Isaiah 40: 1-11
Well, beloved ones, here we are again, in the first week of Advent. The week when our Christian tradition urges us to consider the virtue of hope, to be hopeful. I have to tell you that every year, since Covid, Advent hits me differently than it used to. Maybe the world is legitimately harder or more confusing or maybe I’m just getting older, but every year for the last four years, we’ve arrived at this week when we focus on hope and I think to myself, “Really?! … THAT’S what I have to preach this week? … Hope?” Hope in 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic? In 2021 when things still weren’t back to normal? Last year in 2022, with whatever global and personal struggles and tragedies we were facing, which I can’t even remember specifically right now but I remember it felt hard. And this year in 2023, with wars and famine and violence and animosity and uncertainty and all the things we are experiencing as individuals … hope? This year, this week, today?
To which I firmly believe the Spirit answered me, “YES. Hope. This year, this week, today, now.” In the midst of war and famine and animosity and uncertainty and personal tragedies, yes, hope, now. In fact it is because of war and famine and animosity and uncertainty and personal tragedies that we need to once again hear loud and clear God’s message of hope now. Hope that includes us but also transcends us. Hope for us and hope beyond us. In this season of Advent we experience again the anticipation of the coming of Jesus, the babe of Bethlehem, the man of Nazareth, in whom God comes to us and shares our common lot. In this season of Advent, we anticipate the eventual return of Jesus the Christ, the resurrected one, who has conquered sin and death and reconciles the whole creation to its creator.
The Christian season of Advent is different from the secular season of Christmas. The secular season of Christmas insists on holly jolly nostalgia, and don’t even get me started on how Santa judging you based on your behavior is so not Christ-like. The Christian season of Advent acknowledges the pain of the world, that things are not right within us and between us and among us. The Christian season of Advent gives space for the longing that we feel for rescue, and healing, and victory. The Christian season of Advent encourage us to both yearn for a Savior and to trust that salvation is coming. Which is why it always starts with hope.
Hope is not wishful thinking, rose-colored glasses but no plan of action. Hope is not optimism, wanting things to turn out well and but not able to bear up under the reality of disappointment. Hope is not “thoughts and prayers,” sappy sentiment when real change is needed. Hope is deeper than that.
Hope is the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. Hope gives the strength to live and continually try new things. – Vaclav Havel
Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to those who lack it. – Christopher Lasch
Optimism tends to be overtaken by facts, while hopefulness keeps going anyway. – Milner Ball
Nothing that is worth doing an be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. – Reinhold Niebuhr
Hope is the expectation of a good future that is awaked through God’s promise and supported by trust in God. – Jürgen Moltmann
The traditional Christian model for hope is found in the Old Testament prophets. We spent a lot of time in Genesis and Exodus this fall and together on Sunday morning, we didn’t quite get all the way into what happened to the Ancient Hebrews once they were settled in the land. Unfortunately, all of the things God warned them could happen if they didn’t closely follow God’s good laws, those things did happen and the tiny nation fell deeper and deeper into greed, violence, and religious hypocrisy. Those three things—greed, violence, and religious hypocrisy—make a nation very unstable. After hundreds of years of warnings from God through the prophets, the nation was invaded, conquered, and many of the people were forcibly relocated to Babylon. This is known as the Exile. And if you only know two things about the Old Testament, you should know about the Exodus and the Exile. Those are the most important stories that shape the Old Testament. Exile finally got the people’s attention. And what is so interesting is that as soon as the exile happens, the prophets change their tune. I personally would have expected a giant “I told you so!” from God, but that is not what the prophets deliver. When the people go into Exile, what they hear from God through the prophets is instead a message of hope. A return to their homeland. Renewed and meaningful relationship with God through corporate worship and individual devotion. Safety. Everyone having enough. God once again acting for them instead of what felt like God acting against them. A message of hope.
Let us listen now for the word and wisdom of God in Isaiah chapter 40, verses 1 through 11.
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass;
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers; the flower fades,
[[when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers; the flower fades,]]
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms
and carry them in his bosom
and gently lead the mother sheep.
This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
A message of hope for the future. Thanks be to God. But at this point I can imagine your saying, “Sounds great, Pastor Beth, but what about right now?!” What about the pain we are in right now? To which, honestly, I have a less satisfying answer. Some churches will tell you that if you just pray hard enough or root out the sin in your life or give enough money to the church, God will also fix what’s wrong right now for you individually. The problem is I don’t see things working out just like that anywhere in the Bible. Jesus himself when he was here in the flesh did sometimes fix people’s immediate problems. But it wasn’t because they prayed hard enough or rooted out their sin or gave him lots of money. It was just because he was gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love and demonstrating in that moment for that person what we anticipate eventually for everyone.
So here’s what I do feel confident saying. I know we’re getting ahead of baby Jesus a little bit, but for me the message of the resurrection is that something good is always possible. Even and especially at the worst moments. Truly we never know what good thing might be just head of us on the path. Also, the call of Christianity is to live for something beyond our own personal comfort, safety, and power. And sometimes that means living with a view beyond our own lifetimes. Things did not personally always go well for Jesus and they will not always go well for us. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us or isn’t good and faithful. It just means that the world is broken because of sin and complicated and God’s ways are mysterious and the world does not revolve around us. We will experience goodness in this life, maybe not always exactly how we hope, and God is surely, slowly, sometimes impercetibly working in all things for good, drawing everything towards the day when everything will be made right. And that, friends, will be a joyous day.
Although we don’t talk about it much, that joyous day when everything is put right is one of the meanings of Communion. At this table we are acting out the day when all people from all times and places sit down together at a fantastic party hosted by Jesus. This is a vision and a foretaste of the divine rule which has been promised as the final renewal of creation. Communion, the eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, is the feast at which the Church gives thanks to God and celebrates and anticipates the coming of the Kingdom in Christ.
THAT is why our ancestors in the faith have insisted that this is the joyful feast of the people of God, where people of all ages, races, and sexes — people in every type of body — come from the north, south, east, and west, and gather at this table with the Risen Christ, who is the host at all our tables.