Finding Love

Scripture: Luke 1:39-55

Our Obsession

We are a people obsessed with finding love. I think it is hardwired in our DNA, but I also think our longing has grown more intense in recent years. I suspect it has something to do with how hard to find genuine love is in our world. Everyone seems more focused on themselves than at any other point in the last century, and you can never find love when you are only looking at yourself.

But still we look for love, often in all the wrong places.

And of late, since so many are obsessed with finding love, others have tried to fill this demand by running dating services that sell the hope of finding love. Now while I’m cynical, I do admit I have some friends who “found” their spouse on an online dating service. So I’m not beating up on dating services.

I just think their prevalence right now is a frightening indicator of how desperate people are for love, how difficult it is for people to find and make personal connections in our world, and how our deep inner longing for the love of God is not being filled by church environments and experiences that freely give that love.

Two Ships in the Night

If you’ve ever seen one of these dating adverts—and I know you have—one of the constant elements of the pitch for these resources is a couple who says they were both using another dating service, but they never connected. Now that they used this dating service, they have found their life partner.

This has got me thinking about finding love in Advent, of anticipating the love of God in the person of Jesus Christ, and of why love is still so hard to find for so many.

I wonder if we are looking for love, and Jesus is looking to love us, but if somehow we just don’t connect.

We are looking for someone to have fun with. Jesus is looking for someone to share life with.

We are looking for love without commitment. Jesus has already committed everything to loving us.

We are looking for that loving feeling. Jesus wants us to show that love is not an emotion.

Filling the Void

And so we pass as two ships in the night. We “date” all these other things that claim they will give us the love we deserve.

We buy ourselves “toys”: electronics, cars, tools, knick knacks, and various gadgets.

We reward ourselves with clothing, jewelry, makeovers, spa treatments, and vacations; because we love ourselves so.

We pursue the elusive “American Dream”: buying ever bigger houses, pursuing an ever better paying job, obtaining ever more prestigious automobiles.

We become serial monogamists. Do you know what that means? It is an interesting term that was recently coined, and it refers to a person who is always “in a relationship.” The serial monogamist is the person who only ever dates one person at a time, but who is always dating someone. The second a relationship breaks up, a new one is formed. Because the person thinks they need someone else to be whole.

This is the untruth at the root of so much of our futile searching: the idea that we just have to find the right person or thing and everything in our lives will be the way we want it to be.

We just have to find the right person, and somehow that will make us whole.

We just have to have the right car, or house, and we will be content.

We just have to have the right job, and we will be fulfilled.

And this is extended to churches as well. Within many churches, there is this mistaken idea that they just need to hire the right staff persons, that they just need to start the right programs, and everything will be peachy. It’s a lie, Christians! And its origin can be found with the one working to see us fail, not succeed.

But it’s a lie that many believe as they search for a church home too. They as well have been deceived into believing that they just have to find the right church and their Christian life will take off. So they hop between churches, looking for some sort of spiritual high that they mistakenly believe is God’s love. Whenever they lose the “feeling,” they move on and begin searching elsewhere.

Some I have spoken with have even given up hope because no church lives up to their lofty ideals. I wonder whether they can live up to those lofty ideals themselves.

Journeys of Transformation

In our journey of finding love, we fail because we forget we are on a journey. We don’t get from here to there by surrounding ourselves with the right equipment. We get from here to there by putting one foot in front of the other and going on the pilgrimage, subjecting ourself to the journey itself, and inviting the change that the journey brings.

Change is not some commodity that we must obtain; it does not come from outside a person. It only happens inside, in reaction and relationship to a journey.

We find love by journeying toward love.

Magnificat

Mary takes a journey in our scripture lesson today. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary, and gives her some disturbing news. Though she is not married, though she is a virgin, she is told that she is pregnant. And though she is no one important, her son Jesus is the Son of God. He will be an eternal king over Israel.

Like so many characters in the Bible, Mary mumbles disbelief, and is offered proof. The proof that this will happen is that her older relative Elizabeth is also pregnant, a fact that Mary seems ignorant of even though Elizabeth is in her sixth month.

