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Hope Against the Odds

Sermon - 1/02/11
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Jeremiah 31:7-14

On this second Sunday after Christmas, the Old Testament reading comes from the prophet Jeremiah, chapter 31. You'll recognize a verse from this, it's the third song we sang this morning, derived directly from this.

By the way, those 'whirling dervish' dancers we showed on the wall (turning mourning into dancing), that was some video I shot in 2003 on my trip to Turkey with Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan. Have I mentioned that we're doing a pilgrimage to those areas? The world of Paul, Turkey, Italy, and Greece.

But anyway, that was a way to make a visual connection with this passage from Jeremiah:

For thus says the Lord:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
   and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
   ‘Save, O Lord, your people,
   the remnant of Israel.’
8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
   and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
   those with child and those in labor, together;
   a great company, they shall return here.
9 With weeping they shall come,
   and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
   in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
   and Ephraim is my firstborn.

10 Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,
   and declare it in the coastlands far away;
say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him,
   and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.’
11 For the Lord has ransomed Jacob,
   and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
   and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
   and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
   and they shall never languish again.
13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
   and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
   I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
14 I will give the priests their fill of fatness,
   and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,

says the Lord.


Prophets can be confusing sometimes. Take Isaiah, for example. In Isaiah 2, where we read a very familiar passage: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks". Now, remember that -- swords, plowshares, spears, pruning hooks. And compare that to the prophet Joel, 3:10, where that prophet says: "Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears".

The exact opposite! So which is it? Swords to plowshares, or plowshares to swords? And so too Jeremiah, here this great word of hope -- 'Sing aloud with gladness for Israel, rejoice in the dance, be merry, I will turn their morning into joy, give them gladness for sorrow". A great song for Auburn on the morning after their defeat, right? :)

But Jeremiah sings a completely different tune earlier in chapter 9, we read:

Consider, and call for the mourning-women to come;
send for the skilled women to come;
18 let them quickly raise a dirge over us,
so that our eyes may run down with tears,
and our eyelids flow with water.
19 For a sound of wailing is heard from Zion:
‘How we are ruined!
We are utterly shamed,
because we have left the land,
because they have cast down our dwellings.’

Speak! Thus says the Lord:
‘Human corpses shall fall
like dung upon the open field,
like sheaves behind the reaper,
and no one shall gather them.’

So which is it? How do we know which is the authentic word of God? Goom, or gladness? Doom, or dancing? Swords, or plowshars?

And of course, context is the key. If you shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater, whether you are praised as a hero or charged for causing harm depends on what? Whether or not there is a fire, right? Context is everything.

"The word of God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable", Reinhold Niebuhr was famous for saying. Jeremiah changes his tune because of the change in context, from one of comfort to one of affliction. The word of hope, here, comes from the prophet not to avoid the affliction but only after it. In this case in the form of the destruction of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Babylonian exile, if you know a little bit about your Israeli history. And it's only then, after that exile has begun, after the nation has endured that refining fire of God's judgment and suffered the consequences for their actions, their failure to heed the word of God, that the prophet then brings this word of hope.

Now, flash forward some 2,600 years to the present, as we enter into this new year. Think of the past we have gone through, I mean there's no question that we have been through some rough times as a nation. The severe recession, high unemployment, mortgage crisis, home foreclosures, lots of uncertainty about the future of Social Security and Medicare, about the funding of schools and human services, the ongoing fight over healthcare, not to mention the real-life battles happening in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So here's the bad news: while there are some encouraging signs that the troops will be coming home soon, that there are more people staying in their homes, that some jobs are coming back slowly, things still can get worse before they get better. We have no guarantees. Our situation is more akin to that of Jerusalem before the exile began than it is after. So we don't know if this next year, this new year, is going to be better than the last, we hope.

But here's the good news, that we can take not only from this passage but from all of Scripture: that God has not, and will not, abandon us. No matter what has happened, no matter what will happen. That does not mean we will be spared any future difficulty just because we are a people of God. It does mean that God has given us all we need to get through times of difficulty, whether individually or corporately.

And one of those things we have in God to get us through is, of course, hope.

I read recently about a small controversy brewing in El Salvador, over a requirement that schools begin each day with seven minutes of Bible reading (evidently the separation of church and state is not the same thing in El Salvador as it is here). The reason for the law, known as decree 411, was the growing popularity of violent gangs among youth. One of the proponents of this law noted that public schools are where most youths become game members. So the idea of this required Bible reading was that it would give students some hope.

Juan Carlos Hasbún, who is President of the Evangelical Alliance of El Salvador, says if you present hope, something different, you can impact their lives. And that certainly is true.

The opposition to the decree, however, came not from secularists, but from other pastors. Some who feared it would become a tool of denominations to proselytize. To take Catholics from Protestants, or Protestants from Catholics, and the like. Others feared that it was an attempt to use religion to whitewash the real problem, and would not help them deal with the deeper issues.

