A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, November 27, 2016
Psalm 42:5-11; Matthew 12:15-21 ESV
Poem #254 by Emily Dickinson
Hope – from the beginning of human history it has been the soul’s last defense. So it is fitting, and it should not surprise us, that the theme for the beginning of the season of Advent would be hope. But not only is today the beginning of Advent; today is also the beginning of the Christian Church year. Lectionary readings, some Sunday school curricula, and many ministers’ worship and sermon resources begin with the first Sunday of Advent. So what more appropriate note to begin the season on than the note of hope?
Perhaps that is one reason that the first Sunday of Advent is one of my favorite services of the entire year. You notice that the service begins on a somber note with the hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The words of the hymn reinforce the somber mood: “lonely, exile, gloomy clouds, death’s dark shadows, envy, quarrels, and strife.” The Invocation and the Responsive Reading also acknowledge the darkness, cold, and period of waiting. But as the service progresses, we gradually move from the opening somber mood, emphasizing more the gift of hope, to a more upbeat mood as we look toward the Light, ending the service on a note of joy by singing, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”:
“Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art;
dear Desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.”
But back to hope. As I said, from the beginning of human history, hope has been the soul’s last defense. In so many of life’s situations, hope is the eternal thing we hold onto. In times of trouble, illness, calamity and loss, the last thing we cling to is hope that things will change for the better,that restored health will come, that a better day is waiting. We see this throughout the ancient book of Job, for instance. So much of the story of Job is about hope that his voice will be heard, that he will be vindicated, that justice will be done.
When the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness comes, we cling to hope that there is a cure. The last defense of families who have missing loved ones is hope that they are still alive and will be found. Families who live in impoverished communities where the opportunities for employment have closed or moved out of state cling to hope that something will come along to make things better again. Yes, when nothing else is left in life – when health is threatened, when the family finances are in ruins, when the country or the world seems to be in shambles – the last thing to go is hope. And if all hope is gone, so goes life itself. The loss of all hope can cause people to give up and die, or go in a different direction and commit horrific acts of violence. Indeed, hope is the essential, foundational support that upholds the human soul.
We see this clinging to hope in the Psalms over and again. I could have chosen from any number of the Psalms that deal with hope. But Psalm 42 seemed to be most appropriate for the day.
“Why are you cast down, O my soul?” the Psalmist asks. “And why are you in turmoil within me?”
I say to God, “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”
Even though this psalm was written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, the spirit of it makes it such that it could have been written the year Jesus was born. The mood of the Jewish people was somber when Jesus was born into the world. They were living under the harsh oppression of the mighty Roman Empire. They found life oppressive, both politically and religiously. They hoped and longed for a Messiah, a deliverer, to set them free, make things right, give them a better life. As Isaiah the prophet had also put it hundreds of years earlier, and was later quoted by the gospel writer of Matthew, they longed for the One who would “bring justice to victory,” One in whom the whole world would find their hope. Yes, the early Jesus followers saw in him the manifestation of hope they had been longing for.
Thus, throughout the season of Advent, we lift up the hope that Jesus brought to the world and that the celebration of his birth brings to us anew. And in keeping with our Advent theme, “All I Want for Christmas,” don’t we all have to acknowledge that one of the things that we need and desire most during the Advent-Christmas season is renewed hope – hope of health and happiness for ourselves and those we love, hope for a better world, hope for restored relationships, hope for a life blessed with love?
It follows that imparters of hope is what we are to be about as well, individually and collectively as a congregation. Offering hope to our members, the community and the wider world is at least part of our calling, our mission, and our privilege. To give a few examples, every month our In Reach group gathers to write cards of encouragement to 40-50 of our members and extended church members. For many who receive those cards, they are nothing short of missives of hope that convey the message, “Someone still remembers me; someone is thinking of me; someone is praying for my recovery or well-being; someone is there that I can call upon in the time of need.
Whenever we make a visit to the hospital, nursing home or retirement home, one of the graces that we carry with us is the gift of hope. Whenever we counsel with someone who is wrestling with a problem that seems insurmountable or hopeless, by listening and asking questions and exploring options, we are extending hope.
When people of our community call for financial assistance on their utilities or rent and we say we can offer some help, we offer hope that their heat will stay on or they will not be evicted. To share just one example, we recently received a phone call from a young, single (widowed) mother of two who is struggling to make ends meet. The thing she needed most, she said, was an electric heater to keep her and her kids warm, because she had not come up with the big deposit to have the gas turned on in her new apartment. A quick trip down to Ace Hardware to pay for a heater from the Pastor’s Discretionary Fund offered her some much needed hope. She was more than grateful.
We could cite other examples. But by being the open, loving, caring, supportive community of faith that we are, in so many different ways we are bearers of hope to those who enter our doors. That has been a prophetic vision of what the faith community is intended to be from at least the 7th century BCE and the prophet Isaiah.
Regarding hope, poet Emily Dickinson had some insightful perspectives. That is why I chose as a third reading for today one of her poems, the one in which she compares “Hope” to a “thing with feathers – / That perches in the soul – / And sings the tune without the words – / And never stops – at all –“ What I hear her saying is hope is that ever-present entity that hangs on during the storms and gales of life, refusing to let go. Hope is that thing in the soul that gives warmth and comfort during those cold, difficult periods of life.
And so, returning to the psalmist, in spite of the turmoil raging all around him, he was able to say to his own soul: “Hope in God: . . . my salvation and my God.” That might be our Advent testimony as well, in spite of all that troubles us and causes us to be downcast; in spite of all the violence and political and religious turmoil swirling in the world around us. Advent comes bearing the torch of hope – hope that Jesus’ birth does make a difference; hope that the Christmas message will continue to change hearts and lives; hope that peace and goodwill will grow stronger across the earth. That is the Advent hope. May we embrace this hope anew as we begin the season of Advent together. Amen.