Series: Vision 2022
Theme: The Fine Line between Hope and Discouragement
Bible Reading: Exodus 15:22-27, 2 Corinthians 4:7-18
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
Date: 6 February, 2022
As we stand at the beginning of a new year and a new era in our church, yet for some, we are not sure after the last two years we can get excited. Our experience of the disruptions and lockdowns of the previous two years has made us a bit wary of hoping too much, lest we get disappointed. How do we walk this fine line between hope and discouragement? Using some biblical examples and sharing some research in the way that our experience of 2020/21 is impacting our psyche … Phil encourages us to see that God’s calling still remains and we can be confident (and excited) stepping into 2022. God is still at work and something amazing could be just around the corner.
First week in February, start of a new church year … Vision Sunday next week … who is excited and full of Hope for 2022?
Yeah … no…
After two years of COVID disruptions, lockdowns, cancellation, changes and constant adaptions – are you finding it harder to get excited about the year ahead? There has been some research done that found that COVID has impacted and affected the way that we think and plan and look forward … has impacted on the way that we … hope.
Here is an example – anyone got an upcoming holiday planned? If yes, are you excited about it? Pre-covid, holidays had a great effect on our psyche. The process of researching, planning, booking and anticipating the upcoming holiday were nearly as exciting and fulfilling as the holiday themselves.
But now, we don’t let ourselves get excited because … well chances us something is going to change and we might not get to go. We don’t even bother the planning or booking … or if we do, we stop ourselves anticipating so that we won’t get disappointed if it gets cancelled. I have heard people say, “I am not going to really think about it until I actually get there … then I will allow myself to get excited”.
It is a fine line between hope and discouragement … and the experience of the past two years means that we are walking that fine line at the moment. So – as we start at the beginning of the new year – do we allow ourselves to get excited or are we guarding ourselves and not looking too far ahead. We have vision Sunday next week … but are we ready to hope?
Our Bible reading today comes from the story of the Exodus of Egypt and I have to give Kevin credit for this. One of the joys of so far of working with Kevin is that I have another person again to bounce idea around with, and to allow their thoughts to make what I am doing better. I was sharing with Kevin the ideas of my sermon this morning and he thought of this reading – which fits in perfectly. So thanks Kevin.
This reading from Exodus 15 comes just after the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus 14. God parts the waters and the Israelites walk through to freedom and a new beginning. The beginning part of Exodus 15 is the song of Praise that Moses and Miriam sing. “I will sing unto the Lord for he has triumphant gloriously …”
Then the very next verse – Exodus 15:22 – is our reading where Moses led the people from the Red Sea into the Desert of Shur. Three days in they had found water and then they come to Marah where there is water but it is bitter. And the people began to grumble and complain.
Three days after one of the most spectacular spiritual events of the Old Testament, three days after God rescuing them and bringing freedom … and the people are complaining and grumbling about bitter water. Wow – it is a fine line between hope and discouragement.
I don’t want to be too critical of the Israelites because I think we all experience these swings between Hope and Discouragement. We might want to say that they should have remembered how God had just saved them three days earlier … but we know from experience that it doesn’t take much for ourselves to swing from one side of the line to the other.
And I think that this is a little of what we are experiencing at the moment trying to cope with the COVID rollercoaster. We have had points over the past two years where we think that we have turned the corner … when we got the initial outbreak back to zero cases per day; when we got the vaccine rates up; when we reopened the first time; or the second time; or the third time … we have had those moments when we feel like things are looking up and we can hope again … even start to sing and dance again like Moses and Miriam …
We have had those moments but just when we start to hope the pendulum swings and other variant comes along or we banned from singing in church again or the water tastes bitter and this wave of discouragement just washes over us … and any hope that we had is squashed.
And even worse … we are just a little more sceptical to hope as much next time the pendulum swings back again. Why plan if there is a chance it will be cancelled? why commit when things are so uncertain? If we don’t hope as much we won’t be as disappointed?
Is this ringing true for anyone?
Now put this against the fact that next week Kevin and I are preparing a Vision Sunday talk where we will cast the hope, the direction, the calling that God has for our church for 2022. We want you to get excited! We want you to dream and plan and commit! We want you to have hope!
Can you see how these two things are not sitting very comfortably together at the moment?
In the 2 Corinthians 4, Paul is honestly acknowledging this rollercoaster between hope and discouragement. And while sometimes we might feel as fragile as ‘jars of clay’, Paul wants to remind us that through our faith in Jesus and the community of believers we have access to the “all-surpassing power of God”. And so while we might experience these oscillations and discouragement … while we might be pressed in on every side, we will not be crushed; we might be perplexed but we will not be in despair; we might have our backs up against the wall, but we are not abandoned or destroyed. Our faith means that we can still find hope, feel hope – because just as there is a fine line between hope and discouragement, it is the same fine line between discouragement and hope.
