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“Searching for Hope”

Pastor Wilbert Miller’s Sermon at Bach Vespers
“Searching for Hope”
Malachi 4: 1-2a
Evangelical Lutheran Church of the  Holy Trinity
November 13, 2016

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I have never been too confident that flipping open the Bible to a random page will provide the perfect answer in the time of need.  More often than not, when I have tried that method, it has not worked out well.

I actually tried that method in preparation for this sermon, hoping to impress you with some extraordinary demonstration of divine intervention.  What I came up with is a nugget from Ezekiel: “The building that was facing the temple yard on the west side was seventy cubits broad; and the wall of the building was five cubits thick round about, and its length ninety cubits.”

So much for resorting to the flip open the Bible method.

In all candor, my preference all along was to stick to the venerable ecclesiastical tradition of reading the biblical text appointed by an ecumenical group of liturgical and biblical scholars; this is called the lectionary.  Using this vaunted ritual, I ended up with a reading from the prophet Malachi, the last book in Hebrew Scripture: “The day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4: 1-2a).

How did the religious scholars know this day would come?

Would you agree that these have been some of the most bewildering days in our nation’s history?  I assume some of you are celebrating Donald Trump’s election as our next president but I won’t ask you to raise your hands here on the Upper West Side.  I have run into far more people who are angry, grief-stricken, and disillusioned.  Our Wednesday evening Mass felt like a funeral: people were weeping and hugging each other; you could almost hear them shriek, “Please do not let me go.”  If you are celebrating tonight, please understand the pain of young people who have never experienced anything like this; try to feel the fear of Latinos and African Americans, the LBGTQ community and women, who have heard reprehensible things said about them in recent months.

I don’t know what camp you are in, but for those who consider Johann Sebastian Bach the so-called fifth evangelist along with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, please attend to a few words from this evening’s cantata:

Who only lets dear God rule
and hopes in Him at all times,
God will wondrously support
in every torment and sorrow.

I must confess that while I have been thrilled by the music of Bach’s cantatas during my first month as Holy Trinity’s pastor, the words have left me cold—and I am married to a German!  I have hardly known what to do with Herr Bach’s words.  Tonight’s words strike me differently: it as if the old wizard of Saint Thomas Kirche knew these nights would come and thus has generously sprinkled magical dust over us:

Think not, in the heat of your despair,
When lightning and thunder crack
and threatening weather makes you anxious,
  that you are abandoned by God.
God is also there in the greatest need,
yes, even in death,
for His own with His grace.

The surprising gift is that Bach could feel our heartache.  He lost ten of his twenty children before they reached adulthood.  He had tasted the ashes of death; he understood uncertain futures.  He knew what it means to lean on the everlasting arms of God.

And yet, for Bach, ever the faithful one, his message never ended with “Ain’t it terrible.”  There was hope to be found, in the words, in the music.

That is true as well with the biblical story.  My Old Testament professor in seminary, Brevard Childs, required us to search for the hope in every prophetic book for our homework assignment.  He insisted hope was to be found if we only looked hard enough.  He said our calling as future pastors would be to find hope when those entrusted to our care gave up the search.

My dear friends, if your heart is broken, see if you can hear hope tonight. If you are shouting for joy, try to offer hope to the forlorn.  Our nation needs people bearing hope.

And when you grasp on to hope, go out into this dark night and sing the words of this evening’s cantata to everyone you meet:

Sing, pray and walk in God’s ways…
and trust in heaven’s rich blessing,
then it will be renewed in you;
for whoever places his confidence
in God, God will never abandon.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.