May 13, 2018, Mother’s Day, The Seventh Sunday of Easter
The other day I was driving home from church, listening to a sports talk show that was winding down its broadcast for the day. As the last caller was voicing his opinion (rather adamantly I should say), the bumper music started playing in the background, which was a signal to everyone, especially the caller, that time was running out, and whatever he wanted to get off his chest, he’d best get to it. Then, as the show was signing off, the music became louder and more pronounced.
The song itself, “Closing Time,” by the nineties rock band Semisonic, is not what you’d consider normal fodder for a Baptist sermon. It’s a somewhat mournful tune about a guy in a bar, not ready to go out into the cold, cruel night but who is faced with the reality that his time in the bar is up and he’s got to do something, most likely by himself. But there is a line in the song that never makes it to the end of the talk show broadcast, which is a shame, because of how that one line radiates hope in the midst of an otherwise bleak set of lyrics. The line goes: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
That sounds like something T.S. Eliot would have said (“What we call the beginning is often the end/And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” Little Gidding), or the prophet Jeremiah in his mournful set of poems we know as the book of Lamentations.
Let’s be honest. Lamentations is right up there with Leviticus as one of the books of the Bible we don’t read very often. And it’s understandable why we don’t. The book of Lamentations is a series of five funeral poems Jeremiah penned as he reflected on the aftermath of the fall of Jerusalem and the temple’s destruction. In a low season of life, who among us wants to read funeral poems when our heart’s desire is to be lifted up by some inspiring Bible text or story?
But there’s a reason why this set of poems is the Word of God. Lamentations shows us that the God whom we worship and serve is big enough to take on our harshest doubts and questions, because God knows that when we voice them (or in some cases vent them), we rid ourselves of all of this anger and rage over how life hasn’t gone according to our expectations, and we open ourselves to the possibilities of whatever fresh start God may be working to bring about. “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
Consider the text that is before us this morning, which is the very last part of the book of Lamentations, the book’s “closing time” as it were. After five chapters of intense critique over the injustice of what has come upon God’s people (with the exception of a brief interlude in the third chapter that extols God’s great faithfulness), the prophet’s song ends on the most uncertain of notes. “God, we know that your reign endures forever and there is no power that can come against you. But God, it sure seems to us like you’ve forgotten us and left us to our own devices. So, please God, restore us and renew us and give us a fresh start, unless it’s too late and you’ve given up on us.” That’s the flow of the text. So, what are we to do with words like those?
I think a good place to begin is to see what these words teach us about the notion of Christian hope in the face of our despair. Our tendency is to think of hope as a synonym for optimism. We see hope only as an emotion. We assume that if a person is hopeful, then that person is cheerfully convinced that everything is bound to work out in the end. But that’s not how the Bible defines hope at all.
No, in the Bible, hope is not so much an emotion as it is a choice, one that people make to trust their present situations, as painful as those situations may be, to the goodness of God. Hope looks reality face-on and describes it for what it often is – a miserable, disheartening set of circumstances that to the naked eye offer no reason to think that anything good can come out of them. Hope, therefore, is not a way to deny the harshness that confronts us or, even worse, to rationalize it. Hope instead is a choice that we make to believe that our circumstances will in no way frustrate the redemptive purposes of God and that regardless of what we may be encountering in this present moment, God’s goodness will prevail.
The problem with most people today is that when faced with unbelievably difficult circumstances, they conclude that they are trapped; there is no way out. But the hope to which the Bible points us is a way to trust those circumstances to the God whose power raised Jesus from the dead and to believe that with God’s help we will be empowered to act in some way in the face of those circumstances to make some new beginning at what might look like the end of everything.
Dr. William Glasser was an American psychiatrist credited with the development of a therapeutic model known as reality therapy. It was a theory he came to while working with patients as a resident at the Orthopedic Hospital in Los Angeles. As you would understand, many of Glasser’s patients had serious physical conditions or suffered from chronic pain. As Glasser worked with the patients, he had them focus on positive choices they might make in the face of their painful reality. He didn’t want his patients looking back at the past or complaining about the present. He learned very quickly that he got nowhere with his patients when he would start his sessions by asking, “How do you feel today?” which you would think would be a compassionate question to ask. But what Glasser discovered is that such a question only caused his patients to focus on their pain, to lock in on their weakness, and to give in to their depression. So, Glasser instead began to start his sessions by asking another question: “What are you planning to do today?” He learned that by asking this question, he was introducing the idea that his patients had some measure of control over at least one area of their lives. They could choose to walk up and down the hospital hallways or to read a magazine or to call a friend. Instead of focusing on their conditions, the patients began focusing on their choices, a move which led many of his patients to report remarkably decreased levels of pain.
Isn’t that what the prophet is doing in this text? While acknowledging the reality of his present situation, with all of its myriad miseries, instead of giving in to it, he chooses to trust it to God in the hope that God is greater than the situation, and that God is grieved by the situation, and, most importantly, that God is goaded as it were to work in the face of the situation to bring about His redemptive good.
Isn’t that what Jesus did, when at Calvary he experienced what seemed to be an even greater agony than the agony of crucifixion – that being the agony of divine abandonment? But instead of giving in to it, Jesus trusted it to God. “Into thy hands I commit my spirit” (Lk. 23:46). And on the third day God responded to Jesus’ hope by raising him from the dead and honoring his faithful witness. “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end,” as it did not just for Jesus, but as it also does for all who place their hope in him.
This morning may have found you in a tough place, a place where you may be tempted to believe that God has forgotten you or abandoned you. That, however, is not the reality. God is very much present in the places where can’t imagine Him being, and He is there to work in the most incredible of ways if only we will pin our hopes upon Him. This morning, dare to ask yourself the question: “What can God do in my life if only I were to trust this time to Him?” “Instead of asking, “Why am I in this present predicament,” ask the question, “What can God teach me?” and “How can God form me?” and “What fresh start can God make possible?” If you can come to the place where you can express even the faintest of hope in the face of your circumstances, God will anchor you in that place and make available a means of grace to see you through to a new and better day.
As most of you know, I grew up in rural Alabama, where there is a Baptist church on virtually every county road. Even from an early age, I always paid attention to the names of those churches, because the names told a story. Some of the churches have Bible names. There’s Gilead, and Siloam, and Mount Nebo. But some of them have aspirational names, like Christian Fellowship and Friendship and Pilgrims Rest. All of them are great names and most of them are easily understood. But about 20 miles south of my hometown in the little village of Lisman, Alabama, there is a Baptist church known as “Little Hope Baptist Church.” There would have been a time in my life that I would have thought that to be a silly name. “Why not ‘Big Hope’ or ‘Living Hope?’” But after reading this text and going around the block a time or two in life, now I understand why. Life can be tough, but just the smallest of hope will open the way for amazing grace to get through and make a new beginning from what we may have thought was the deadest of ends.