Monday, December 02, 2013

The Promise of Hope: Abraham and Mary

(Here are my notes from last night's talk. Tonight it will be "Saved By Hope"--and we'll find our way to the Cross. See you at 7 pm at Saint Cecilia in Oakley!)

The theme of this mission is Christ our Hope.

Tonight we’ll talk about the Promise of Hope.
Tomorrow, how we are saved in hope.
And Tuesday, about the hope of resurrection.

What is hope?

So tonight it’s about Promise.
When I was working up my thoughts on this,
at first I wanted to talk about “promise”--
but actually, we need to start with “hope”: what is hope?

Well, as Saint Paul said in his letter to the Romans,
The gaze of hope is fixed that which lies ahead--
it isn’t something you already have.
That’s why it’s true to say that in heaven, there is no hope!
Sounds funny, doesn’t it?
But it’s true: if we make it to heaven, and we have the fullness of life,
the enjoyment of God’s love and beauty and truth--
if we have all that, then at that point, what would we hope for? Heaven is the hope!

So: hope looks forward.

But then the question comes to mind:
just what do we fix our hope on?
For example, is it actually heaven we hope for?

I think a lot of folks around us set their hopes a lot lower.
I saw a survey about the British people,
that something like a quarter of them say,
well, there might be a God,
but they don’t think they can know anything about God for sure.

I didn’t find a survey for the U.S.,
But lots of people here think the same thing, don’t they?

So what that means is that if we have
some hope of good after this life,
it ends up being pretty vague.

In the meantime, what we see around us,
what we can obtain here, that is pretty definite.
So that’s what a lot of people focus on.

Let me give some examples of how we do that.

Look at television. What do you see more of?
What heaven might be like?
Or what your next meal can be like?

We have a whole network--broadcasting 24 hours a day--
all about that next, glorious experience with food!

This is supposed to be Advent.

Yet almost everywhere we will go
tomorrow, and for several weeks, it’s the “Christmas Season.”
It’s partly fun; but it’s partly insane!
Of course, a lot of it simply about stuff!
Look at the craziness on the day after Thanksgiving;
and because that wasn’t soon enough,
in many places, it started on Thanksgiving.

Now, some of you are thinking, I don’t do any of that.
OK: but how much time do you spend on the Internet?
What a wonderful tool--but what a vast time-sink!
We don’t have to say much
about the darker side of the Internet--
although this is becoming a huge problem.

But for a lot of us, it’s just about getting all the news we can.
That’s me--I’m an information junkie.

The point is, one way or another, we fix our hopes here.
We set our sights on finding happiness here.
And the more we do that, do you realize what that means?
We’re people without hope--
because, as Saint Paul said, hope is what we look forward to;
but if we have everything we think we want,
there’s nothing left to hope for.

So that helps us see suffering a little differently.
As we get older, and the body doesn’t look as good as it used to,
and you can’t do the things you used to,
it gets harder to hang onto merely earthly hopes.

Then we have a choice: either new hope--or despair.

And that is where I think a lot of our society is now:
trying to find our happiness here and now;
and when that fails, as it inevitably will, they despair.

Pope Francis, in the letter he published just a week ago,
called the “Joy of the Gospel,”
talks about the “great danger in today’s world,
pervaded as it is by consumerism,”
which leads to “the desolation and anguish
of a complacent yet covetous heart…

“Whenever our interior life becomes caught up
in its own interests and concerns,”
he writes--and with the “pursuit of frivolous pleasures,”
there is no longer “room for others,” for doing good;
and in fact, God’s voice is no longer heard.

Even though the holy father was making a different point,
What he said applies here:
Living life with no hope--because it’s all focused on this world.

So there’s a question we might want to ponder:
Where is our hope fixed?
Is it so much about the promises of this world--
or something more?

Abraham and the promise

Let’s take a look at someone who set his hope on a promise.
Let’s look at Abraham and Sarah, from the Old Testament.

This is from the book of Genesis.

These are the descendants of Terah. Terah begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran, and Haran begot Lot. Haran died before Terah his father, in his native land, in Ur of the Chaldeans.

Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah, daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and Iscah.

Sarai was barren; she had no child.

Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot, son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and brought them out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to go to the land of Canaan. But when they reached Haran, they settled there. The lifetime of Terah was two hundred and five years; then Terah died in Haran.

The LORD said to Abram: Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth will find blessing in you.

Abram went as the LORD directed him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.

What’s so significant about the Land of Canaan?
Well, it was on the Mediterranean: waterfront property!

It wasn’t necessarily a better land.
Where they were was good for farming; plenty of water.
And, as you saw in that passage,
it was Abram’s father who first wanted to go there,
but we don’t know why.

Let’s see if we can figure it out.

You’ll probably remember that Genesis has a series of “begats,"
giving us the family tree that comes down from Adam to Noah, and Noah to Abraham.

And you might recall that in that family tree,
you have folks who lived a really long time:
Methuselah, 969 years; Noah, 950 years; Noah’s son, 600 years.

What’s important to notice about that is this:
With each generation, people are living shorter lives.

Because they’re getting further from the Garden--from Life.

Something else happens.
For every generation, when we read,
So-and-so begot So-and-so,
“and he had other sons and daughters” (see Genesis 11).

So then we come to Terah, Abram‘s father.
He had three sons: Abram and two brothers, Nahor and Haran.
And one of them, Haran, dies young.

Then, when we come to Abram and Sarai
we learn they couldn’t  have children.

