14 November 2021

“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” Hebrews 10:23

No sooner is Halloween behind us than the stores and cities begin to turn around to decorate for Christmas.  The only stores that need to actually think about Thanksgiving is grocery stores, because they need all the traditional Thanksgiving fixings stocked; especially turkeys.  As far as the other stores, they think about Thanksgiving only because it is now what we might call Black Thursday instead of Black Friday.  Stores used to open at midnight on Friday to keep Thanksgiving reserved, but now there are regularly stores that are opening at 6pm, 4pm, or even now 3pm on Thanksgiving.  They might as well be open normal hours on the holiday at this point.  Each store tries to beat its competitor by an hour so that customers flock there first.  At this rate, we won’t even need to worry about missing Thanksgiving dinner to wait in line at the stores.  We can all be home in plenty of time.  But is it a bit odd to rush to the next season so quickly?  Are we missing something along the way?  It is hard to use this season of Thanksgiving to be thankful if we are all making our Christmas lists and shopping for the things that we don’t have.  Commercialism makes the end of the year crazy, when it really should be an additional time to slow down and reflect.  First reflect on what you have to be thankful for from the past year.  Then think about how you can renew your relationship with God and God’s church.  The real reason for the season is drowned out by family dramas and shopping malls; isn’t this all the more reason to take a few moments of each day to renew your faith with God?

This season of waiting in the church foreshadows the next season of waiting to come.  At the end of the church year, we are waiting for Christ to return.  This is the point in the timeline of the church where we exist right now.  We are living the best life that we can and hoping that when the day does come, we will have our oil lamps filled and the bridegroom will say to us, “Come in.”  We expectantly wait as the church for Christ to return and while we wait, we continue to fine-tune our faith.  In a few weeks, we will shift our focus from the second coming to the first coming, and we will be able to see how remarkably similar our waiting for Christ today is to the way Christ was waited for before he was born.  We wait, but we do not wait as if anything is about to happen.  We wait, and when something does happen, it is not in the way we expect.  As we wait today, however, we need to learn to expect.  Since we do not know the day nor the hour, we will be unprepared if we are not working on fine-tuning continually.  If you knew that Christ was going to return tomorrow, you might spend all day today fine-tuning or making up for what may be lost ground.  Everything else would cease to matter.  But even if we were to receive a day’s warning, it is still too late to start.  We cannot be passive Christians.  We need to be active Christians as if Christ could come to this world to finally reign as king any day.  We need to be active in our quest to strengthen our belief, to do good, and to spread the knowledge of God.

Hannah’s story is a foreshadowing of its own, which makes it fitting for the time right before Advent.  She was barren, unable to have a son, but she prayed to God and asked for one.  Eli blessed her and she had a son that should not have been biologically possible.  A woman named Mary was a virgin, unable to have a son, but God appeared to her through the angel Gabriel and blessed her.  Mary gave birth to a son that should not have been biologically possible.  Both of them take the time to pray a prayer of thanksgiving for the gift that had been brought to them, Mary in the Magnificat and Hannah in 1 Samuel 2.  They model the first post on our quest: Be persistent in prayer, and prayerfully thank God for the good things that happen.  Many of us do not do either very well.  What is your prayer life like?  Do you do too much asking and not enough listening to God?  These stories teach us that if nothing else, our prayer life needs to be consistent.

The author of Hebrews offers three key assurances that are essential to strengthening our faith.  First, we have “confidence to enter the sanctuary” (10:19).  We are confident to enter the church of Jesus because we know that we are forgiven of our sins, and that we will be welcomed in God’s church.  It is also our responsibility to make God’s church welcome for other believers so that they remain confident that God welcomes them as well.  Second, we “hold fast to the confession of our hope” because we know that God is faithful to God’s promises (10:23).  If you have any doubt that God is faithful, you are forgetting to remember the times that God has brought you through a challenge, walking with you through that challenge.  You have little reason to believe that God will fail you now.  There is always hope.  If you lose hope, you are on the verge of giving up on life.  God is our hope.  Third, we sustain our faith through community.  We need to meet together, provoke one another to love and good deeds, and encourage one another (10:24-25).  Yes, we can have our own individual prayer and devotion.  We actually should make time for this individually.  Yet when we come together and study together, especially as we do in our book group, we grow together from our collective experiences.  This does not mean that it is a requirement to attend church if you want to be a Christian, but it does mean that it will help you to be a stronger Christian.  And we can engage with each other beyond just at Sunday’s worship.  The selection that we read from Hebrews concludes not with another assurance, but a warning: We need to have urgency.  The day is approaching, and we should strive toward this Christian growth “all the more” as we see the day approaching.  That means that we do not just do the bare minimum.  That means that if we find that we are weak in our confidence, or in our hope, or in our communal experiences, we recognize that, and we try to do something about it.

