December 8, 2019, Hope with Muscles – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000167
A few years ago, I heard a segment on public radio about a man in the Netherlands named Mark Langedijk, who chose to end his own life, not by suicide, but by euthanasia. He was 41 years old, and he had been struggling for many years with alcoholism. Finally, he had decided that he would never be able to overcome his addiction, and that the life he was leading wasn’t worth living at all, and he obtained legal permission to plan his death. His brother, Marcel, spoke on the radio about the day his brother died, surrounded by his family, his parents and a sister and himself, and he described their grief, how terribly painful it was for all of them. It was a portrait of a man who had lost all hope.
We use the word hope casually, pretty carelessly, really, much of the time. “I hope it doesn’t snow tomorrow.” “I hope you have a nice birthday.” I hope the pants I just bought at the Thrift Shop fit me.” – as if hope were no more than a kind of positive thinking. But the truth is, as Mark Langedijk’s story reveals, real hope is a matter of life and death. And the world we live in is in great need of hope – always, but never more than today, when people’s lives and choices are so often ruled by fear and anger and anxiety and despair. The American ideal of the “self-made man,” as admirable as it sounds, leaves more people in ruins than it does success and wealth. All around us people are living their lives without any hope.
But into the dark shadows of the world’s hopelessness, the light of Advent shines its rays of hope.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness
on them has light shined.
Today we read these words from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Advent, which is all about the coming of our God into the world, is specifically about the coming of the God who is hope, and who comes in order that all who are lost and confused in the darkness of the world, may not just find enough hope to keep hanging on by their fingenails, but that they may abound in hope.
Clearly, what Paul is talking about is very different from good wishes and positive thoughts. He is talking about hope that has some real muscle, hope that makes a difference, hope that is able to snatch a life right out of the jaws of death.
We know – though it is good and important to be reminded every year – that Advent is about our hope that Jesus will come back to us as he promised, and that at his coming back this whole broken creation, with all its violence and corruption and suffering, will finally be healed completely. We read the wonderful verses about the wolf snuggling up to the lamb and the leopard hanging out with the baby goat, and the tiny child playing without a care in the world beside the nest of poisonous snakes. We read the prophesy of Isaiah:
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Those promises, that there will surely come a time when pain and cruelty will be no more, and when the whole dog-eat-dog existence that eats away at the souls of men will come to an end forever – that is joy and life and hope to us.
But we – and the world – need more than that. Like Mark, we all need hope for today. We need hope that when the darkness around us is so impenetrable that we just can’t go on; when we have run out of strength and fresh starts, even then there is light to be found. And that there is someone out there who cares enough to come to us in our despair, and who is big enough and strong enough to rescue us out of it. In the season of Advent, that is the hope we have to share with the world, hope that is able to pierce the blackest darkness and reach the lowest depths.
As Christians we proclaim that God, the God of hope, was born into our world as a baby boy a little over two thousand years ago. And we proclaim that he will return in the course of time to restore to this creation all the goodness and kindness and beauty and joy it was meant to have. But we also proclaim that the God of hope is with us right now, because he promised us that he will never leave us or forsake us. We human creatures have not been left hanging, to muddle along as best we can, expected to follow the rules and be good people, desperately striving day by day to lift ourselves up by our own frayed and tangled bootstraps.
Because the truth is that when people feel helpless and hopeless in the face of something like alcoholism – or depression, or cancer, or divorce, or loss – it’s not because they are especially weak, it’s not because they are wimps. And if we dare to be honest, we have to admit they aren’t wrong. The world really does burden the human race with things that we can’t possibly deal with on our own. You always hear people saying that God never gives us more trouble than we are able to deal with. But that’s just the old bootstrap mentality wearing a Christian mask. The truth is that there are a lot of things that happen to people that they shouldn’t have to, or even that they can’t, face alone. And the great good news of Advent is that we are not alone.
We live in between the two great Events of human history:
Between the first coming:
Behold, a Virgin shall conceive
and bear a Son
and his name shall be call Emmanuel,
which means “God with us.”
And the second:
He will dwell with them, and they will be his people,
and God himself will be with them as their God.
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes,
and death shall be no more,
neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore,
for the former things have passed away.
And here we are, living in between those two great Events: God’s people, abounding in hope, because the Spirit of the God of hope has made his home with us. So what does that mean, what does that look like, for us to be people abounding in hope in the midst of a world abounding in despair? Well, we can actually know what it looks like because Jesus came to show us. He did it first; he lived it out for us. Clearly, Jesus didn’t bring hope to the world by offering us all nice gold-leaf Christmas card platitudes about hope. And he didn’t bring hope into the world by staying inside the four safe and quiet and holy walls of the synagogue like a respectable teacher.
Jesus took hope out into the streets. He took hope to his neighbors, and especially he took hope to people nobody else wanted to be bothered with. He struck up conversations with unsavory characters like women and Samaritans. He let his important grownup teaching time get interrupted by noisy little kids; instead of shushing them, he welcomed them and took them into his arms. He hung out in the bad part of town with poor people and sick people and prostitutes. He touched lepers – and nobody touches lepers. He gathered together an inner circle of friends that was made up of bumbling fishermen and political radicals and hotheaded young men and tax collectors – and a traitor. Jesus never once in his whole life “played it safe”. He certainly never worried about his reputation. He got his hands dirty. And hope spread out from Jesus like a wildfire in dry grass.
As people abounding in hope, Jesus showed us that our job, is to take that hope out into the world, out to the hopeless. And we don’t have to go very far to find people in desperate need of hope: next door, down the street, in the checkout line at the grocery store, at the tables of our community dinner, in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. We have so much hope to offer: compassion, kindness, forgiveness, grace, a listening ear. Compassion brings hope to the poor and the suffering. Kindness brings hope to the lonely. Forgiveness brings hope to someone who is crushed under the burden of his guilt and shame. A listening ear brings hope to the lonely. Grace brings hope to those, like Mark Langedijk, like so many battling addictions and depression, whose darkness is truly more than they can face alone. Hope is a matter of life and death – and it is ours for the sharing, not by any human effort of our own, but because we are bearers of his Spirit – but we have to get out there and share it.
This is no time for us to play it safe either. In this holy season of Advent, may the God of hope fill us all, with all joy and peace in believing, so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. And, following the example of Jesus, our Lord and our Teacher and our Hope, may we bring the great light of his hope out into the world, to the people around us who are still walking in darkness.
I want to close with a little bit of an article I read just this morning:
If hope isn’t created for times such as these—when countries are divided, when civil war annihilates whole communities and sends refugees fleeing, when hungry children are ignored because their interests are of no interest to powerful entities, when human beings are trafficked by the thousands to be used for sex or cheap labor, when industry and wealth win over the health of the planet and all its creatures and the global community—if hope isn’t created for times such as these, then why have hope at all?
So let’s try Advent once again. Let’s practice a hopeful way of being in the world.