Follow Me: Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
Second Sunday in Advent, December 5, 2021
Prayer for Illumination
Our Old Testament reading is a familiar Advent text from the prophet Isaiah. In this passage, Isaiah looks forward in hope to the time when a time of deep darkness has passed, when warfare has been ended, when the Messiah has come to establish a nation upheld by justice and righteousness
Hear the Word of God from Isaiah 9:2-7.
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. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 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 onwards and for evermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Our New Testament reading is part of the song of Zechariah, the prophecy spoken at the birth of Zechariah’s son, John, who became the baptizer, who would prepare the way of the Lord.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
What does hope look like?
Hope looks like that brightening of the horizon as the sun begins to rise.
Hope looks like a warm coat hanging on a coat rack before you step out into the bitter cold.
Hope looks like a baking pan filled with good things being placed into a preheated oven.
Hope it looks like a genuine smile offered when you step into a room.
Hope looks like those first tentative steps taken with a physical therapist after enduring a major surgery.
For me, hope in this season looks like a Moravian star, the first decoration that I hang at my house, reminding me of Christmases past and new memories yet to be made.
On our outdoor prayer stations at the corner of Church and Sycamore streets, someone wrote that hope looks like “vaccine shots”. Someone else wrote that hope looks like having another month’s worth of rent in hand. A third person, in response to the question of what does hope look like?, simply wrote “Dads.” I suppose they had been watching dads around Decatur caring for their children and found that scene hopeful.
For me, hope can look like decorating the sanctuary for Advent with friends from church, or hope can look like a casserole delivered by a friend after a surgical procedure. Hope looks like visitors joining our Wednesday night Bible study and new members joining the church. For some, December can truly be a season of joy!
For many, December is a time of remembrance of good times, of appreciation of things present, of anticipation for special gatherings with friends and family. Many will thoroughly enjoy decorating their Christmas tree and hanging Christmas lights, or baking special treats.
Many of you have already spent significant time buying or making thoughtful presents for others. For some December can truly be, as the old song goes, “the most hap-happiest time of the year”. But we are also aware that for many others, December can be quite the opposite. Many find themselves in the midst of the darkness and gloom of this world, realizing that the light of their personal optimism or well-being is fading. Those same activities that bring others joy, decorating or shopping or socializing, only serve to remind them of their grief or loneliness or despair.
In Vernon Gramling’s blog this week he wrote that: “Especially when we are struggling, we need to hear words (of hope). We not only need the knowledge that ‘this too shall pass’, we need a vision of something beyond our immediate circumstance. We have to hear and eventually see that what seems unmanageable (now) can have outcomes (later) we could not imagine.
We have to see it is possible to live and to love even as we are sleep deprived, depressed, debilitated, in the middle of a pandemic or in the middle of great grief.” (Vernon Gramling blog, 12/3/21)
HarperCollins Bible Dictionary has a two page definition of hope, but the summary states that “hope in the Bible is the expectation of a favorable future under God’s direction.” In the Old Testament, our English word “hope” is most closely related to the Hebrew verb “kawah”, which means “to wait” or “to expect”, and also to the Hebrew verb “batah”, which is “to be full of confidence, to trust.”
So, to hope in biblical terms is “to wait and expect with full confidence, trusting in the providence of God.” In the New Testament, that triadic formula that arose in the early church, “faith, hope and love, these three”, suggests that hope is a critical aspect of new life in Jesus Christ, new life that begins with faith and will be fulfilled with God’s salvation event on the last day.
Closely related to hope in Paul’s letters is the exhortation to “be of good courage”, for the hope that was present at your baptism will be completed in your resurrection. (HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, edited by Paul Achtemeier, 1996, p. 434)
I heard a quote in a movie recently that is related to long term Christian hope. The movie, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, is a wonderful tale about a diverse group of English retirees who move into a rundown hotel in Kaipur, India. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend the film. The overly optimistic owner of the hotel claims: “In the end it will be alright; if it is not alright, it is not the end.”
If it is not alright for you or yours this Advent season, take heart, it is not end. As Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic proclaimed about Christian hope: “All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
Someone stated the other day that “hope is a strange muscle.” We can work on it, on the muscle of hope, but we cannot control it. Hope is ultimately a gift of God, based in God’s actions in the past and predicated upon God’s promises for the future. A timeless way of engendering hope, of working the hope muscle, is to remember. In the present, no matter how dark, no matter how difficult, no matter how depressing, when we are able to remember God’s gracious actions in the past, we can receive hope for the time yet to come.
And when we struggle to find personal memories of salvation, we turn to the biblical stories of old – the delivery of a people from slavery, the return of a people from exile, the resurrection of One crucified on a cross.
When we remember what God was able to bring forth in the past, we find hope in the present for what God will do in a future yet to come.
The Communion Table is one of the primary places where people of faith work their hope muscle. At this table, we remember. We look back and remember what God accomplished through Jesus Christ. At this table, we look around and give thanks, give thanks for the presence of Christ among us, as we notice the face of Christ in our brothers and sisters.
At this table, we look forward in anticipation of what God will do in the days yet to come. One of my favorite Advent hymns, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, that we sang last week, has seven verses. The sixth verse is one of my favorites of the season, with the words and music taking seriously both the potential gloom and shadows among us, but also expressing confidence in the promises of God.
O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
Friends, as the prophet promised long ago: By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will (once again) break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and (to give light those who dwell) in the shadow of death, (and the purpose of the light will be) to guide our feet into the way of peace (the way of shalom, of well-being and wholeness for all humanity).
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church