This is the sermon I preached this past Sunday.
Well here we are, December 1st. We’ve eaten our turkeys, finished up the pumpkin pie. If your house is anything like mine, the leftovers are long gone. This year thanksgiving fell late; usually we have a Sunday between thanksgiving and the first Sunday in Advent, to kind of bring us gently into the season. Not so this year. This year we finish our thankfulness and go right into preparing for Christ’s birth. We go straight from gluttony around our tables to repentance. (and maybe that’s good!)
Advent is a time of preparation. For those of you who come from traditions or families where advent is not a part of your vocabulary, let me give you a brief introduction. Advent is the season before Christmas-the four weeks that lead up to Christmas Day. It is a time of preparation, of repentance. Advent (literally “arrival”) has been observed for centuries as a time to contemplate Christ’s birth. However, for the vast majority of us, December flies by in a flurry of activities, and what is called “the holiday season” turns out to be the most stressful time of the year, instead of a time of anticipation, heart-filled preparation, and repentance.
This time of year is also a time of contrasting emotions. We are eager, yet frazzled; sentimental, yet indifferent. One minute we glow at the thought of getting together with our family and friends; the next we feel utterly lonely. Our hope is mingled with dread, our anticipation with despair. We sense the deeper meanings of the season but grasp at them in vain; and in the end, all the hustle and bustle leaves us frustrated and drained.
For many of us this has already begun. It’s December 1st. But the lists were made long ago. The calendar is full already, the to-do lists are stacked up, the work has begun. We’re told, as one said in bible study last week, to slow down-to wait- to anticipate. But the world tells us differently.
Can you guess the most popular question this time of year? “What do you want for Christmas.” This week, I was sitting next to my 2 year old niece when a commercial came up for some children’s toy. Without blinking or moving, my niece (sitting on her mom’s lap) said I want that. My sister replied with the words that all mom’s and dad’s know this time of year, “Put it on your Christmas list. Or tell Santa!”
Somewhere along the line, our answer to that question changes. We go from asking for things we want, to asking for useful things that we need. I remember one year Dwight asked his dad for new tires for his truck! I’m not sure where or when that transition happens—but it does. This year, in an attempt to help you stay centered and focused, and our sermon series will help you to answer that question through the eyes of faith, All I want for Christmas is.” We will focus on the things that the world really needs: not another IPHONE, or tickle me elmo, but the things we need that can transform our lives and the world—hope, peace, joy and a savior.
I’ve got the very daunting task of talking to you today about hope. All week I’ve been pondering just what hope is. We talk about hope a lot—or at least we use the word a lot. We hope it will snow (or not snow) we hope someone’s surgery goes well, or that you have a nice visit with your folks. But none of those uses tell us really what hope is. Dictionary.com tells me that hope can be a verb or a noun. “the feeling that what is wanted can be had or that events will turn out for the best:” or as a noun, “a person or thing in which expectations are centered: The medicine was her last hope.”
At church we talk about hope in terms of our faith. Jesus is our hope. We hope in Christ. But again, what does that really mean?
So I went looking in books hoping they would help me.
Max Lucado, in his book, God Came Near (pages 88 & 89), illustrates the kinds of things people hope for today: “We were hoping the doctor would release him.” ”I had hoped to pass the exam.” ”We had hoped the surgery would get all the tumor.”
Lucado continues : “Our problem is not so much that God doesn’t give us what we hope for as it is that we don’t know the right thing for which to hope.”
Hope, in terms of our faith, is about Jesus-not just at Christmas, but throughout the year. As the Apostle Paul put it in his opening words of I Timothy: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of CHRIST JESUS OUR HOPE.” –I Timothy 1:1
What I’ve really been pondering this week is the difference between hope and optimism. I’ve been thinking about that because our advent study book, by James Harnish asks us the difference between the two and this week, our groups have had various differences in our discussion of it. But I couldn’t name for myself what the difference is until yesterday.
Finally last night I was able to name what I think the difference is. Optimism is a general lookout on life. Looking at the world, and for no reason, believe that things are okay, that it will work out (whatever it is) Hope is different though, because hope is based on experience. We hope the medicine will work for our loved one, because we have seen it work in others’ lives. We hope the visit will be good, because we have had other good visits. We hope the weather will hold out, because we know weather is unpredictable and could change (for the better or worse!) at any time. We hope.
