05 October 2020

Homily for Anniversary of a Congregation - 2020

"That We Might Have Hope"

Revelation 21:1-5

Just over a century ago, mail carrier William Eickoff noticed that some homes in the developing Southampton area were receiving Lutheran periodicals and letters from Lutheran churches. A Lutheran himself, Eickoff became acquainted with those Lutheran families. Soon they discussed the possibility of starting a new Lutheran congregation—our congregation. With the help of the old Western District of the LCMS and students from Concordia Seminary, the new Lutheran mission opened and dedicated its portable chapel on October 8, 1916. The mission’s first name was “Southampton English Lutheran Church.” Four months later—February 22, 1917—the new congregation held its first Voters Assembly meeting. Led by their first pastor, Rev. Martin Engel, the new mission chose a new name. Three names were proposed: “Faith,” “Hope,” and “Good Shepherd.” The name “Hope” was chosen by an overwhelming majority—“Hope English Lutheran Church.”

Perhaps our congregation’s founders were echoing Martin Luther when he said: “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope. No [farmer] would sow a grain of corn if he hoped not it would grow up and become seed…. [No] tradesman would set himself to work if he did not hope to reap benefit thereby.” We humans do seem to function best when we have hope—when we can see the purpose of our efforts, the end of a struggle, or some other light at the end of the tunnel.

We see a more explicit reason for naming a congregation “Hope” from 79 years ago, when our forebears celebrated our 25th anniversary. “The story of Hope is not complete unless we realize that hundreds, perhaps thousands of those to whom Hope Church, through the preaching of the Gospel, gave the opportunity to live here in this evil world with real hope will someday by the grace of God in Christ Jesus be translated to the Home Above where hope will change to reality, where faith will be changed into seeing, where everlasting peace and contentment will dwell.” (25th Anniversary Book, p. 19)

Why name a congregation “Hope”? To fix our eyes on the most meaningful purpose of our lives, to comfort us with the best and brightest light at the end of the tunnel. The Apostle Paul said, “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). Hope for more than getting through the day or to the weekend. Hope for more than merely surviving a pandemic or slogging through another election year. Truly, hope for a better existence, a better life, and a better creation than we’ve ever known. This is the light we see shining so brightly in our second reading from Revelation.

Anytime we hear from or read Revelation, we must remember one crucial detail. This last book of the Bible is not a road map of the End Times, as so many teach it these days. Instead, Revelation is a book of comfort and hope.

First century Christians were being persecuted—hunted down, locked down, and put down—by the Roman government. St. John had been exiled on the island of Patmos, just off the coast of modern-day Turkey—whisked away to waste away for confessing Christ. So God revealed His message of the victorious Lamb, Christ Jesus, to give comfort and hope to His embattled yet faithful people. The Revelation to St. John gives comfort to suffering Christians. It encourages them in their faithful witness. It does so by means of symbolic images and prophetic portraits of the victory that is already ours in God’s risen and living Lamb, our Lord Jesus.

After the Lord told him to compose letters to seven churches and their pastors, St. John saw several visions of things happening on earth and in heaven. On earth the church lives under great distress. The heavenly visions give God’s view of all the goings on. Fast-forward to the end of the book. Babylon, the earthly enemy of God and His kingdom, is fallen. There’s great rejoicing in heaven as the victorious soldier—our Lord Jesus—comes riding triumphantly on a white horse to receive His bride, the Church. Satan, God’s spiritual enemy, is bound and defeated. Now John leads us to look beyond the end of the first world to the creation of “a new heaven and a new earth.” To what end? That we might have hope.

This present heaven and earth were good as first created by God. But we know how Adam, Eve and all humanity have spoiled and ruined it with sin and death. Just read, mark, learn and inwardly digest your Bible stories. Just observe what happens around you in your home, in the workplace, in society. Just pay attention to times past and current events. This world is not a good place. It’s broken. People suffer. You and I suffer. And none of us can change it, no matter how hard we try. Let John’s vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” give you hope. This broken creation is not fit for you who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, for you who are sealed to be resurrected. John sees the broken creation passed away.

He also sees that “the sea was no more.” Does that mean no water sports or no water to drink in the new creation? Probably not. After all, bodies of water were part of God’s original creation. “No more sea” is a biblical way of saying that everything that separates you from God will be gone, no longer a thing. All of the fear and terror evoked by “the sea” of this fallen world will be sent packing.

Next John sees “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” That’s you; that’s me; that’s all of God’s faithful who are redeemed by Jesus. Because of Jesus’ ugly, bloody death, you and I and all the redeemed are made clean and beautiful. Now that’s something to look forward to!

Then a voice rings out: “The dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God.” God binds Himself to His people in an incarnational and sacramental way. Remember the Word becoming flesh and tabernacling among us. It’s what He does now in word, water, and meal. Now we receive Him by faith; then we will get to see Him dwelling with us face-to-face.

Next John gives us a most curious way of describing this coming new heaven and new earth. It’s described in negative terms—what’s not there, what it’s not like. No tears, no death, no sorrow, nor crying, nor pain. All of these things that are now part and parcel of the fallen creation and our fallen existence will be no more. It’s as if we could never really comprehend life without tears, sorrows, pain, crying and death. That’s exactly the way it is. That’s why we need hope, the light at the end of the tunnel. We cannot even imagine what life would be like without disappointments and diseases, without chaos and corruption. But we do have our Lord’s promise, that we might have hope: all of that will be gone.

Finally, as John views “a new heaven and a new earth,” he hears the voice of God the Father. It’s only the second time the Father has spoken in Revelation. The first was when He identified Himself as “the Alpha and the Omega…who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8). Now He gives a creative word. Just as He said in the beginning, “Let there be…,” and there was, now He will say, “Behold, I am making all things new.” All things will be made new and improved, of much better, far superior quality than we can even imagine. “All things” means earth, heaven, creatures great and small, and even you, me, and all believers. God will not throw out His creation as some sort of trash. Instead, He will recreate it, transform the old into the new. And that includes you, that you might have hope.

How does John’s vision affect our faithful witness? We keep hearing how we live in “challenging times” and “unprecedented times.” You can hear the hopelessness in those words. It’s what happens when humans go it alone  through this broken, fallen world, without God. And that’s why our victorious Lamb has put us here, in this place, at this time. That others around us may have hope. That those around us may be brought to life in Christ Jesus through His shed blood. What’s truly unprecedented is the new creation awaiting in Jesus.

It was only two years after Hope English Lutheran Church was founded that the Spanish flu pandemic hit St. Louis. I can find no record of how those challenging months impacted our toddler-aged congregation. But we do know this: the people of Hope endured it, survived, and thrived. They went on to proclaim Christ crucified and risen for sinners. And because of their faithful witness, we too have hope. Now we get to look forward “to the Home Above where hope will change to reality, where faith will be changed into seeing, where everlasting peace and contentment will dwell.” Amen.

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