The angel leaves, and Mary goes “with haste” to Elizabeth’s house, to confirm or disprove this disturbing news. In journeying, she seeks truth. In journeying, she discovers that within her grows God’s love-bearer to the world. In journeying, she finds out just how much God loves her.

Mary journeys to a place where she hoped to find love and support. Where do we journey when we are looking for love? Do we go to family members? Do we go to friends? Do we go to the mall? Do we go to the internet? Do we go to a bar or a nightclub? Do we go to church?

I suspect that “church” is pretty low on most people’s lists of places where love can be found. But that is precisely our challenge: Is this a place where love can be found? If someone in our community is pursuing love—is journeying toward love—will their journey bring them to us?

1Jn 4 says: “Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another… if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us…The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (vv. 11, 12, 21).

So I ask: Are we a place where love can be found?

Mayan Apocalypse Reboot

There has been a lot of hubbub lately about the end of the world. Archaeologists, historians, and researches have unanimously stated that this Mayan calendar has nothing to do with predicting the end of the world, but yet 2% of the population of these United States believed the world was going to end last Friday.

And even though only 2% thought there was something to it, our sensationalist media has been going nonstop about the Mayan Apocalypse. There has been so much furor, that even the White House issued a statement claiming that the world was not coming to an end on December 21st. I don’t know what good that did, since—as comedian Peter Segel pointed out—the 2% who believed there would be a Mayan Apocalypse are the same 2% who would not believe anything the government said.

But what if they were right? What if it is time to start over? What if we looked at December 21st, 2012, as a near-death experience of sorts? Something we can use to begin again, anew? Something like a reset button or a cosmic reboot of sorts.

What if this is our do-over?

“Let’s try this ‘being human’ thing again. Let’s start treating each other as brothers and sisters. Let’s recognize the presence of God in our neighbor and dwelling in all creation. Let’s remember we have been saved before, [so] this ain’t nothing new. God came as a baby to do it last time—this time. Now we have God living among us. Let’s live as people grateful for being spared the end of the world” (thanks to my friend Justin Thornburgh).

Let’s live as people of love. Let’s be a family again, continuing to love each other even in the midst of the most intense disagreements. Let’s build God’s house into a place where love can be found. Let’s love each other more than we love ourselves. Let’s love the people of this community more intensely than they have ever experienced.

Let’s be guides to those on the journey of finding love.

After all, “we love because he first loved us” (1Jn 4:19). And having been given so great a gift, God expects us to use that gift, to pass on that love to a world obsessed with finding love.

God gives love so freely and extravagantly that the only reason our world is starved for love is that we miserly hoard that love that we are meant to share.

It’s time to reboot. It’s time to restart. It’s time to become the community of love that the church should be. And it begins right here and right now.

May God give us compassionate and generous hearts to share God’s love with the world.

Finding Joy?

Scripture: Isaiah 12:2-6

It Begins.

I had already written another sermon by the time I heard of the tragedy that took place at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

I intended to speak on the subject of Finding Joy, continuing my Advent series. But as the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us “For everything there is a season…a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (3:1, 4). Today, we weep and we mourn.

At 9:40 am on Friday, when the shooter forced his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School, my daughter was in her kindergarden class here at Atchison Elementary. She is only a year younger than most of those who died on Friday. Her class is made up of 20 children, the same number as those children who were killed. And when I dropped her off that morning, I took it for granted that she would return home. But Friday, there were 20 children who did not return home.

And you know what? Despite the fact that Sandy Hook Elementary School is 1322 miles away (according to Google), I had to fight the urge to go and bring her home. I had to fight the parental reflex to protect, even in the most irrational of circumstances.

We kept our children close on Friday afternoon and evening, and we have every day since.

Because that whirlwind of emotion continues to grow and change.

Outrage at the shooting of innocents has been supplemented by outrage at the media. I still cannot believe that I saw interviews on Friday with other children who were at the school during the shooting. Really?!? Interviews with children?!? Haven’t they already been traumatized enough for one day?

