God's Hope

December 3, 2017

God’s Hope

Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,

    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,

    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,

    the spirit of counsel and might,

    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

 

His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,

    or decide by what his ears hear;

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,

    and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

 

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

    and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,

    their young shall lie down together;

    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

 

They will not hurt or destroy

    on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord

    as the waters cover the sea.

 

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

 

Luke 2:46-55

 “With all my heart I glorify the Lord!

    My spirit rejoices in God my savior.

God has looked with favor on the low status of this servant.

    Truly, from now on, everyone will consider me blessed,

because the mighty one has done great things for me.

 

Holy is God’s name.                    

 

From generation to generation,

God shows mercy to those who honor him.

 

God’s mighty arm has done great things,

scattering the proud and the arrogant,

pulling the powerful down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.

 

God has filled the hungry with good things

and sent the rich away empty-handed.

 

God has come to the aid of his servant Israel,

remembering to be merciful,

just as he promised to our ancestors,

        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

 

* * * * *

When Philip, Trip and I started planning this year’s Advent worship, we knocked around a lot of ideas. We could stay with the lectionary. We could preach from the Prophets. We could do the traditional Advent themes of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. But we never got past talking about Hope – what it means, what Christian hope is, how people find hope when they’re feeling hopeless. And we realized there was plenty to focus on in just that one word. Hope. 

One of the reasons I love the Advent-Christmas season is that it does feel so hopeful. I love the sentimental, Norman-Rockwell innocence that Christmas traditions evoke. Emotionally for me the season begins at Thanksgiving, when my entire clan gets together in Chicago. We cook like crazy – not just Thanksgiving dinner, but a second day’s feast of traditional Armenian food. We play games – hours and hours of games. We tease each other mercilessly. We take turns visiting our 95-year-old father, because descending on him en masse would be a little much. We find time for private conversations to check in on each other’s challenges and strengths and struggles. It’s a precious, precious time when love is appreciated and nurtured and grows stronger – not just for my siblings and me, but for four generations of family. All of that makes my heart sturdier. Those bonds, they strengthen my feeling of hope. 

And I know I get to come home to all this… I love the Walking Tour, and the feel-good sense of community; all the music our choirs create, the hospitality down in Heritage Hall, the streams of visitors through our front doors. It’s festive, it’s fun, and it feels like what life should be like. I love getting Christmas cards with beautiful artwork and sweet, sentimental greetings, and all the letters telling me what people have been up to. I’m a sucker for Hallmark Christmas specials, where love always prevails, broken relationships are always reconciled, crises are always resolved because neighbors or strangers step in to help. It feels, well, so hopeful. It’s the way I wish life would be. 

This season of Advent and Christmas – it taps into that longing I feel. That longing, it’s real. There’s a sense of anticipation, but it’s about so much more than a holiday, a date on the calendar, or even our beloved traditions.

At our Session meeting Tuesday night, Sara Light brought devotions from an Advent book that talks about this very thing. The author, Katie Dawson, writes about where those feelings come from. She says,

In Hebrew, the words wait and hope share a common root. At the core of each, no matter the language, is the idea of expectation…. Behind this longing, this expectation, this hope, is recognition that things are not the way they should be, and a vision that draws us forward into the future. [i] 

That’s the core of it all. That ache inside that says, things are not the way they should be. It shouldn’t have to be this way. 

There’s something in each of us that wants to protest. We may have different triggers for our longing, but it’s a universal feeling that we share. Maybe what you long for is an end to divisiveness and strife. Maybe it’s an end to hatred, or violence, or racism, or harassment. Maybe you’re tired of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, or the powerful looking out for their own. Or maybe it’s something in your family that’s broken: a relationship, an illness, some pain. 

But notice what else Dawson said. That longing we feel – it’s not just the “recognition that things are not the way they should be.” It’s also a vision that draws us forward into the future. That vision – that is the heart of hope. 

Where does that vision come from? How can it awaken inside us? How do we get past the longing to the place of actual hope?

I was talking with my sister about this series, and she reminded me of the writings of Vaclav Havel. Vaclav Havel was a Czech writer and dissident who helped to bring down the Berlin Wall and Communist rule in his own country.  The movement he led became known as the Velvet Revolution because not “a single shot was fired,” in the overthrow of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. 

His work didn’t come without cost. As one biographer noted, Havel “spent five years in and out of Communist prisons, lived for two decades under close secret-police surveillance and endured the suppression of his plays and essays.” 

Vaclav Havel wasn’t what you’d typically think of when you hear the word “Revolutionary.” He wasn’t powerful in the ordinary sense of the word. In fact, as his biographer writes, he was “shy yet resilient, unfailingly polite but dogged… [He] articulated the power of the powerless.” [ii] 

In that sense, he was powerful. His vision was powerful. He had the power of hope. 

In a book called Disturbing the Peace, Havel talked about how he came to understand hope. This is what he said:

 [T]he kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us, or we don’t…  

Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons… I feel that its deepest roots are in the transcendental, just as the roots of human responsibility are… 

Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpromising the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. 

In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to do good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from ‘elsewhere.’ It is also this hope, above all, that gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.[iii] 

Hope is an orientation of the spirit, of the heart…

Hope transcends the world, and is anchored beyond its horizons…

Hope comes from “elsewhere”…  

… from God. 

The scriptures are filled with these messages of hope, these visions from God of what could be, what should be, what is good.  

In our reading from the prophet Isaiah, we hear this. From the stump of Jesse will come a new shoot; from something that seems dead, new life. There is a vision, and it doesn’t come from evidence that the world is going well, but from something beyond the world. 

 [God’s servant] shall not judge by what his eyes see,

    or decide by what his ears hear;

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. 

When the angel comes to Mary to tell her she will bear Jesus, he tells her that “nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary sings this song of praise, blessing God for a future based in what God has already done: 

God’s mighty arm has done great things,

scattering the proud and the arrogant,

pulling the powerful down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly.

 

God has filled the hungry with good things

and sent the rich away empty-handed.

Here’s what I’ve begun to realize – when we talk about hope, we seem to think it means we have to be optimistic. We think in terms of what is manageable or doable, of goals and objectives, not dreams. Not God’s vision for this world, a vision God invites us to be part of. 

If Advent is for anything, I think it is for awakening that dream. It starts with a longing, “the recognition that things are not the way they should be,” but it comes to life with “a vision that draws us forward into the future.” [iv]

That’s what I invite you into this Advent. Let the longing awaken. Let yourself be in the presence of God long enough to remember that God has hope for us, a vision for us, that is well beyond what seems possible. Even in the darkest times, remember the promises of God: 

The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. 

Rev. Karen Chakoian

 

[i] Katie Dawson, All Earth Is Waiting, (Nashville: Abingdon, 2017), 8.

[ii] Dan Bilefsky and Jane Perlez, “Vaclav Havel, Former Czech President, Dies at 75, The New York Times, Dec. 18, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/19/world/europe/vaclav-havel-dissident-playwright-who-led-czechoslovakia-dead-at-75.html

[iii] Vaclav Havel, Disturbing the Peace, 181-2, http://www.vhlf.org/havel-quotes/disturbing-the-peace/

[iv] Katie Dawson, All Earth Is Waiting, (Nashville: Abingdon, 2017), 8.