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Sermon for Sunday 23 July 2017

FIRST READING Isaiah 44:6-8

6Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. 7Who is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and set it before me, since I appointed an ancient people. Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen. 8Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.”


PSALM Psalm 119:57-64

57You only are my portion, O Lord; I have promised to keep your words. 58I entreat you with all my heart, be merciful to me according to your promise. 59I have considered my ways and turned my feet toward your decrees. 60I hasten and do not tarry to keep your commandments. 61Though the cords of the wicked entangle me, I do not forget your law. 62At midnight I will rise to give you thanks, because of your righteous judgments. 63I am a companion of all who fear you and of those who keep your commandments. 64The earth, O Lord, is full of your love; instruct me in your statutes.


SECOND READING Romans 8:18-27

18For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 26Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.


GOSPEL Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

24{Jesus} put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” 36Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. 38The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.”




Statistically speaking, submarine accidents are rare. Since the year 2000, there’s been a little more than a dozen accidents involving submarines. The vast majority of these, dozen or so, accidents involve collisions with either the terrain or other vessels and the damaged subs were able to surface and be repaired. However, on two occasions, the submarines were in deep water and the subs sank to the bottom. The complex variables of depth, pressure, temperature, and time conspire to doom most trapped sailors. This means that successful submarine rescues, unfortunately, are rarer still. During one celebrated rescue attempt a message could be heard reverberating through the hull of a downed sub. It was tapped out in code from the inside, metal clanging against metal: Is there any hope?
At this, the beginning of the twenty-first century, the world is still waiting for an answer to that question. Opinion guru George Gallup has concluded, “People in many nations appear to be searching with a new intensity for spiritual moorings. One of the key factors prompting this search is certainly a need for hope in these troubled times.” What the world desperately needs now is hope. Thinking people crave assurance that there are good reasons for waking up tomorrow morning — that our presence and our efforts are not meaningless — that our being here is actually making a difference in the outcome of world history. Sadly, the grounds for hope on which many of us stand are unable to endure a serious shaking.
All too often our response to the seemingly endless deluge of global change and conflict is what amounts to “hope against hope.” We turn off the Nightly World News with a sigh, “I have no clue how to solve these crises.” We hope that someone, somehow will figure it out. We find ourselves seeking material satisfaction, only to spend our adult years succumbing to a dependence on credit cards, then say, “I hope there’s a surprise financial windfall in my future so I can retire.” But real hope isn’t a lottery-level optimism. Authentic hopefulness isn’t an irrational shot in the dark that someone, somewhere, will come through.
A good portion of America is comfortable with the idea that hope is self-generated. I’ve heard many remark, “I make my own breaks.” And to a certain extent that’s true. However, this kind of attitude ignores God’s work in our lives. Winston Churchill once accepted an opportunity to address the British schoolboys at Eton, the scene of his own childhood education. The prime minister rose from his seat, grasped the lectern, and proceeded to deliver one of the most electrifying speeches of the last century. It was precisely five words. Churchill said, “Never, never, never give up.” He then sat down. Given the chance to say anything, Churchill urged an assembly of students never to surrender. Indeed, his own unyielding resolve, dominating physical presence, and inspiring words were monumental factors in the maintenance of Allied hope during World War II.
Nevertheless, our dearest dreams and our deepest commitments are vulnerable in a fallen world. “Never give up” doesn’t always win the day. One only has to think of the two American sprinters who invested four years in training for Olympic gold opportunity. When it came time to run their first heat, they were nowhere to be found. Their coach had accidentally told them the wrong time. They were physically, mentally, and emotionally capable of peak performance. Yet something — something insanely easy to prevent — stole their dream. In a world where there are countless “somethings” just around every corner, it makes sense that many people are asking, “is there any hope?” On what basis can we believe that what we value most and need most can never be taken away from us?
In the eighth chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, the Apostle provides the us with needed answer. Christians have solid grounds for hope. Our hope — this confidence that our existence in both the present and the future, is completely secure and utterly meaningful to God — is experienced most significantly through God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. The third person of the Trinity takes up permanent residence within every true follower of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is God’s guarantee that there is an amazing future awaiting us, and that we haven’t been abandoned to hopelessness and weakness in the meantime.
We can say this with confidence because the subject of hope is no small matter on the pages of the Bible. The word hope appears more than 160 times, in dozens of contexts. St. Peter writes, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). What God offers to us is a living hope — a renewable spiritual resource that is “living” because it connects us to a living Savior.
Because of the mercy of God and the life of Jesus, faithful Christians are granted an altogether hopeful picture of the future. The Bible calls this ultimate hope, heaven. That’s what Peter describes in the very next verse: “… an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.” Our eternal destination is guaranteed. But what happens between here and there isn’t. Salvation is easy; however, being a faithful follower of Jesus isn’t. Therefore, because of the struggles we constantly face against temptation and sin, we find that many times, we’re powerfully tempted to give up. Peter is transparently honest about this, beginning in verse 6: “… even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith — being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”