And then came outrage at the talking heads who began the blame game. It’s the Republican’s fault for not allowing stricter gun control. It’s the Democrat’s fault for taking prayer out of schools. It’s America’s fault for not being a Christian nation.

Asking Why.

Everyone is asking why. But no one seems all that interested in listening for an answer to that question.

Before anyone has any time to actually reflect and try to answer that question, we jump from the question of “why” to the question of “what can we do to prevent it?” And the more I listen to people talking, the more I realize that “what can we do to prevent it from happening again?” is really just a dishonest way of asking, “how can I use this to my advantage?”

Because when I listen to the news, troll through the blogosphere, or check out my Facebook feed, that is really what I see. The people who have been lobbying for increased gun control are, not surprisingly, trying to use this tragedy to make their case. On the other end of the spectrum, those who have lobbied for increased carry permits are, also not surprisingly, claiming that their pet project could have prevented this tragedy. Preachers and proponents of prayer in schools are claiming that this has happened because we took prayer out of schools and forgotten our roots as a Christian nation. And of course those who are against video games have jumped on this too.

For all these people, the death of 28 innocents is just one more piece of evidence to put forward to prove they are right, just one more poker chip in the game of life, just one more tool to accomplish their agenda.

It is horrific.

It is not just the shooter who has taken and destroyed life. It is also every news commentator, preacher, Facebook poster, blog writer, or anyone else who wields this shooting in their own little war against the world.

How trite have we become? How selfish and self-centered? How is it that we have forgotten how to be human?

Because, somehow, I think that is at the root of it all: We have forgotten how to be human.

Answering Why.

The short answer to “why” has nothing to do with gun control or prayer; Republicans, Democrats, or even America. Tragedies like this one happen because there is evil in the world. Not—because we’re not praying in schools. Not—because we’re not a Christian nation. And certainly not—because God wills it.

The final battle has not yet been waged, and until then, another power exerts control in this world. You might call that power Satan or the Devil, but I call that power: cruelty, selfishness, hate, poverty, hostility, manipulation, divisiveness, violence.

These things don’t happen because one person is evil, they happen because we are all tainted by evil. We all have violence in us, and we all do violence to other people in our words, in our actions, and in our lack of action. And lest anyone object, remember that 1 John 1:10 says, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

Somehow the powers of evil in this world have not only convinced us to trust in ourselves, rather than in God; not only have they convinced us that we have to look out for ourselves, rather than “in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3); but they have also convinced us that we do not need to acknowledge others as human at all. The powers of darkness have convinced us that our neighbors are tools to be used, commodities to be bought and sold in the marketplace of power and money.

But these are beings made in the image of God, beings we are told to love as though they were our very selves.

We look to the person of Jesus as an example of how we are to live. And when we do so, we tend to think of those pure spiritual characteristics of Jesus that we believe we are to embody. But in my complicated emotions today, I wonder if Jesus came to teach us how to be human, as well.

Hospitality. Sharing. Kindness. Honesty. Compassion. Love. These are not exclusively divine characteristics that we failingly aspire to. These are human characteristics that we needed a divine being to remind us of.

Darkness.

It is Advent. Each week we light another candle, symbolizing the gradual in-breaking of the light of God in the world. As the light slowly grows, we anticipate the coming Light of the world.

Tragedy makes that light seem so dim. It makes peace look so weak. It makes love seem so foolish. It makes hope look so bleak. And joy?…joy looks impossible.

It’s dark. It’s really, really dark. And in moments like this, when we look away from the light, we see just how truly dark our world is. And it is terrifying.

But I keep going back to one of our traditional Christmas texts, the opening verses of the Gospel of John. It speaks of the Word, creation, and light. And speaking of Jesus as the light, John tells us that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

The irrationality of the slaying of innocents has a way of making the entire world seem like it is out of control. Everything is off-kilter. It makes us lose our sense of direction.

But yet the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Lives end, all far too quickly. Families are broken. A community is devastated.

