Do you remember handwritten directions and folding paper maps, before MapQuest, cell phones, or satellite in-car navigation? Back in the olden days when summer revivals filled pews down south, a little caravan rolled out of a church parking lot ready to share the Good News a few towns away. Traffic was heavy, and the cars separated. The choir director drove the church van which fell into an old-timey hymn sing and enraptured in Blessed Assurance didn’t notice the car over on the shoulder. The pastor’s car noticed the old car and the family beside it as he said to no one in particular, “Lord, I sure hope someone helps those people!” Three deacons added a hearty “Amen,” making the remark an unplanned pastoral prayer. When the revival caravan arrived at the church, they prayed for the service and that the piano might miraculously get in tune ( it did not). No one worried about Billy’s car until just minutes before the revival began. Only saved last summer, Billy was not a sure bet for the night’s personal testimony. Missing the revival team’s preservice pep-talk and prayer, Billy slipped in after the opening prayer, two hymns, and the special music. Nervous about speaking and unsure how to begin, Billy awkwardly fiddled with his ill-fitting jacket and apologized for being late, only briefly mentioning how he saw a family in need and pulled off to help. Billy quickly shifted to tell what Jesus had done to save his soul. Billy did not mention how he popped the hood, poked around those older simpler engines until he found a loose alternator cable and with a few tools from his trunk, cleaned the battery posts, tightened the lead wire to the alternator, and sent the Johnson family safely on their way, likely ruining a new button-down shirt in the process. There are two kinds of hope: the inert wishing that someone might do something and Hope that seeks to be the difference.
The Gospels tell us all the people, a wave, movement, or a moment of collective imagination, sweep through ancient Judea as “all the people came out into the wilderness to hear John the Baptist.” Luke 3 tells us that the people “were filled with expectation’, hoping John might be the One. John’s baptizing song is a simple, hopeful tune, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven.” It is one thing to sing about “peace on earth, goodwill to all” and a soul moving anthem “Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the persecuted, the peacemakers, they are the children of God’. (Matthew 5) John’s Advent song tells us hope comes when we, “Change your hearts and your lives” for in so doing, we find our way into the kin-dom of heaven.
Sometimes, we people of faith settle for a fairy Godmother faith and a Jiminy Cricket’s kind of hope. We hope and pray God sends someone, somehow, with some Disney magic. We pray, “when you wish upon a star, makes no difference what you do, when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.” Biblical hope is not just reserved for heaven. Our hope is not a hollow longing for God to send someone else. Hope becomes the change. Hope risks rolling up its sleeves, lending a hand, ruining a dress shirt, and at times receiving ingratitude or even rejection. Hope risks failure and the disappointment of discovering our best effort did not help someone find their way home. And yet hope hums deeply within us – a restless Christmas and Easter song, “Change your hearts and lives and build the kingdom of heaven.”
Do you remember when John’s disciples came to see Jesus and asked if Jesus was the One Hope or if they needed to keep looking? Do you remember what Jesus said? “Tell John what you see and hear; blind eyes are seeing, crippled legs are walking, hungry crowds are eating, unsheltered strangers are finding housing, and poor people are getting good news. Don’t stumble because of me.” (Luke 7) Are you longing for Hope? Do something hopeful. Be the difference someone needs!
Was anyone more relentlessly hopeful than the Apostle Paul? And Paul failed alot, spending 30 years planting churches while enduring multiple arrests, angry crowds, public beatings, murder attempts, shipwrecks, staff disputes, and apostolic ridicule. Paul writes to the new Roman church plant about the catalytic power of hope: “Whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction so that we could have hope through endurance and through the encouragement of the scriptures. May the God of endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude toward each other, similar to Christ Jesus’ attitude. That way you can glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ together with one voice.” Christian hope is ‘hope through endurance and encouragement’: we see it in the stories of Moses, Miriam, Ester, Jacob and Jesus. Hope endures. Our hope is BOTH and AND. It is inward, personal and inspiring us along our path AND hope is neighbor focused, socially catalytic and equity minded. Hope is BOTH socially holy AND personally sustaining . During Advent, 25 years ago, Connie and I sat in the hospital desperately hoping that this time we came home with a baby. During that long week, I found myself reading the lectionary text about Zechariah and Elizabeth- over and over, and over and over, obsessively. I needed their story and in it found encouragement and endurance. We need that inner personal hope- but that is not all there is. BOTH AND.