In terms of our faith, we have hope in God. We hope that God will come to redeem us soon. We hope that when we close our eyes on this world, we will open them in heaven. We hope. We hope because we have seen God hold God’s promises. We hope because we have the stories of our spiritual ancestors being saved-of the Israelites being led out of Egypt, of them reaching the promised land. Stories of them wandering away, but always being called back to God. We have stories of Jesus healing people. We see Jesus life death and resurrection as the fulfillment of God’s promises. As one pastor put it, “We hope in God for the future because we have known God’s faithfulness in the past.” In Romans, Paul points to “the promises to the patriarchs.” God promised Noah that the earth would never again be destroyed, and God delivered on that promise. God promised Abraham offspring and land, and God delivered on that promise. God promised the Hebrew people deliverance from Egypt, and God delivered on that promise. God promised sustenance in the wilderness, and God delivered on that promise. God promised that Jesus would be raised from the dead, and God delivered on that promise.
And so we hope.
This weekend I went to see the second movie in the “Hunger Games trilogy. “Catching Fire.” If you’ve not read the books, or seen the movie let me give you a brief synopsis. The book is about the nation of Panem, formed from a post-apocalyptic North America. It is a country that consists of a wealthy Capitol region surrounded by 12 poorer districts. Early in its history, a rebellion led by a 13th district against the Capitol resulted in its destruction and the creation of an annual televised event known as the Hunger Games. In punishment, and as a reminder of the power and grace of the Capitol, each district must send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18, chosen through a lottery system to participate in the games. The ‘tributes’ are chosen during the annual Reaping and are forced to fight to the death, leaving only one survivor to claim victory. The movie and books center around the main character, Katniss, who is 16 and during the first book, volunteers as the “tribute” to save her sister. (spoiler alert) Katniss wins alongside her partner Peeta, the first competition in the first book. The second book opens with President Snow, the evil person in charge, visiting Katniss to intimidate and scare her. People in the districts have begun to talk about rebellion because something Katniss did in the games gave them hope that something could change. I won’t spoil the second for you, but at one point during a discussion of the possibility of rebellion, President Snow says these words, “Fear can’t work if they have hope.”
Those words have stuck with me the past few days. They’ve been sitting in my brain and marinating. “Fear can’t work if they have hope.” I’ve been thinking about all of the stories in the bible where an angel appears. What are the first words usually, “Fear not” Our Gospel lesson today has those words “But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” I’ve always chocked up that first sentence to the humans being afraid because an angel has appeared before them. But what if it’s something more than that? What if it is a statement that God recognizes the fear people live in—during Zeceriah’s time the rule of the Roman government, the fear that the Israelites will never get their promised land back, that they will live in a world where they are second class citizens forever. Fear that nothing will change. Fear that the messiah will never come. What if the statement the angels make-to Zechariah, to Mary, to the shepherds later on is really a statement about that? God has seen your fear—and God has sent hope, in the form of a baby, to dispel that fear. Because fear doesn’t work if the people have hope. Hope that things will change, hope that the world will not always be the way it is now. Hope that things can get better. The amazing thing is that God does it on many levels. God recognizes the hope that the nation of Israel (and really the world!) needs, but he also recognizes the new hope that Elizabeth needs. A barren woman in a society like the one she lived in, was looked on with pity. There was something wrong with her. And her hope of being taken care of was limited.
This week, Eva came home from school (I don’t know what she’d been learning that this came up!) and asked, “When you get old, do we have to take care of you?!
I said, “yes, that’s what adoption means!”
“Okay,” she replied, “when you are old I will push you around and cook for you.”
As a barren woman in today’s world. I have options. I have retirement, I have agency’s that can help me if I’m older and have no relatives to rely on. That wasn’t the case with Elizabeth. If her husband died and she had no kids, Elizabeth would have to go to her family of origin, and beg them to take her in. Without a husband and kids she had no income, no home, no hope for the future. So with a simple sentence, God dispelled the fear of a nation, and the fear of one barren old woman. “Fear not…..”
Christian author Anne Lamott says that when things get really terrible, painful, and awful, it’s often because something amazing is getting ready to be born. Not because God causes the terrible painful and awful, but because God redeems it. God transforms despair into Hope, fear into love, weakness into strength.
Let me end by telling you what I know hope is not: it is not an excuse for inaction or laziness, it is not believing that things will get better without your help or involvement. It is not a wish that we toss half-heartedly into a fountain with little faith that it will come true. Again from Romans: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” Hope is instructive; it shapes us and encourages us to undertake the challenging work of living in unity for the praise of God. (re-state!)
This advent, I hope (haha!) that you will let hope shape you. As we prepare for Christmas, and more importantly, for Christ’s arrival, let hope shape what that looks like. Let hope instruct you in the way that you celebrate this year, so that you may share your Hope with others. Put hope at the top of your Christmas list, because it is hope that dispels our fear that this will be just another boring Christmas, filled with too much work and not enough spirit. It is hope that will fill you with God’s love, that will remind you of God’s eternal promise to redeem creation. It is hope that will teach you and hope that will uphold you. It is hope that will strengthen you. Hope that this is not all there is, that there is something better, and we better work for it.
In the name of the one who is our hope, Amen.