But yet the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

The scripture text I read, on which my original sermon was based, concludes the first major division in the book of Isaiah, a section of Isaiah’s oracle that has largely focused on God’s judgment against the ancient Israelites for the injustices they have committed and their faithlessness regarding God.

But coming on the heels of those difficult words is the cool and refreshing words of Isaiah 12, expressing the confident hope that God will yet provide salvation to God’s people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This tragedy reminds us that we still live in darkness, and that we are still in need of the light of God’s love.

I believe God grieves with us in this tragedy. I believe God actively works to prevent this and other tragedies. But we have free will. And we live in a world where evil reigns.

But the darkness will not overcome the light. God will yet provide salvation.

And on that day, we will beat our swords into plowshares.

On that day, the lion will lay down with the lamb.

On that day, we will teach our children war no more.

On that day, the light will rise to full noonday height, dispelling the darkness forever.

Until then, we pray. And we live lives of hope, peace, and even joy as we carry the flame of Christ’s love into the world.

May God forgive us, and may we become people of peace.

Finding Peace

Scripture: Luke 1:68-79

The Back Story

Within the broad tradition of Christianity, this text—the pronouncement of Zechariah upon seeing his son John and regaining the ability to speak after months of silence—is called the Benedictus, after its first two words in the Latin translation: “Blessed be.”

In order to truly appreciate this text, we have to consider the back story—the context that precedes it. Zechariah is a priest, married to Elizabeth, a descendent of the priestly clan of Aaron. They are both described by Luke as “righteous” and “blameless,” in that they follow the Torah—the instruction of God through Moses (Luke 1:6). They are both getting on in years, and despite their lives of faith and righteous living, they have not been blessed with a child, and now they are too old to conceive.

Remember that in the ancient world of the Bible, barrenness is generally seen as a curse. Eternal life, in the mindset of the OT world, is achieved through one’s children; you literally “live forever” through your descendants, particularly the male kind.

I wonder: how difficult has this been for Zechariah, who has devoted his life to the service of his God, who follows all the rules of his religion, who enters the Temple and makes sacrifices on behalf of others, who lives a righteous life, doing all the right things—and yet. And yet, year after year goes by, hope after hope of an heir is dashed.

Did Zechariah wonder why? Did he begin to think God didn’t really care for him? Did he follow through the motions of his religion, all while losing faith that God could or would reward him for his life of service?

Whatever we might think has happened over the years, the Zechariah we early in Luke 1 is anything but positive, faithful, and confident that God can act.

As the story goes, it is Zechariah’s time to make the sacrifice, and he enters the Sanctuary of the Temple to make an incense offering. This ritual, described in Exodus 30, is to be performed twice daily—when the lamps are lit in the morning and when they are extinguished in the evening. In terms of the priestly rituals of the Temple, this is perhaps the most mundane, the most ordinary, the most habitual.

As such, Zechariah expects the same thing that happens every time he performs this duty: he goes into the sanctuary, burns the incense, trims the lamps, and goes out.

But this time, it was anything but ordinary. He trims the lamps and lights the incense. And then someone else is there. Zechariah should be alone—no one else is allowed in the Temple during this ritual. I don’t know if Zechariah sees the angel first, or if he has that eerie awareness that there is another presence nearby. But something holy has intervened in the mundane, and it terrifies Zechariah.

And while this holy being tells Zechariah not to fear, Zechariah is cynical. The angel promises the fulfillment of Zechariah’s hopes and prayers—the birth of a son—but the decades of wondering “why” has calloused Zechariah and made him skeptical. He tells the angel that what is now promised is impossible.

The angel pulls rank, and reminds Zechariah that he stands in the presence of God and has the authority to rebuke. And so he does. “Gabriel decrees Zechariah’s speechlessness until his prophetic words come to pass” (Branch, Feasting, 37).

When Zechariah at last comes out of the Temple, mute (v.20) and perhaps deaf (v.62), “the people of the village see that something out of the ordinary has happened to him, but they do not understand what he is going through” (Mixon, Feasting, 37).

