Hope (Sermon for December 1, 2019)

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the season when we look forward to God coming into the world: long ago, as a baby, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land and on a day no one knows, in triumph and glory, to usher in the kingdom of God.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, when we light a candle for hope.

And, I’ll be honest, I’m… conflicted… about hope.

A few years ago, I was working with an organization that was trying to choose a new mission statement. They wanted something short, punchy, and memorable; something they could use as a tagline.

And the first suggestion from the task force that was working on this was: Bridges to Hope.

Bridges to Hope—and variations on that theme—is the name of a domestic violence shelter in Wisconsin, a prison-to-society reentry program in Nebraska, a poverty assistance organization in Michigan, a food pantry in Newfoundland, another poverty assistance organization in Florida, a program of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and dozens of other things.

And that’s just the places and programs that are named something like that. There are even more that use it as a slogan or a tagline or whatever.

So I said, “You don’t want to use that. It’s generic. As a mission statement, it doesn’t tell you what you do. As a tagline, it doesn’t tell anyone else what you do. Hope doesn’t really… convey anything.”

Plus, y’know, you can’t eat hope. 

Too often, people imagine that we can just give someone hope… instead of doing anything more practical to help them. But, as the Epistle of James says, “If someone is naked and lacks daily food, and you say to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ what good is that?”

So I can be a little bit down on hope. Don’t just sit around hoping. Don’t just tell people to hope. Do something.

But…

Today’s reading is the book of Jeremiah, and it should sound familiar.

A couple of weeks ago, we had a reading from the book of Isaiah, where we heard two sides of a prophecy.

“Things will get bad,” said Isaiah, “Things will get terrible. Things will hit rock bottom. Things will get to the lowest of the lows.”

“And then,” said Isaiah, “A shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse, out of the house of David. And the spirit of the Lord will rest on him. He will judge the poor with righteousness and decide with equity for the meek. He will be righteous and faithful.”

And last week, the priest Hilkiah found a book in the temple and gave it to king Josiah. You see, the people had forgotten the law and turned from the Lord and worshipped other gods. And Hilkiah found this book of the law that had been forgotten, and turned it over to the king, and the people remembered the law, and reaffirmed their covenant, and turned away from other gods, and returned to the Lord… for a while.

And now, here is Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah, echoing Isaiah’s prophecy… because things have gotten bad.

The people turned from the Lord and things fell apart. The Babylonians have invaded. They have laid siege to Jerusalem. They have captured the king and installed a king of their own choosing. They have carried some of the people off into exile. Judah is a client state at best.

Things have gotten terrible. Things have hit rock bottom. Things have gotten to the lowest of the lows.

And here is Jeremiah, sitting in a prison cell, saying,

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”

“For thus says the Lord: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to make grain offerings, and to make sacrifices for all time.”

When the world has fallen apart and things are at their worst—when you don’t have anything and you can’t expect anything—maybe all you can have is hope. And hope isn’t enough. But maybe hope’s enough. Y’know?

I am… conflicted… about hope. I am a practical person. I want to be able to act. I want to be able to do something. But I also know that, sometimes, all I have is hope. Sometimes, it’s the hope that I can do something. Sometimes, it’s just the hope that it will somehow all work out.

Sometimes, it’s all of that wrapped up into a ball.

I stand at this pulpit every week… and I hope that a little bit of God’s word will come through in a sermon.

I preside at this table every month… and I hope that we receive enough grace from this humble feast to share it with the world around us.

I go into hospital rooms with hope. I show up to Bible studies with hope. I sit through committee meetings with hope.

The hope that I can do something. The hope that God will do something. Hope.

And here’s the thing: that’s enough.

Jeremiah was sitting in a prison cell… and he had hope. “The days are surely coming,” he said, “when the Lord will fulfill his promises. It is bad now. But it will all be okay. It will be better than okay.”

And we were slaves to sin… and we have hope. God set aside glory and became one of us: a baby, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land. God grew up. God taught us and showed us how to be human. And after we hung God on a cross and laid God in a tomb, God got up and said, “I’m not done with you, yet.” And somehow, in all of that, we were released from the power of sin and brought into the family of God.

And now we are in this place. There is a gap—there is a chasm—between the way that the world is and the way that God wants it to be. And we have hope. The time is approaching when we will live together in unity… when war will be forgotten and strife will cease… the Christ will come again and all the earth will be a blessed garden that God herself will tend.

And God doesn’t leave that all up to us. We are not in this alone. Even here, God is with us. Even now, God is with us. A light against the darkness of hopelessness and despair.

But God doesn’t let us leave that all up to him. We can’t just wait and hope. We also have to act. We also have to do something. And if we can’t do anything else, we have to light a candle against the darkness of hopelessness and despair.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the season when we look forward to God coming into the world: long ago, as a baby, among a dispossessed people in an occupied land and on a day no one knows, in triumph and glory, to usher in the kingdom of God.

But it isn’t just a season of waiting. It is a season of doing. It is a time of getting ready. Because while the kingdom is coming, the kingdom is also already here. And we in this church—in this little consulate of the kingdom of God—are called to be the light of the world, the salt of the earth, a candle against the darkness and a beacon in the night.

And today is the first Sunday of Advent, when we light a candle for hope.

You can’t eat hope. We don’t plant seeds in a field and sit back and hope. We plant seeds in a field and we water and fertilize and weed and care. And we hope. Because not all things in are in our power. We are not in this alone.

Hope is not inaction. Hope is, a little bit, the courage to try. And even when we can’t try, hope is the courage to get to tomorrow… when things might be different… when things might be better.

So, yeah, I am… conflicted… about hope. But we light a candle. Because hope isn’t enough. But maybe hope’s enough

Y’know?

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