Burning makes us Brighter: December 4, 2016

December 8, 2016

Year A, Advent 2                            

Romans 15:4-13                                                                    

            Most of us have heard of Sigmund Freud, a famous Austrian Psychiatrist who lived in the beginning of the 20thcentury.  He was a Jew and died shortly after WW2 began.  There was another Austrian Psychiatrist who was younger, but considered Freud to be a mentor.  His name was Viktor Frankle and he was also Jewish.  In 1942, he and his whole family were sent to Auschwitz.  He spent three years in various concentration camps.  He was there until the concentration camps were liberated. 

As you can imagine, much of his later work was informed by this experience.  In reflecting on his experience in the concentration camps, he tried to determine what the difference was between those who died in the concentration camps and those who survived. He said that it was not about physical strength. He saw many strong men die and many weaker men survive.  He said that finding meaning in your own life was critical to survival and that sometimes we need to find meaning in the suffering. He concluded that the difference between those who died and those who survived was hope. 

            The Apostle Paul lived through a great deal of suffering.  He was a strong believer in hope.  Our reading for today begins with, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might find hope.” Paul found hope in the Holy Scriptures. You might think, wait Paul wrote the scriptures.  That is true.  Paul wrote a good portion of what we consider scripture, the New Testament.  However, in Paul’s day, the only scriptures were the Hebrew Scriptures, what we refer to as the Old Testament. He believed that the hope the Old Testament promised was embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Jesus fulfilled the prophesies of the Old Testament. 

This did not mean that Jesus brought utopia to earth. He did not bring freedom to the Hebrew people, which is what many expected from the Messiah.  In many ways, he left the earth in the same place it was before he was born—but not in the important ways.  For people who knew Jesus, who experienced his love, the world was forever transformed.  There was also a hope in what was to come, when Jesus came again.  Jesus left this world with a promise to return, a promise that something better was coming.  Paul believed in this promise.  He believed that after death, he would meet God.  He believed that we all have that potential, which is why it was so important to him that he share the good news of Jesus Christ. 

This did not change the fact that people were suffering under the Roman occupation. They were oppressed and hurting.  Even those who knew of Jesus and believed in Jesus were losing hope.  They had assumed that Jesus was going to return in their lifetime. But Jesus wasn’t back.  The Romans were still oppressing the Jews. Their lives were no better.  It is understandable that they were growing weary and losing hope. 

Earlier in Paul’s letter to the Romans, he wrote, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”[1]  One of the things we have to remember is that Paul did not know Jesus while Jesus was still living.  Paul heard the voice of Jesus only after Jesus died and ascended to heaven.  He did not even see Jesus–he heard his voice. 

Therefore Paul knew all too well what it was to believe without seeing. He knew what it was to suffer and hope when there seemed to be absolutely no reason to hope.  For Paul, hope was dependent not on the current situation but the ability to believe despite the current situation—to hope when there seemed to be no reason to hope.  

In my life, I have found hope in despair, but only when there was a spark, a spark of light in the darkness. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to find hope when there is only darkness and a promise of more darkness.  As Christians, we always have a reason to hope, even when all seems lost.  We find that reason in scripture. We find it in this community of faith.  We find it in our worship. 

However, sometimes we do not have the energy to look for hope.  We don’t want to have to find it.  We want it to come to us. Occasionally that happens. Sometimes, hope is easy.  In times of suffering and despair, it is not. It can feel almost impossible.   

After his experience in the concentration camp, Viktor Frankle wrote a lot about humanity’s search for meaning.  He specialized in the study of psychology and religion.  While he survived the concentration camp, both of his parents and his wife died.  There is no way to explain away the murder of 6 million people.  We cannot always explain suffering away by saying there is a reason for it all.  While I doubt that Frankle claimed a reason for the suffering of so many, he found a way to learn from his own.  During his life and career, he was able to help a lot of people because of what we had learned from his own suffering.  He wrote, “What is to give light must endure burning.”

In Advent, we talk a lot about light. We light a new candle every week and sing about the light of Christ.  Even in popular culture, there is light. We hang lights on our bushes and trees.  We put up a tree inside the house and cover it with lights.  We put electric candles in our windows.  We do that because it is festive and pretty. We do it because we don’t want to be the only house on the block without lights.  There is also a deeper reason.  We do it because the nights are longer and the days are shorter. We need more light in our lives. 

While Christmas lights are easy to hang (relatively) and candles are easy to light, discovering the light within ourselves can be much more challenging.  In life, we will endure hardship and pain.   Often we find the strength to endure those things because we know they will end.  Sometimes that hope that the suffering will end is not enough.  Sometimes the suffering is so great, the pain lasts so long, we need something else to keep us going.  In those times, we tend to look for a reason for the suffering.  Perhaps we would be better not to look for a reason why we are suffering, but to search for something that we can learn from that suffering. Because in learning something from our own suffering, we might be able to ease the pain of another.  We might be the light of Christ for someone who cannot find it on their own. 

While I do not agree with Frankle that what gives light must endure burning, I do believe that our lights have the capacity to burn a little brighter after we have endured the burning.  And because they are brighter, they will reach even farther into the hearts that need the light the most.

In the end of our reading, Paul provides a benediction.  Benediction is a fancy word for blessing.  We end every service with a benediction from the clergy. This was Paul’s blessing to the Romans and one I share for all of you, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” 

[1]Romans 8:24-25