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"That's All We Have

“That’s All We Have”

a message by Dr. Bruce Havens

Coral Isles Church, UCC

November 13, 2020

17For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 18But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. 19I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. 20No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. 21They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 23They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well. 24Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. 25The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

It would be easy in these times to think things can only get worse. But the God of the Bible continually proclaims a higher vision. This morning’s passage gives us a vision to hold onto that can give us all that we need when it seems times are at their worst.

We have probably never been so aware of all the problems that the world faces. 24-hour news sources, the internet’s desire to get clicks by using the most outrageous stories they can find, and these sorts of things bombard us with trouble, terror, and tragedies. Politics, war, injustices, heck, even the weather reports can leave us anxious and fearful, even hopeless. In the face of this I want to proclaim to you that God is a God of hope. And God continues to proclaim the vision for us to turn to from the grip of all these troubles. The word we read this morning gives us what we need to focus on: the world God intends for us to experience.

The words of Isaiah certainly picture an ideal world. A new heaven and a new earth, a world where life is long and fruitful, a creation filled with plenty and enjoyed by all people not just a few – this is God’s vision. God proclaims that the spiritual connection between people and God will be so complete that before we call, God will answer; a creation so transformed that wolf and lamb will live in harmony, and lion and ox shall coexist safely!

It would be easy to dismiss this as wishful thinking or words for another time. But remember these words were spoken by the prophet to a people who had been torn from their homes by foreign invaders, had returned to destroyed villages, dysfunctional economies, and no plan or leadership to rebuild. Even the sacred city of Jerusalem was in shambles. One might ask, “How can God dare to proclaim such a beautiful vision in such times of despair and hopelessness?”

The prophet’s words give us the answer: God declares these things at the very time when we need to hear them most. When our faith falters, when our heartsong fails, when our fears seem overwhelming it is hope that we need the most. And a vision of hope is what God gives us. A vision of hope can give us strength to rebuild a nation, to stand up to injustice and oppression, to change the world rather than give in and give up to all that is wrong.

Now, let’s be honest, there are a lot of false purveyors of false hope. Richard Lischer was a professor of theology at Duke University Divinity School his whole career. In a sermon titled, “Your Future is Too Small,” he said to his listeners that he had been “walking through an airport terminal and passed one of those huge advertisements you see in airports. It was an ad for a spa featuring a buff-looking young guy glistening from a healthy workout. It read, “The human battery -- infinitely rechargeable.’” Professor Lischer said, “It was the sort of ad that gives one the tremendous urge to deface public property. Why? Because it is a lie! The human battery is not infinitely rechargeable. Who will tell us the truth? What politician, professor or pharmaceutical rep will tell you that their theory or product does not come with the guarantee of eternal life? Who will tell us the truth that is available in any church on Ash Wednesday: You are dust, and unto dust you will return?

Professor Lischer went on to say, “It seems to be a law of human nature that those who understand the dust and ashes part get the hope part, too. For who were the people who responded to Jesus’ ministry? The ones who were down, looking up. The ones who were fresh out of future. And who are the ones who can learn from them? Who are the ones who will benefit from looking to God’s future through their eyes, hearts and lives? That would be us; for, to be candid, you and I belong to another group. We have options. Not that we have everything nailed down.”

As a professor in a college Lischer says, “I talk to people every day who have no idea what they will be doing five years from now. But I never talk to anyone who thinks that in five years they will be in desperate need of rescue. I never talk to anyone who believes that they will be the one crying, ‘Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ We are the ones with options.

He goes on to say, “If you drive about a half-mile from [Duke University], you actually arrive at the future. It is a very nice nursing home filled with yesterday’s people; many of its residents are former Duke professors and employees; not a few were stars in their day. Some are incontinent; some are given to whimpering or simply staring out the window. On each resident’s door, there is photo of that person in his or her prime. Those photos are an education in the clothing styles and coiffures of the 1950s. So, on the outside of the door, the visitor sees an attractive, commanding presence; inside, in the room, the future.

“The photos are the nursing home’s way of saying: Have a little respect. This is who she used to be. She was once beautiful and accomplished; he was once handsome and powerful. Have a little respect. It’s a lovely gesture but slightly off-target in that it implies we should love people because of what they once were. I think that when the thief on the cross said to Jesus, ‘Remember me,’ he wasn’t saying, ‘Remember what a nice guy I used to be.’ I think he was saying, ‘Take me as I am. Receive me.’ And when Jesus forgave the thief on the cross, I don’t think he saw a clean-cut kid who had made a few bad decisions and squandered his potential. I think he saw a thief -- on a cross. And he dreamed him into paradise.” I like that – “dreamed him into paradise!” Never thought of it in those words before!

Professor Lischer goes on to say, “To see the future through the eyes of those brought low requires imagination. But not to worry; help is on the way. At the MIT laboratories, scientists have developed a device, a sort of electronic jacket filled with wires and electrodes, that when you put it on it does weird things to your physiology and you actually feel like you are 75 years old. They call it an Age Suit. It’s a miracle. Even if you’re 25 it can make you feel like you are 75. Your stimulus dollars at work!”

His point is, “you don’t have to go to MIT or put on the Age Suit to imagine the hopelessness of the old creation. Just look around your neighborhood and notice who never gets out. Just notice the folks in your own church,” [ and let’s be honest the old professor gets a little too accurate when he says, ] “-- you know them -- they arrive late, dressed a little different than the others; they don’t carry themselves as the rest do. You look up during the third stanza of the final hymn, and they’re gone. Or just spend an afternoon at the nursing home, the one with the pictures on the door. Walk into the sunroom and just say the name ‘Jesus’ and watch the spirits flutter to attention. Be there with a little bread and wine, time, and human sympathy, and notice the power of that hope, how large it is, how it refuses to die.” I had to think about those words awhile. It seems so small to say, “a little time, a little human sympathy,” maybe even a little sacrament… “and notice the power of hope, how large it is, how it refuses to die.”

In closing, Professor Lischer said his wife and he knew a “Duke oncologist who specializes in some of the worst kinds of cancer. He is a world-class physician with a string of degrees and fellowships after his name. Like all professionals, he has a card. It has his name, but where you might expect a list of his degrees and even ‘I’ve been on ‘60 Minutes,’ he has only this in boldface type: ‘THERE IS HOPE.’

Professor Lischer says, “I have a feeling it’s the card that keeps his patients going. It’s the card that brings them and their relatives back to his little clinic again and again. It’s the card that lifts their spirits when nothing else can. It’s the message on the card that keeps you and me marching forward and climbing upward. If I had the resources, I would have a stack of them made for each of you to take into your … daily lives. Only I wouldn’t mention Duke or list your degrees -- only your name, the name of Jesus and THERE IS HOPE. That’s all.”[1]

I don’t have a stack of premade cards for you. Instead, I have an instant self-service card- creating option for all of you. In your pew are some of those infamous 3x5 index cards. Hopefully you can find a writing utensil. If you want… if you believe it… I invite you to make your own card. Write your name. Write the name of Jesus. Write “There is hope” in the biggest letters you want. Take it home. Keep it. Give it away if you want and make more. I wish I had more to give you, but I don’t Ultimately maybe the truth is - hope is all we have.

Listen once more to the words of the God of hope: “17For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 18But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create [this place] as a joy, and its people as a delight. 19I will rejoice in [this sacred place], and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.” AMEN.

[1] Richard Lischer, “Your Future Is Too Small," Duke Divinity School's Faith & Leadership, 2010.

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