Sermon – Advent 2 – "The Christian Hope" – Romans 15:13 – 12/5/10

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"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope." (Rom.15:13).

My recent visit to Southeast Asia reminded me once again of what a hopeless philosophy the Buddhist religion is.

The bottom line of Buddhism is that we are all the products of our past. The law that governs the course of life is called the law of Karma. Basically, the law of Karma is this, you reap what you sow. Everything is a consequence of former actions – not only your actions in this life but also the former actions of former lives. Everything from your past is carried forward through one reincarnation after another.

It gets even more complicated because no one is an autonomous individual. Our lives are interwoven with those of the society in which we live, each member of which has its own Karma which effects everyone else's.

Progress is made by improving your Karma which is done by following Buddha's eight-fold path. By following this eight-step path, you improve your Karma, which improves the chances that your next life will be better than this one. Leaving this present life with bad Karma means that your next life will be worse than this one. As one former Buddhist explained it to me, 'Buddhists strive to be good people because they don't want to come back as a bug.'

The goal of Buddhism is 'Nirvana' – perfect enlightenment. The 'enlightened one' has overcome his past. Buddhists say that this can take as many as 500 lifetimes and as few as 200.

The basis of Buddhist philosophy is that everything that happens is the natural consequence of past actions in this life and previous lives. There is no God in Buddhist philosophy. There are no 'outside forces' at work on an individual's life or on the cosmos. Everything happens according to the natural, immutable law of 'what you sow you will eventually reap.'

Practically speaking, the Buddhist's 'hope' is that his next life might be a little better than the present one. Problem is, he's not able to know what his past lives have been and so he has no idea if he's progressing or regressing. But his 'hope' is based entirely on his ability to improve his Karma, which is not entirely under his control.

Contrast that to the Christian 'hope.'

Consider our Old Testament lesson for this morning. The picture that the prophet Isaiah has painted for us is of a forest that's been clear-cut and is nothing but stumps. What was once a verdant and lively forest has been cut down and destroyed. The forest that will become a wasteland represents Israel, the people of God.

This is what God is going to do to His people because of their idolatry and lack of faith. Yes, there really are consequences for our actions. But the consequences are not uncontrolled, natural forces. The consequences for our sin come from God. They are always under the control of God and they extend only so far as God permits. Every consequence for our sin must pass in review before the Lord God and must accomplish His purpose – and nothing more, and nothing less. Historically, the nation of Assyria would be the axe with which God chops down His people.

This is something that no Buddhist could accept. There is no 'higher power' overseeing and controlling the course of human history. It simply moves along on the currents of Karma like a jellyfish with the ocean currents. You reap what you sow.

But the Christian hope is based on the premise that there is a God in heaven who directs the course of human history in all of it's minutest of details. God is present and active and He is moving this world to a very definite goal. And not only is this God moving His whole creation to the end He has set for it, but He is moving each and every one of His people to that same goal.

The Christian believes that every single event and episode of human history is not simply the result of natural consequences, even though we do see many natural connections of cause and effect, which is what makes the study of history so interesting and worthwhile. But what we also understand to be true is that underneath and behind all that we can see and deduce, God is using each one of these events according to His purpose and to the end that He has established. History does not consist of a collection of individual events but the continual series of events that all lead to the divinely established end.

If I may put this another way, there is a God who has a real interest in the course of human history, and not only history in general, but along with that, the life of each and every individual human being who has ever entered into human history.

Nowhere do we see this divine interest and involvement in human history more clearly and definitively than when God Himself enters into this world as an individual human being. God Himself steps right into human history and He takes it by its beginning and its end and shapes and bends it so that it heads right to the end and the goal that He desires.

This is what St. Paul is getting at when he writes as we have heard, "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." (Rom.15:4). Paul is saying that as you read about the historical events and episodes recorded in the Bible, you will see God's hands in them all, like a potter shaping the clay according to His design.

Life is not at the mercy of random evolutionary or karmic forces of undirected consequences. God is present and at work in this world and in your individual life, to bring you to the goal that He has set for you, and along with you, His whole creation.

So the Christian hope is based on God's interference in our lives and in our world. He doesn't just sleep the centuries away until the alarm which He set in the beginning, goes off, awaking to see how things turned out. He is present and active in His creation. He is moving it along to a particular end.

Isaiah points out God's presence in this world by pointing to the shoot that grows from the one stump. Jesus Christ is the "shoot from the stump of Jesse." He comes with no bad Karma. "The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord." (Is.11:2).

He is the very presence and power of God in this world. He twists and turns the normal and natural consequences of things and produces the most unnatural and unexpected outcomes. "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:6-9).

This is certainly not the result of "you reap what you sow." This is not the way human history would read if it were just left to it's own course. This is the work of divine interference that redirects the natural course of things to the supernatural course of things.

God has entered into His creation and all of the natural consequences of our sinful life and of the accumulation of sinful generation after sinful generation was carried out upon Him. He had no bad Karma, suffered the bad Karma of the whole world in His body on the cross. Jesus reaped what we have sown. God swung His axe into His Son, who embodies all of His people.

But in doing so, He changes the whole outcome of human history. He redirects all things according to His good purpose and His holy will. It's as though God has rewired the universe through the cross. Now, nothing works naturally. Everything works according to God's purpose and to God's end.

What could be more unnatural and unexpected than a living and glorified crucified man?

How strange and unexpected that the sin that we sow should reap forgiveness and mercy.

The most natural consequence of death is the end of life. But even this, God has rewired through the cross of Christ so that through death we enter into eternal life.

Certainly, our sin still produces painful consequences. But through the cross, God uses even these painful consequences for our good by using them to discipline those whom He loves, with to the end that they might "yield the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11).

St. Paul sees the whole course of human history as evidence that God is overruling the natural consequences of our sinful and idolatrous lives and turning them to His gracious and loving purpose. "For we know that for those who love God all things work together for good… according to His purpose." (Rom.8:28).

This is the Christian hope. Almighty God has entered into this world and our lives and He is making all things new.

Paul writes to the Thessalonians saying, "We do not want you to be uninformed brothers about those who are asleep that you may not grieve as others do who have no HOPE." (1Thess.4:13).

Peter writes to the church saying, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living HOPE through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." (1Peter 1:3).

The Buddhist can give you the reason for why he has no hope. But Peter says that we Christians are to be "always prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you." (1 Peter 3:15)

The Christian hope is that the almighty and loving God is at work in our lives, so that we do not reap what we sow. Rather, we see Christ moving the world and you and me to His goal, which is not an endless reincarnation into this world of despair and death, but a bursting out of this world into paradise, just as surely as Christ Himself burst from His three-day prison.

So, The Christian knows that we are not the inescapable product of our past. Jesus Christ has set us free from our past. We are the gracious product of His love.

As long as we live in this world, in human history, we know that we are not yet what we will be. God is at work in our life and in this world.

But He has given us certain clues of what is coming. By Baptism, we die to sin and are raised to new life in Christ. In the Lord's Supper, we receive a foretaste of the feast to come.

But "For now, we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known." (1 Cor. 13:12). "Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is." (1 John 3:2)

"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope." (Rom.15:13).

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