Things just could not have been worse. The glorious hopes of the Chosen People of God that the Davidic Dynasty would extend throughout all eternity had come crashing down upon them. The United Kingdom of Israel under David had divided into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms at the death of Solomon, David’s son, around 922-921 B.C. The Northern Kingdom then fell about 210 years later when the mighty Assyrians came in and conquered God’s people. The Southern Kingdom survived the Assyrians, but in 587 B.C. the dreaded Babylonians, under the iron fist of Nebuchadnezzar, came in and brought an end to the Southern Kingdom, the Holy City of Jerusalem, and any hopes the people had for a resurgence of the Kingdom. The Psalmist, in Psalm 137 wrote a psalm of lament from exile in Babylon. Listen to his words.
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. 2 There on the poplars we hung our harps, 3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1-4 NIV)
I don’t have to try to describe the emotions that flowed from his pen do I? If I read you the rest of the psalm you would know that the only hope he had was the hope that his captors would be destroyed.
Things just could not be worse. All hope was gone from the hearts of God’s people and yet there were glimmers of hope, the promises of God, a faint whisper from heaven that a new day was coming. Listen in as I read you one of the whispers from the prophet Isaiah. Turn with me to Isaiah 11:1-2.
1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. 2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him– the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD– (Isaiah 11:1-2 NIV)
By the time the ink was dry on the last sentence of the Old Testament the new day still had not come. It would be many years, many long and quiet years, before the people would hear from God again. Some of you may not know that the pages between the prophet Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, and the opening sentence of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament, are called “the silent years.” There are four hundred years of silence between those two pages. With each passing year, throughout those four hundred years, the silence was deafening. Can you imagine the thoughts that flooded the minds of God’s people? All hope was gone yet there remained those whispers from heaven. “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.”
I hope that with all of the information I’ve just shared with you about the history of the demise of the nation of Israel that you now have this vivid picture in your mind of the “shoot” emerging from the “stump.” You know what a stump is don’t you? What was once a mighty tree, full of life, a resting place for all kinds of living creatures, had been chopped down with nothing more than a barren, decaying stump left as a reminder of what once was. And yet, God said, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse…” He didn’t say “when” or “how,” but God simply gave His people a promise that He was not done. The whisper from heaven was intended to be a catalyst of hope for God’s people in the midst of what appeared to be an absolutely hopeless situation.
Some of you have gathered here this morning and you are feeling like that stump spoken about by the prophet Isaiah. You stood strong for the longest time, but somewhere along the way you lost your strength, you lost your tenacity, you lost your will to fight. Now, like the once powerful Israel, you feel like your very life has been cut down. As you stare into the mirror you are only reminded of what once was, not what will be, or even possibly could be. You’ve lost hope. Any expectations you once had for a brighter tomorrow have faded into the long forgotten past.
For those of you who are here this morning and you’ve given up all hope, or you are hanging on for dear life to the last thread of hope, I want to ask you to please open your heart and allow God’s Word to serve as a catalyst of hope in your own life this morning. Don’t forget that whisper from heaven: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will fear fruit.”
I’ve not come here this morning with easy answers. I’ve heard the cries of desperation, I’ve sat with the exasperated, and I’ve watched the life drain right out of those who have succumbed under the weight of life’s trials. “It’s over.” “I’m finished.” “Things could not get any worse.” “I wish I could just curl up and die.” “I’ve lost all hope that things will ever get better.” Have you ever spoken any of these words? Have you ever felt the weight of the dark pall of depression? Have you ever stood over the grave of your loved one and wondered, wept, and wailed? What do you do, where do you turn, when you feel like you have lost everything? Where do you go when you feel like your very reason for living is gone, never to return? How do you cope, keep your head up, when you suffer constant physical pain even though you have been to every doctor imaginable, prayed until you have callouses on your knees, and yet the pain persists? How do you find the will to keep moving forward when you know that you laid aside your dreams and aspirations so you could pour your heart and soul into your family only to have your husband leave you for someone else? How can a child who has been rejected by her parent ever hope to feel valued in this life, ever hope to find a place where they feel like they belong and are loved? How?
