Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin TN + Advent 1 + November 29, 2015
The dichotomy is irresolvable: knowledge of death and hope for life both have their claws in me. –Dorothee Soelle
Our Advent wreath stands right here before me, with that very first Advent candle burning brightly. Each of the candles in the wreath represents a different intention for our devotion during the season of Advent; each candle is a reminder of one of the gifts God promises to us, something to meditate on as we prepare our hearts and our lives for Christ to come into them, again and again. The first candle is for hope; the second for faith; the third for joy; and the last candle is for peace.
The candle we lit today is the hope candle, sometimes called the “Prophet’s Candle.” It reminds us that in the midst of all the dark, depressing, or just frustrating stuff of life, God gives us reason to hope. A devotion Pastor Lippard led for some groups here at church this week put it in even stronger words: we are prisoners of hope.
“Prisoners of Hope” comes from Zech. 9, in which God promises to send a king to restore Israel: “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double” (v. 12).
That phrase stuck with me. Something about calling myself a “prisoner of hope” felt like it hit on something stronger and more true than simply saying “we are hopeful people” or even “we are the people who never lose hope.” I think it’s because a lot of the time I am not a hopeful person.
Well, no, that’s not exactly right. I’ll force myself to be more honest. I try not to be a hopeful person. I am a very hopeful person. Sometimes too hopeful. And that terrifies me. So one of my most automatic defense mechanisms is to try and stop myself from hoping too much.
Because hoping is not passive or easy or safe. Sure, when I hear the word “hope”, the first images that pop into my head are always the cute, fluffy ones: someone daydreaming about the perfect career or the perfect love or the perfect afternoon and being filled with that warm, sunlit feeling that it will come to be. They go on about their day with a little bounce in their step, a little more patience, and a little more strength, because they have that hope lighting them up from the inside.
But that’s not how hope really works. Hope is so much more assertive, so much more demanding. Hope gives us a vision for the future. And then that vision gets inside of us; it becomes part of the way we imagine our lives; we start to make choices based on that hope we have for the future. We start to prepare for it. We make ourselves vulnerable to it.
And that’s what terrifies me. What if I put all this time and effort and emotional energy towards a hope that falls apart? What if that eight-year-old boy gets up early on a Saturday and reorganizes his tackle-box and digs up worms in the backyard, and then his dad can’t take him fishing after all? What if a woman turns down a leadership position on a big project at work so that she can focus on interviewing for a new, better job…and then doesn’t get the job? What if I spend time with these guys in jail, encouraging and mentoring and forming friendships, hoping that they start living better…and then I see them back in the jail again?
Hope makes so many decisions and sacrifices feel totally worth the risk, and it fills day-to-day life with a special energy; but crushed hopes make it all feel like a waste. When my hope is crushed, it makes me wonder what could have been, had I not pinned all my energy to that hope. Makes me question my ability to make good decisions. And crushed hope just plain hurts. That’s why I try to run from hope.
And yet I am a prisoner of hope. I can’t escape hoping. Not just because of my personality, but because of my faith. Christianity demands that we hope. Christianity demands that we hope, even when it’s hard to hope, even when it doesn’t make sense to hope, even when it’s dangerous to hope. In the face of overwhelming odds; when we are the weak little underdog; in the valley of the shadow of death, God demands that we hope. God demands that we hope and that we act on that hope. That is a message I see over and over throughout the Bible, and it’s here in our readings today.
Our first reading comes from the book of Jeremiah, and the fact that Jeremiah is known as “the weeping prophet” ought to be a good reminder that his messages of hope come from a time when hope must have been nearly impossible. In fact, one of my Bibles introduces this book with the sentence, “The book of Jeremiah was written for people in the throes of suffering.”(1)
Jeremiah prophesied during one of the greatest historical tragedies of the Israelite people: the time when Babylon was taking over the nation of Judah, taking over the capital city, Jerusalem, taking over the government. He spoke the word of God in the midst of violent resistance and chaos as his country collapsed all around him, and as, eventually, its king, its leaders, and many of its people were taken away to exile in Babylon. God had promised to establish the Israelite people in their land, to protect them, to keep David’s decedents on the throne — but now all that seemed gone, destroyed. If ever there was a time that all hope was lost, this was it.
And yet in the middle of the book of Jeremiah are a few chapters that tell the people to keep hoping. Don’t give up on the promises of God. Don’t live your lives like the future you had been promised is gone. Don’t get used to the way things are. Live like you know that God will save you. God remains faithful to you. Stay faithful to your God.
