’s coming. It brings the presence of our future days into our present days. That’s why one saint, who knew well the challenges of life, said, “All the way to heaven is a bit of heaven itself”.
Bryan Wilkerson of Teen Challenge tells of Charlie and Agnes, two bright and energetic people who could have been successful at just about anything they’d set out to do. What they set out to do was mission work among the alcoholics on Skid Row.
People don’t get rich helping homeless drunks; but, every once in a while, Charlie and Agnes would get to do something special. One year, when someone had bought them private balcony seats for a concert at Carnegie Hall, they invited Bryan and his wife Karen to join them.
As Charlie and Agnes drove to the Hall in their old Chevy, with Bryan and Karen sitting in the backseat, Bryan studied the elderly couple with deep admiration and appreciation. The two of them were all dressed up for their big night out, and they sat close together in the front seat like high school sweethearts. They struck Bryan as two of the happiest people on earth.
Bryan then noticed a little plaque they’d stuck to their dashboard. It explained why they were the way they were. It read, “God always gives what’s best to those who leave the choice to Him.”
Charlie and Agnes had humbly followed God’s will for them in trust and obedience. For the sake of doing that, they let go of worldly success, safety, financial security and notoriety. Instead of chasing better days, they waited for God to bring those days to them. They relied on a Catcher whom they believed could be counted on to fulfill His promises and to keep them flying forward toward the better days ahead and that would bless them, ahead of time, with many foretastes of their final future. And the joy they radiated blessed others.
May we this Advent and Christmas find joy in hoping in God, and so bless others!