Sermon by the Rev. Terry Elsberry on Sunday, February 21, 2021.
You know how it is when you hear a familiar song and then it keeps going through your mind. Try as you might, you can’t shake it. You just keep mentally playing it over and over. I’ve been hearing the same song a lot lately. I keep hearing the same familiar strains. And this one I haven’t once tried to shake. I actually welcome its happy intrusion into my thoughts. It’s an old, familiar song; very old, very familiar. But it never goes out of style, never will go out of style. The melody and the words are that beautiful. You have to treasure it. You know this old song as well as I do. But now as we mark a year of pandemic and at the same time enter the season of Lent, it has more meaning, more relevance, more power to stir our hearts than ever before.
And what is this song? It’s the song called hope.
It’s a song that as Christians we’ve been taught to sing from the beginning of our walk with God. It’s a song our spiritual ancestors have been singing for a very long time before us—centuries, actually; millennium after millennium. It goes back to the very beginning of our relationship with the Lover of our souls, our creator God. It’s a song that belongs to us– to you and me: the people of God.
Take the old story of Noah and the arc God told him to build. If the arc had a name, if that salvation ship had a name it would surely have been, as tacked by Noah over the entrance after he finished building to the specs God have him; when—finally—in relief that the arduous, seemingly endless task of sawing, crafting, fitting, building was at last over; surely the name Noah in a fit of relief must have painted on a leftover piece of wood and mounted high for all to see was this. How could it be anything else? How could Noah have even considered any other name? The sign had to read “The Good Ship Hope.”
Because can you imagine what it took for Noah to believe God enough to build that boat? Believe God enough to accept that a flood was coming that would wipe out ever human and every creature on the earth. Everyone, that is, except for Noah and his wife and his sons and their families. Plus of course, every kind of creature. Male and female they went. Two by two, they trotted up the plank and onto the safety of those Noah-built decks.
Can you imagine the abuse Noah took? The ridicule from his neighbors. “You’re what? You’re building a what? An arc?” they jeer. “What’s an arc? Noah, This time you’ve finally lost it for good; gone around the bend. Rain for 40 days and 40 nights? Tell me another one.”
As Thornton Wilder said: “Hope is nothing if not courageous, nothing if not ridiculous.”
So Noah had to have hope—hope based on absolute faith in God—that not only could he build a boat that wouldn’t leak, wouldn’t sink, would somehow ride out the flood for 40 days and nights but that God would be true to His word. Which was that He would bring Noah and his family and the animals through in safety to a marvelous new beginning. A new world.
Can you imagine how they must have felt—Noah, his wife, their family—when the rain began and the arc started rising and they knew they were at the mercy of these elements, at the mercy of God.
But hope persisted. Hope won. The rains came, and beat upon the boat and the animals must have been making some kind of outcry. Then suddenly the rains stopped. The bird came with a leaf in its mouth. They landed on the mount, dropped the plank, walked out into a new beginning, a new world, and looked up, up into a sky emblazoned with the promise. The promise based on the hope. The hope based on the faithfulness of God.
And what was that promise? A rainbow.
And now God says to Noah and his sons: “I solemnly promise you and your children and the animals you brought with you—all these birds and cattle and wild animals—that I will never again send another flood to destroy the earth. And I seal my promise with this sign: I have placed my rainbow in the clouds as my promise until the end of time, to you and to all the earth.”
Have you ever felt yourself, like Noah, doing something the people around you don’t understand? Why are you doing THAT? Why are you quitting—or taking—that job? Why are you sending your child to that school? Why are you moving there? For me it was my old Iowa friends saying, “Why are you leaving us and moving to Atlanta?” They didn’t know—I didn’t know—that I had to move to Atlanta, because it was in Atlanta that the Lord would lay hold of me!
Some of the things people close to us don’t understand are a lot less life changing. Simple things people don’t get, can’t understand, because we’re all so different, have such different perspectives. Sometimes the other person’s right; we should change our direction. But often God is in our seemingly inexplicable decision, as He was in Noah’s building that arc. And when He is, when the Lord is part of your decision or your action, whatever it may be, you may need a lot of faith to keep doing what you’re doing. Do it anyway. Don’t give up. Trust the Lord. That’s where hope comes in. Hope in the guidance and faithfulness of God.
