Homily for Advent 4 2014: The Festival of Lessons and Carols

The Inward Witness: The Basis for Our Hope

I want to share with you a poem, familiar to many of us, written on Christmas Day 1864 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Later it was edited down into a five verse carol. But here it is in its original seven verses.

Remember the date is 1864. The country is in the third year of the Civil War, experiencing destruction, grief and heartache never imagined possible.

Personally, Longfellow is still grieving the loss of his beloved wife who had died three years earlier when her dress caught fire in a freak domestic accident. More recently his son Charles had been severely wounded in battle.

And now it is Christmas, and he writes:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

So far so good….

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!

In the face of personal and national grief the poet proclaims hope in the living God and the future victory of Right, and Peace.  On what basis?

As Christians we live our lives against the backdrop of God’s salvation story. We have walked through that story today in our Scripture Lessons, starting with our fall into sin, the promise of a Savior, the coming of that Savior, and the declaration of new life in Him.

Our individual stories find their meaning in God’s story, or not at all. Without God we have only the changing circumstances and fortunes of our ultimately insignificant existence.  In the face of death, like Macbeth, we sense absurdity.

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player                                                                                   That struts and frets his hour upon the stage                                                                            And then is heard no more. It is a tale                                                                                         Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,                                                                            Signifying nothing.

Sometimes the story of our lives does seem to have been told by an idiot.  And sometimes that idiot is us, alternatively “strutting and fretting,” depending on the day and mood.

Or, when we look at our world and see the horrors created by human greed and cruelty, we wonder who is telling this story? Certainly not God.

Here in this beautiful worship space, with these beautiful friends, we feel at peace and there is plenty of good will to spare. But we know that elsewhere it is not so. And we may feel a little guilty if we forget for a moment the pain of bereaved parents and orphaned children.

Are God’s promises empty and our hope nothing but delusion? Would it be more honest to stop with the sixth verse?

… For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

The Christian gospel is either the most glorious truth or the most insidious lie. There really is no middle ground. Either the story will end with Jesus Christ victorious and every faithful heart healed and every tear dried.  Or it won’t.

Of course, some believe that the story never ends. The wheel just keeps turning. Others imagine that things will get better. Technology, education and enlightened governance will solve our problems. We need only give the experts the power to rule and stop blocking progress.

Meanwhile most of us are just trying to live our lives, pay our mortgages, save for college, or manage our retirement funds to a dignified end. We pray for peace, but we’ll settle for comfort, and occasionally wring our hands for those who are coming after.

Longfellow goes from despair to hope in the last stanza of the poem. And he doesn’t say why. He just hears the bells say:

God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!

I wonder what gave him hope?  Some say it was because it looked like his son was going to recover from his wound. Or perhaps it was Lincoln’s victory in the election of 1864. Or maybe it was just a blind faith in progress welling up in his optimistic American heart.

Well, of course it’s nice to end on a positive note in any case. But what gives his affirmation any credibility? Does just saying so make it so?

What gives us hope in the darkness? What will give us hope if the darkness deepens?

Some of us felt a boost of hope in November. New leadership. Others see the rising stock market or the dropping price at the pump as evidence that God has not given up on us yet.

But we know these are at best temporary blessings, if they are blessings at all.

I want to suggest this morning that the evidence of God’s future victory is not in what we call political or economic progress. It is in His ability to change the human heart.  The victories of His love in us, the fruits of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, in all circumstances – these are the basis for hope.

History tells us that if God cannot change human hearts no amount of money or technology or good governance can save us from ourselves.  But, if you have tasted His transforming love in your own heart; if you have experienced the forgiveness of sin, deliverance from shame, healing of griefs and grudges; if you know the witness of His spirit with your spirit that you are His child, then it is not hard to imagine His victory over the forces of cosmic evil.

This is the last Sunday of Advent. We began with Fr. Weller’s sermon, announcing this as a season of Hope. Where is our hope today? Really. What gets us through the night?

In Romans 5 Paul says,

We rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Authentic hope begins in the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Samuel Wesley’s dying words to his son John were these: “The inward witness, son; the inward witness, that is the strongest proof.”

God wants to give us a hope, not in progress or the future, but in the living presence of the Holy Spirit. Hope built on anything less will be theoretical and vulnerable to the changing winds of fortune.

Our hope and peace will be proportional to His living presence in us.

1 Peter 1:3 says:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope.

Not new information, but new birth, from the inside out, into a living hope.

God wants us to experience a hope that will never let us down. A hope deeply rooted in the reality of our own salvation, out of which we can say confidently, gratefully:  “I know there is hope for the world because of what God has done for me. His transforming grace is so real that I know He is real. And if He is real then there is hope for the world.”

The basis for confidence in God’s ultimate victory over Cosmic evil in the world is laid in His victory over the strongholds of evil in us.  And the beachheads of His final victory are in every heart that allows Him to take up residence.

Amen. Lord, let it be so in me.

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