Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of FirstBaptistChurch in Rome, Ga., on November 22, 2009.
Isaiah 40:1-11, 27-31
Hope is not merely the optimistic view that somehow everything will turn out all right in the end if everyone just does as we do. Hope is the more rugged, the more muscular, view that even if things don’t turn out all right and aren’t all right, we endure through and beyond the times that disappoint or threaten to destroy us.
—Peter Gnomes in The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus
The period of the Great Depression has certainly left its mark on this country. If you look around at bridges, train trestles, and public buildings you will often find the dates in the 1930’s when the government was putting people to work on the many things that were built during that particular time. I wonder how long it will be before the last bridge, post office, or whatever built in that era will no longer be in use. To me, they seem to be everywhere.
It also left its mark on people. There are tremendous stories of deprivation and poverty. We read about the armies of homeless, primarily men at that particular time, who traveled by train and went from town to town. There are many stories in which people tell about the acts of kindness of strangers and how they were fed. I have heard people in this congregation tell about being fed and I have heard others tell the story about how homeless people came past their back doors and were never turned away without food.
There were tent cities, often called Hoovervilles, where the homeless gathered and it was a desperate time.
I have read a story in several different places about a school teacher who tried to send a young boy home because he was clearly weak from not having enough food. The teacher told him to go home, get something to eat, and then come back to school. The reply was, “I can’t. Today is my sister’s day to eat.”
In a story that I know to be true, a man told me about when he was a teenager during the Depression. His father died and he was left responsible for his siblings and his mother. Living in Appalachia, the only way he could figure out how to make a living was to trap skunks. At that particular time, the black fur on a skunk was used for less expense articles of clothing, such as coats, hats, etc. that women wore. There was no synthetic fur. He said he lived on the porch of his home for years because he couldn’t go inside and he had no social contact with anyone other than his siblings and his mother for years. That was how he kept them alive during the Depression.
It was a time of deprivation. That is a big word, but it explains what people went through.
Each Sunday during the Advent season, we are looking at a particular period in our church’s 175 year history. Chances are you already notice this morning that the bulletin cover is a copy of a bulletin cover from 1931. Some of the records in that era are general. We have some that are not very interesting looking. When we look through the church’s history, there are a few hints of what it must have been like to have been a member of this congregation.
Dr. Bunyan Stephens, one of the great beloved pastors in this church’s history, became pastor here in the summer of 1929, five months before the stock market crashed. Most people view that stock market crash as the beginning of the Great Depression. In that year, offerings to the church were about $20,000. Within three years, they were less than $10,000. In less than three years and during the period in which this bulletin was used, offerings were cut in half and the ministry, activity, and opportunities of the church to do the work of Christ were severely diminished. We can begin to imagine what must have been going on in the lives of people. As I look at this bulletin cover and I see the shepherds looking at the star, it does make me think about a time, 1931, when surely people were looking for a hope and what a great pastor Dr. Stephens was. If you were a young church member here at that time, you would have to be almost age 65 today to even remember when Dr. Stephens was pastor at First Baptist. I know that he preached the word of hope to the congregation.
If we look at the Book of Isaiah, it has a break between chapters 39 and 40. In chapter 39 and preceding, there is mention of kings—King Uzziah, King Ahaz, King Hezekiah. As a matter of fact, chapter 39 is the story of Hezekiah’s callousness and failure. Up until that point, Isaiah had been prophesying and telling about the calamity that was to come. But when we get to chapter 40, there is a change. There is no more history lesson. There is no more record of what was said to a particular king. Now the scripture turns into verse. It is not the prose columns that are all justified nicely. We can begin to see that it is like a psalm. Beginning with chapter 40, the word is promise. God’s promise is good, salvation is coming, and that we should go ahead and start rejoicing now because as sure as the sun rises, the good things of God are coming.
If you read chapter 40 carefully, in the early verses it says, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly.” It sounds a little dire when it says that Jerusalem has received double for all her sins, but the point here is that it is over. The whole chapter talks about the goodness and promise of God and how everyone is to hold on to hope.
In the Hebrew section of the Bible, the Old Testament, there is no neutral waiting. Waiting on the future is either positive or negative. If it is negative, it is fear. If it is positive, it is hope. It is fearful vs. hopeful. In verse 9, it says, “Lift up the song. Do not fear.” The word is to depend and rely upon God. The best is yet to come; fear not. This is the word of the prophet as he speaks to the children of Jerusalem and he says to them that all of these things have now taken place but the future is in God’s hands. Fear not. Instead hope that the promise of God is coming.
