A Summons to Hope

Many of you are reading this column after Election Day in the United States.

You know, or very soon will know, its outcome—not only winners and losers, but also the state of election integrity, or if there has been any unrest in the aftermath. My colleagues from the Sermon Brainwave podcast will be recording a special episode Thursday, November 5, on post-election preaching, so I invite you to check that out for election-specific commentary.

I, on the other hand, am writing this column in advance of November 3. That means the task falls to me to remind us all of two pieces of good news that persist, regardless of what the newspapers or cable channels report on Wednesday morning, or how any of us feels about the election outcome.

Good news #1: Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! You know this, and you will proclaim this to your congregation this Sunday, as you do every Sunday–each a “little Easter.” What might this fundamental confession of faith draw our attention to this particular week?

  1. Your own worth is not contingent on how well you preach this Sunday, or any Sunday. You, Working Preacher, are a beloved child of God! Through Jesus Christ you are freed from sin, death, and shame! Nothing you say or don’t say from the pulpit will change that. On days when the vocation of preacher seems particularly fraught, hold these truths close to your heart, and take courage. Remember this testimony from the apostle Paul: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). In life and in death, in order and in chaos, in promise and in peril, we belong to God.
  2. God is bigger than earthly institutions. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has defeated death itself. The power of God over the powers that seem to dominate the world is also a theme deeply rooted in Old Testament tradition. The Psalms in particular are full of reminders that the forces of this world are chaotic, inferior, and fleeting. Take these familiar words from Psalm 46:

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge. (Psalm 46:6-7)

Or these from Psalm 2:

Why do the nations so furiously rage together?
     And why do the people imagine a vain thing? (Psalm 2:1)1
[…]

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
     the LORD has them in derision (Psalm 2:4)

I offer these snippets of Psalms not as “prooftexts,” but rather as brief reminders of the multitude of ways and places Scripture bears witness to the power of God over the powers of this world.

Outside of Scripture, I think also of this stanza from In Memoriam A.H.H. by Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

Our little systems have their day;
      They have their day and cease to be:
      They are but broken lights of thee, 
And thou, O Lord, art more than they. 

Democracy, elections, government: all are phenomenally important, worthy of our attention and our engagement. They are the ways we order our life together as we seek justice for our neighbors and work toward the kingdom of God. We must not neglect these systems. Yet “they are but broken lights” of God’s righteousness. We work within them, even as we also await with hope a new vision for God’s just and merciful rule.

Good news #2: The preaching task remains the same. Regardless of the election outcome, you are doing the same thing this week that you do every other week. Understood broadly, the task of preaching is to proclaim the Gospel. Yet alongside proclamation, I am increasingly fond of the term testimony to describe both the work of the preacher and the work of Scripture itself. Psalm 78, of which the first seven verses are appointed for this Sunday in the semi-continuous track of the Revised Common Lectionary, is a wonderful example of this phenomenon.

In the opening verses of Psalm 78, the psalmist invites the audience to scoot their chairs close, as the psalmist recounts “dark sayings from of old, / things that we have heard and known, / that our ancestors have told us” (verse 2). The bulk of the psalm is a recitation of God’s mighty deeds, like dividing the sea and bringing forth water from the rock. It also emphasizes the abundant mercy God showed to the people over and over again, even when faced with their faithlessness and sin. The psalm is itself testimony, and it is also an invitation for the audience to provide their own witness for future generations:

We will not hide them from [our ancestors’] children;
      we will tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might,
      and the wonders that he has done (Psalm 78:3).

As you stand in the pulpit, or enter the Zoom meeting, or switch on your Facebook Live camera each week to preach, you stand in line behind the Psalmist, ready to testify to the presence of God in a hurting world. Where have you seen God’s might? Where have you seen God’s mercy? You are called to bear witness to the saving work of our God, week in and week out, so that your hearers “should set their hope in God, / and not forget the works of God, / but keep his commandments” (Psalm 78:7).

The parallelism is striking here: keeping the commandments of God and remembering God’s works are acts of hope. Your call to testify is also a summons to hope: to model hope and to equip others to hope, this Sunday and every day.

Tell the world what you have seen of the wonders God has done!

Cameron


Notes

  1. The translation of Psalm 2:1 here is from the libretto for Handel’s Messiah, which is itself a slight modification of the Church of England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer. All other translations are from the NRSV. The word choice of “furious raging” nicely complements the chaos of the uproar and tottering in Psalm 46.