Laity Sermon Writing Contest
Scripture: Jeremiah 29:11~ “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
Romans 5:1-5~ “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
4673 Beechmont Dr.
Anderson, IN 46012
253-203-4929 (cell) or 765-393-1882 (home)
High Street United Methodist Church, Muncie, IN
Living Hope in the Midst of Change and Chaos
So, I am a millennial. This means that I was born between the year 1980 and the year 2000 (-specifically, 1982, but please don’t do the math to figure out my exact age!), and that I am part of one of the most studied and talked about demographic groups right now. You may well have read many of the articles about us millennials, from the ones that talk about the large number of us who are unemployed, to the those that talk about our technology-driven lives, to the many that talk about how our age group has tended to leave organized religion in droves. I think here, especially, we’ve all read a lot of articles on that last point. Perhaps you’ve also read the articles about how we like to volunteer for charitable organizations, to advocate for the unheard voices, and to do hands-on work for good causes. In case you’re wondering, we do tend to like those articles a bit better.
I am a millennial. This might mean that sometimes I can be found with my head buried in my smart phone even when I am out to dinner- not that I am admitting to it- and that I have played that game where we leave our phones in the middle of the table and the first person to pick it up has to face certain consequences, like paying for part of the meal. I might even have lost this challenge once or twice. Being a millennial might also mean that I have posted a few too many selfies on Instagram, that I occasionally document my dinner for social media, and I am most likely to connect with many of my friends over the internet first. It might even mean that I can sometimes be less patient and more distractible than older and wiser people I know.
Not only am I a millennial, I am a leading-edge millennial, meaning that I was born early enough in my generation to remember things like the Cold War, jazzercise video cassette tapes, neon fashion, and life before the internet. Because I was born in the early 80’s I have had a chance as a youth director to work with those who are at the younger end of my generation, those who barely remember life before the internet. This has given me an interesting look at the forces at play on our segment of society in specific because I see these high school and college students going through a lot of experiences that are somewhat familiar to me, but not necessarily familiar in the same way to people who were more established before 9/11 or the Great Recession.
Our annual conference theme this year is to “Be Hope.” I think this theme is especially relevant at a time when a lot of the events in our world seem to be chaotic. In fact, I think that this theme is especially relevant to a church that is trying to reach younger generations with God’s hope. How relevant? That is what I hope to talk about! But first, will you bow with me in prayer?
Lord, may the words I speak, and the thoughts and meditations of all here, help us to better understand your vision and will for our church community. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
When I first looked at our theme verses for Annual Conference this year, Jeremiah 29:11 and Romans 5:1-5, I admit that I wasn’t exactly sure, beyond the theme of hope, how they might work together. It took some digging to figure out how they were connected. The Romans passage, in particular, has always been a bit of a challenge for me. It reads in the New Revised Standard Version, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
I don’t think that any verse that talks about suffering producing endurance is, at first glance, the easiest or most accessible in the Bible. The thought of suffering usually causes us to pause. Why on earth would we want to boast in our suffering? Most of us would like to get past that suffering, thank you, to something a bit more comfortable.
At the same time, the fact that this passage slows us down and makes us think is, I think, a good thing. It causes us to ask, “Why?” Why is suffering a good thing when it leads to endurance? Why does it shape character? And why does that character lead to hope? In answering these questions, perhaps we’ll dig up an important piece of truth.
After all, as I mentioned earlier, the message of hope is a really timely one. A lot of people have talked lately about how things seem less hopeful on our planet earth. We see news reports daily about economic ups and downs, terrorist attacks by ISIS in the Middle East, and mass-shootings in our own country. We millennials have become known for our student debt and our difficulty in landing an adult job that allows us to be less dependent on mom and dad. I can certainly understand this stereotype, because I am back in school for the third time finishing my Bachelor’s while my husband works on his seminary degree, which will be his second Master’s degree. I even realized the other day that if one were to abbreviate “the Bank of Mom and Dad,” you would end up with “the Bank of MAD.” Hmmm.
Career-hopping is another really common trend for people our age. When the first degree doesn’t yield a job that provides enough hours, or a job in our field, many of us return to school. Instead of settling into a predictable adult life, we find that things feel very unpredictable. I don’t think this is isolated to millennials, though. Each generation has to deal with change in its own way. It seems like the unpredictable has become very much more the norm in our nation and world over the past decades. This is even more true for people in other parts of the world, and so I am certainly not complaining!
The amount of chaos and change that we face can make us hope that we will find an easier path. For the college students and graduating high school seniors that I know, promises of a solid future have a strong emotional tug. Perhaps this is why we turn to Jeremiah 29:11 frequently this time of year during graduation Sundays: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” We all want to know what that plan is, and what our next step should be. We hope that it leads us on a joyful, happy career path that not only provides our needs, but also helps us to feel as though we are contributing to society. This verse also appeals to us during a particularly contentious national election year, or as our United Methodist church debates difficult issues following General Conference.
As we search for these plans that are for our good and that give us a hope-filled future, we are ready to do away with the suffering part of things. If we think about Paul’s note in Romans 5, however, or of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, we find that they did not promise that we would not suffer. Instead we find promises of blessings if we endure through the suffering.
Even Jeremiah was not promising an immediate end to trials. God’s promise to the nation of Israel that they would have a future came at the beginning of seventy years of exile. It was only after these seventy years had passed that they would face the hard task of returning to the Promised Land and rebuilding their society. In the meantime, they needed to wait on the Lord. They could, however, depend on Him to eventually fulfill his promises. Their hope, then, was not due to their immediate circumstances, but due to God’s faithfulness.
Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. How does suffering produce endurance? If we were to ask a person training for a marathon this question, they would tell us that they cause their muscles to be fatigued a little bit every day so that in the long run, (the literal long run, in this case), their muscles won’t give out on them. Marathoners dread nothing more than “bonking” at mile 23, or finding that their body is quitting on them when they want it to keep going. When we endure through trials, we find that we gain the strength not to quit. In the case of our Christian walk, we learn to draw strength from the Holy Spirit to keep going.
This strength, or endurance, then can produce character. How? When we know that we can keep going, we are less likely to panic and do nutty things. We are more likely to stay on the course, and less likely to try ineffective short-cuts. As we lean on the Holy Spirit for strength, we find that our thoughts and actions are more stable. We stay the course because we have learned that He will provide for us.
This lesson that God provides can only be learned by experience. Until we have found that we need to rely on God, perhaps we will never learn to rely on Him. Maybe this is why God allows us to face trials. He is not trying to inflict us with suffering, vindictively trying to see if we will stand firm in our faith. No, instead He is allowing opportunities to arise wherein we might discover who He is. When everything around us seems to be chaotic, we find that the God who created the universe out of chaos is stable. He is always there, and He is always willing to work out good things from the bad.
Hope, then, arises when we realize that God will not let us down. When things seem to be at their very worst, still God is faithful. When all hope seems to be lost, God can still turn events for our good. After all, the disciples felt like all hope had been lost when Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. And we know how that turned out! A God who can defeat death is strong enough to defeat those things that threaten to destroy our hope! A God who can turn death into life can make all things new.
This is hope that we can share with the world. There is no thing in the world that He cannot overcome. There is no sin too powerful, no situation too chaotic, no struggle too entrenched. Even when it seems like the world around us is constantly shifting and changing, our God does not shift or change. When we are not strong enough, He is strong enough.
We can hope because we find that God is steadfast and unchanging. We can hope because we find that God is making all things new, even those things in our own hearts. We can hope because we will find this to be true over and over again as we lean on God. And God will not disappoint.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Am