The gospel reading also calls for hope in the midst of hopeless circumstances. At the time when Jesus gave this apocalyptic little speech, he had been in Jerusalem — the big city, the home of the Temple, the center of his religion — long enough to see what was going on there.
And this part of Jesus’s life reminds me of the time Martin Luther first visited Rome. The 2003 movie Luther starring Joseph Fiennes does a great job of portraying it. (Click here to watch the film scene.) The young idealistic monk makes a journey to the great holy city, takes a deep breath to prepare himself for the glorious enlightenment that awaits him there…and then finds himself surrounded by throngs of poor and needy people, sees clergy unabashedly taking part in prostitution, struggles to get away from those peddling things they claim to be holy relics, and, along with rushed crowds of others, pays the church so that he may do penance in behalf of souls in purgatory. When he gets home to Germany, he is disillusioned and angry: “Rome is a circus,” he says. “A running sewer.”
When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, his experience was similar. But Jesus was not so idealistic; he was already weeping over the city as he approached, even referencing Jeremiah, the “weeping prophet” (Lk. 19:41-44; Jer. 6). Then he visited the Temple, saw how that holy place had become a place of profane buying and selling, and drove the people out (Lk. 19:45-46). He saw the priests and other religious leaders living richly while the poor widows who had nothing else to live on gave all they had to the Temple (Lk. 20:45-21:4). His disciples looked around and admired the huge, beautiful Temple, but Jesus said: No. It will all be torn down (Lk. 21:5-6). And then he went on to say the words we read earlier this morning: conflict and wars will continue; his followers will be persecuted; nature itself will show signs of suffering. Soon after this speech — in the very next chapter, in the book of Luke (22:39 and on) — Jesus is betrayed by a friend, handed over to the Temple authorities, then handed over to Rome, and then handed over to Death. Maybe Jesus sees all this coming, too (Lk. 18:31-34).
But, again, like in the book of Jeremiah: in the midst of all this betrayal of religion and faith, in the midst of the chaos as a city and culture are crashing down, and even in the midst of personal persecution, Jesus gave a message of hope. And he gave it as a command to his disciples: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
This is not easy hope. This is demanding hope. There will be violence and war, but stand up and raise your heads. Nature will fail, but stand up and raise your heads. You will be persecuted, but stand up and raise your heads. Be faithful. Keep pressing on. Live in the way of Jesus, for your redemption is drawing near.
Jesus’s faithful hope that God would redeem the world from this never-ending cycle of injustice and violence demanded that he live according to that hope. It demanded that he be arrested and crucified rather than give in to that cycle by becoming part of the violence or by being a passive observer to it. From his disciples that hope demanded hard work and travel and sacrifice and persecution and death.
And when these words were written in the Gospel of Luke, they were written for a people who knew what this hope demanded. Living some 50 years or so after Jesus had died, they had seen the Roman governors stomp on the faith and the customs of the Jewish people. They had seen the people of Israel revolt against Rome. They had seen Rome besiege Jerusalem, starving its people. They had seen the Temple go down. Maybe they had suffered themselves, and probably they faced persecution for their faith in Christ. This was no easy time to hope in a savior who had been crucified, who some claimed had been resurrected, but who was so slow to return and set things right.
And yet the Gospel of Luke encouraged those people to hope. To actively hope. It told them to stand up and raise their heads. It told them to live according to the teachings of Jesus even in those dangerous times: to care not only for themselves, but for the people who were most vulnerable to need and suffering. To dare to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them. To be willing to sacrifice and to take risks. It told them to have faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. In short, the Gospel commanded them to commit daring acts of hope — hope that the Kingdom of God had indeed drawn near, and would one day come in full.
And the gospel continues to demand that we hope — and that we act on that hope. So, in this first week of Advent, this season of preparing our hearts and our lives for the coming of Christ and the fulfillment of all God’s promises, I ask you to ask yourself: What does our Christian hope demand from us? What sort of world does God promise for us, and how do we act as if we believe that world is truly coming to be? How do we prepare the way for God’s kingdom?
Dorothee Soelle is quoted in Deanna Thompson’s Crossing the Divide: Luther, Feminism, and the Cross, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), pp. 139.
O’Connor, Kathleen M., “Jeremiah: Introduction,”The Access Bible, ed. Gail R. O’Day and David Petersen, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 963.