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Hope and Nests, part III

June 11th, 2008 by isaac · No Comments

Title: Nests and Hope, part III
Date: June 8th, 2008
Texts: Gen 12:1-9; Ps 33:1-12; Rom 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26

“If I knew that tomorrow was the end of the world, I would plant an apple tree.”

—Martin Luther, a legendary saying

What is hope? And what does it mean to have hope? Jessamine asked some questions during church a few weeks ago that keep these questions on my mind. And it is especially on my mind this week given the recent developments with my blue birds.

Some of you haven’t been here for my recent sermons on my blue birds, so let me recap. I put up a blue bird house at the edge of my front yard, near the street. And despite all the dangers that come with my neighborhood—like cats, cars, and people—some blue birds started a nest in that house. Because that’s what birds do: they build nests that provide space for birth, for new life, right smack in the middle danger and threats to their lives.

And that’s what we do. We build nests of Christ’s love. We surround and sustain one another with the Holy Spirit—the embrace of God’s love. We are God’s nests of hope, nests for the birth and re-birth of life. And our nest-building becomes a reason for hope—that God is still at work, breathing and speaking life through us.

Then there was a problem. I told you the bad news. The eggs hatched, but a cat killed all the babies. The nest became a grave. Very sad. But, after a few days, the two blue birds came back to the site of the massacre and started nesting again. It was amazing. They couldn’t be stopped. That’s what hope looks like, stubborn hope. Death will not have the last word.

And I told you how that’s what our hope looks like too. The story of our hope is the story of a man named Jesus who made nests everywhere, surrounding people with the love of God, offering abundant life. And that life gets killed. But death does not have the last word. God turns a grave, a tomb, into the site of new life. Our hope is born in an empty tomb. The grave is the birthplace of resurrected life. We are now like those blue birds that return to their nest, despite the stench of death, and discover new life. Through that same Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, we are at work in this world making space for life.

Now, a lot has happened since that last sermon. And I think this will be the last one on the blue birds. Last week I peaked in the house. And I saw three eggs. Yes, that grave turned into a place for life. Three eggs waiting to hatch. I was so excited. I felt vindicated. I was right. Death didn’t have the last word. Life won. Promises of hope turned into reality. That bird house is now a sign of good news.

On Tuesday I was lucky enough to see a baby bird struggling to get out of an egg. It was late in the afternoon. I happened to peek into house and saw one little guy. It looked like an alien, or what I imagine an alien would look like. Pretty exciting stuff. I went back inside my house. And whenever I needed a distraction, I would get up from my desk and walk over to the window and check out the house.

After 30 minutes or so, I started to worry. Usually the blue bird parents are darting in and out of that house all day long. I realized that I hadn’t seen them all day.

I went back out there to check out the newborn bird. When I opened the house I saw the baby bird alone with two unhatched eggs, opening his mouth as wide as he could, waiting for food. I started to panic. I quickly did some google research on the internet and discovered that newborn blue birds need to be fed every half hour, or something like that. My mind kept repeating that image of the blue bird with a wide open beak, dying for food—literally.

I told my neighbor. He said there’s nothing we could do. The mom was probably killed. That night I went to bed depressed; when I closed my eyes I saw that hungry bird waiting for food. I woke up early the next morning and watched that house from my widow. Nothing. No blue birds coming with food for the baby. It troubled me the whole day. I couldn’t bear to peek into the house again. I didn’t want to know, and I didn’t want that picture in my head. Katie was brave enough to look. It was dead, of course.

Now what? What can I say? I wanted to talk about hope this week. But I can’t shake that image of a hungry baby bird out of my head. It’s haunting; hunger without a cure. And then I started to feel bad about feeling bad, because I realized that thousands of people are dying and rioting for food around the world and I’m not moved in the slightest.

Do I care more about these little birds than human beings, flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone? I can look at pictures of devastation in Myanmar, and then take another sip of coffee and move on to the celebrity section of the newspaper. Honestly, that’s what I do. I disgust myself.

(pause)

So, I’ve been asking myself this week: What is hope? What does hope look like? Well, I think hope looks like Abraham, who leaves everything for something unknown and mysterious—leaves everything for only a promise, nothing tangible. He hopes in a promise. And hope sets him on his way—it’s not something he does in his head, while sitting in his living room. Hope is something we do with our bodies, with our lives.

