Summary: A sermon about trusting God even in terrible circumstances. Trusting God even when the present seems so inferior to the past.

The Reformed Church of Locust Valley Pentecost XXIII November 11, 2001 Haggai 1:13-2:9

“Don’t Despair”

Just before midnight on the 12th of August, 2000, two US submarines and a Norwegian seismic research institute registered two powerful explosions in the Barents Sea. At the same time, Russian naval monitors failed to receive the required reporting signals from the submarine Kursk. Early the next morning, the Russian cruiser, Pyotr Velikiy (Peter the Great) found a ship on the bottom of the sea. It was the Kursk. It was discovered that, despite the explosions, at least some of the crew survived. They were tapping out signals – in particular the SOS, for the next two days.

It took over a week for a rescue operation to get to the Kursk, deep in the cold murky ocean. On August 21, Norwegian divers finally entered the ship. It was full of water and all the crew, 118 sailors, were pronounced dead.

But 23 of these men had survived the original sinking, at least for a while. One of the survivors was 27 year old Lieutenant Captain Dmitry Kolesnikov. As he was waiting to die, he wrote a note to his wife. The two words he wrote to her were displayed next to his coffin at his funeral – “Mustn’t Despair.”

I don’t know if you have ever come close to death. I have had a few near misses on the roadway. Most of us have. The closest I ever came to dying for a period long enough to think about it was a time I went swimming very early in the season in Lake Michigan when the water was cold enough to cause sensible people to stay on shore. There was a sandbar a hundred yards or so off the shore and in very choppy water I struck out for it. But when I had been swimming far enough that I should have been able to touch the sandbar with my feet and couldn’t, I turned around to get my bearings from the shore and discovered that a current had swept me along the shore to a point where there was no sandbar between me and Wisconsin and I was farther out than I should be. I had friends on shore, but they were nowhere to be found. It was up to me to make it back….or not. You find new strength when the odds start piling up against you. I made it back to shore after a long, exhausting swim – very cold, very tired, very humbled and hopefully much wiser not to try such a fool thing again.

Mustn’t despair.

We have had a terrible reality check in this country.

We have been attacked on our shores. Yesterday I looked at a picture of New York City before the terror attacks and for the first time in my life, I said to myself, “Look how vulnerable we were.” Before, I would look at those pictures and think, “New York, New York, You’re a hell of a town, the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down.” NYC is a powerhouse. It is the financial capital of the world. It is a dynamo. It is both muscle city for its financial importance, and cultural capital of the United States. But now it is something more – it is a wounded giant. It has a wound in it. I haven’t been to Ground Zero, but I listen to those who have, and they all say the same thing – the pictures on TV cannot convey the magnitude of the damage. And we wonder about the future.

We hear more and more reports of anthrax. The first thing we do when we hear about a new case of this dreaded disease is to make a mental calculation how far it is from us. Florida? We’re safe. Trenton, NJ? It takes forever for an automobile to get here from Trenton, maybe the same is true for disease spores. New York City? Am I biting my nails?

And we wonder about the future. We remember the good old days when NYC was safe and anthrax was a problem for veterinarians.

Mustn’t despair.

The people of Israel, too, looked back on a happier and more secure time. Disaster had struck them and they were facing a very doubtful future. In 586 BC, their powerful enemy, the empire of Babylon had struck them – conquering their land, deporting their best citizens, destroying their city, and demolishing the Temple in Jerusalem.

For nearly fifty years they lived in Babylon as exiles under the authority of their hated enemy. They were angry and bitter. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” they cried. They faced each day mourning the loss of what they loved – their homeland, their farms and businesses, their way of life, their Temple. No doubt on many a dark and worrisome night, someone among them sat down and full of doubt and fear wrote, “Mustn’t despair.” All the while deep inside, despairing.

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