We can pray, “If you want me to do this, Lord, show me. Make the way clear. Confirm it. Give me a sign. Give me hope that everything’s going to turn out all right.”
And He will. And it will. Our hope in Him assures us of that. Then with calm assurance we can build our version of the arc.
It must have looked if not ridiculous, certainly strange, to Jesus’ family and friends when He told them He was going to the desert for 40 days. Hopefully, He didn’t tell them He was going without food or water. His Mother, for one, would surely have tried to stop Him. “You can’t do that. You’ll die out there.”
But Jesus went. The Bible tells us He was driven there by the Spirit of God. Why? Why this to other people absurd departure from the norm? It was a test. Jesus went to be tested.
Have you ever been in a time when you know you’re being tested? I had a mentor who said, “It’s like a window shade rolls down in front of you with the words THIS IS A TEST.”
Jesus had to be tested. He had to prove to Himself and to Satan that nothing the devil tempted Him with could dissuade Jesus from the plan the Father had for Him on earth.
Sometimes you and I are being tested. Sometimes we know it at the time. Sometimes we know only in retrospect. In some way or another, this past year has been a test for every one of us, whatever age or stage of life we’re in. I don’t need to list the ways we’ve been, are still being, tested. You know what they are.
One way may be our inability to be with family. I’d give a lot to hug my Ohio and Texas grandchildren right now. On the other hand, some family may be experiencing more closeness than they ever have. As one wife said, “Marriage is for love not for lunch.”
But Jesus, like Noah, shows us how God’s faithfulness can carry us through.
Sometimes it’s our patience with other people that’s being tested. Sometimes we struggle to find the way through dark times, wonder how to live on top of persistent anxiety, feel frustrated when things aren’t going the way we’d like them to go, feel like we’ve hit a wall.
That’s when we need to stop, take time out, beg the Lord to shine His light—His spiritual gift of wisdom–on the situation, give us new perspective, the understanding we need to be not defeated but actually to come through stronger than before.
When you’re in a time of testing, try using it as an opportunity. An opportunity to seek the Lord, get to know Him better. Jesus said, “Seek me with all your heart and I will be found by you.” When we seek Him, and find Him, we can live every day of our lives on the crest of hope.
I’m not talking about superficial hope; I’m talking about holy hope, Christian hope, the hope Jesus came to model for us. The kind of hope you build your life on knowing you will not, ultimately, be disappointed. Because your hope is based on the very nature and being of God.
The apostle Paul tells that the three most important things in human experience are faith, hope and love. Pandemic or no pandemic, we build our lives here on earth and beyond on hope. Hope rooted and grounded in faith—faith built on the sure, never-shifting, ever abiding love of God.
God wrote another powerful stanza in His song of hope in the 40-year testing of the Children of Israel in the wilderness.
But before being thrust into their wilderness adventure, having finally escaped from their agonizing experience of enslavement by the Egyptians, they have to face yet another test.
They’re marching out of Egypt on their way to freedom. They look behind and see Pharaoh’s army—some on horseback, some in chariots–coming to take them back into slavery. Suddenly their flight to freedom is blocked. They come to the river. It’s too deep for them to cross on foot.
All seems lost. Then God tells Moses to raise His arm and—with hope, by faith—step into the water. The minute Moses obeys the Lord, the minute he obeys the Lord and walks boldly into the river, the waters part. The Children of Israel walk through on dry land. “We’re free! Free at last! Praise God, we’re free at last!”
That night, the enemy army having drowned when the waters crash over them, the people pitch camp, their first night of freedom. They sing songs of thanks.
The only song that has lasted these thousands of years is a song sung by Moses’ sister Miriam. To this day Miriam’s Song remains the oldest piece of recorded Biblical literature we have.
It’s a joyous song—a song of hope, based on the faithfulness of God rooted in His incredible, undying, ever present love for us, for you and me, for His people and for all time.
Miriam sang: “I will sing unto the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously; the horse and the rider thrown into the sea. The Lord’s my God, and I will praise Him; my father’s God and I will exalt Him!”
Look for reasons to hope. Practice hope. Thank God for hope.