Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 11/27/2016
Advent: Year A: Week 1
“This is what Isaiah, Amoz’s son, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In the days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
will be the highest of the mountains.
It will be lifted above the hills;
peoples will stream to it.
Many nations will go and say,
“Come, let’s go up to the Lord’s mountain,
to the house of Jacob’s God
so that he may teach us his ways
and we may walk in God’s paths.”
Instruction will come from Zion;
the Lord’s word from Jerusalem.
God will judge between the nations,
and settle disputes of mighty nations.
Then they will beat their swords into iron plows
and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation;
they will no longer learn how to make war.
Come, house of Jacob,
let’s walk by the Lord’s light.” (Isaiah 2:1-5, CEB)
One of my worst memories of high school was taking the ACT. If you’ve taken that test, or the SAT or if you’ve ever done any kind of mandatory standardized testing or exams, you know what I’m talking about. Four hours locked in the study hall of my high school surrounded by all these people I couldn’t talk to, forced to take this stupid test because it was required to apply for college. Somewhere in the middle of the math portion of the test (I was never very good at math) I looked up at the clock and I remember this distinct thought:
“I’m never getting out of here. This test will literally never end. This is my life now.” I just completely lost hope. You can imagine what happened to my score after that point.
Now, that story was kind of a tongue-in-cheek – maybe a bit dramatic, but this is a serious question – Have any of us every experienced a loss of hope in our lives? Maybe there was a death in your family, maybe you lost a job, maybe you or someone you’re close to went through a serious illness that just disrupted your life for a while?
Have any of us ever lost hope?
Hope – that’s what I’d like to talk about today on this first Sunday of Advent. This past week, I posted a status on Facebook that simply asked “What does the word “hope” mean to you?” And I got some really good answers. A friend of mine named Tom replied with part of an Emily Dickinson poem that goes like this: “Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul / and sings the song without the words, / and never stops at all.” [From “”Hope” is the thing with feathers – 314” by Emily Dickinson]
Another friend of mine named Kimberly said that for her, “hope is believing that things can be different, people can be different and the future can be different. It is belief in the potential in the things around us without putting unrealistic expectations on the world. Hope is believing that God’s sanctifying grace is alive and well.”
Someone else sent me a quote from Desmond Tutu that said “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness.”
And another friend of mine named Travis simply replied with a picture of Princess Leia from Star Wars saying that line, “Help me, Obi-wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”
Those are all great ways of understanding this idea of “hope.” And they can all be summed up like this: Hope is the expectation of a good future directed by God. When we hope, we expect God to bring about a future that is better than our present reality.
Now that’s a good definition – I like thinking about that. But if we’re honest, our world today gives us plenty of reasons not to hope, not to expect any kind of good future. It seems like we get more news each day of shootings and violence and natural disasters. The Middle East is constantly in crisis, and now we’re able to hear about it more than ever. The presidential election season that just recently ended was poisonous and divisive all over the country. And it’s only gotten worse since Trump was elected, with riots and protests and name calling and ugliness on both sides. I’m not making any kind of political statement here, I’m just looking at the facts of the situation. No matter what side you’re on and whether you agree or disagree with what’s being done, the fact of the matter is that people are expressing outrage and pain and fear all over the place.
In a world like this, how do we talk about hope? What kind of future could we possibly have to look forward to? How can we hope in the midst of a world as broken as ours?
Well the passage from Isaiah that I read for you a couple minutes ago, and that was read at the beginning of the service, can help us here. Because Isaiah understands where we’re coming from. Isaiah understands our situation.
You see, Isaiah was preaching and prophesying to the people of Judah, around the city of Jerusalem. And their world, those thousands of years ago, gave them plenty of reasons not to hope, not to expect any kind of good future. In fact, it gave them plenty of reasons not to expect any kind of future at all, good or bad.
Isaiah’s people are surrounded by war. The mighty Assyrian Empire controlled a good portion of the known world at that time. Assyria’s armies had already destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, and they’re not afraid at all to attack and destroy the people of Judah and Jerusalem and wipe them off the face of the earth. Destruction and death are staring Isaiah’s people in the face. This is, in many ways, the definition of a hopeless situation.
But into this hopeless situation – into this situation where the people can’t see any kind of future because it’s all they can do to simply survive each day as it comes – into this hopeless situation, Isaiah proclaims this vision of a beautiful future.
Isaiah paints this amazing picture of all the nations streaming to the temple in Jerusalem. Before this, it was only the Israelites who worshiped at the Temple. The Temple was the center of the Israelites’ world, but not for anyone else. But in this good future, it’s not only the Israelites, not only the Jewish people, but all people from every nation will come to worship the One God at the Temple. Everyone will come together, all dividing lines will be erased and all people will be God’s people.