For the months that follow, Zechariah is tossed about by his doubts and fears until he is forced inside himself. He is powerless to do anything except wait, watch, and wonder. In this way, he is a powerful embodiment of our Advent reflection and expectation.

“His physical state forces him in on himself to consider the entire course of his life—his faithful service as a priest, his faithful love for Elizabeth, his faithful belief that God would redeem God’s people. He has time to consider the long arc of his life and how it has been disrupted by the sudden appearance of the holy at a time and in a manner he was not expecting” (Mixon, Feasting, 35).

But this nine-month “time out” leads to profound changes in Zechariah’s personality & faith. Given that so much of his ultimate pronouncement relies heavily on words in Genesis, the Psalms, Ezekiel, and Samuel, perhaps Zechariah spent much of his silent time studying the sacred scrolls of God’s Word. Maybe this experience has led him to meditate on an upcoming great move of God. (Branch, Feasting, 37).

Whatever happens, when Zechariah reappears in v.67, he has been transformed. “Like an explosion after much pressure, joy bursts forth, cascading good words on all. Zechariah literally sings! This new, energized Zechariah, ready for fatherhood, tenderly talks to [God and] his baby boy” (Branch, Feasting, 37).

Most of Zechariah’s song is not about John who will be called the Baptist. It is instead about God, specifically praise to the God who remembers. Zechariah’s name itself means “God remembers,” so we should not be surprised that his story in the Bible is about God remembering: “God has remembered God’s holy covenant, the oath God swore to Abraham our father. God has remembered to show mercy and to rescue God’s covenant people from the hand of their enemies. God has redeemed God’s people. God remembers God’s covenantal promises” (Branch, Feasting, 35).

John, Zechariah prophesies, “will be the bridge between the law and its fulfillment, the prophet who will proclaim the Messiah’s presence, the voice who will call the whole creation to repentance in response to the promise of salvation” (Mixon, Feasting, 37). He will “guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Peace

Peace. In this season of Advent, as we reflect on the coming of the Prince of Peace, we wait, watch, and wonder if we will ever know peace. We long for peace, but we live in a world that knows far too little of it. And maybe we, like Zechariah, have given up the hope that we will ever see this promise fulfilled.

But as we walk these ancient paths of Advent, our challenge is to find peace. And I think the experience of Zechariah provides a map we can use to find peace today.

As preacher Roger Gench points out (Feasting, 32-34), Zechariah vacillates between joy and fear. He is tossed about by the waves of life, as one without an anchor:

Elizabeth is barren and getting on in years—a definitive line down.

Gabriel appears and announces Elizabeth will bear a son who will be the forerunner to the coming Savior—line up.

But Zechariah is terrified with disbelief, so the angel renders him mute—line down.

Then Elizabeth bears a son—line up.

But family and friends are not supportive of Elizabeth’s desire to name him John—line down.

Zechariah places his trust in his own understanding of biology, in his understanding of religion and righteousness, in the opinions and perspectives of his friends; and as such he never discovers true peace.

But after months of forced silence, after months of wrestling with God and submitting to God’s desires in his life, his trust is in God alone and he speaks of peace.

The path to peace, Zechariah suggests, is as simple as following your feet. Feet do not deceive us the way that our eyes and heads and hearts do. Our feet have a way of finding home. They do not get distracted by everything before us, for feet only know one step at a time. And this is the way that God leads us, as we read in Psalm 119:105: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” God does not promise a brilliant blaze of light to illuminate the road for miles ahead. God promises a lamp to our feet, enough light for the next step.

There’s a movie that came out some time ago called A Knight’s Tale (2001). It is, in my opinion, the best Heath Ledger movie of all time, though it was not that well received when it was released. Inspired in part by Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” this story follows a squire named William who desire to “change his stars” and become a knight.” We learn, in the course of the story unfolding, that William was given up by his father at an early age with precisely this hope: that he can change his stars. The charge of young William is given to a knight. But the boy is afraid. William says, “Father, I am afraid, I won’t know the way back home.” His father echoes back, “Don’t be foolish, William, you just follow your feet.”

