Transforming Our Sorrow

I Thess 5:16-24                                 December 11, 2011

If it wasn’t for hope, we would be in sorry shape, wouldn’t we?
A fundamental part of what makes us human is our ability to hope.
That doesn’t mean our hopes don’t get dashed sometimes, or that we always have to look on the bright side.  But you could say that we don’t really know the fullness of hope without the experience of despair.
Hope without despair is like resurrection without crucifixion.  There’s something fake about it.
Now, When 1st and 2nd Thessalonians were written, the church was dealing with significant questions about hope and despair.
It had been about 50 years since the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, which was long enough that many of the original Christians were passing away.
I can imagine some of the confusion they might have experienced, some of the uncertainty.   When the last of the people who might have actually seen Jesus and remembered the stories for themselves…when those people started to die off and there was no evidence that their hopes had come true…it would be a little unsettling for those of us left behind, especially for people like the Thessalonians, who would have only known about Jesus through Paul.
I can just hear their questions…”who is this Jesus guy?  Can he really be trusted?”
“Was grandpa right?  Or was he just telling stories to entertain us gullible kids?”
If this Jesus was the real deal; if he really was the Messiah, then surely something has gone wrong.  Just look around.
I can hear the questions they would have been asking, because I’m still asking those same questions!
More years have passed by, and still we wait for the world to turn.
Still, we wait for a Messiah.
Still, our hopes are dashed as the world continues with its business as usual.
But in the meantime, I think some important things have gotten twisted up in how we understand God, and therefore how we wait for Him.
…I’ve had a number of jobs where the language in the workplace was…colorful to say the least!
A few years ago I had a construction job for a brief time where the language wasn’t even colorful; it was more like black.
I’m not exaggerating, and I’m not making a sweeping judgment when I say that for the most part, these guys were anything but Christian people.
What passed for typical language at this job crossed just about every line you can think of.  It was actually downright offensive (and I don’t get offended very easily).
But all that’s kind of beside the point.
You can imagine in that setting, that the name of God was frequently taken in vain; along with the name “Jesus Christ”.
Well, one of the other guys who I worked with tried to be kind of comical from time to time.
Now and then when someone would swear using the name of Jesus, he’d drop whatever he had in his hands, and then he would cower in mock fear and yell “where?!”
His act usually resulted in some chuckles and grins from the other guys,… but it also revealed one of the most deeply held beliefs of both Christian and non-Christian people alike.
It can be summed up in the statement “God is coming!  Look busy!”
It’s the idea that if there is a God, he is completely absent from the present moment, and waiting to come back until we least expect it, so he can really dish out the punishment.
It’s the belief that God is waiting with a club in his powerful, outstretched arm, anxious to begin doling out judgment.
Whatever else I might say about that job and the people I worked with, at least I can say they understood the futility of seeking to please such a tyrant God.

It’s a pretty hopeless picture of God, and there is plenty of evidence in scripture; actually in both the old and the new testaments…that would seem to support these ideas.
Such a God is to be feared, since we all know that in our darkest moments, any God who is righteous, holy, and sovereign would surely judge us to be inadequate… no matter what we believe about Jesus.
The thing is, this way of thinking isn’t just found at construction sites or among non-christians.
Many of us right here might be trying to put on a good show, so that when God comes back he won’t be too upset with us.
The only real difference between that mentality and the attitudes of my co-workers at the construction job is that my co-workers knew the futility of pleasing that God.
They knew it would be hopeless…so they didn’t even try.
And you know what?  I can’t blame them.
Why would anyone want to spend eternity with such a fickle God?
What a hopeless picture.  Thank God it’s not the picture revealed by Jesus; and it’s not the hope given by the Holy Spirit.
The question I’d like to ask this morning is “Where is your hope?”
If faith is being sure of what you hope for; then what do you hope for?
This is the time of year when everybody is busy making lists.  We’re encouraged to think about what we want for Christmas; or on the flip side we’re making shopping lists of what to buy the people we care about.
Our mailboxes are filling with advertisements and fliers proclaiming the next biggest sale of the year or even century.  And it’s all done in hopes that your list will include something from their store.
It’s a common question ‘what do you want?’, especially at Christmas.
There’s something dramatically different, however, about asking what you hope for.
Where is your hope?
Of course we hope to please God.
But my hope is in a God who doesn’t need to be pleased!
My hope is in the Holy Spirit; the same Spirit that lived in Jesus; who now lives in us.
My hope is to join in the re-creation of reality as God intended it to be; not to avoid the coming punishment, but rather to enjoy the coming age in all its fullness.
This is a hope to cling to.
Where is your hope?
Is it in staying busy enough to avoid God’s gaze?
Or is it in the love and the grace; the full compassion that he has shown us in Jesus and continues to show us by the Holy Spirit which dwells within us?
See, more than any doctrine the Bible teaches us about God, the Word made Flesh says it more clearly.
Christ is not to be feared.
God is not to be feared.
The same Spirit that moved in Christ continues to move in the people of God!
Ours is the hope of resurrection and the fullness of this reality right here!
It is not a vain hope.  It is our way of life.
Being joyful always; praying continually; giving thanks in all circumstances; these are marks of a hope that is sure.
These are marks of a turning; away from the idol of self-achievement or earning redemption and a turning towards a life lived in the full awareness of the Spirit’s work.
This is God’s will, Paul says.
Not achievement of the highest moral goals.  Not fear of punishment.
But rather Joy, and Prayer, and Gratitude for a God who does not need to be pleased!!
Paul goes on, saying “Do not put out the Spirit’s fire”.
He assumes that the Spirit has kindled a fire within the recipients of this word.
I like to think it was burning within individuals as well as the body as a whole.
He seems to be saying ‘get out of the way’ as your joyful attitudes and your constant prayer and thanksgiving begin to take over your life.
Don’t stop it from happening.  Do not quench the Spirit.
You can’t fake that.  You can’t fake joy, or hope, or gratitude.
Happiness maybe; anyone can slap on a plastic smile for a time.
But do not quench the Spirit.  You cannot quench the spirit.
Do not put out the Spirit’s fire; do not overlook the hope that you have.
God offers freedom in Christ; freedom in more ways than you can imagine.
Therefore Hold on to what is good, avoid every kind of evil; and God himself, the God of peace, will sanctify you through and through.  Your whole spirit, soul, and body will be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  For the One who calls you is faithful and he will do it!

Amen

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