Let me see if I can play this out. In my reading over my holidays I came across an article that was reflecting on the lasting impacts of Covid in the church. As I mentioned before, the experience of the last two years has changed our psyche and this has impacted on the way we view and interact with church life. These impacts can be seen as negative, something that might discourage us … but they can also be seen as positive, or something we can find hope in. There is a fine line between discouragement and hope.
So I wanted to share just a few of these reflections – both as a way of being real and honest about the challenges ahead of us as a church in 2022; but also as a glimpse of the things we can find hope in as we move forward. Would this be helpful?
3½ Ways that COVID has impacted the church:
- It has sped up the demise of the old model of church.
The way we do church has been changing for a while … and covid has brought that forward by about 10 years. While some might see this as discouraging (after all, the post-WW2 model had been so successful for 40-50 years), other might see this as hopeful as we might be a little free-er to embrace new forms of worship or engagement or service.
This has brought with it a number of issues to deal with – a change in our understanding of leadership. This new model of church has the power with the people. Pastors are finding change from CEO to coach. There is a change in our understanding of volunteerism and serving. Once again, some people see this as discouraging and others see it as hopeful. Either way, there is no doubt that this was an issue that was emerging and COVID has sped up its arrival.
- Church life will innovate beyond the Weekend Services (and beyond the geographical boundaries)
Most businesses had to adapt because of COVID. Restaurants who previously would never consider takeaway suddenly had to embrace UberEats. Hairdressers were selling “DIY haircolouring kits” and talking clients through the process. Businesses had to see themselves as more than just their core function … and churches were forced to see themselves as more than gathering in a building for worship.
And this is much more than our embracing of online worship. This is about embracing ideas and ways that people can explore faith, community and support which may have little or no connected to Sunday worship.
And this will require us to be innovative and a lot of the innovation that has to happen in the Church needs to take place outside of Sunday and outside the building. Once again, you might find a statement like this incredibly hopeful or a little discouraging. There is a fine line between hope and discouragement.
- Hybrid church will simply be church.
Now that we have moved to offering worship online as well as in person, there is no going back. This is now the norm. Do you see this as discouraging or hopeful?
Over the past month there has been a bid debate in the states because a well-known church leader suggested that churches needed to stop online services because “It gives people an excuse not to gather together in person”. There was a huge backlash of people saying that online worship has allowed them to re-connect with worship in a way which was not possible before and they would be lost without it. I know people who say that online bible studies have allowed them to attend with the kids in bed – something they couldn’t do in person. Both sides of the fine line.
I agree that online church is here to stay – and certainly is for us here at TUC – but I did find one article that articulated an interesting take on this. They said that as we move into 2022 we may find that information will move more online and transformation will move more to in-person. They described it a bit like the difference between Spotify and a live concert. There is something that a live concert can offer than Spotify can’t.
So in church – things like sermons work well as both in-person and online … but maybe we need to think through what are the personal or transformative things about our church or faith and how we might be able to focus a little more of them in our in-person gatherings.
3½) Things will continue to be less predictable and the approach that got many leaders through the pandemic (flexibility and agility) will be required for years to come.
Can you see what I have been trying to do with these reflections? It would be easy to take some of these issues which COVID has forced on us and simply get discouraged … and complain that the water is bitter. Or we can have a glance over the other side of the fine line and maybe reflect on where these challenges can be a source of growth and hope.
And I know it is hard as we have been through a lot over the past 2 years and like Paul said, we are feeling a little fragile like jars of clay. But Paul also reminded us of the all-surpassing power from God in us.
I love the line from 2 Corinthians 4:12 when Paul writes that sometimes it might look like we are wasting away, that death is at work in us … but we need to remember that God is renewing us every day. God is bringing us life. So don’t lose heart – Paul says – don’t lose heart.
The best part of Kevin’s story from Exodus 15 about the bitter water is the ending. They were grumbling and discouraged at Marah about how things were … and it might have been easy for them to give up. To go back to Egypt where they atleast had good water to drink.
But if they gave up, they wouldn’t have released that just down the road at Elim … there was an oasis. With 12 sprints and seventy palm trees. Yes, it has been hard over the past two years, but now is not the right time to give up … lets keep pushing forward.
Vision Sunday is next Sunday – and I want to exhort you today as we walk this fine line between hope and disappointment – to choose hope. God’s calling on us as a church still remains.
So let’s not loose heart, instead, let’s choose hope.