waiting on the light of hope

Isaiah 2:1-5
Matthew 24:36-44
Romans 13:11-14

I remember—
now not as a child.
As a child, I remember being thrilled with my Christmas presents,
overjoyed with my toys,
having stayed up well past the frustration of not being able to go to sleep,
well into the longing to be able to,
but too full of anticipation
and then waking up (because eventually I did—go to sleep)—
waking up early,
to wait at the top of the stairs with my siblings
until my parents woke up and got ready,
and went down and did who knew what,
until they finally said it was okay for us to come tearing down.
Any of this sound familiar?

And we would rush down into the living room
where each of the three of us kids had a furniture item
with our gifts from Santa on them.
Mine was the sofa—
actually half the sofa,
because my brother and sister each had a chair,
but you know the possibility of the sofa being filled was always there!

So, not as a child,
as a child it was all anticipation and excitement,
but I remember as a youth—
even as a young adult, and a less young adult,
that the predominant feeling looking back on Christmas
was not exuberance,
but I remember a certain melancholy—
particularly in the aftermath of Christmas—
amidst the wrapping paper littering the room,
the ribbons and the gift tags,
and all the piles of, somehow forlorn, new … stuff.

And it’s really not that I would tear into a present
with great anticipation only to discover
I had gotten underwear.
Or a tie.
No, it’s as if there were some hope I clung to
that what was wrapped under the tree
in bright Christmas wrapping paper,
with a ribbon and a bow and a tag with my name on it—
that when I unwrapped it,
well, that would be it.
You know what I’m talking about?
It?
The perfect gift.
The one that left no empty sadness—
that took away all empty sadness.
The one that dissolved disappointment—
that brought fulfillment and joy.
What a hope that was!

And part of growing up was realizing both
how unrealistic an expectation that was for presents—
for stuff,
and, at the same time, how very real a hope it was.

So if I ask you for what you hope this Christmas,
that’s a very different question than asking
what you want for Christmas, right?
After all, through the years, I’ve gotten a lot of what I wanted.
I’ve gotten a lot for which I wished and asked.
Whether that was a toy, a fishing rod, art supplies,
a Bible commentary, dark chocolate.
It’s not that I haven’t gotten what I asked for—
what I wanted,
it’s that none of it eased that melancholy—
that deep sense that there was more
for which to hope.

And I do think it has to do with taking seriously the difference
between what we want—
that for which we wish,
and that for which we hope.

So to consider what it is for which we hope this Christmas,
as a bigger question than what we want,
it seems most appropriate answers
extend beyond the self—
beyond any self.
To peace on earth.
No more hungry children.
Water and food enough for all.
Justice for all.

Does that mean we don’t or can’t hope for us individually?
Certainly not.
But it’s nothing to take lightly.
And we do too often, I think, take it lightly.
It’s no small thing to hope.
To hope is a profound undertaking.
It’s counter-cultural in that particular way
that is acknowledgement of what is missing in what is
and what cannot be found in what is.

And so hope is also, most appropriately,
tied to some sense of completion—
fulfillment.
So to consider what it is for which we hope this Christmas,
well that includes a terribly honest assessment of what is—
of how far we are from that for which we hope—
of what’s lacking.
That’s where it starts.
The prayer to know for what to hope
is an invitation to profoundly know what is—
even uncomfortably.

The Reverend Fleming Rutledge,
in her book The Bible and The New York Times
wrote, “The authentically hopeful Christmas spirit
has not looked away from the darkness, but straight into it.
The true and victorious Christmas spirit
does not look away from death, but directly at it.
Advent begins in the dark”
(Fleming Rutledge, The Bible and The New York Times
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Erdmans, 1998] 28).

Advent starts with hope.
A yearning within the darkness for the light.
A profound yearning for something other than what is.

But it’s more than a wish.
It’s not escapist fantasy.
And it’s not just the belief that God will take care of it.

Some of us are reading
scholar, author, researcher, social worker Brené Brown’s book
The Gifts of Imperfection. She writes,
“I think it’s critically important
to define the gauzy words that are tossed around every day
bur rarely explained.
And I think good definitions should be accessible and actionable.”
(Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are: Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life
[Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2013] 2).

As a researcher, Brown notes she doesn’t conduct interviews,
she collects stories.
And based on the thousands of stories she’s heard,
she concludes that hope is not defined as
“an emotion—like a warm feeling of optimism and possibility.”
But as, rather, “a combination of setting goals,
having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue them,
and believing in our own abilities….
Tolerance for disappointment, determination,
and a belief in self are the heart of hope”
(Brown, 65-66).

Now how is that not just a liberal social theology
or an overly idealistic humanism?
We can achieve our hopes?
How’s that not taking God out of hoping?
And at Advent?!

Of the five Hebrew words connoting hope
in the Old Testament, one of them,
meaning security and prosperity—
hope in your bank account, your retirement accounts,
hope in your self and its resources,
is explicitly condemned
(from the notes of Isam Ballenger).

Within the theological context of the New Testament,
“God is the author and source of hope,
its sustaining power, and its unseen yet certain objective.
Hope is thus God-grounded, God-sustained, and God-directed”
(this is, I believe a Jürgen Moltmann quote,
but I cannot find the citation in my notes).

So what’s with this “belief in self” as “the heart of hope”?

Is it that hope is not just not what God will do,
but what, with God’s help,
we will continue to believe we can do—
we can be a part of?