And most of the time, hope is about doing stuff that doesn’t compute—that doesn’t make sense. There is absolutely no reason for Abraham to leave everything. It’s not a good idea. Family is social security. And we can see that Abraham can’t quite manage the thought of leaving all his kindred behind because he brings Lot with him. The author of Genesis is a clever writer, full of sly juxtapositions that always put a question mark to the heroes of the story. So, we read in 12:4, “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.” What?

Abraham didn’t exactly go as the Lord told him. God told him to “Go from your country and your kindred” in verse 1; and now here he is with Lot—the son of his dead brother, maybe now the adopted son of Abraham, a possible heir. Sounds like kindred to me!

But God is faithful to his promises even when people don’t obey the call exactly right, even when Abraham follows God’s call, and breaks it at the same time. God will be faithful, even when Abraham isn’t.

And that’s what hope is about. It’s about God’s faithfulness to do what is promised, and our feeble ways of keeping that hope alive by following. This isn’t optimism, which anticipates how things will get better in the future, if we have the right strategies and work hard enough. Hope is about trusting that God will do what God promises. Hope sets us free to imagine impossible things.

God calls Abraham. And where does God lead him? Straight into a famine. We learn in verse 10 that there was a severe famine in the land of Canaan. How is that a sign of hope? What kind of land of promise is that? And then, if you know how the story goes, Abraham dies before ever experiencing the promises God makes to him.

What kind of hope is that? Well, it’s a hope that trusts that God is faithful. Paul hammers this home in our passage from Romans 4. “The promise rests on grace,” he says (v.16). The God of Abraham is a God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (v.17). Death is never the last word. God’s grace shines through the impossible.

It’s all about trust, stubborn hope, as Paul says in verses 20 and 21: “No distrust made Abraham waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”

God keeps his promises, despite our failures to follow, despite our compromises, and despite our blindness. God always finds ways to offer us another chance to follow, another chance to get on board, another opportunity for repentance and conversion, another chance to hope.

Jesus shows us what it means to follow God’s call in our passage from Matthew 9. We are used to passages where Jesus calls us to follow, where Jesus calls us to be disciples. For example, at the begging of our Gospel passage we how Matthew, like Abraham, drops everything when Jesus finds him and tells him, “Follow me.” That’s discipleship.

But we are not used to seeing how Jesus is a follower. We’re more familiar with Jesus the great leader, not Jesus the humble follower. But that’s what we get in Matthew 9. A leader of the synagogue comes to Jesus, and says, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” And how does Jesus respond? Not with words: “Jesus says nothing. [Instead] His response is action” (Davies and Allison, p. 127). Verse 20 says, “And Jesus got up and followed him.” It’s the same verb: akolouthéo—to follow.

Jesus is like Abraham and like Matthew the tax collector—they are all followers. Jesus hears the voice of God in the voice of people like this man whose daughter died, people who cry out for mercy.

(pause)

What is hope? Hope is a way of life. It’s not something we merely talk about, or wish for while reading the newspaper. Hope happens when we listen for how God wants to pour out mercy, and how God wants to reach out with a healing hand. Hope is a gift we receive when we do what Jesus does: he spends his time with people without a future.

Hope doesn’t belong to the people with all the answers, the people who have everything figured out—not powerful leaders or experts and strategists. Instead, hope is something that happens to you, something that sweeps you off your feet, something you stumble across—or hope happens when someone seeks you out and asks for mercy.

Hope is about our location; where we sit, with whom we eat, how we waste our time. Because Jesus is always wasting his time; he’s quite irresponsible. All the good stuff that happens in Matthew 9 starts with Jesus wasting time with people he shouldn’t be with. He makes friends with a despicable tax collector, a servant of the Roman occupation, and then enjoys fellowship with more tax collectors and sinners. Those aren’t the usual movers and shakers.

Jesus “goes out of his way to mingle with outcasts,” people of poor reputation, people up to no good (Davies and Allison, p. 103). And that’s where hope happens. Hope is about getting swept up in what God is doing in the shadows, in a land of famine, in wastelands and among wasted lives.

(pause)

My neighbor already has ideas for next year, to make the blue bird house a little safer for the next family. I’ll just do what he tells me to do. And maybe I’ll see something hopeful. But I guess I’ll have to wait, then wait some more.

Hope is something we learn as we follow. Hope is something that happens when we wait with the people Jesus waits with. And we simply follow when we hear the call. Like Jesus does, when he’s wasting time with wasted people, and gets up and follows when he hears about a death.

Tags: sermons