What gives you hope? For yourself, for your family, for humankind – what gives you hope? Hope is not optimism, or wishful thinking, or keeping your fingers crossed.
The Catechism in the Prayer Book puts it like this: “The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world… [and] our assurance as Christians is that nothing, not even death, shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (pp. 861-862) That is what Christians mean by hope, for ourselves and for the world God has made, and it is this “blessed hope of everlasting life” given to us in Christ that today’s Collect prays we may “embrace and ever hold fast.”
If the Collect sounds particularly familiar to you, it’s because it formed the basis for our Bible Challenge prayer, which we have been praying each Sunday, and some of us have been praying daily, as we have been reading through the whole Bible over the course of the year. The Collect asks God to help us to hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest holy Scripture; another way of saying that is to take in the Bible on as many different levels as possible:
· First, by listening to the words as they are read aloud in worship, or in a study group, or even if you are at home by yourself; some people learn better when they listen, and (no matter what) different words and images will strike us when we hear the Bible read aloud.
· Second, we read; whether we do this by following along with the printed inserts, or in the pew Bible, or when we read Scripture at home, it allows us to take in the text on a different level than hearing alone.
· Third, to mark Scripture has to do with paying attention – as in “mark my words”, pay heed to what I say; we may well read the Bible with a highlighter or a pencil in hand and literally mark the page, anything that will help us take note of what is important and what the Holy Spirit is saying to us.
· Next, we learn the Scriptures in a number of different ways; some people like to memorize Scripture – particularly the Psalms; some find the footnotes in a study Bible or a Scriptural commentary helpful; sometimes it’s asking questions of someone you know who is well-versed in the Bible – whatever will help you to get inside the meaning and context and spiritual import of the text. I meet every Wednesday noontime with a group of Episcopal clergy to read, study and discuss the lectionary passages for the coming Sunday – and lest you think that would be a dull and solemn group, I can assure that the most common emotion in our meetings is laughter.
· Finally, the Collect bids us to inwardly digest the Bible; we can do that through meditating on a phrase or passage in a prayerful way; by carrying a Gospel story around with us during the day and letting it speak to us throughout the day’s events; by noticing when an image or phrase from the Bible pops into our head or heart when we least expect it, and know that the Spirit is speaking to us.
All of these ways of taking in Holy Scripture are meant to lead us more deeply into that place where we can “embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life which [God has] given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.”
The words of the Bible, and the story of the Bible – God’s whole, big, amazing story of Creation, sin, the covenant of faith, the call and exodus of God’s people, the building of the Temple, the continual announcements by the prophets of God’s purpose even when the people and their rulers wandered away from it, the coming of God into human life in Jesus and his death and resurrection, the calling and sending forth of the apostles with the message of redemption and new life in Christ, the formation of churches and their growth in faith and ministry, and the vision for the ultimate destiny of God’s People and God’s Creation – a New Heaven and a New Earth; from Genesis to Revelation – this whole big story is meant to give us hope, the hope that comes from knowing that God will never leave us nor forsake us, and that God’s goodness will, in the end, triumph.
Sometimes, of course, it is hard to see that.
How often do we hit a stretch – days, weeks…years – when it seems that life is much harder than it should be, than we can bear; and illness, financial worries, relationship difficulties and a host of other things take their toll on us?
Or we look at the world around us and see the kind of natural devastation caused by hurricanes and typhoons, or the fact that civilian gun violence seems to be continuing a-pace, or the statistics reported in this past week’s Star-Ledger that income inequalities in our state continue to grow by significant amounts thereby harming families – we look at all of this and it can be hard to see and feel that God has a handle on what’s going on in this world he has made.
And then there are those times when we turn to the Bible for comfort and strength and solace, and we encounter the book of Leviticus with its holiness code; or the endless battles of military leaders like Saul and David in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles; or the strange and frightening imagery in Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelation; or even the apocalyptic vision the Jesus holds out in today’s Gospel, talking about wars and insurrections and the destruction of the Temple – how in the world, and in God’s good Name, do we find hope in any of that?
It helps to remember that the Bible doesn’t whitewash anything – it “tells it like it is” about human nature and life on earth; the details may be from the ancient world, but the feelings and spiritual realities are the same as we have today – and we see this best expressed in the Psalms. Another thing to keep in mind, particularly when we read the Old Testament, is that the group, the community, the People of God as a whole (rather than the individual) is what is being valued and addressed.
Of course God loves us each uniquely and boundlessly, but the Old Testament wants to remind us that faith and salvation and the gift of life are not about us alone – or even us and God – but about each one of us taking our place in the purpose that God has for the whole of his creation.
And then there are so many passages and places in Scripture where we can turn for encouragement, comfort, support and hope. The 23rd Psalm, of course, is best known and best-beloved, but also Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where is my help to come?”, or Psalm 139 “Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar.”
Visions – word paintings – of humanity’s future in God’s care offer beauty and inspiration, as in today’s reading from Isaiah: “They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” Isaiah 65:23-25
And then the Gospels give us so many words of hope – as well as challenge:
· Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Luke 2:10-11
· For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. John 3:16-17
· I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Matthew 6:25-26
I’m sure you have your own favorite passages that you turn to when you need encouragement.
But the point of the Collect is that as we read the Bible – day in and day out, and as a church community week in and week out – the point is that the whole big overarching story of God and all the small bits and verses and passages give us a framework to hold on to, a foothold and a foundation to stand upon, and inspiration and hope as we live each day, loved by God, held together as the Body of Christ and sent forth in God’s service as God’s own people.
Let us pray.
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them in this year of Bible Challenge, that we may be drawn ever closer to you and be strengthened, deepened, and enlivened for your service in the world. In Jesus’ Name we pray. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost
November 17, 2013