Advent 2016 COME, LET US WALK IN THE LIGHT OF THE LORD
Living With Hope Click here for audio
Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 8:18-25
Pastor Marty Raths
In the church year today marks the new year. This is the first Sunday in the Season of Advent, and we begin the church year where all good beginnings begin. With hope. And what better symbol of hope is there than the anticipation of the birth of a child, a child who will be for us Emmanuel, God with us? But now we are getting ahead of ourselves. We are still in Advent, a time for us to wait, prepare, repent, ponder, follow . . .
So let us come back to hope. Paul called it one of the 3 great virtues. These 3 abide, faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these, he concluded, is love. And as for faith, it became the great rallying cry of the Reformation. “By faith alone,” Martin Luther proclaimed, meaning that we stand upon faith, and not upon our own merit, for our justification before God.
And all this attention given to faith and to love has led one theologian to describe hope as the neglected middle child of the three virtues. And as is often the case, with neglect comes misunderstanding. In conversation we use the word hope in such casual ways. I hope this, or I hope that, when it amounts to little more than wishful thinking on our part. But that is not hope.
Or else we understand hope to have little to do with the present. It is all about the future, about what will come to pass someday, and there are those who wander themselves lost with speculation about the end of things. But that is not hope either
As people of faith we are called to live by hope. But if hope is not wishful thinking, or awaiting some far off future, or losing ourselves in speculation about when that future will come, then what is it? Hope is living in the present in anticipation of God’s promised future. Hope does not have us passively waiting for the future to come, or indulging in fanciful predictions about its coming. It has us actively working towards the vision of that future coming. Hope looks to God’s promised future, sets its sights upon that future, gets its bearings from that future, but it lives out those promises in the present.
The scriptures give us many visions of this promised future, none more bold than the one we heard from the prophet Isaiah. “In the days to come . . . “ Isaiah proclaimed. And then he gives us a vision of a just world and a world at peace. Now we are not there yet, far from it, but that is the future that God has promised. And if that is the way that God is directing the world, if that is the moral arc of the universe to use the language of Martin Luther King, then we need to be going in the same direction too, or else we are going to find ourselves at cross purposes with God, which is why Isaiah follows up this vision with just such an exhortation, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”
This is a basic pattern in the scriptures: God’s future promise followed by a call to present action on our part. This is what God intends for the world, Isaiah proclaims, a world of justice and peace, so this is what God requires of us in the meantime, to walk in the light of this vision of things. We must not neglect the demands of the present as we look to the future, separating hope from the demands of justice and peace. The scriptures counsel against this. God’s promised future should always be directing our living in the present.
This means then that there is an unseen aspect to hope. “Now hope that is seen is not hope,” Paul writes, “for who hopes for what is seen?” Hope has to do with what is not yet in our lives and in our world. It is about what could be. Someone once wrote, “It is easy to see the seed in the fruit, but it takes hope to believe that there is fruit in the seed.” Hope is about potential. It is about possibility. It is about believing that within the seed there is the power to become fruit, that within today there is the possibility of a better tomorrow.
So hope does not settle for what is apparent. It looks more intently. It sees more deeply. It refuses to believe that what is most important in life is what is most obvious to us. In the aftermath of World War II this poem of hope was found on a wall in one of the concentration camps. It had been written by a Jewish prisoner, and it read, “I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. And I believe in love even when there is no one there. And I believe in God even when He is silent.” That is hope. When we refuse to accept things as they are, or as they seem to be, when we believe instead that there are deeper realities at work in our world, even when they are not obvious to us, realities like the light of the sun, and the power of love, and the presence of God.
But there are assurances too, and we need them. I remember reading about the collapse of the mine in Chile in 2010 that trapped 33 men for 69 days. And after being rescued, one of the miners talked about the importance of the rescue drills. “When the drills stopped,” he said, “The silence just destroyed us. Without a positive sign,” he said, “your hope collapses because hope is not totally blind.”
Hope is not totally blind. We need assurances in life. When we are struggling, we need hopeful assurances. We need the sound of the rescue drills, the promise of a child, some light in the darkness. We need family who are there for us, friends who stand by us, a congregation who cares for us. We need a sense of meaning in life, and purpose, and vocation. We need our faith, and the strength and encouragement that the sacraments can give to us. During the most difficult times in his life, the reformer Martin Luther would fall back upon the promises that had been given to him in his baptism. And John Wesley spoke of communion as “one of the greatest mercies this side of heaven.”
