Hope Amid Difficulty

[]Hope amid difficulty is a theme that is very real for us right now, especially for those who are struggling with grief, those who are struggling with the economic woes of our society, and those who live in fear who do not know where to turn to be relieved from those fears. Hope amid difficult times is a strong theme for us now.

But it is also a strong theme that goes all the way back to ancient times reflected here in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount delivered to a people who lived in very difficult times…one might even say much more difficult times than we live in now. In the ancient world of the Roman Empire, life was often cruel and difficult. Those who were considered Roman citizens had obligations and duties. They lived in a place where people were bought and sold. If they could not pay their debts, they were either sold into slavery or they sold their family into slavery to pay the debt. Life was harsh. And under the Roman Empire, people were required, as good citizens, to worship the gods of the Roman Empire, which were numerous. Many temples were built, each dedicated to a different god, and people were expected to do their duty as citizens and worship there. If they were followers of Christ, it was a difficult time for them if they wanted to be good citizens, but also be faithful to God's Word. So hope amid difficulty or amid struggle is a very powerful theme that we find throughout Scripture and in the words of Jesus.

In Jesus' time, he tried to bring to the people a new understanding of God's Word. In the Israelite custom of its day, and as we read through the entirety of the Old Testament, those who did God's will would be blessed, and those who did not do God's will would be accursed, forsaken, and punished. If they repented, they would be redeemed and restored to the good graces of God. But if they did not, they would experience difficulty. Added to that was the judgment that may have come from the church and the authorities of that time.

In those times, if you lost a loved one, a child perhaps, it was because you had done something that was not faithful to God. If you lost your job, or your home, or had to sell your family or yourself into slavery, it was a sign that you had not been faithful to God. These were some of the early understandings in Old Testament history, not of every priest or prophet, but of some. Couple that with the understanding that to be a good Roman citizen, you must worship other god and the burden that put on people when they know, according to the Ten Commandments, that there is only one God. So when they face times of uncertainty and challenge and everything is falling apart around them, you can imagine the people thinking, "I'm being punished, I'm being separated from God, there is no hope for me." Imagine the throngs of people who were following Jesus listening to his revolutionary teachings about God's love and how it was there for them, how through baptism and through repentance there was newness of life. Imagine those people seeing a glimmer of hope. And we might understand why the crowds followed him.

And today we hear about Jesus gathering the people on a hillside giving his Sermon on the Mount, people coming from all different walks of life who have heard about Jesus, about his power of healing, the miracles he performed, and the ways that he helped people see God in a whole new light. And here is Jesus looking down upon these people who are gathered, the love he must have felt for them, and the pity he felt in his heart for all those who were struggling. And here he had his opportunity to share with them the message of hope amid difficult times. So Jesus sits down and begins to set the record straight of who God is.

He tells them, "Blessed are you who are poor in spirit, for yours will be the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you who mourn, you will be comforted. Blessed are the meek because they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." Imagine him saying these things, although I think he may have been more personal. "Blessed are you, the merciful, for you will receive mercy. Blessed are you who are pure in heart, for you will see God. Blessed are you who are peacemakers, for you will be called the children of God. And for any of you who are persecuted for righteousness, or for my sake, and people have reviled you, blessed are you for your reward is going to be great in heaven. Just as you have suffered, so have the prophets who have gone before you. So remember, you will be blessed."

Words of hope. Words of hope for something new. Words of hope for a new beginning. Whether or not it was in this life or in the Kingdom to come, whether it was that imminent Kingdom that they expected to happen in their midst or the heavenly realm which people looked toward, the point of all of this message is Jesus is setting the record straight, that even in the midst of your difficulty and your struggles, when you may not feel that God is there, or the little voices in your head or your neighbors are saying, "You have been forsaken because you haven't done this, or you haven't done that, and you've displeased God," Jesus says, "No, you are blessed." And he goes through the list of all of those sitting amongst him who were struggling with all these things. I believe Jesus was telling them, "You are not abandoned," and that, "God loves you," and that, "God is with you, and a new day is coming. You will be comforted, you will inherit the Kingdom, you will know joy. It is coming. Don't despair. Trust in your God and have hope because you are truly blessed."

Those are the things that I think Jesus was trying to convey to the people. Through this powerful Sermon on the Mount that we read every year on All Saints Sunday, do we find ourselves in here? Do we find ourselves in any of these categories? Do we find that Jesus, as he was speaking to them, is speaking to us today? Do we find that even though the world has become very modern and given us many amenities and a much different life than people in the ancient East, do we realize that human nature has not really changed, and with life always comes struggle? But with faith, the hope is always there. With trust in our God, we will see a new day. We will be healed. We will be made whole. They are promises of Jesus found throughout the New Testament and they are promises for us to hold deep within our hearts, especially when we struggle.

So I want to reassure us that there is always hope when we have faith. The promises of God will be fulfilled. It may not be tomorrow or next week, or even next year, but living in hope means that we know that day is coming. And when it comes, we are able to celebrate. We are able to praise the Lord with a new voice and see the things that God has in store for us. So let us live in the midst of the hope of faith and let us remember that God is always with us in good times and in bad. The Spirit remains, that same Spirit we just awakened in the little one who was just baptized. That Spirit will be there for him. And just as I hope he will call upon that Spirit to be his guide and comfort, I hope that you will trust and call upon that same Spirit because all of us need wholeness and it is something that God wants for us today and always. May it be so.

November 9, 2008

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