God’s enduring encouraging hope arises amid the worst moments of life. During Advent we often visit Isaiah’s hopeful proclamation; we think of how Jesus came to save us, hold us, heal us… “A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from the roots. The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him.” Isaiah’s prophecies hope amid terrible suffering. The Babylonians had looted the temple treasures, melted down the golden gilding from the walls, pushed the cities defensive wall down into heaps of rubble, and placed David’s crown and Aaron’s sapphire vestments in the Babylonian Museum of Vanquished Nations. Nebuchadnezzar tore apart families carrying the best educated young Jewish minds eastward to serve as slaves in the empire’s civil service. The nation, the people, the moment was a dumpster fire burning like the smoldering stumps of the fragrant almond trees that used to beautifully flower every spring in the massive Temple gardens. Amid burning piles of trash, Isaiah sings a new song, a new way of living and being the Hope. Isaiah lights a candle and proclaims God’s vision for a new world. Isaiah’s song is not a solo to be sung by one Savior, but a collective chorus, a congregational song of reform, rebirth and renewal amid the burning stumps of a still smoldering city.
A shoot will grow up from the stump, a branch will sprout from the roots.
The Lord’s spirit will rest upon them.
You will know them by a spirit of wisdom and understanding ,
(What does hope look like? A spirit of wisdom, endurance, understanding)…
Hope is a spirit of planning and strength, knowledge and reverence.
Not judging by people’s appearance or deciding by hearsay.
They will judge the needy with righteousness and bring equity to the disenfranchised.
They will strike down violence using only the rod of their words,
Ethics will be their ball cap and faithfulness their T-shirt.
They won’t harm or destroy any more.
The whole earth will be filled with knowledge,
the Lord will extend a holy hand a second time…God gives a second, third and 7x70th chance.
God will reclaim the survivors from all over the globe.
God will raise a flag to call all the outcasts home.
God will collect the dispersed from the four corners of the earth.
Change your hearts. Change your lives.
Herein lies God’s Kin-dom.
So often we light our candles on Christmas Eve, rejoicing that Jesus is our Savior, the light of our world. We put our hope and whole trust in Jesus Christ, as we should, but our hopeful songs are more than hopes for one single silent night, holy night, where everything is calm and bright. We lift up our hope-filled candles remembering that God is with us, coming alongside us, empowering us to change our hearts and lives! Our candlelight vigils burn brightly- even when we struggle to lift our voices and find our words- still we light a candle and shine the way to another path, a richer community, a more healing chorus. We do not just sing “Son of God, love’s pure light,” we remember that Jesus sings to us “you are the light of the world, you are a city set high on a hill, don’t suppress that hopeful light, let your light, the light of your good works shine so that others may see your good ways and find a little their way holy light. Stop wishing and Be someone’s hope. Shine some hope along someone’s path.” (wildly adapted Matthew
Oh friends, let us sing with endurance and encouragement, let us come together and blend our voices into God’s chorus and lift our candle defying evil, injustice and oppression. Shining light for someone while life’s stumps still smolder! Come to the vigil, dream of a new world, a new way, call the outcasts home, reclaim the survivors, start planning, be strong, build houses, repair bridges, encourage one another, endure, light your candle, hold it high, roll up your sleeves, get to work! Sing a hopeful song: Change your heart. Change your life. Here comes God’s Kin-dom! Amen.