Sermon from Easter 2020: God Restores Hope
God Restores Hope
Resurrection; April 12, 2020
There’s a moment in one of Madeleine L’Engle’s novels that sticks in my head. The grandfather has had a stroke and been hospitalized; when it is realized that he is dying, he chooses to go home and be surrounded by his daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren. At one point, he says to his son-in-law, “Perhaps I’d be better off in the hospital. Perhaps you shouldn’t have brought me home… I thought I could die with you around me, and I did not realize how much it would hurt you and that I cannot stand that hurt.” The son-in-law replies, “Perhaps you ought not to deprive us of that hurt?”
Sometimes when people go through bad times, they pretend everything is all right. Or sometimes the people around them pretend everything is all right. When someone mentions their sadness, or pain, or struggle, sometimes the rest of us will quickly change the subject; we think we’re cheering them up or sparing their feelings or some such. In reality, we’re denying them the right to hurt; and consequently we’re denying them the hope that they’ll get through this and things will get better.
Jesus’ friends and followers and family needed to be allowed to go through those three days, when hope seemed to be lost and they knew nothing but the grief of having lost him and the fear that the authorities would come after them next. When you and I permit ourselves to experience Good Friday and the time of desolation, we get a taste of their hurt. Perhaps you have done the spiritually mature thing and have felt how our current time of uncertainty and fear reflects what they experienced after Jesus was executed. Only when we know desolation can we truly know hope.
God restores hope. It’s no good to pretend everything was okay all along, to pretend Jesus was not really dead, to act as though his death is anything other than a terrible wrong. Because God does not do the simple thing, which would be to make sure everything is always all right. God does the more difficult thing: in the midst of our desolation, God restores hope.
It has been pointed out that the current emergency, the world in fear of a pandemic, is nothing new for Christians. We’ve been through it before. In the middle of the third century, a plague swept through the Roman Empire, and between a quarter and a third of the population of the Empire died. One thing that people noticed was that Christians reacted differently from others. Whereas the reaction of everyone else was to isolate the sick and allow them to die alone, Christians cared for the sick. They risked themselves in order to provide basic nursing care and so that no one would have to die alone. Christians got sick just as much as everyone else – God did not protect them from getting sick – but basic nursing care did help the survival rate. Christians reacted to the plague very differently from their neighbors.
Why did they? Fundamentally, it was because Christ was risen from the dead. Jesus had taught the importance of caring for one another, and had demonstrated the effects of such care. He touched lepers – people who were not supposed to be touched – and was consistently compassionate to those who were pushed to the margin by everyone else. But the reason people followed through and actually did as Jesus did and taught was because they believed that he was alive and therefore a living Lord who should be followed. If Jesus is dead, then he serves as a good example that you can follow, if you choose, or ignore, if you choose. If Jesus is alive, then he is the Lord and he is to be followed.
And, frankly, since they knew a living Lord, they were not afraid. You have heard stories of Christians going to their deaths because of their faith; now I remind you that Christians were compassionate to the sick because of their faith. They weren’t afraid of dying; since Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, they believed that they too would be raised with him. They didn’t believe that God would protect them from being sick; they believed that being sick and even dying was not worse than the alternative, which was to fail Jesus Christ.
Now, don’t take what I am saying the wrong way. I do not advise that you go rushing out to look after people with COVID-19; leave that to the health professionals. Please wear your face mask if you go out and do not mingle with a group; please continue to practice what we are told for the sake of everyone’s health. Here is what I ask you to do: have hope. When you feel you cannot stand another day in isolation, take hope from Jesus’ Resurrection that a new day will come. When you are struggling because of the toll this is taking on you emotionally and financially and mentally, take hope from Jesus’ Resurrection that the morning will dawn and we will see that we live in the kingdom of the Risen Lord. Remember what Julian of Norwich heard in her visions, words that I have said to you many times before: “Jesus told me that all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
I was greatly encouraged by the vision of the Prophet in today’s Old Testament reading (Jeremiah 31:1-6). Jeremiah spoke to his people in exile, people who had lost their homes, lost their land, lost their way of life, lost their country. Jeremiah spoke to them of the hope of restoration:
Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria;
The planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit.
For there shall be a day when sentinels will call in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.” (Jeremiah 31:4-6)
It may seem a small thing to many, but I take hope in the promise that there shall be a day when the sentinel via Facebook and our website and word-of-mouth will call, “Come, let us go up to the Church on the Hill, to the Lord our God.” Just knowing that our separation is temporary restores hope. It is long, and maybe we wish it hadn’t happened at all, but maybe we should be permitted to live through it and have hope. For we know the day of restoration will come.
If we know that, then we know we can live through any desolation and have hope: hope for restoration, hope for life, hope that by remaining faithful to the living Lord Jesus even death is not the last word. For by the Resurrection of Jesus, God restores hope.
Although Jesus had told them, the friends and followers and family of Jesus didn’t really get it – how could they? – didn’t know that their separation would be temporary, that on the third day he would be restored to them. You and I know, and so we know that every hard and terrible experience of life always has in it that kernel of hope. We do not follow a dead martyr, but a living Lord, who has promised us life as well.
As Jesus was dying, he cried out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” As he learned and his friends and followers and family learned, God did not abandon him. He went through what he went through, and they went through it too, and they all came out the other side with new life and new hope. Remember that God raised Jesus. God kept the promise to restore his life and kept the promise therefore to restore our hope.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia!
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master