Sermon for Christmas I: Live in Hope

Live in Hope

Christmas I; December 31, 2017

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

"For Jerusalem's sake I will not rest until her vindication shines out like the dawn and her salvation like a burning torch." The city of Jerusalem has been a flashpoint for much of recorded history and never more than right now. We Christians use the name "Jerusalem" in two ways and let's think about both of them for a few minutes.

First of all, the city itself: the city that King David captured and made his capital, the city where Herod reigned, where Jesus was condemned to die, which was destroyed by the Babylonians and rebuilt, leveled by the Romans and rebuilt, was the center of the world in medieval maps, was the focus of the Crusades, and which is now disputed by Israelis and Palestinians. The United States has managed to alienate most of the rest of the world by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel. History will tell whether it may have been an appropriate move, but for now it appears nothing more than a stick in the eye to the people of occupied Palestine.

Will the status of Jerusalem ever be one of peace? The irony is that the name implies peace, since "Salem" sounds like "Shalom" (cf. Hebrews 7:2). Jews, Christians, and Muslims all revere the city; both Israel and Palestine have political intentions for it. The Prophet declared some 2,500 years ago that he would not rest until her vindication shines out like the dawn and her salvation like a burning torch; he has been restless for a very long time. And it looks as though he will have no rest for some time yet to come.

"Jerusalem," like "Israel," also can metaphorically stand for the Church. When I read a psalm about Jerusalem, I think of Jesus' Church; when I pray for God to establish Jerusalem as God has promised (Isaiah 62:6-7), I am thinking of the city itself but also of God's Church. And that gives me hope.

Every time the city of Jerusalem has been destroyed it has been rebuilt. The prophet said these words of praise during one of those times, after the Babylonians had destroyed the city and the Persians were helping to rebuild it. When you read the story of God in the Bible, you find that God has a strange way of working. God does not simply preserve things unchanged; God lets things die and then raises them to life. God did that for Jerusalem, more than once. God did that for Jesus, once for all. It is a peculiarity of the grace of God that God is not content to let things be, but that God in grace encourages growth, flourishing, death, and then rebirth. I suppose that is how we know it is God's grace: if everything just went on as it is, we could give ourselves credit. But since God gives life out of death, that is a work of sheer grace.

And God is doing that for the Church. The Church as you and I know and love it is dying as a cultural institution and is being reborn as a family of faith. Churches are no longer content to populate themselves with people who want to be on a church roll for the sake of weddings or funerals, but are being populated by people who want to know God, who ask serious spiritual questions, who look for authentic engagement with truth. I see that in you and that is where I see God, by grace, giving new birth to the Church. And so I live in hope that we will see Jerusalem (as it were) vindicated and we will see her salvation.

One other thing in the prophecy caught my attention: the prophet said to Jerusalem, "you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give." No, I did not select this reading because we are struggling over the question of whether to change our church's name; the Presbyterian Church suggested that we use this reading today. But the prophecy is timely.

I have thus far not waded far into the controversy over whether we should be renamed, but it's time to start doing so. Two observations about names in the Bible. The first is that names mean something. Tomorrow, January 1, many Christians will observe a holiday called "Holy Name," because it is the eighth day of Christmas. Jewish boys are circumcised and given their names on the eighth day. So it is the day that Jesus was given his name, a name which means "Savior." According to Matthew, his name is also "Immanuel," which means "God is with us." His name tells who he is; he is Savior and he is God-with-us.

Likewise, a church's name should say something about who the congregation is. We have Presbyterian congregations in Omaha that are named "Hope" and "Peace" and "Church of the Cross." Those names tell you something about how they see themselves. Nearly every city and town has a "First Presbyterian Church," which tells you only that they got there before anybody else and, in many cases, they are the only Presbyterian Church. And many cities and towns have a Westminster Presbyterian Church, named for the Abbey where the Assembly met that drafted the principal statement of faith of Presbyterians everywhere: the Westminster Confession. So a congregation's name should say something important about how that congregation sees itself.

The other thing to say about names in the Bible is what the prophet here says: that God changes someone's name when that someone is made new. Abram was renamed Abraham; Sarai become Sarah. And after wrestling with the angel of God all night, Jacob was renamed Israel, "the one who wrestles with God." Jesus gave Simon a new name, Peter, because "Peter" means "Rock" and Jesus' Church is built on Peter's confession of faith: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God."

So just as a church's name should say something about that church, also a church's name can be and maybe should be changed when God does something new with that church. Meanwhile, we wait for Jerusalem's vindication and for her new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.

The prophet's promise of a new name is a sign of hope for Jerusalem, one still waiting to be fulfilled. This morning we peer over the edge of the new year, wondering what 2018 will bring. The potential of a new name is a sign of hope for us, but only one sign of many. The faith of people who are seeking God, the joy of worship together, the dedication of those who do acts of service are signs of hope. We live by the grace of God, the God who promises new life, the God who sent Jesus among us, the God who raised Christ from the dead. It is because of the grace of God that we live in hope. In 2017 we have seen here many signs of God's grace and so, by the grace of God, we begin 2018 with hope.

Robert A. Keefer

Presbyterian Church of the Master

Omaha, Nebraska 

Sermon from January 14: A Place to See Salvation
Sermon for Christmas Eve: The Singing Army


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