So hope has its assurances, but there is still some risk to hope. It means stepping out beyond what is apparent, beyond what is obvious, beyond what is comfortable. The ancient rabbis used to say that, when the Israelites were fleeing Egypt, with Pharoah and his armies in pursuit, God did not just part the waters of the sea before them. Nor did God part the waters when Moses put his staff into the sea. Only when one of the Israelites risked stepping into the sea did God part the waters. And it was hope that took that first step, out beyond what was into what could be, into a better future, a future promised by God.
Granted it is easier in some ways not to hope. I once saw a bumper sticker that read, “Since I gave up hope, I feel so much better.” And there is some truth to that. Hope has a way of unsettling things, making things uncertain, and we do not always like uncertainty. “Many of us prefer the certainty of misery,” someone once said, “to the misery of uncertainty.” So those first steps out beyond the comfortable are always a little uncertain, so we hesitate . . . We like the security of what we know. Even if we do not like it, at least we know it. It is familiar to us, but the desire for comfort is one of the most restrictive barriers that we face in life. It makes for a high wall, and we are often hesitant to climb over it.
But what if Moses and the Israelites, while standing on the shore of the sea, had settled for the security of bondage back in Egypt? What if Peter had settled for the security of his fishing nets after Jesus’ resurrection? What if Paul had settled for the security of his past following his experience on the Road to Damascus?
So hope is risky, and it is elusive at times. If we are not vigilant, it has a way of sort of slipping away, like water through our fingers. It slips away when we get to thinking, Why bother? What difference will it make anyway? It doesn’t really matter? My life is what it is, and the world is what it is, and I cannot do anything about it. So I am not even going to bother putting my foot into the water, or climbing that wall, not even going to risk a different tomorrow.
But hope persists. It knows that it does matter, that what we choose to think and say and do today can make for a better tomorrow. There is a famous author who was once asked about how he was able to write all his books. And he replied that he had never written a book in his life. “All that I have ever done is write a page a day,” he said, “and by doing that I had a book in the end.”
That is hope, writing that first page, and then a page a day, day after day, doing what is good and right and just today, as best we can by the grace of God, and doing it each day, day after day, because a far greater day awaits us in God’s promised future, and we want to be a part of it, and even have a hand in helping it to come. The writer Ann LaMott says it this way, “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if we just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.”
The dawn will come. Justice will come. Peace will come. Hope dreams big, “. . . they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Hope dreams big, they are God’s dreams after all, but as for us we have to live out the dreams in the real world, and in the day to day of life, and that is hard sometimes, but there is no other way.
I have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. In one of his Peanuts comic strips Charles Schultz has Linus say, “I love mankind; its people I cannot stand.” Granted it can be easier to love humanity in general, to love the idea of it, but when it comes to hope, that will not do. Hope calls us to love real people, even when they seem to us to be unlovable. We may love the idea of peace, but as the prophet Isaiah proclaims, if all of our efforts are devoted to preparation for war, we will never get there. That is not the way. Peace is the way to peace, and hope calls us to do the things that make for peace, each day, day after day, that is the way, living out God’s dream of peace in the real world, and in the midst of our daily life, letting go of grudges, practicing forgiveness, risking reconciliation, waging peace as fiercely as we wage war.
Years ago I was given a book for Christmas entitled This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women. And one of the women made a statement that has stayed with me ever since. “I have come to realize,” she wrote, “that my life is not an epic struggle between good and evil. It is far more a battle between doing something and doing nothing.”
And truth be told, we all end up at this same crossroads in life, almost daily, the crossroads that would have us doing something or doing nothing, and it is hope that directs us down the road to doing something, to doing all the good that we can, as John Wesley said, in all the ways that we can, as often as we can, for as long as we can. It is hope that has us believing that it matters that we do something if we can, that what we think and say and do can make a difference, that we do have a part to play in bringing about this vision that God has for the future.
Hope comes when we act upon it. And in this Season of Advent, as we make our way to Bethlehem to see again this thing that God has done, we will meet several people on the way, people just like you and me, who just like us found themselves at this crossroads between doing something or doing nothing. And they, John the Baptist, Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, some shepherds and wise men, they all chose to do something, and in no small they helped to make this thing come to pass, this vision of a child born who would be for us Emmanuel, God with us. Amen.