These are not hypothetical scenarios that I’ve shared with you. Each and every one of the one liners I’ve just shared with you are people I know, people who struggle to find meaning and purpose in the struggles they face each day in their life. We can cling to clichéd catch phrases, compare our struggles with those who have it worse in trying to soothe our deep hurts, try to find a good therapists who can walk us through our dark night of the soul, or we can bring our hurts and hopelessness to the One who is called, “a man of sorrows,” and allow Him to work in our darkness and despair.
This is the Advent season. The word, “advent,” means “expectant waiting.” Advent is a celebration of Jesus’ first coming and a standing-on-your-tip-toes kind of eager expectation while we wait for Jesus’ second coming. Because I know so many people who are struggling with finding hope, peace, joy, and love at this time in their life, I’ve chosen to take four weeks to focus on the four themes of Advent: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. These are more than mere words; they are the longing of the human heart. We are so desperate to experience hope, peace, joy, and love in our everyday lives that we will do almost anything to gain them. Yet, in spite of all of our prayers and efforts, hope, peace, joy, and love seem to remain just beyond our reach.
The clouds begin to clear and our hopes begin to rise only to have another storm brewing on the horizon. A season of peace and calm is torn to shreds by the howling winds of turmoil. Happiness, giddiness, mistakenly identified as joy, is snatched away by the sudden news that we need to brace ourselves for what is to come. Love, the long awaited relationship we’ve always dreamed about, is abruptly crushed beneath the weight of betrayal and rejection.
In all of my years of working with people I’ve come to recognize that there isn’t an objective measuring tool that we can use to determine the line that separates hope from hopelessness within the human heart. Each person is different. Some can weather the most difficult of storms and yet remain hopeful. Others can encounter difficulties in life and lose all hope.
In Vienna, Austria there were three Jewish psychiatrists, two were world famous and one was a young man who was just getting started in his career. Sigmund Freud had spent his life studying human behavior and had arrived at the conclusion that pleasure, the desire to experience pleasure, was the driving force behind all human behavior. The second world famous psychiatrist was Dr. Alfred Adler and he too had spent his life studying human behavior, but he had come to a totally different conclusion than Sigmund Freud. Adler believed that all people grow up feeling inferior and powerless. He believed that deep in the human heart was a longing to feel important, to possess power. The young up-and-coming psychiatrist was Viktor Frankl, but before he really got started with his career he was taken away to a German concentration camp.
Dr. Frankl had finished his residency in 1937 in neurology and psychiatry at the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital in Vienna. He was responsible for the “suicide pavilion” where he treated more than 30,000 women who had suicidal tendencies. In 1938, Dr. Frankl was prohibited from treating “Aryan” patients because he was a Jew. In 1940, Dr. Frankl was the head of the neurological department at the Rothschild Hospital, the only hospital that would treat Jews in Vienna.
In 1942, Dr. Frankl, his wife, Tilly, and his parents were moved to a Nazi Ghetto. In 1944, they were moved to Auschwitz. Viktor Frank spent three years in concentration camps. During those three years he witnessed and experienced some of the worst treatment that a person could inflict on another human being. Frankl knew what it was like to be starved, in bitter cold, forced to labor from sunrise to sunset, and to watch friends and family members herded to the gas chambers and killed by the Germans.
Frankl recognized that many of those who were housed at Auschwitz lost all hope. He also noticed that it was not the strongest, most fit prisoners that survived, but it was those who found meaning and purpose for their lives, even facing certain death at the hands of the Nazis. He said the difference between those who survived and those who didn’t was hope. He noticed a difference even in the way they carried themselves and their activities while in the concentration camp. He said those who held onto hope never gave up the belief that their lives had meaning. Even with the horrific circumstances they found themselves in, they believed that one day it would all end and they would live meaningful lives. He came to the conclusion, while being in the concentration camp with other prisoners and observing their behavior, that his mentors, Freud and Adler, were wrong. The thing that gives life value was not the drive for pleasure or power, but it is meaning and purpose. It is not suffering, pain, and disappointment that derail us, but it is the loss of meaning and purpose in life that will surely do us in. So Viktor Frankl decided that though he was a prisoner and could face death any day, while he was alive he would help his fellow prisoners. He wrote, in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,”
We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. (Frankl, Viktor, Man’s Search for Meaning, pg. 86)
If you’ve ever seen the movie Shindler’s List, Hotel Rwanda, or footage of the carnage of people being starved to death in Syria as we sit in this sanctuary, and other atrocities back through history, then you will understand me when I say that there are conditions that would seem to make it impossible to find meaning and purpose. A person can only endure so much without giving up all hope. Yet, Viktor Frankl’s testimony reminds us of the whisper from heaven: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will appear.” What rationally, cognitively, and emotionally appears to be impossible is possible. Viktor Frankl was the only member of his family to survive the gas chambers of the Holocaust, but he did survive. He went on to remarry, to write more than twenty-five books, found a school of psychiatry called, “Logotherapy,” built an institute in Vienna, had his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” translated into 23 languages and sell more than 9 million copies, and traveled the world teaching, encouraging, and furthering his studies until he was 90 years old.
