Follow Me: Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
Rev. Emily Wilmesherr
Decatur Presbyterian Church
November 28, 2021
Isaiah 9:2, 6-7
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Today begins the season of Advent and a new theme in worship, Hope. What is hope? I thought I would ask a few of our children to see what they think (VIDEO PLAYS). “When your heart is engulfed in darkness but there’s a tiny light that reminds you it’s going to get better, it’s going to be ok.”
Have you felt this before? Your heart being engulfed in darkness? At some point in everyone’s life, we experience unexpected circumstances: loss of a loved one, a job, financial crisis, injustice, scary diagnoses, loss of ability, loss of memory, and many other things that uproot our lives from what we thought they would be and turns things upside down.
A good example of this is in the movie Field of Dreams, Ray and Annie Kinsella buy up a corn farm in Iowa. In his late thirties, Ray’s life isn’t exactly where he thought it would be. He begins to hear the iconic words, “if you build it, he will come.” The folks in town get word that he is hearing voices and think he is crazy but then think it’s lost his mind when he plows up his corn to build a baseball field. Building the baseball field bankrupted his family and he begins to question his decision. Without spoiling the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie. Ray feels hopeless, lost, and unsure of what lies ahead, but he continues to follow the voices, meeting people along the way that help put the pieces of the puzzle together. At the risk of sounding and looking foolish, Ray takes a leap of faith, hoping in something beyond what he can see, not knowing how things will turn out.
Often times I think that hope and optimism get mixed up or we use the words interchangeably but they mean very different things. Hope is not something that we can conjure up, no matter how optimistic we might be. Optimism is choosing to see how circumstances could work out for the best. Christian hope is not having evidence things will get better but choosing to hope anyway. It is waiting with anticipation or waiting in faith.
Growing up I’ve was known for being quite the optimist. Anytime someone in my life was experiencing heartbreak, fear, anger, frustration or sadness, I would try to move them quickly past despair by saying, “It’s ok, it’s going to be better.” However, I’m not sure that I really knew if things would get better or not. In fact, looking back there was no guarantee that my words were true. I just wanted them to feel better, to gloss over the grief and pain. But the reality is that pain is a part of the human experience. And as Christians we are invited to hope against hope as Paul says in Romans or a better translation might be hope beyond hope. When we have hit rock bottom, when we are empty and without any other option, we continue to seek hope beyond what we have in front of us and beyond what we can accomplish on our own. To trust in God’s past faithfulness that motivates hope for the future. Biblical hope is bold. It is waiting for a whole universe to be rescued from sin and death. Sound impossible? Sound a little crazy? Maybe, but it isn’t optimism based on odds, it is a choice to wait for God to bring about a future that is as surprising as a crucified man rising from the dead.
I am a southern girl so I can’t fully understand big snow storms and how powerful they can be or the havoc they can cause for a community. However, I have heard that in the Mid-West, every winter farmers used to tie a rope from their back door to their barn. During blizzards, when there were no landmarks, no paths, no visibility, and no sound except the roar and howl of the storm, they clutched the rope to make their way out to the barn to feed their horses. Then they followed that rope back home. They knew too many stories of others who had been lost in their own backyards and froze to death, because they could not find their way back home.
The rope became a lifeline for the farmers. They would cling tight to the rope to guide them through the storm. The rope became the spark of light in the darkness that they knew would lead them home. When our lives are overrun with fear and chaos, it is hope that pulls us up and guides us home.
The prophet Isaiah had a message for the leaders of Jerusalem that was both of judgement and hope. Israel’s rebellion will come at a cost AND Isaiah hoped in a God who would fulfill all of God’s promises. It is that hope that compelled Isaiah to speak up against the injustice, idolatry, and rebellion. In Isaiah 9:2–7, the prophet proclaims God’s promise of a great light coming to dispel the deep darkness in which God’s people live. The people hear of a child, a son, born as God’s gift to God’s people, who will bring peace, justice, and righteousness. Although Isaiah’s hearers do not see this child, they hope in God’s promise. The exilic community, who had wandered in hostile lands for a long time, decided to place their hope God who promised to be near to the brokenhearted and near to those who were crushed in spirit. God was with them in all circumstances. Hope is as necessary as breathing.