Like young William, finding peace is as simple as finding our way home. We will only know true peace when we follow our feet and find our way back home to the Kingdom of God.

We may be in this world, but we are not of this world, as the old gospel tune proclaims, “This world is not my home, I’m just a’passing through.” But unlike the chorus of that tune, we too often feel right at home here in this world.

1 John 3:1 says” See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” We are not citizens of this world; but as children of God, we are citizens of the Kingdom of God. And Jesus says that the children of God will be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9).

We will only know true peace—in our hearts and in our world—when we are right with God, when we have laid aside our own ambitions and passions, or at least turned them over to God.

We will only know true peace when we anchor our lives in God. There’s anther hymn I grew up singing called “In Times Like These.” Do you know it?

In times like these, you need a Savior.
In times like these, you need an anchor.
Be very sure, be very sure,
your anchor holds, and grips the Solid Rock.

This Rock is Jesus. Yes, he’s the one!
This Rock is Jesus, the only One!
Be very sure, be very sure,
your anchor holds, and grips the Solid Rock.

This Advent season, Zechariah reminds me that true peace can only be found if my life is anchored on the Solid Rock.

Benediction

Think peace…
Pray for peace…
Accept God’s peace…
Go and be God’s peace in the world…

Finding Hope

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find;
knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Matt 7:7)

Today we begin the journey of Advent. The journey begins wherever you are. The journey will end with the birth of the Christ-Child, Jesus Christ. Though as the Magi can tell you, finding the Christ-Child is really just the beginning.

Despite what you see on TV or experience at a store, you cannot take the interstate to travel to Bethlehem. The journey is not fast or easy.

But there are ancient paths. Sometimes hard to see and always difficult to follow, these paths have been carved into the landscape of Christian spirituality by the travelers of ages past. They, like we, had to decipher the time-worn maps that lead us to the Christ-Child.

These maps are strange things. The roads lead inward. They are marked with names like Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. They are routes we travel with head and heart—sometimes together, sometimes apart. They are separate and whole, individual yet distinct.

Some days we may travel miles. Other days our progress seems paralyzed. But we journey still, for our progress is not calculated in miles travelled, waypoints visited, or photos taken, but by the steady, unrelenting passage of time.

We know what no one in First Century Judea knew: we have but four short weeks before the Christ-Child arrives. Will we be ready?

Part of our journey involves finding these ancient paths for ourselves: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. To find them will undoubtedly involve a lot of asking, seeking, and knocking. But as I said, the journey is not easy.

As we pilgrimage to Advent together, I encourage you to consider asking God a question. Sit with your question and with God these four weeks, honestly and openly, and I believe you will hear God answer.

But for now, we are seekers. We are pilgrims on a journey, as the old hymn proclaims. And this week we journey toward finding hope.

The scripture text we use this morning to illuminate our journey is…

Jeremiah 33:14-16

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.”

The Bible speaks a great deal about hope:

  • In Hebrews 11:1, we are told that faith & hope are interconnected: “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
  • Proverbs 10:28 instructs us that “The hope of the righteous ends in gladness.”
  • Psalm 42:5-6 asks “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”
  • Jereremiah 14:22 reminds us of the reason we hope in God, when Jeremiah says: “We set our hope on you, for it is you who do all this.”
  • Later in Jeremiah, we are reminded that God desires we have hope. Jeremiah 29:11 says “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
  • In Romans 4:18, the Apostle Paul holds up the person of Abraham to be an example of faith for believers. In Paul’s words, Abraham’s faith was lived out by “hoping against hope” for God’s promises.
  • We also know something of the origins of hope from Paul, who stated that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-5).
  • And we also read that “hope that is seen is not hope” (Romans 8:24).
  • We know that “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
  • And elsewhere Paul says that “Christ Jesus [is] our hope” (1 Timothy 1:1).

