December 23, 2018 Romans 5.1-5 & Matthew 2.1-12

           A while back when I was out walking our dog I encountered a man wearing a backpack trudging up and down our street.  I thought it was odd.  There are a couple of patches of woods on the street, places where onemight be able to pitch a tent and spend a night or two, but that would be…odd.  It’s not like there’s a spectacular waterfall you can visit.  The woods themselves are kinda pretty, but camping on Ellen Drive in Evington would be…odd.

            So on one lap up and down the street we introduced ourselves.  It turns out the backpacker was Mike, who lives at the end of the street – in a house, not in the woods.  And it turns out he was backpacking on Ellen Drive to get in shape for a backpacking trip to Alaska.  Which made a great deal of sense to me.  If I ever take such a trip, I want to be in shape to escape from the bears.  I know I can’t outrun them, but I want to be in good enough shape to throw my backpack at them, which they will hopefully want more than me.

            It was summer time, and Ellen Drive, short as it is, has a good hill.  So over the weeks that Mike was getting ready, he did a good bit of huffing and puffing and sweating.  It brought to mind the years I led the backpack conference for CYFers, teenagers, when I was in North Carolina.  I would tell the participants well ahead of time that they needed to get out and run on a regular basis to get in shape.  Most of them, including me, were from the flat lands of eastern North Carolina, and we were going to be hiking in the Smokies, which are the opposite of flat.  So just walking around the block a couple of times in Kinston, NC, wasn’t going to do the job.

            Getting ready for a backpacking trip, in Alaska or North Carolina requires some suffering.  It’s going to be bad enough that first day you heave thirty pounds onto your back and start a four mile climb up a trail.  If you’re not prepared, if you haven’t done some suffering in advance, it’s going to be a lot worse.  Just read A Walk in the Woods or watch the movie where Kat starts getting rid of coffee filters to try and lighten his load.

            Suffering produces endurance.  And that’s true in facets of life other than getting ready for a backpack trip.  You see it in senior citizens all the time.  People, sometimes especially the oldest among us, who have often been through multiple times of suffering in their lives, have developed endurance.  They have learned that while the darkness can seem invincible, it is not.  It will go away.  It will give way to light, if we just hang on.

            Endurance may be an underrated quality these days.  We live in a culture of instant everything.  We can find out anything we want to know literally in seconds by consulting our computer or tablet or phone.  If we don’t like our job, we go hunting for another.  If we don’t like our career, we find something entirely different to do.  So we’re not often impressed with endurance.

            Still, we know that if we are going to live a long and satisfying life, we will need endurance.  It will not be the case that we can simply quit everything we don’t like.  Some aspects of our life will require endurance.  And at least sometimes, suffering produces endurance.

            And endurance produces character.  Not as in, she’s quite the character, but as in he has developed a solid character.  As in, her character is worth imitating.

            Isn’t it fun to watch children grow up?  Sometimes it seems like their character changes overnight.  And occasionally it’s for the better.  I remember one of our erstwhile young people who went on his first mission trip with us.  When he got home his mother said, what did you do to my son?  He’s a different person!  And it was more or less a better kind of different.

            Endurance produces character.  When we have been through difficult times more than once, more than twice, and have discovered that we can survive, we can endure the hardships that come our way, our character is strengthened.  We become less concerned with the petty little problems which come our way.  We develop an attitude of acceptance and the ability to roll with the punches.  True, some people are better at that than others. True, such character doesn’t always come as a result of suffering which has produced endurance.  But it oftenworks that way, does it not?  Endurance produces character.

            And character produces hope.  When we have suffered through some number of trials, when we have learned that we can endure, when we have come through it all with strength of character, we realize that there isalways hope.  This is not, I hope the Redskins win this Sunday kind of hope.  This is, in spite of all we’ve been through, in spite of the way things look in our world, we know there can be better days ahead, kind of hope.  This is a hope that is deeply rooted, which has come to us in part because of what we have been through.  Ultimately, this hope comes from God, who allows us to see past our sufferings, who walks with us every step as we endure what life throws at us, who helps us build character.

            When we arrive at this kind of hope, we have learned that we cannot control everything which comes our way in life.  We have learned that in spite of our best efforts, sometimes things will not go our way.  And we have learned that when that happens, it’s not the end of the world.  We can survive.  We can carry on.  We can even enjoy and appreciate life, because our hope tells us there is still more, there is always more, and God is always a part of what is to come.

            Furthermore, we have learned that “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.”  A deep and abiding hope based on our faith in Godcannot fail us, because we come to know that whatever happens to us or around us, God is still with us.  Our faith may not prevent difficulties from coming our way, but through our faith, through our sufferings, our endurance, our character, and our hope, we know that God’s love never fails us.

            Up to this point, this may not sound like a Sunday before Christmas sermon.  Aren’t we supposed to have shepherds and wise men showing up at a manger today?   Sort of.  They will arrive in time for our Christmas Eve services, even though that’s a day early for the shepherds and by tradition twelve days early for the wise men, who find the baby in a house, not in the manger.

            It’s the apostle Paul who says, “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.”  But he starts by saying, “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

            As Christians, our hope is not founded on whoever is in political office or how the stock market is doing.  Our hope has what may seem like a strange foundation – a baby in a manger, probably a stable meant for keeping animals.  Our hope is in a young man who wandered around an out of the way country telling stories and arguing with people that what God wants above all else is for us to love God and love one another.

            Centuries before Jesus was born the prophet Isaiah spoke of a child  he called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  We Christians have claimed those titles for Jesus.  We say he is all of those, and we add that he is our Lord and Savior.  We say that in him we find our hope.

            At times it seems as though hope is in short supply these days.  Do we hope that the two political parties will find enough common ground to work on the problems we confront?  Do we hope that it will not rain for a while?  Do we hope that the Hoos and the Hokies will play each other for the men’s NCAA basketball championship this season?

            Hope probably does develop as a result of suffering, endurance, and character.  But ultimately I suspect that hope, true, deep hope, comes as a gift from God.  It is a hope which says that whatever happens, or doesn’t happen, God is still with us.  So let’s not give up on hope.  Amen.