2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall

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Flower Girl Future

I Thessalonians 5:16-24

 This morning I would like to invite you to imagine with me two little girls. The first is five to seven years old and she is a flower girl at a spring wedding. Picture her in your minds. She is as beautiful as she's ever going to be. Dressed perfectly. Her dress is without a wrinkle and without a speck of dirt or dust. It's probably the only time in her life that every part of her is absolutely clean. Her shoes don't have a single scuff on them. Her eyes sparkle. Her hair has been arranged that morning by the same hairdresser who took care of the bride. And, indeed, she is a miniature bride. In her hair is woven a garland of spring flowers. Can you see her coming down the aisle, full of hope and promise and possibility? It does something to lift our sense of the future to imagine such a child.

Now join me, please, in imagining another child, also a little girl five to seven years old. But this little girl, is a hungry child from somewhere in the Third World. Perhaps you can imagine one of the children caught up in the tribal warfare and conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi and in Zaire. In fact, the religious press reported in recent weeks that in central Africa now there are more children without parents, more disconnected lost children now than at any other time and any other place in the globe since World War II. Imagine this child with dull eyes, torn and tattered clothing that she's been wearing for weeks and will wear for weeks to come because they are the only clothes that she has. She has no scuffs on her shoes because she has no shoes at all. Her hair is dirty and straggly and, if you examine it carefully enough, you see just a hint of what looks like a little bit of an orange tint towards the roots—a sign of malnutrition. Her face is smeared with tears and dirt and dust.

Two little girls, equally precious in the eyes of God—one, the flower girl full of promise and hope and possibility—the other a hungry child of the Third World. Which is the prophet of the future? Which is the harbinger of the twenty‑first century? I have gotten old enough to realize that some sort of crisis spot some­where in the world is not an exception during Advent, it's a normal part of Advent. This Advent season our little girl is African but, a year or two or three years ago, she was from Bosnia. And a few years before that, it was Ethiopia. And a few years before that it was somewhere else. But it seems like every Advent season there is some hurting, bleeding, hungering place on our globe. So which will it be? Is the flower girl or the hungry child the robin of the spring of the twenty‑first century? Which one shows us what most of life will be like in the next century?

Now let's acknowledge that as optimistic, positive, be­lieve‑in‑progress Americans, we are naturally inclined to say the flower girl is, of course, the harbinger of the future. But be careful, for we cannot with secular and scientific knowledge know for certain which of these girls represents tomorrow. Think about it with me. There are enough signs that give us pause at least to consider that it is possible that the hungry child of the Third World is more representative of the future than is the flower girl in our spring wedding.

Think, for example, of the crisis in the natural environment of planet earth. There are some who say, of course, that human beings foul the air and water and soil and that we cannot fix it. There are optimists, unquenchable optimists about the human capacity to fix everything we foul. But there are also folks who say that perhaps we are already over the edge and don't know it Who's to say with certainty? Who is correct? Are the prophets of ecological doom correct and will the twenty‑first century be a century of catastrophe? We cannot honestly say with certainty which it will be. Not from our secular scientific knowledge, at least. We cannot predict with certainty that the next century will be one of delight and progress.

Or take a closely related problem that the world faces in its population growth. Obviously population growth and the ecologi­cal crisis go hand in hand. But don't we have to admit that the planet earth is finite—that its resources are not infinite. That, though we don't know what the exact number is, there is some number that is the maximum carrying capacity of the earth. The natural resources and the soil and the water simply will not sustain more than a finite number of human beings. We don't know what that number is. Perhaps we've already passed the number, perhaps it is far away. But we do know that our numbers continue to increase in a finite globe. And if we do not learn to limit our population at a number beneath that number of tragedy, then the hungry child is the harbinger of the twenty‑first century.

Then there are, of course, our massive stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. Thankfully, in the last decade or so the threat of nuclear war has receded considerably. Thanks be to God. But those weapons are still in the arsenals of the nations of the world. They, along with the chemical and biological weapons we have developed, are a threat as long as they exist. Who can say with certainty that we will never use them? We can hope, we can pray but as long as that capacity is in the hands of human beings and fallen human societies, who is bold enough to say that we will never, ever use them?

So you see, my friends, as much as we would like to be optimistic and cheery and say all will be well and things will get better and better and better, the evidence is ambiguous. The dangers are enormous. And the balance is very unpredictable and uncertain.

But we are not just or only or exclusively scientific folks. We're the folks with Christian tradition and we're the folks who ask: "Is there any word from the Lord?" A long, long time ago, twenty‑five hundred years ago, the Israelites were coming back home to the Promised Land after fifty years of being war refugees. They dreamed of coming home for three generations and the time finally came when they went home. And they went home full of high hopes. They were marching into Zion. Except Zion wasn't the glorious Zion that their ancestors had told them about while they were captives. Zion was a pile of rubble still unrestored after the calamity and warfare that it had experienced fifty years before. When the people got back, they grew heavy with discouragement. The Promised Land seemed not to be a land of promise anymore but it seemed to be a land of hunger and uncertainty. There arose among them a prophet named Isaiah who said to this people who weren't certain, in fact, he said to a people that believed they were going back to plenty and discovered instead rubble: "Say to those who mourn in Zion, 'I will give you a garland instead of ashes, a mantle of hope.’ Say to those who grieve in Central Africa 'I will give you a garland instead of ashes'. Say to those of every continent and every circumstance who think they've reached the end of their personal or family ropes 'I will give you a garland instead of ashes."'

St. Paul says "Rejoice in all things." St. Paul and Isaiah and, by the way, a peasant woman from Galilee who came down to Bethlehem in the last weeks of her pregnancy and who had no prospects at all, it seemed, all of these folks stand in a tradition that understands that, though the immediacy of life sometimes is full of hazard and hurt, that the long term of the future, whatever birth pangs may yet come, the long term of the future doesn't rest in the hands of fallen human beings and fallible human societies. But the long term of the future is in the hands of God who says again and again and again to troubled people, "I will give you a garland instead of ashes." That is the great message that comes to us again and again and again during the Advent season. A message of promise that knows not what may be in tomorrow's headlines or in our own personal biographies but knows that in the long project of God the robin of the springtime of future is the flower girl. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Dr. Carl L. Schenck