There are all kinds of things that people use to try and give meaning and purpose to their lives, but if you’ve been coming to Britton Christian Church very long then you know that I’m convinced that there is only One we can turn to who will give us ultimate meaning and purpose in life. In the years that I’ve been a follower of Jesus I have read the Bible through and through. There is no doubt in my mind that I’m not alone in my belief that it is through a relationship with Jesus that we derive ultimate, lasting meaning and purpose in life regardless of our circumstance or situation. The Apostle Paul wrote to his friends in Philippi.
12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:12-13 NIV)
Paul found meaning and purpose in his life when he had a full belly and when he was starving to death because of his relationship with Jesus. Jesus changes everything because Jesus changes our perspective. We go through the difficulties of life just like all people, but we know that we are to count it all joy when we go through various trials because we know “the testing of our faith produces perseverance.” (James 1:3) We grieve when we lose our loved ones, but we don’t grieve like those “who have no hope” as Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 4:13. When our relationships are frayed, when the fires of persecution are stoked, when we suffer injustice, when the list goes on and on with the variety of trials we are encountering in life we press on and pursue the call of God to live for His glory, to let His light shine in this dark world.
There were false teachers who were plaguing the church in Corinth. Evidently they were saying things about Paul, trying to cast him in a bad light. Paul said, “Are they servants of Christ? So am I!” And then he went on to list his credentials. Listen to this from 2 Corinthians 11:24-30.
24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. (2 Corinthians 11:24-30 NIV)
Isn’t it ironic? Does Paul’s list of accomplishments, his resume, strike you as strange? He talked about what he had suffered for the cause of Christ. How different is that from the conversation we hear at preacher gatherings today as we talk about budgets, buildings, and lie about how many we “run” on a Sunday morning! How could Paul view his struggles as signs of God’s work rather than God’s absence? The Lord had spoken to Paul and said, “”My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9 NIV)
I don’t know what you are going through this morning. Is it health issues? Are you exhausted from doctor’s visits, stays in the hospital, chemo treatments, a weakened physical state that seems to be growing weaker with time? Is it relationship pain? Have betrayal and rejection bound you in chains that you can’t seem to escape? Do you have a loved one who is on the rollercoaster of addiction and they’re taking you along for the ride? Do you have a child who is struggling in school? In a school of hundreds of kids she can’t seem to find a friend. Do calls from school asking you to come meet with the teacher about poor grades keep you up at night? Is it money problems that have stolen your hope of a day when you can pay your bills and have enough money to put some in savings? Has loneliness cut off any hope that one day you won’t have to spend every hour you’re not at work by yourself? Oh, you’d feel like you hit the lottery if you were invited to go out to eat with the other guys from the office! The list goes on and on, but if you are one of those who can feel hope slipping from your grip then I want to encourage you with the words of the Psalmist. Turn to Psalm 42:11 with me.
11 Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. (Psalm 42:11 NIV)
“Put your hope in God…” The counsel that the Psalmist gave himself is the counsel that each and every one of us needs this very morning. “Put your hope in God…” What evidence can you offer me that placing my hope in God is my best option? I’m so glad you asked! Do you remember how all of the hope of Israel was shattered at the fall of the nation at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians? It was the darkest of times, hopeless times, and yet in the midst of their hopelessness there remained those whispers from heaven, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” When they least expected it, God moved all of heaven and earth to deliver on His promise. “For unto us a child is born…” “A shoot from the stump” who would grow up and literally give His life so that we might be reconciled to the Father. In a world filled with hopelessness, we are the people of hope, you are a child of hope, and the Hope of Christmas has come to you this very morning to restore His hope to your heart and soul. Won’t you invite Him in?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
December 7, 2014