And so Jaime Peña, President of the Baptist Federation, says that the problem in El Salvador is not a lack of belief (because most of the people in El Salvador are already believers), he says the problem is poverty, marginalization, and exclusion. And this requires more comprehensive solutions instead of trying to cover the sun with a finger.

In other words, this decree 411, he is suggesting, is a Band-Aid, not a cure, and when we use religion as a Band-Aid we mask the source of the problem and thereby create cynicism instead of hope.

Hope is not something you can instill with platitudes, wishful thinking, or even selective reading of Scripture. Hope has to be grounded in the real possibility of a changed outcome. And a fundamental belief that God is with you, and for you, even when the odds may be against you.

This might be a good time to mention: did you know the Ducks are 2.5 point underdogs against Auburn? The odds are against them. But would I ever trivialize a sermon to bring up a football analogy? No, no, no :).

Because, victory is not a sign of God's favor. Think about that. Not even when it's TCU :). We'd like to think that's the case -- TCU, for those that may not know, is a Disciples of Christ school, our church's largest school. And I was kind of disappointed in the broadcast for the Rose Bowl, they never once mentioned that it was the Disciples of Christ school. I don't even think they mentioned the name of the school, Texas Christian, used the initials the whole time. I wondered about that just a little bit.

So, TCU's victory notwithstanding, victory is not a sign of God's favor. Were it so, we would have to conclude that God is by definition always on the side of winners. In every aspect of society -- sports, politics, Wall Street, war. Do we really want to affirm that" Give that kind of message, that God is always on the side of winners?

In fact, the witness of Scripture is often against that very idea, that success in life is evidence of God's favor.

French philosopher and anthropologist, Renée Gerard, who taught at Stanford (retired 1995) thought it odd that marginalized people, victims of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, the disabled, the poor, coal miners, farmworkers, you name it, all groups disempowered by society, have increasingly (in the modern era) gained a certain moral authority. He noted in ancient literature, victors, not the marginalized, wrote the history. And they celebrated the accomplishments through a strong heroic figure, not through innocent victims.

And he suggests that began to change with Jesus -- born in a stable, lived as a peasant, fought no battles, won no wars, sired no children, held no office, arrested as a criminal, executed as a prisoner. And further, spent much of his time with the marginalized of his society -- the poor, the ill, the outcasts, and defended their just cause before God, evidence to the contrary.

Gerard concludes that the crucifixion of Jesus introduced a new plot into history, not found in the storyline of other traditions. That the innocent victim becomes a hero by being a victim. Bringing in this news story that undermines all injustice wherever it occurs. Gerard found that that story was so convincing, he himself became a practicing Christian.

It is that story of the son of God as a victim of the world's injustice that gives moral authority to all victims of injustice. And so author Philip Yancey, who writes about Gerard in his new book "What Good is God?", concludes: "Women, minorities, the disabled, human rights activists, all these draw their moral force from the power of the Gospel unleashed at the cross, when God took the side of the victim".

So whether we're talking about a Christian leader like Martin Luther King Jr, or a Hindu leader like Mahatma Gandhi, or martyred gay activist like Harvey Milk, or the founder of the United Farmworkers, Cesar Chavez, or an abolitionist like Sojourner Truth, or a suffragist like Susan B. Anthony, all have taken their moral authority from that idea that God sides with the victim.

So how do we apply that? How do we take that seriously? It's certainly true, whether we're talking about domestic violence or international terrorism. Only this story of empathy for the victim did not begin with Jesus, for God as the defender of the victim is a story that runs throughout Hebrew scripture. From the murder of Abel by his brother, to that of Bathsheba's husband by the King. From the exodus out of Egypt to the exile into Babylonia. And thus Jeremiah continues that tradition, expresses that hope of God who sides with the victim, when the entire nation has been victimized.

What does this mean for us today? Whether we're talking about Moses or Jeremiah or Jesus, to see the power of God at work on the side of the victim does not mean that we should play the victim in order to win God's favor. And we all know folks who do that. And that is not what we're talking about. But instead that we should stop victimization in order to promote God's work. That doing so is promoting God's work.

That no woman should live in fear of a violent husband or a boyfriend.

That no child should be traumatized by those responsible for their safety and nurture.

That no person should be denied their human dignity and rights because of their race, religion, gender, sexual identity, or physical ability.

That "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" will not only cease to be the policy of the United States military, it will cease to be the practice of churches, schools, clubs, and families.

That religious minorities may worship freely, without fear, be it Christians in Muslim nations or Muslims in this nation.

That every person, as the prophet Micah says, will sit under their own vine and fig tree, and none shall he afraid.

And then, as the prophet says, "shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. For I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow".

And so in this new year, we put all of the past, trials and difficulties and calamities behind us, and we hope for good things to come.

For such is the hope that comes from God.


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