Text: Luke 21:25-36
Contemplation of Hope:
“Love comes to those who still hope even though they’ve been disappointed, to those who still believe even though they’ve been betrayed, to those who still love even though they’ve been hurt before.”
Hope. I can hear my own voice using that word. I hope my children succeed in life. I hope I don’t get H1N1. I hope it doesn’t rain today. If it’s going to snow, I hope it starts snowing on Saturday before I start writing my sermon. (That’s been a joke in worship planning for years.) I imagine that you, too, can think of ways that you have used the word hope in a similar fashion. It is the kind of hope that surfaces when we are feeling unsure or uncertain about the future. Most often, when we say we hope for something, we are focused on what we would like to see happen but feel as if we have very little control over making it happen.
As I contemplated the meaning of hope for this first Sunday of Advent, I tried to identify times in my own life when I felt a deep longing for hope. For some strange reason, it wasn’t an easy exercise. However, there was one experience that kept coming to mind. It was the image of me standing in the orphanage in Vladivostok holding Nora and looking into the eyes of the eleven other children she lived with and hoping desperately that someone would come for them—to love them and take them home and keep them safe. Standing there, I wanted nothing more than for each of those children to be held by someone who wanted them and would love them, but I knew that I couldn’t make that happen. So I turned to hope—in the truest sense of what I thought that word meant—wishing for something that I didn’t have any control over. Maybe you, too, have had similar experiences of hoping for something that was totally out of your control to make happen and you felt a sense of powerlessness in the face of your hope. And all you could do was leave your hope in the hands of chance or wishful thinking, like I had to do that day in Vladivostok. My understanding of hope that day left me with little comfort or promise. And a little bit later in this sermon, I want to come back to this story and tell you what I have learned from it about hope.
But first, what is hope? Fortunately, the story of our faith teaches us a bit of what hope is and what it is not. To begin with, contrary to what the world teaches us, Biblical and Christian hope does not mean living in the clouds, dreaming and wishing of a better life. It is not merely a projection of what we would like to be or do. No, the hope of our faith invites us instead to discover what is already present to us, here and now. In the context of our faith, hope is about trusting in the promise that God is with us in all of life—the good and the hard, the joy and the pain, the certainty and uncertainty. Instead of protecting us from the difficulties of the world, the hope of our spiritual mothers and fathers invites us to create a different future here and now. God’s hope invites us to discover in the depths of the present, a life that leads us forward with assurance and confidence.
Throughout both the Hebrew and New Testament scriptures hope, faith, and trust are interchangeable. Faith and trust lead to hope. Hope leads to faith and trust. This feels a little jarring – for our use of these words in day-to-day life is quite different. We say, “a hope and a prayer” when we are not only unsure, but downright doubtful of the outcome. We incite one another to “have faith” when we mean believe; “faith in things not seen” underscores the idea that we can not know, but we can believe. But we use trust in a very different way. Trust implies evidence, experience, knowing. We speak of trusting one another, trusting our experience, trusting our senses. There remains in that word a hint of the unknown, but it infers a much greater confidence than does hope, or even faith. It’s as though there is a balance of knowing and believing, and knowing most surely leads us to trust; while on the other end of the spectrum, believing with little knowledge leads us to hope. It’s important to know that biblically that distinction does not exist. When the Bible speaks of hope – “hope in the Lord” – it calls upon as strong a sense of knowing as does “trust” in our vocabulary.
So, if hope means knowing, what do we know in and through our hope? What we know for sure is the one thing that this season of Advent invites us to contemplate: God is with us. That is the promise, from the first page of scripture to the very last—God is present in our lives and in our world here and now. Indeed, our story of faith is an affirmation that in all things God is with us, reconciling and redeeming us to one another through God’s love and grace. This is our hope: “we are not alone, God is with us.” In our world today—a world struggling with war and peace, economic and environmental instability, and religious and ethnic intolerance—such an understanding of hope is essential. As people of faith we cannot afford in these times to rely on a Disney World type of hope—a hope built on fantasy and whimsical thinking. No, our hope must be rooted and grounded in the most basic promises and teachings of our faith. What are those promises? God is love and God is with us. What are those most basic teachings? Simple: we are to love God with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul; and our neighbor as ourselves. And we are to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. In these promises and teachings we find our hope.
But how do we make room for such hope in our lives? Our scripture text gives us a clue. “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and all the worries of this life, and that the day does not catch you unexpectedly…” First we are told to “be on guard” – to be conscious, to be aware. Next we are told not to be weighed down with “dissipation and drunkenness” – not to dull ourselves, or as we would say today, “self-medicate.” And finally, we are told not to “be weighed down by the worries of this life” – not to lose ourselves in the negatives, not to be overcome by the weight of our sorrows and those of the world around us. This brings me back to Vladivostok. In that moment in the orphanage, I was nearly crushed by the undeniable, overwhelming needs of those children. Within my narrow understanding of hope (wishing for something that I had very little control over), I missed the larger vision of what it means to hope and to have hope. The truth is that each one of those children was indeed loved and held—by the promise of God’s love for them. Does that love take away their suffering? Of course not! But in rethinking what it means to have hope, for the first time in over ten years, I believe and trust and have faith that God’s love and grace is seeing them through whatever life has handed them. They are not alone. God is with them. Finally, in the truest sense of what it means to have hope, I have hope for each of those children.
Lately, I have become enamored with the writings of A. J. Jacobs. In his latest book, The Guinea Pig Diaries, My Life as an Experiment, Jacobs shares what he learned in his role as a human guinea pig as he engaged in experiments such as going undercover as a woman, impersonating a movie star, saying whatever is on his mind (as in, no filter, ever) and outsourcing every part of his life to India. In the introduction to his book he writes:
I’ve come to believe that if you really want to learn about a topic, you should get on-the-job-training. You should dive in and try to live that topic. If you’re interested in Rome, you can look at maps and postcards and read census data. Or you can actually go to Italy and taste the pesto gnocchi.
You have to be interested in the topic. That’s rule number one. If you aren’t passionate, it shows. But if you are committed to the possibility of change, then there’s nothing like it…The goal is that you’re able to keep the good parts and not descend into insanity. That the pain of the experiment will end up making life better in the end.
I wonder how it would change our lives and our world if we decided we really wanted to learn about hope and ventured out for on-the-job-training. What would it look like to really dive in and try to live as people of hope? I don’t know, but I have a strong hunch that it would end up making our lives and our world better. May each of us find hope in this season of hope!