Sunday, November 15, 2020


 Sermon preached via Zoom at St. Thomas' Episcopal Church, Bath on the 24th Sunday after Pentecost:  Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

You can listen to this sermon here.

          Sometimes when you read or listen to Scripture, a single word will pop out and strike you.  Often it fades quickly, but sometimes it attaches itself to you and becomes like an itch that no amount of scratching will get rid of.

           So, then you must pay attention and wonder, “What is going on here?  What does God wish to say in this word?”

           This happened to me a couple weeks ago when I first read through the readings for this morning.  The word was in the psalm for today, and the word was “until.”

           Psalm 123 is a prayer:

To you I lift up my eyes,
    to you enthroned in the heavens.

As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters,
    and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the Lord our God,
    until he show us his mercy.

           “Until God shows us mercy.”

           “Until.”  It is a word about waiting, about anticipation and wonder.  It can have many different emotions attached to it:  longing, eagerness, urgency, anxiety, fear, exasperation, impatience.  There is often attached to it one of the most human of questions, “How long?  How long, O Lord, how long?”

           The longing of the writer of the prayer that is Psalm 123 is the longing for mercy, a longing for God to forgive and to act to make things right.

Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy,
    for we have had more than enough of contempt,
Too much of the scorn of the indolent rich,
    and of the derision of the proud.

           The writer of the prayer certainly knows the fundamental truth—so basic to the Old Testament—that Israel’s God is a God of mercy.  It is creedal in the Old Testament:

 The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.  (Exodus 34:6; also Nehemiah 9:17, Psalm 145:8, Jonah 4:2)

           The writer knows the promise of God’s mercy, but also knows the “until,” the waiting, the longing that sometimes breaks out into lament. “Why, O Lord, do you not act?”

           The writer is in the time of “until,” waiting for a time of equal and life-giving relationships. He or she is tired—as we often are in the time of “until”—tired of the contempt of those who live an easy life, who, unlike God, know nothing of mercy, because they think they have no need of it.

           We are living in a time of “until.”  There has been the “until” an election that has brought most of us into high anxiety has been settled.  More then that, we are living in the “until” of the COVID-19 virus and the grip it has on our lives.  One of the psalmists knew this “until” also, in the first verse of Psalm 57, which has come to be important to me over the past six months.

Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful,
    for I have taken refuge in you;
in the shadow of your wings will I take refuge,
    until this time of trouble has gone by.

           The Bible does not have an antidote to the experience of “until.”  It does not have a formula we can follow to avoid the “until.”  There is no avoiding the “until.”  There is no escaping the “until.”

           We only have a promise and a Companion.  The promise is that God will have his way with the until and our task is to remember that promise and hold onto it with all our strength.  Alone we often would not have the strength to do this, but we have a Companion whose strength we can rely on—the God of promise, who we know in our brother Jesus, who shares with us the Holy Spirit, the great companion and encourager.

           And remembering the promise and living with the encourager, we can have hope, and hope is above all what we need during the “until.”

           Now a further thing needs to be said, because there is much confusion about “hope.”  Hope is not passive.  It is not simply patience, although patience is often required of us.  Hope is active.  Hope is not waiting for life to change, it is about living that change.

           Neither is hope a cheap optimism, a cheery, “Oh, everything will work out for the best.”  Hope does not need optimism, because it has faith, and it has love.  Paul proclaims this truth in metaphor:

 Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.

           Faith, love, and hope protect us during the “until.”  The Thessalonians are anxious and impatience because Jesus has not returned as he seemed to have promised.  They do not like living in the “until.”  Paul’s reply is something like this:

 Hey, I hear you, but what can I do.  What we long for is not predictable.  It cannot be managed by the likes of us.  It’s going to be a surprise.  All that we can do is wait and stay ready, live in hope, because whatever happens and whenever it happens,

 God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.  Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

          As I said before, we can live in the until because we have the promise and we have a Companion, and furthermore, in that Companion, we have companions, fellow encouragers, because Christ’s body on earth is us, which means we are all in this together, all in the time of “until.”

          The Catechism in the Prayer Book says the primary mission of the church is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (p. 855)  I wish there was another clause that said, “and then to encourage one another to live in faith, hope and love until the day of peace, the day when God fulfills God’s promises.”

          Until that day comes when all is put right under the merciful and gracious will of God, let us do nothing but encourage one another to live in love, to live in faith, and to live in hope.

          The question is always not, “How can I get through this until?” but, “How can we get through this until together as the people of God?”

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