Hope and Resiliency:
Lighting a Candle on the Long View
Second Sunday of Advent
December 9, 2018
John Kleinig, guest preacher
Scripture Lesson: I Peter 1:3-9
Have you lost hope or do you sometimes feel that you are losing hope? Perhaps we all do at points. Or, if you still have hope, do you picture it after the manner of George Frederic Watts, in Hope, his famous Nineteenth Century painting, now hanging in London’s Tate Britain?: He depicts Hope, blind and forlorn, barefooted, and in a flimsy garment, crouched over the world but clinging to the lyre in her hand, plucking the one string that remains unbroken – hope as, perhaps, little more than desperate wishful thinking?
Now listen to these words of Scripture:
From Paul’s letter to the Romans: “We rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God . . . Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that he has given us” (Rom 5:2, 5),
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews puts it this way: “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner shrine behind the curtain [the curtain of the Temple’s Holy of Holies], where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf” (Heb. 6: 18-19).
And from our reading today: “Praised be the Abba God of our Savior Jesus Christ, who with great mercy gave us new birth: a birth into hope, which draws its life from the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead; a birth to an imperishable inheritance incapable of fading or defilement.”
This is a far cry from the desperate Hope of Watts’ painting. Two understandings of hope. But which is it more reasonable to have? Is one realistic and the other just pie in the sky?
Centering Prayer: Gracious God, creator, sustainer, and redeemer, focus my lips and our hearts and minds, that we may be receptive to the promptings of your Spirit, in Jesus name we pray, our hope and our salvation. Amen.
Barack Obama burst onto the world’s stage in 2004, when he gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention. There he contrasted a politics of cynicism with a politics of hope, and called on Americans to adopt a politics of hope, which he then sought to distinguish from “blind optimism”:
It's the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs. The hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores. . . The hope of a mill worker's son who dares to defy the odds. The hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.
Hope! Hope in the face of difficulty! Hope in the face of uncertainty! The audacity of hope! In the end, that is God's greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead.
Are there? During his presidency Obama was fond of quoting a phrase that Martin Luther King Jr had derived from a nineteenth century theologian, Theodore Parker: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Does it?
It’s two years since Obama left office, and despite a mid-term election, we live in an America as divided as it has ever been, with much of Obama’s legislative legacy already rolled back. As for “the audacity of hope” – it may now seem audacious to hope. What has happened to the trajectory of the moral universe”? Is our current situation just a blip or does it suggest that there is no such trajectory? – Are Obama’s words about the freedom songs of slaves, the aspirations of immigrants and audacious hope of the skinny kid with the funny name no more than optimistic fantasies? Mailed pipe bombs, gunned down African Americans in supermarkets, a massacre during a synagogue service, a nightclub bloodbath in California, tear-gassed refugees, children separated from parents, and complacency about murderous regimes. And those are just the most recent cases. Hate crimes have skyrocketed in the last two years; we are told that we need more, not fewer, guns; the worst fires in California’s history are touted to have more to do with forest mismanagement than climate change; we’re told that an “invasion” of people from Central America threatens our national security and requires the deployment of thousands of troops, that a desperately needed Wall must be funded in the next budget, . . . or else. You get the drift.
Morally, we seem to go two steps forward and one step back and one step forward and two steps back. Although we humans have made great advances in many fields, our moral progress seems negligible: in less than two decades of the 21st century we have Libya and Syria and South Sudan and Yemen and North Korea and Tibet and Somalia and the Congo and Afghanistan and Guatemala and Honduras and Sri Lanka, the Rohingas of Myanmar, the Uighurs of North-West China . . . we could keep on going.
So, how do we maintain a confident hope – or any kind of hope – when hope seems doomed to frustration?
I want to take you on a brief journey through a long history – a kind of movie trailer of “the long view.” It starts with Genesis and it ends with Jesus. It is a journey through two histories – one, the sort of history that you might find in a textbook – “world history” – the other, a history of faith or “salvation history” as theologians have often referred to it. Both of these histories are represented in the biblical record.
As we near the season of Advent we reflect on the coming of Jesus. The gospels of Matthew and Luke view the arrival of Jesus as a critical point in a long view of history. Both of them incorporate extensive genealogies into their narratives – early Ancestor.coms – in Luke’s case, one that goes back to Creation and traces Jesus’ family line from there, and in Matthew’s case, a family line that goes back to Abraham and the formation of the Jewish people (Lk 3: 23-38; Matt 1: 1-16).
