Mitch Albom, perhaps most noted for his book Tuesdays With Morrie, in a recent book Have a Little Faith quotes from a 1975 sermon from his rabbi. The rabbi tells the story of a man seeking employment on a farm; he hands a letter of recommendation to his new employer that reads simply, “He sleeps in a storm.” The farmer is uncertain what to make of the note, but desperate for help, he hires the guy. Several weeks pass, and suddenly, in the middle of the night, a powerful storm rips though the valley. Awakened by swirling rain and howling wind, the farmer leaps out of bed. He calls for his new hired hand, but the man is sleeping soundly. And so the farmer dashes off to the barn, where he sees to his amazement that all the animals are secure with plenty of feed. He then turns to the field, only to discover that the bales of wheat had been bound and wrapped in tarps. And when he runs to the silo, he finds latched doors and dry grain. Only then does he understand the note, “He sleeps in a storm.”
For most Americans this election season has been one giant storm. The lighting strikes of negativity, the thunderous booms of allegations, and the soaking rain of misery have left many of us drenched in despair. Even if we are joyful that our candidate won, we still are left feeling like we need a new change of clothes.
The year was 598 B.C. and a storm called Babylon had rip through Israel and forced many into exile. They had been removed from their homeland and forced to live in a foreign land. But they knew their God was faithful. They knew that their God rescued. They knew that their God saved. They knew for certain that their God was just around the corner. They knew that at any moment Yahweh was going to sweep down and free them. If you would have taken a poll, the overwhelming response would have been that it was just a matter of time that God was going to lead them back to their land, restore their homes, and crush their enemies.
To make matters worse, false prophets were telling the people that this was exactly what was going to happen. So, live your life in a holding pattern. Live out of suitcases for a while. Don’t pull out the cookbooks quiet yet. Make due on peanut butter and jelly.
The prophet who was told by God at the beginning of his ministry, “I have put my words in your mouth,” was to go and tell the people, “Babylon is going to be your home for a while.” The prophet Jeremiah tells the exiles in Babylon, “Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce.” Go ahead and marry, have children, get ready for grandchildren. Get settled. Get comfortable. Unpack your bags. You are not going anywhere anytime soon.
It was not ideal. It was not what they had expected. It was not what they would have wanted. But it was where they had found themselves. And as a result God says, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare
Through this election process many Christians feel like they are living as exiles in their own homeland. And in one sense we are. As followers of Jesus, according to Paul, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior” (Phil. 3:20). Hebrews 13:14 says, “For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” The scripture speaks of Christians as “exiles and strangers” in whatever culture or nation we inhabit. This doesn’t mean we lack engagement. It doesn’t mean we shrink from responsibility. Instead we work for the welfare of the city. We strive for the betterment of the nation. We struggle for justice. We stand for peace on earth.
But how do we strive for good in the midst of the bad? How do we stand for justice and peace in the midst of violence? How do we unite when we are so divided? How do we find rest for our souls when the storm is raging?
Hope. Hope is not optimism. Optimism is what politicians preach. Hope is what prophets and preachers proclaim. Optimism is simply bringing a wishful attitude into a present situation. Optimism is a good trait to have. But it is not Christian hope. Hope is rooted in the goodness of God. Hope is believing in God’s goodness more than believing in the world’s badness. Hope allows us to see beyond our circumstances. Hope helps us to understand that we don’t simply define our lives by what we can see, taste, and touch. This is what the writer of Hebrews means when he says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
On Tuesday night, election night, I went to bed early. Along with many others, by placing our hope in Jesus, we are learning to sleep through the storm. This was what the prophet Jeremiah wanted the people of exile to understand as well. Hope keeps life circumstances from turning into life sentences. God is not helpless when life seems helpless. God is not spinning out of control when life seems to have lost its way. God is not lost when our life seems to have no direction. Jeremiah ends his message to the people with a direct word from the Lord, “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.”
A future with hope. This is God’s message to God’s people today. This is the prophetic message the church is sent to proclaim in our world today. It is time the Church awakens from its slumber and gives this message of hope to a world screaming in pain and loneliness and division.
Francis Miller, a leader who served under General Dwight Eisenhower during World War II, once related an incident that occurred at the end of the war. A young lieutenant under his command was talking with a Russian officer, who asked the American officer, who also happened to be a Christian, if he had read the writings of Karl Marx. The young Christian replied that he had read Marx. In response the Russian officer said, “Then you know how it is going to all come out.” According to the story the American asked his Russian counterpart if he had ever read the bible. When the Soviet officer allowed that he had, the Christian responded by saying, “Then you know how it will turn out.”
God’s goodness is revealed in Jesus Christ. God believes in each of us enough to send His Son that we may have hope beyond the grave. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. We have not been left to wallow in our own despair. We are a people with a future hope. Amen.
(Sermon preached at Gainesville First UMC, Gainesville, Ga on Sunday, November 13, 2016)