At the beginning of our epistle reading, Paul declares the same truth: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (8:18). The present may seem hopeless. But take heart. God is gracious. Our future is secure. The invisibility of our ultimate security may appear to be cause for concern. But Paul counters in verse 24, “Hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”
American author, theologian and ethicist, the Rev. Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope.” The Lord of the cosmos is working out a plan that is bigger than our abilities and infinitely longer than our spans of life. Therefore, our trust isn’t in what we may, or may not, appear to accomplish in this world, but in God’s promise of wholeness in the next world. As Paul puts it in verse 23, “We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” Today we may groan. But our future will be full of rejoicing.
And so, it is with hope, that we’re afforded the luxury of taking a longer view of things. Consider the early American pastor Jonathan Edwards and his wife Sarah. They parented eleven children, a sure formula for several decades of celebration and tears, laughter and frustration. On the days in which the milk was spilled twice and half the children had colds, it would have bolstered the Edwards’ spirits considerably if they had had the power to look down the road. By 1900, the family had grown to include 1,400 descendants — among these were thirteen college presidents, 65 professors, 100 lawyers, thirty judges, 66 physicians, and at least eighty prominent public officials, including three governors, three senators, and a U.S. vice president. Living in hope means knowing that the God of grace is able to multiply our present modest efforts at faithfulness to bless generations to come. What was it that Paul said of Abraham? “For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3)
While today we may groan, our future will be glorious. That’s not to say that God has abandoned us in our present need. The Holy Spirit, who lives within those who trust Christ, is forever calling out and reaching out to God — even when our natural minds, on this side of heaven, are preoccupied with pains and distractions. That’s what Paul affirms in verse 26: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” Anytime we’re at a loss for words, the Spirit is there ready to intercede on our behalf.
The continuing development of the 911 Plus emergency telephone system in counties around the United States provides some insight into the power of intercession. A Midwestern emergency dispatcher was asked, “How often do you have people call who are completely unable to put into words what they need?” “We get calls like that all the time,” he said. He went on to describe families experiencing frightening moments of domestic violence.
One person in a house might dial 911, then leave the phone off the hook. Doesn’t matter, help will be sent immediately. The dispatcher described people with asthma so severe that they cannot catch their breath; they’re barely able to speak. With 911 Plus, they don’t need to. The call itself is a cry for help. “Listen,” he concluded, “even if you dialed 911 and then immediately hung up, we would know who you were and where you lived, and would send someone to investigate.”
St. Paul says that when we don’t know how to pray — when we’re fumbling for the right words, or are simply crying out our hearts to God — the Spirit within us is interpreting everything perfectly. Help is on the way. God knows our needs and God knows who we are. Ann Lamott, who has written, with searing honesty, about her battle to survive alcoholism, reveals that she has two favorite prayers. Both are six words in length: “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” There are times when that’s all we need to say, because the Spirit will fill in the rest.
In verse 27 Paul continues: “And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Christian history is replete with stories of God’s people who have been suddenly awakened in the middle of the night or startled by strong impressions in the middle of day that someone is in need of their prayers. The Holy Spirit, quite literally, recruits us to intercede for each other.
Disciples of Jesus are called to experience and to share God’s grace, even in circumstances that seem to scream out a reality of hopelessness. Author and church leader Lee Strobel, in his book, God’s Outrageous Claims, recounts an incident from his days as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, where he helped bring to light the sometimes-deadly consequences of riding in a Ford Pinto. From time to time this compact car would burst into flames when struck from behind. One of the landmark accidents took place in northern Indiana. A Chevy van ploughed into the back of a Pinto and killed three teenage girls. Two of them burned to death within moments. The driver, an eighteen-year-old girl named Judy, was thrown clear of the accident but was burned over 95 percent of her body. Somehow, she was still alive when the paramedics arrived.
The doctors at the hospital where Judy was taken quickly realized that they were powerless to save her. They elected to send her, by ambulance, to a burn center 75 miles away so at least she might receive some comfort. A nurse agreed to ride along with her. The trip unfolded as a nightmare. Because of damage to her nerve endings, Judy didn’t feel much physical pain. But as the reality of her situation began to sink in, Judy was overwhelmed with anxiety and sheer emotional anguish. She grasped that these were her last hours. She was separated from family and friends. She sobbed to the nurse beside her, “I’m not ever going to have children, am I?” What words of hope could possibly comfort this teenage girl?
Nothing seemed to penetrate Judy’s personal agony — until she mentioned the name of Jesus. Discovering then that both she and Judy were Christians, the nurse came alongside her and provided the one medication that quieted her fears. From memory, she recited these verses from Isaiah 43: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, And the flame shall not consume you, For I am the Lord your God, The Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (1-3a.) Strobel writes that it was in the hearing of those words that Judy slowly took on a calmness and courage that lifted her through the last difficult hours of her life. Judy, once again, grasped the fact that she belonged to God, and that no fire is able to destroy what really matters.
When we belong to God, God gives us the gift of a living hope. Through the comfort of the Holy Spirit we grasp whose we are. No frailties in the present can keep us from the Lord, and no fears about the future can prevent God from blessing us. Most importantly, we discover that whatever power we have to never, never, never give up is ours only because God will never, never, never give up on us.

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