This is, of course, just a sampling. But it illustrates a point: the Bible speaks a great deal about hope. But what is it? And more importantly, how do we find it?

The dictionary defines hope as “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen,” but that just feels sort of distant and cold. It also seems pretty self-centered, and I believe hope relies on others. There is, I believe, a relational component to hope. Maybe it is because it seems to be contagious. Maybe it is because—when things are bleak—we need someone outside ourselves to inspire us to hope. Maybe it is because when we have hope we cannot help but share it. I don’t know.

On the face of it, hope might be as simple as believing that there is a tomorrow. Because sometimes tomorrow itself seems like an impossibility.

But as I have wrestled with the question of defining hope, another option has wormed its way into my brain: Hope may be believing in someone or something because it is right and true and honest, no matter what the outcome looks like—a task that usually requires more strength than we have in ourselves alone.

This is, in a way, the context of our scripture lesson from Jeremiah 33. In a life of exile, everything about the ancient Israelites’ way of life having been destroyed, Jeremiah “hopes against hope” with God, imagining a day of restoration when God’s promises are fulfilled. The text speaks of a peace that will come about when the Righteous Branch of David rightly dispenses justice throughout the land.

I imagine that “safety” and “peace” were relative terms to those living in exile. I once heard someone joking about life in New York City, claiming that “making it home safe” meant that you got mugged, but not stabbed or shot too. The Israelites having been subjected to such trauma and violence, I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to hope for a time when your physical safety is not constantly threatened.

But that is the hope—that is the dream that Jeremiah dreams with God. And I am so glad he did, because we need these infusions of reckless hope to keep on believing, ourselves.

 

We understand Jesus Christ to be the person in which this text of Jeremiah is fulfilled. He is the “righteous branch” that springs up from the stump of Judah and in whom all find their hope.

The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is itself an expression of hope. For in it, our God dreams impossible and reckless dreams of restoration and wholeness for us. One of those dreams got his Son killed. Another dream said that you are worth it.

Too often, we Christians are the first to accept the status quo, to claim that things cannot change, and so we must accept circumstances and make the most of it. We are so interested in affirming the sovereignty of God that we forget God’s Kingdom is not of this world. And so we scurry along quietly minding only our own lives, and in doing so we reinforce the pain and suffering of our neighbors and ourselves.

But this is not our calling. We are called to speak truth to lies, comfort to pain, joy to sorrow, love to hate, and hope to despair.

Video

There’s a short video that we’re getting cued up for you right now. I imagine you will find it inspiring. It’s about a man named Arthur Boorman, a disabled veteran who had lost hope. Well, the video tells his story better than I ever could.

 

The thing that really struck me about Arthur’s story is how many times he must have been told to give up.

Our world is full of “Arthur Boormans” who have been beaten down and chewed up by life. Maybe their struggles are not physical in nature; maybe they are. Some of us are beaten down by our families. Some are beaten down by our bosses. Some are beaten down by medical conditions. Some are beaten down by joblessness, or poverty, or discrimination.

The Gospel story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is one that challenges us to never give up hope. For even when death was certain, even when the moment of death was three days past, it was not too late for our God to act.

And so we, as Christians, are called to speak endless hope to those who are told to give up. We are called to breathe hope into a world of despair. With the bottomless creativity of our God, we are called to imagine possibilities where there are only dead ends. We profess that there is no person, no relationship, or no situation too broken for our God to redeem it.

The question for you, for me, and for all of us, is: do we believe it?

When we look at an “Arthur Boorman,” do we see tragic circumstances that cannot be bettered? Or do we see a child of God in need of hope.

If we do not believe, we cannot expect the world to believe either.

If we do not believe, we will never find hope.

And that is an incredible tragedy, for without hope we—and our world—will never see the light that the Christ-Child brings into existence, the light that dispels darkness and despair, the light that illuminates our path, one step at a time, as we travel these time-worn paths of hope, peace, joy, and love in our journey to Christ.

I pray that you find hope in this season of Advent, and that you become beacons of hope in your world. May God be praised.