This kind of hope is still as necessary as breathing today. Whether we take a global, communal, or personal look at our lives over the last few years, no one’s life was spared from impact and no one’s life was what they thought it would be. Like so many, I found it so difficult to be optimist as the hits just kept coming. Earlier this year, the darkness was consuming, making it hard to see steps forward. I was sitting in worship one Sunday morning and began to feel I was living in my new reality of hopelessness when I was reminded of the God I trust. Out of seemingly nowhere, I began to remember the messages of hope and wholeness that were shared with me throughout my life. I felt God’s embrace and remembered I was not alone even in the darkness of depression and anxiety. Those who have loved me for so long were brought to my mind as people I knew I could trust with my story, who I knew would walk with me to seek help, and who I knew would remind me to not give up hope. Charlene Jin Lee says, “the hope you find in God after you have exhausted all the hope you can muster on your own is a hope that is untouched by the chaos of darkness.”
In that moment, while I was wishing for the darkness to disappear, I could not have foreseen how God would show up in my life even in the challenging moments. A switch didn’t get flipped and my life didn’t just suddenly turn around with things getting better immediately. It took and is taking time. But in that moment I found the rope that was tied to my faith, the trust in God that was cultivated deep in my soul from so long ago. In my most helpless moments, I discovered what hope really sounds and looks like. It sounded like:
- I love you
- I’m here for you
- Thank you for sharing this with me
- You are not alone
- A quiet space to cry and give thanks
I know that I am not the only one to have experienced this kind of helplessness. I know that so many face this feeling daily and I wanted to see what brought others hope. Here are some responses:
- “You know how when you step outside in the summer before the sun is up; before it’s even thinking about rising, when there’s just enough light to see shapes but not color, but some birds are already singing?” That! Hope sounds like that
- “I will rest and then try again.”
- “Hope is a song in a weary throat”
- Hope sounds like when your doctor says “This isn’t going to kill you.”
- Hope is the sound of waves against the beach as the brilliant sun begins to peek from the edge of the earth and show is brilliance…..there is another day coming with so much hope and opportunity
- Carefree laughter among dear friends
- A newborn’s first cry
- The exhausted sigh of continuing on anyways
What I found interesting in these responses is that hope at times was made up of words and other times it was made of simply being present. This is the hope that we remember during Advent. We remember Emmanuel, God with us. In our first hymn today, “O Come O Come Emmanuel” we hear this haunting prayer that is broken after each line with joy in proclaiming that Emmanuel will come! This song and prayer remind us that even in the midst of captivity, exile, tyranny, and death, God is with us.
This is the hope that John speaks of in the first chapter: the steady presence of God with us. In the beginning was the Word from the very start, God was there. In the darkness and chaos of creation God’s light shone in the darkness. When the Israelites wandered for years in the dessert, God was there. When the angel spoke to young Mary about carrying the Savior of the world, God was there. When Jesus hung on the cross asking for another way, God was there.
When we are experiencing darkness in our lives, we can be frustrated, angry, sad, and all the other feelings while at the same time holding on to hope. Hope can and does exist in all our feelings. None of these feelings scare or make God uncomfortable.
I believe that we can hear hope in three ways: through the scriptures, through one another, and through the ordinary moments of our lives. Scriptures remind us of God’s long standing faithfulness. Sometimes that darkness consumes us that it’s hard to see that anyone has ever felt a similar feeling or had a similar experience. We can think, there is no way that God is in this. But when we spend time in the Bible, we discover that there are many stories of God’s people who have had challenging experiences and needed to be reminded of God’s presence. When we spend time in God’s word daily, those words and stories plant themselves deep in our soul and can come up for us when we experience life’s challenges.
Speaking hope to each other can be life changing. When we share our own stories with one another we connect to one another and to God more deeply. We come to see we are not alone in this life. Sometimes, speaking hope comes with no words, but with actions alone. Hope can be the sound of someone sitting next to you, holding space.
Recently, I attended a conference on observing Sabbath and practicing self-care. One of the things that I took away from that experience was being attentive to the holy in the ordinary and I believe this is another place we can hear hope. Often we have mountain top experiences where we feel so close to God, but then we come down from the mountain back to our lives and we slowly move back into our routines without being as attentive to God’s presence. What if we were more aware of God’s presence in the ordinary and less glamourous moments of our lives? While taking a walk, take 3-5 pictures of things that capture your attention. Then find a bench or take them home and reflect on them. How might they remind you of God’s presence? How do they inspire hope? Share these or other images with others when you are aware of their need for encouragement and reminders of hope. Make a list of what hope sounds like and looks like to you. Try to pause in the moments that are as picturesque as the sun rising or birds singing their first song. How might hope still be alive in the burnt toast, the screaming child, or the challenging work environment? Keep the list close to add to it and read when you need it most. When we become more aware of God’s presence in the messy, dark, joyful, and beautiful ordinary days, it keeps the tiny light of hope alive within us, moving us forward.
Thanks be to God!
Rev. Emily Wilmesherr
Decatur Presbyterian Church
November 28, 2021