ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH DECEMBER 2, 2018
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
The Light of Hope
Jeremiah 33: 14 – 16; Luke 21: 25 – 36
We have now entered the season when wide-eyed children will be searching the internet for the latest toy (no Sear’s Wish Book for today’s kids). They’ll be talking to parents and grandparents about what they hope Santa is going to bring them. They’ll be going to the local mall to whisper their hope into Santa’s ear. Of course, not everyone shares that excitement. For children the anticipation of December is almost as exciting as the gifts they will receive. Hope is a precious commodity. By contrast, hopelessness makes us sullen, robs us of motivation and makes life seem like a dark, bleak, empty, endless pit. The comedian, film-maker and eternal pessimist Woody Allen points out, “More than any other time in history, humanity faces a cross roads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Not much of a choice. What’s worse – if there can be anything worse than a choice between despair and utter hopelessness, and total extinction – when put in a context, Mr. Allen’s gloom seems prophetic. However, Woody Allen was not the first person to speak of the despair of the coming age. 2000 years before him, Jesus warned, “This is Vengeance Day… Incredible misery! Torrential rage! People dropping like flies; people dragged off to prisons; Jerusalem under the boot of barbarians… It will seem like all hell has broken loose—sun, moon, stars, earth, sea, in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic, the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom, the powers-that-be quaking” (Luke 21: 22f). Not much to look forward to in that. So, the question we’re left with is: Do we have any reason to hope or should we take the leap and go directly to total extinction? In what does hope lie?
As I was pondering the theme of hope, it occurred to me that the most hopeless place in the world in all of history was the Garden of Eden. Hope was a feeling totally foreign to Adam and Eve. That’s not to say they lived in hopelessness; they simply had no need for hope. When life is completely perfect, when our communion with God is utterly whole, there’s nothing to hope for. Paul put it this way, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do no see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24). A child looks out the window and hopes for snow. When then snow arrives, the child no longer needs to hope. Their hope is realized. Likewise, in the Garden, anything for which Adam and Eve could possibly hope was already a reality. They had no need for hope… until they ate from The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Reality shifted. They felt shame. They hoped for clothes. They hoped for a scape goat. Moreover, they hoped God wouldn’t discover what they’d done. We might say that sin gave birth to hope – or more accurately, to the bleak futility of our hopelessness. When sin entered the world and God exiled our ancestors from his presence, they began to feel longings, have wishes and dream dreams. Cut off from God, life was desolate and the future grim. Throughout history, people have shared that sense of hopelessness.
Julian of Norwich, an anchorite and Christian mystic in the 1300’s, heard the assurance of God, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” However, even with this direct message from the Holy One, she found this hard to accept. She looked around her at the deeds done in the world and wrongs suffered and saw things so evil that to conceive of “wellness” was unimaginable to her. She writes, “I thought it impossible that ‘all manner of things should be well’.” We too share this doubt. We wonder: How can the deep agonies of our world be transformed? How can the brokenness within us be healed? How can the bliss of Eden be restored? More particularly, Julian asks about “a certain person” in her life: will all things be well for this one I love? We share this question, “Will all things be well for my ill friend, for my dying spouse, for my daughter, my son, my grandchild?” We ask this question for ourselves: “Will all things be well for me? What does the future hold? Will I be alone? Will I get by with what I have? Will I be reconciled to my family? Will I end up in a nursing home? Will I suffer? Will my memory fade away? Will God accept me into his heaven?” And sometimes we too feel lost in the hopelessness of our doubts.
Yet Julian, like Adam and Eve, also had hopes. They hoped for forgiveness and a return to God’s favour. They hoped for God’s love. They hoped for healing. For protection. For wholeness. For strength and peace and enduring faith. For the restoration of our communion with God. These too are hopes we share. Yet how do we know if they’re hopes worth hoping? Is our longing false? Is our anticipation a delusion? Is it possible that “all manner of things shall be well”? Or does the future only hold the choice between “despair and utter hopelessness, or total extinction?”
Long ago in the days of the prophet Jeremiah, God made a promise, “Watch for this: The time is coming when I will keep the promise I made to the families of Israel and Judah. When that time comes, I will make a fresh and true shoot sprout from the David-Tree. He will run this country honestly and fairly. He will set things right. That’s when Judah will be secure and Jerusalem live in safety. The motto for the city will be, “God Has Set Things Right for Us.” (Jeremiah 33: 14 – 16). Jeremiah understood that God was speaking of the coming of the Messiah. Things were bad for the Jewish people at that time; all they had to give them hope was a promise.
Almost 1000 years passed before God fulfilled his promise in an unlikely, nearly unrecognizable way. A baby was born in a barn in a remote village. To borrow from Julian’s words, many people would and do say, “I thought it impossible that this baby would be the one for whom we hoped – the one who would set things right.” But Jesus was the one; the one who came bearing the light of hope.
Jesus came offering us abundant life. He is the one who heals our souls. The one who rescues us from the prisons of our life experiences and memories. The one who shows us the way of love. The one who frees us from our strivings for perfection. Jesus, the Light of Hope, offers us the hope of new life.
Jesus came dying in our place and showing us the redemptive power of sacrifice. Ironically, we find this hard to accept. Even the most faithful Christians wonder if we’re good enough to breach the chasm that separates us from God. We wonder if we’re going to slip up and experience God’s judgement instead of God’s mercy and compassion. Jesus shows us God’s forgiveness and invites us to show it to others. Jesus, the Light of Hope, offers us the hope of grace.
Jesus came to overcome sin and death through his resurrection. Perhaps more than anything, this fuels our hope. Bishop Leslie Newbigin was asked, if, when he looked to the future, he was an optimist or pessimist. He replied, ‘I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!’ For him and for us, this is the new reality. Jesus, the Light of Hope, offers us the hope of eternity.
Jesus will come again. Those terrifying days of hopeless vengeance are not so hopeless. In fact, the return of Jesus, like his first arrival, is great news for those who trust him and follow him. After his warning to his disciples, Jesus went on, “And then—then!—they’ll see the Son of Man welcomed in grand style—a glorious welcome! When all this starts to happen, up on your feet. Stand tall with your heads high. Help is on the way!” (Luke 21: 27 & 28). Help is on the way. Are their more encouraging words for a desperate soul who is utterly lost? Are there more reassuring words for a world that cannot save itself? Jesus, the Light of Hope, offers us the hope that, “All will be well.”
And Jesus comes to return us to that state of complete oneness and harmony when we will live in the presence of the God who loves us for all eternity. Scripture promises us “a new heaven and a new earth” where the pains and sorrows of this world are unknown, where there is no more death. Tears and mourning and pain will be unheard of, once again. Jesus, the light of hope, offers us the hope of a day when we will not need to hope.
The coming of Jesus offers us one more reason to hope. A reason even greater than God’s promises or abundant life or redemption or resurrection or the 2nd Coming or even heaven. Jesus comes not only as a beacon of hope, shining light on the darkness of our hopeless, despairing, self-destructive world, he comes as a vessel of light, as a conduit of hope. The most important thing about the celebration of the Light of Hope is that it reminds us that God still has hope for his creation and his people, for those we love and for us. The hope of Jesus coming is that it shows us that God isn’t finished with us yet, that God will not abandon us to our own poor choices, that God longs to forgive us and embrace us and bring us home. Jesus, pours out, shines down, reveals the light of God’s own hope which is far greater than any hopelessness humanity has ever experienced.
The Lord’s table is a sacred experience of God’s hope and God’s eternal love. As we come to celebrate God’s love and grace, through Jesus, the Light of Hope, come with hope for “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”