You are assigned a big project at work.  Your boss does not tell you when the deadline for the project is except that he wants you to start work on the project now.  How do you feel?  Do you have confidence that you can handle such a project?  Were you trained to handle something like this?  The answer is hopefully yes.  Being asked to carry out this big project is actually a testament to your superior’s confidence in your ability.  Does this give you hope?  Perhaps if you do well on this project, others will take notice and that could lead to a promotion.  Or, you notice how others will be able to benefit from this project.  You hope for a positive outcome.  Lastly, you do not take on this project alone.  You have others to share ideas with, learn from, and enable.  You also do not leave the project on your desk until you get a deadline, because by then, it will be too late to start and be able to finish.  You work on it all along.  As your “boss,” God is confident in your ability.  But if you wait until you get a deadline, it will be too late to finish.  God is trusting us with very important work.  It is the work of reaching others with God’s love.

Many people hear about eschatology, which is the study of the end times, and start identifying signs that Christ’s return is imminent.  This search for signs is misguided.  As Rodger Y. Nishioka noted, “We, like the disciples, can become so focused on discerning the signs of the times that we neglect our more important mission to witness to the gospel today.  … Our focus must not be on the signs themselves, but rather on the one who is to come – the one who enables us to look up after such devastation and claim the certainty of blessing” (FW B.4.310-312).  Spending all of our time figuring out the signs of the end times is like organizing a to-do list or calendar but never getting around to doing any of the tasks or events; We cannot get past trying to figure out which order we will do things in.  We may notice some signs, but whether we do or not the task before us does not change.  Jesus wanted us to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:20).  He still wants us to follow the same mission.  The second post on our quest is to stay focused.  Do not let trivial matters distract you from the task at hand.  These matters can range from fear to stress to trying to figure out things about God that we are not meant to know.

Always seek to strengthen your faith.  Especially in a world today where there are so many things that distract us from things of God, we have to put all the more effort into finding God amid it all.  We are at a crossroads.  Either America will continue to be secularized, and the eighty percent of children that do not belong to a church will turn to ninety percent, and before long there will be almost zero young people left in the church, or we will fight the increasing social norms and put more effort into finding God and into helping others find God.  God forgives us, which gives us confidence in our ability to approach God.  But this does not absolve our responsibility to others.  As we wait for Christ to return, our task at hand is to be persistent in prayer, consistent in community, and coexistent between the already of the kingdom of Jesus here on earth, and the not yet of the full realization of God’s kingdom on earth.  We may wait for a year, two decades, or five centuries.  But while we do, we can keep our sense of thanksgiving.  We can keep our confidence in prayer.  And we can help others to do the same.  If we do not do these things with urgency, however, we are never truly ready for the return.  May you always be happy with your efforts, which you have all the more reason to increase.  The world, after all, is increasing its demands and distractions from a religious lifestyle.  May all glory and honor be with God’s name.  May God help us remain steadfast in faith.  May we be able to trust that God always hears our concerns.  Hannah is a perfect model.  When she was distressed and the world was distressed around here, she prayed all the more.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

1 Samuel 1:4-20
1:4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters;
1:5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the LORD had closed her womb.
1:6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the LORD had closed her womb.
1:7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the LORD, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat.
1:8 Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
1:9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the LORD. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the LORD.
1:10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly.
1:11 She made this vow: “O LORD of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”
1:12 As she continued praying before the LORD, Eli observed her mouth.
1:13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore Eli thought she was drunk.
1:14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.”
1:15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the LORD.
1:16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.”
1:17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.”
1:18 And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
1:19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the LORD; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her.
1:20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the LORD.”

Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25
10:11 And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.
10:12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,”
10:13 and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.”
10:14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
10:15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,
10:16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,”
10:17 he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
10:18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
10:19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus,
10:20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh),
10:21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God,
10:22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
10:23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.
10:24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds,
10:25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Mark 13:1-8
13:1 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!”
13:2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
13:3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately,
13:4 “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”
13:5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray.
13:6 Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.
13:7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.
13:8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.

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