I have talked to a couple of pastoral peers about something that occurs in preaching. A lot of times people hear things that we don’t think we say. We preach and people say to us later, “That was really great when you said so and so,” and we are thinking, “I don’t remember that.” Sometimes that is good because I think the spirit helps to fill in the blanks. The spirit is working in your heart and takes things that I say and applies them differently than what I would ordinarily say to you. But there are some times when people make assumptions. People assume that the preacher is saying one thing when it is not intended at all.
I want to be clear about something today. Hope in God, hope in Jesus Christ, is not positive thinking. I am not sure you are aware of how much positive thinking and a good mental outlook is spoken about in our culture, but if you go on the internet or go to the self-help section at the bookstore, almost anything that you would desire in your life has been written about. You can find a book or a website about how you can get it if you only have a great mental outlook. You can beat cancer if you have a great mental outlook. You can overcome poverty and attract wealth. There are people who put on seminars and tell you silly things like, “Put a twenty dollar bill in your wallet and that will attract more money because you have a good positive outlook.” So much of what we think of as Christian hope gets diminished and, quite honestly, is made silly by the belief that if we will just keep a positive outlook, everything will be OK. I am not talking about everybody needs to go around grumpy. I know you don’t hear that.
What I want to say to you is: We don’t manufacture the promises of God by believing positively about him. Faith is not simply looking on the bright side of God that everything is going to turn out.
Did you read the meditation text today? I really like what Peter Gnomes says. In the second sentence, he says, “Hope is more rugged, the more muscular view, that even if things don’t turn out right and aren’t all right, that we endure through and beyond the times that disappoint or threaten to destroy us.”
I think it is a false gospel in difficult times—in the Great Depression, the economic times that we find ourselves in today, or whatever personal times may be taking place in your life—to try to say that if you will just try to think on the sunny side of God everything will be OK. That puts all the work on us and really stops us from trusting in God. Once I have decided that it is up to me to think enough to make it happen, if I just think positive thoughts I can create my own reality. Have you ever heard that? That is not the same thing as believing that there is a good and loving God, that there is a God who has made us and will sustain us even in difficult times. No matter what, God’s way will prevail. No matter what, truth will eventually triumph over a lie. No matter what, God’s justice will eventually trump human injustice. No matter what, mercy, love and forgiveness will be vindicated as the way of life either in this life or the next. To believe in this, to lead our life toward this, and to constantly claim it is the hope of a Christian. Even if things don’t pan out for us, the way of the Lord will not be thwarted.
How long did the children of Israel look for a messiah? Do you remember Simeon, the old prophet in the Gospel of Luke? He longed to see the reconciliation of Israel. People had believed for generations and there hope was in God. Because they did not see it does not mean that it wasn’t so. He simply hoped that it would be in his time so that he could indeed witness it. As Christians, we hope even if things are not in our time, God will still be triumphant.
The verses at the end of chapter 40 are often quoted in times of difficulty. “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord and my right is disregarded by God.’” This is the prophet’s way of saying that we often think God has forgotten us, God doesn’t see us, and God does not know what we are going through. Then we have these great words of comfort: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t faint or grow weary. His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary and the young will fall and be exhausted.”
Did you had young children in your house this weekend that normally you don’t have and did you think, “Where do they get all that energy?” Think of that image. Isaiah says that even they are going to faint and fall exhausted. “But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint.”
The Christian hope is not some positive thinking that if I just believe it, it will be so. The Christian hope is that God is real, God is in control, and God does not forget us. In our trials in this life and in our journey to the next, God does not let us go.
In 175 years of this church’s history, there have been a number of eras in which things have been difficult. We can look at the Great Depression and we can think about one, but there have been others. Just as in each member’s life, across 175 years, there have been moments that have been low. There have been moments that have been dark and there have been moments in which we feel that God has forgotten us. There are always times that call for hope. So I would say, as we wait upon the Lord, fear not. We do not believe in nothing. We believe in the God of the Bible who made heaven and earth. We believe in the God of the Bible who sent his son, Jesus Christ, that we might be set free from our sins and by his spirit we might be sustained in all the things that we face. Fear not, but wait upon the Lord in awe of his hope.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.