In the generations down from Adam and Eve,
that hadn’t happened yet.

So let’s ask again, why did Terah, Abram’s father, want to leave?
Maybe he thought, this place is death--
let’s go somewhere else! And that’s what they do.

But notice something else.
They only went half of the journey!

Isn’t that what we do?
We’re like Terah,
and we realize we’re in a place in our lives
where we’re not drawing life. Not real life.

We’ve already talked about
some of the craziness of this time of year.
And about how much we can turn our hearts to stuff,
to empty things that don’t really nourish us,
but fill our time and crowd out the quiet we need.
Like Terah, we wake up to it, and we look around, and say:
this isn’t a place of life.

Maybe that’s why you’re here tonight.

So then we make a resolution: no more of that!
We start on the road to a new place…
but, like Terah, we get far enough where it’s better…
cleaner air, it‘s quieter…we‘ve been working  hard…

No reason to rush…

Just a little rest…

We’ll get there tomorrow…

And tomorrow never comes. And for Terah, it never did.

This is when God calls Abram.
“Go forth from your father’s house, from your relatives.”
And that’s what he does.
But why?

And there’s something I don’t think I noticed
until just two days ago, as I was preparing this talk:
it wasn’t Abram who brought up having a child.
It was God!

Abram was 75 years old at this point.
He’d been married to Sarai for some time.
As heart-breaking as it is not to have children,
perhaps he and Sarai had made their peace.

So we might wonder,
was God re-igniting a hope Abram had given up on?
Stirring up Abram, out of his comfort?

How’d you like to start a new life at age 75?
Well, that’s what Abram does.

If we fast-forward a little, we find Abram, living in the land,
With lots of wealth and respect.

And God speaks to him again, saying,
“Don’t be afraid”; “I am your shield.”

But Abram comes back at God:
“What can you give me, if I die childless”?

And that’s when God repeats his promise
that Abram will have descendants and he adds,
“look up at the sky and count the stars--if you can!”

“If you can!”

Let’s pause on that for a moment.

Those of us who live in the city, how many stars can we see?
Because of the lights and energy of the city, not many!

We have all this activity,
and we have a lot of benefits from it--
hospitals and grocery stores and water plants
and all that makes city life possible--but it also closes us in!

All this work of our own hands--
At most a few hundred years old--
Keeps us from seeing the glory of God’s universe,
which is as old as anything is.

So here’s another challenge:
Is there noise and “light pollution” in our lives
that we need to turn off?
So we can hear God speak--and see his glory?

We could go on, but let’s leave Abraham and Sarah here.

We know, of course, that God gave Abraham a son: Isaac.
And from that beginning, came Jacob, Joseph,
and all the tribes of Israel.

From Abraham to Christ

There’s something wonderful
in the promise God gave Abraham, of course:
Because the promise of a son,
and of descendants more than the stars of the sky,
Was fulfilled in a second and greater way:
The birth of Jesus Christ.
That’s how we come into the family tree.

Just like Abraham’s family came to a dead-end--
and that’s when God intervened and revived his hope,
So, generations later, God’s People were in a similar bind,
under the heel of the Romans--
and that’s when God intervened again,
and sent his own Son into the world.

One of the questions we wanted to look at tonight was,
“How does the birth of Christ bring us hope?”

To answer it, let’s look at one more passage of Scripture;
this time, the words of Mary when she visits Elizabeth,
and Elizabeth greets her, saying,
“blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

And Mary said--and you know this already!--
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”
And then she says--listen to this:
“From this day, all generations will call me blessed.”

Why is that important?
Because she remembers what God told Abraham:
in him, all peoples would be blessed.
And now, Mary realizes,
the time for that promise has come!

Isaac was born for Abraham; Jesus was born for us!

What else does Mary say?
“He has scattered the proud in their conceit.”

Wait, that’s a little tricky!
If we are pretty satisfied, and secure,
we may find our the rug of our conceit
pulled out from under us!

But the good news is, “he has lifted up the lowly”
And he fills the hungry with good things--
while sending the rich away empty.”

Christ is good news if we’re hungry;
he’s the mercy of God that every generation needs.
And he is the strength we need when we have none ourselves.

That’s what Mary said when Jesus was just in her womb;
before he touched the rejected and cast out,
Before he gave heaven to the thief on the cross--
and with him, to everyone else who will say to him,
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”!

When Abraham spoke to God, he looked up into the sky;
he could see the stars, but he couldn’t see God.

When Mary spoke to God, she saw him in her Son:
God here, God a human child, God our brother, God with us!

I mentioned in my homily this morning the letter
our holy father published just last week called
“The Joy of the Gospel.”

And I want to leave you with something from that letter.

One of the key things the pope is saying to us is that
the purpose of the Church isn’t to build things,
to organize things, to raise money for things,
to create structures and programs.

These are important.
But only if they happen with something else in mind:

The primary purpose of the Church is to enable people
to know and to love Jesus Christ!

Pope Francis said, at the beginning of his letter:
“I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment,
to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ,
or at least an openness to letting him encounter them;
I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day.”

What’s our hope in Christ? There it is:
A personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

Why don’t we just stop now, and spend some time with the Lord?
If it helps, let’s recall the questions I posed:

* Have we, like Abraham’s father, found ourselves
in a place of no life--and do we need to get out?

* What noise and distractions do we need to turn off,
so we can have silence, and hear God speak,
and see his handiwork?

* And, finally, where are we putting our hope?
In things that will pass away--or in Christ?

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