What do we see there? On the one hand, we see that God did not abandon God’s creation when humans decided to go their own way – even though they lost their founding privileges – but worked through fractious individuals and a stubborn people to bring an embodied message of redemptive love – costly acts that we now celebrate in our Christian calendar: Christmas, Easter, the Ascension, and Pentecost.
I want to try to illustrate this double history for you by focusing on just a few of the people who appear in the genealogies – the human history not really representing one of moral progress, whereas the salvation history shows how God is working out God’s purposes, despite what one writer [Kant] called the “crooked timber of humanity.”
We saw this a few weeks ago when Pastor Jeff preached on Jacob who, after wrestling with the divine, was renamed, along with his descendants, Israel. But it was this same Jacob who exploited his older brother’s vulnerability and then deceived his father into giving him what was his brother’s birthright (Gen. 27). It was Jacob, and not Esau, who figures in the genealogy.
Now step back a bit. When Abraham came out of modern-day Turkey to found a chosen people in Canaan, he came with his rather earthly nephew, Lot, who, you may remember, got into bad company and had to be rescued on more than one occasion through the interventions of Uncle Abe. The end of that story has Lot living in a cave with his two unmarried daughters who, believing that their marriage prospects were limited, decided to get their father drunk and sleep with him. Both became pregnant, and, the record tells us, named their respective children Moab and ben Ammi (Gen 19: 36-38), reputedly the ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites with whom the later Israelites were not supposed to have any dealings (Deut 23:3-6).
Nevertheless, further down the family tree, we are told that Ruth, a Moabitess, married Boaz, and became the great grandmother of King David. King Solomon, next in Luke’s genealogical line, was the offspring of David and his wife, Bathsheba. You may remember that, prior to that, Bathsheba was married to one of David’s soldiers, Uriah, but David took a lustful fancy to her and began an affair. When Bathsheba became pregnant, to cover it up David engineered Uriah’s death by having him sent to the front lines. Solomon, was the second child of David’s relationship with Bathsheba and when he succeeded David we are told that Solomon married many foreign women, including Moabites and Ammonites, for whose gods he built shrines, in violation of Jewish religious law (I Kings 11: 1-13). One of his wives, Naamah, an Ammonitess, was the mother of Rehoboam, the next in the genealogical line leading to Jesus.
This is a very murky human history that God is using to work out God’s saving purposes. And in certain respects it doesn’t get much better when Jesus comes along. Forget the “scandal” surrounding Mary’s pregnancy. Jesus finds himself a marginalized member of a subject people, the occasion for a terrible slaughter of innocents, a sometime refugee, the son of a carpenter, a gadfly who is despised by the religious establishment and eventually tortured and executed. It is in his resurrection and in the giving of the Holy Spirit that we, his followers, have been given hope. It is a recognition that despite the worst that we humans can be, God can and has brought good out of evil, love out of hate, and provided our assurance that God’s plan for this world will not ultimately be frustrated, that worldly history will not ultimately frustrate salvation history.
This, of course, is not intended as a ground for fatalism or complacency – that is, for sitting back and allowing things to happen – but it is a call and motivation to bring light into dark places, for lighting candles when the outlook is gloomy, for attending to the work of God when human hope seems groundless. We may suffer now – as our reading today acknowledges – but we do so in the confidence that what Jesus has secured for us is an eternal hope.
Those slaves of whom Obama spoke as singing songs of freedom were singing those spirituals that we sometimes sing in church. They may have looked forward to emancipation from slavery, but even more they looked forward to an eternal deliverance, to a “sweet chariot” that would swing low, “coming for to carry them home.” Emancipation from slavery did not automatically yield their freedom: Jim Crow would supplant slavery, and now, perhaps – as Michelle Alexander has suggested – a new Jim Crow has arisen: slavery, followed by segregation, followed by mass incarceration, followed by renewed expressions of hating “the Other.”
There is much work to do, but we can do it with a confident hope that rejoices in the sufficiency of God’s sovereign provision. Let us, then, light the candle of hope that will see us through.
Jesus said: “I am the world’s Light. No one who follows me stumbles around in the darkness. I provide plenty of light to live in” (Jn. 8:12, The Message). The ancient Chinese Proverb has it: “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” Many of us were brought up on the childhood hymn: “Jesus bids us shine with a pure clear light/Like a little candle burning in the night/ In this world of darkness, we must shine, /You in your small corner, And I in mine.”
Let us then go out into the world as founts of light, lit by the one who illumines all, to make known that in dark times there is hope – As the apostle Paul encouraged us (Rom 15): “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.
Copyright © 2018 by John Kleinig
All rights reserved.