A community of faith
committed to the work of God.
The story of God—
running counter to the stories of our world and our culture.
For as Jürgen Moltmann put it, “Those who hope in Christ
can no longer put up with reality as it is,
but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it”
(Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope
[New York: Harper & Row, 1967] 21)—
because it means something—
this lacking something—
something crucial.

And it’s not that I believe we can do it without God.
I’m just not sure God can do it without us.
So how ’bout hope as a God-infused orneriness?
A divinely inspired stubborn insistence.

Brené Brown also celebrates the affirmation
that “hope is learned” …
“that we learn hopeful, goal-directed thinking
in the context of other people.
Children most often learn hope from their parents.
Research suggests “that to learn hopefulness,
children need relationships that are characterized by boundaries,
consistency, and support.
I think it’s so empowering to know that I have the ability
to teach my children how to hope.
It’s not a crapshoot. It’s a conscious choice….
(Brown, 66).
And Advent is rich opportunity to learn to hope—
to teach and model hope to and for each other,
and to and for our world.

She goes on to write: “We can talk about courage
and love and compassion until we sound
like a greeting card store, but unless we’re willing
to have an honest conversation about what gets in the way
of putting these into practice in our daily lives,
we will never change. Never, ever”
(Brown, 5).

So what would y’all say gets in the way of hope?
Cynicism?
Some would say realism, but I think that’s cynical!
I’m thinking busyness and fatigue.
So much going on there’s no time or energy to hope.
Stress.
Fear.
Any division of the whole into parts—
so too much intellectualism,
or too much emotion.
Pride.
An arrogant certitude.
Prioritizing anything over God
instead of prioritizing everything within God.
Our friend Amy Mears, co-pastor of Glendale Baptist Church
in Nashville, TN, reminded me
that grief gets in the way of hope.
After the death of her daughter, she said,
“There are those in my community who said,
‘We’ll hold hope for you until you’re able to hope again yourself.’
I’ve appreciated them.”

Nothing to take for granted,
hope—
the ability to hope,
or the gift of hoping for someone who can’t themselves—
whether that’s individually,
or part of our calling as the people of God.

And either way, we’re not to settle for small hopes
nor necessarily just for hopes deemed realistic,
but are to determine what hopes are worth investing in—
living into—
a hope big enough to live into.
Peace on earth. No more children crying in desperate lack.
Because it’s not what we contribute to the effort
that justifies hope,
but that hope cannot be justified without our buy-in.

Our friend Don Flowers was called to the hospital
at midnight last night.
A church member had had had a heart attack.
Did not survive.
They were planning on showing a video in church this morning
of those who helped decorate their church last Sunday,
and this man who died was part of that celebratory event.
“Shock will not describe this one,” Don says.
So what is hope at Providence Baptist Church this morning—
as what is missing is a who who’s missing?
And I told Don, if necessary, we can hope for them.

Hope is ever changing—
ever adapting to new circumstance,
to a new awareness of what’s missing—
what’s needed.
Hope is leaning into the possibility that the diagnosis is wrong,
then it’s leaning into the possibility of treatment.
The odds aren’t good, but there’s a chance.
Hope is “I hope she doesn’t die.”
But hope can also be “I hope he does—
die—
peacefully with dignity—soon.”
So hope is completely contextual,
and yet grounded on truth that transcends context.

And so it is precisely within grief,
that we sense the wholeness for which we yearn.
Within loss, a peculiar affirmation.
Within incompleteness, the possibility of fulfillment.
Within the darkness, the promise and expectation of light.

Yes,
how unrealistic an expectation I had for presents—
gifts wrapped under the tree,
but for presence—
being present in relationships
in community, yes,
but also for the presence of God with us,
which is that for which we hope,
even as it is that which sustains our hope.

And so we can live into what we cannot achieve.

It’s not just what I can do.
Nor is it just what we can do.
But nor is it just what God can do.
It is rather all of the above.

So we’re not doing careful exegetical work today.
You may have noticed.
We’re simply noticing something
in all three of our readings.

The word that Isaiah saw was of days to come, right?
A vision of an alternative future.
But that passage concludes with the present exhortation:
“Come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!”

Matthew’s gospel affirms that no one knows
about that day and hour, that future day and hour,
and so cautions us to “Keep awake therefore”!
We must be ready now.

And the epistle to the Romans asserts
we know what time it is—
how, even within a future orientation,
it is now the moment for us to wake from sleep.

Hope is not about what we hope will happen later,
it’s about what we are doing right now—
as individuals and families—
as community,
always with the God who is with us.

So we hope, this morning, for Providence Baptist Church
in Charleston, SC.
And we hope for Amy Mears, in Nashville, TN.
We hope for those on our covenant,
those sick and in treatment,
those grieving,
and those celebrating—
that they would take joy in what they celebrate,
and yet not expect inappropriately too much out of it.
We hope for our world.
We hope for the church in the world.
We hope for you, our God.
We hope for You.

Have I said it?
Clearly?
We are a people of hope.
Not a cheap hope,
but a costly hope
in which we invest our living.
Not because we think we can bring about that for which we hope,
but because hope is our calling.

Because “hope is confidence in the future
that makes the presence pregnant”
(I believe this too is a Moltmann quote,
but I have not yet found the correct citation).
That’s advent—
today and always.

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