And Isaiah paints another amazing picture of world peace. “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4) This vision has been so compelling to so many people. If you go to the United Nations building in NYC, you’ll see a small park across the street from that building with a wall that has Isaiah 2:4, this vision of beating swords into plowshares, engraved on it. This is a powerful vision. It’s grabbed imaginations everywhere. No more swords, no more spears, no more learning how to make war, no more need for a military, no more sending our sons and daughters off to war. True world peace.
And this vision of Isaiah’s is even deeper than that. This vision of Isaiah’s goes deeper than visions of world peace and togetherness and gets to how we understand God’s presence.
Here’s what I understand Isaiah to really be declaring: One day, we won’t have to rely on memories of that one time we thought we had experienced God…kinda sorta.
One day our spiritual lives won’t have to scrape by on those small, once-in-a-while stirrings in our souls that are pure bliss one moment and gone the next.
One day, the longing for eternity that we each have shall be fulfilled. The veil will be pulled back, all of our sin will be wiped away for good. Every single thing that separates us from full, uninterrupted communion with God and healthy relationships with others will be obliterated, and we will all be transformed.
We will become what we were created to be. The image of God that resides in each of us will no longer be distorted and hidden by our broken lives, but will be our defining feature. We will no longer be separated from each other; the lines that divide each of us from each other will be erased, and we will experience true community. We will find true hope, true peace, true joy, and true love.
Beautiful. But there’s a problem here. The problem is that this future Isaiah preaches about to his people has no basis in their reality. Isaiah’s people were surrounded by war. How can you talk about peace when war and destruction are constant realities?
And, you know, this vision proclaimed by Isaiah doesn’t really have any basis in our reality either. By that, I mean that when we take an honest look at our world today, we don’t really have any good reason to expect Isaiah’s vision to come true. How can we picture a future peace in our world when new wars seem to start up every month? How can we imagine all people being God’s people when so many people are separated from each other on the basis of their race or their gender or their religion or their nationality?
I wonder if we can take this further, and maybe think about this in terms specific to where we are today? Maybe some of you hear these grand and glorious visions for a future, but you look around yourself at this village that’s just getting smaller and smaller each year. Maybe you remember Alger when it was at its height, when there were shops and a bank and a small grocery store; back when you knew everyone in town, when there weren’t so many rundown and boarded up homes. And maybe you’re having a problem picturing this glorious future Isaiah prophesies when we live in a village that’s just struggling to get by.
During this season of Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, we often get overwhelmed with warm and fuzzy visions of what the world could be. But how can we hope, how can we expect God to bring about a future that’s any better than our current reality where our world is so broken and seems to be getting more and more broken each day?
Well I’m here to tell you, church, that we are able to hope. We are able to expect a good future with God because Jesus has come.
In this season of Advent, we’re preparing ourselves to celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas. So our Christian faith says that Jesus has already come. God has already come into this world and inaugurated and initiated the future. In Jesus, God has already begun the process of remaking the world.
You see, hope is the expectation that God has good future ahead for us, for our families, and for our world. Hope is the expectation that all will not remain broken. Hope is the expectation that, one day, all people will come together, no matter their skin color, no matter their orientation, no matter where they live or how much money they make. Hope is the expectation that we will all be made into one family. Hope is the expectation that violence will cease. Hope is the expectation that poverty will not be the permanent state for our world.
But Christian hope is honest and sees how far away our world is from that envisioned future. Christian hope knows that none of those things will happen without the work of God in Godself. So Christian hope starts by looking back and remembering and believing the beautiful mystery that God in Godself came into the world in Jesus – exactly what we remember and celebrate at Christmas. Then Christian hope looks ahead to the time in the future when God in Godself will again come into this world and set everything right. You see, at a specific point in the past, God came into this world as Jesus to show us the way of salvation. And we believe that at some specific point in the future, God will come into our world again to bring each of us and our whole world into full salvation.
So, in short, Christian hope believes that the future belongs to God. But the first step toward that good future belongs to us – those who claim the Christian faith for ourselves. We can look ahead to God’s good future and paint as many rose pictures of it as we want, but the truth is that we are not there yet. You don’t need me to tell you that.
So the decision to step into that hopeful future belongs to us. Christian hope does not call us to just sit and do nothing, waiting for Jesus to come again. If we call ourselves Christians, then God has already begun that good future in us. We are able to step into that future now, and God calls us to do just that – to take steps toward that good future now.
[Online-only readers: at this point, I asked the congregation to get out a bulletin insert entitled “Advent Home Worship” and explained what it was and encouraged them make it a part of their daily lives for the next week. You can check out the original version of it on the website for Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church here.]
Here’s the bottom line – because of Jesus, we can hope for God’s future. This isn’t just a hope for heaven after we die; it’s a hope for a transformed world around us. The future belongs to God, but the first step toward that future today and each day this week belongs to us – each one of us. So let’s be about that work.