University Congregational Church
Nov. 29, 2015
“A Candle of Hope”
Today is the first Sunday in Advent… the Sunday of hope.
Advent’s color is midnight blue-purple. It is a time of darkness, of night. The night of this time is broken only by the tiny pinpoints of light the stars provide. “Long is our winter, dark is our night…Oh come set us free, O saving light…” goes the old song. Today starts a new church year and it starts with a void, an emptiness. Yet in the void there is something. There is an ache. The ache of the heart is a yearning, a longing, a desire. We have that longing. It echoes through the centuries in human voice crying for God, begging for peace, pleading for justice, aching for something.
Our scripture lesson today speaks to that ache for something, or someone, to show up and change the world, even to change a single life. It is found among the words attributed to Isaiah of Jerusalem, an eighth century prophet (BCE). He wrote during a time of change, war, and political angst.
King Ahaz was literally stuck in the middle between warring nations and didn’t know which was best:
• Joining other smaller nations to fight against Assyria, or
• Plead for mercy from Assyria, which meant becoming indebted to them.
Isaiah suggested a third option: trust in God.
Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.
Re-reading Isaiah this week caused me to ponder: can a theology from 2500 years ago still be meaningful today? If we read Isaiah through the lens of perennial spiritual and religious questions, I think it can help us answer questions such as:
• How do we respond in times of crisis?
• What is the meaning of suffering?
• What are the values that define us?
• How do we find hope in the midst of uncertainty?
In the history of Christian interpretation, this text has been abused and misused in a way that robs it of its original context and meaning. The sign given to King Ahaz has been twisted into a prediction of Jesus’ birth. Hebrew scholar Lisa Davison writes, “Despite traditional Christian interpretation, Isaiah was not predicting the birth of a child by a virgin; he was pointing to a woman in the 8th century who was already pregnant, whose child would be growing up during the next couple of years of the reign of King Ahaz…. The greater implication for King Ahaz and the people was that an immediate decision had to be made.”
The ache of the human heart for God is called hope. It is longing born of religious love. As Christians, we believe that we live always in hope. We’re living always in the season of advent. Biblical thought understands hope as the expectation of a good future which rests on God’s promise. Because hope is created by the way in which God is understood, and determined by a relationship with God, it is unambiguous. In other words, the act of hope is not taking the present and transplanting it in the future. Hope is the anticipation of what the future itself holds. Hope means believing that the future is already at work in the present through God.
It’s like trapeze artistry. There’s a special relationship between the flyer and the catcher on the trapeze. The flyer is the one that lets go, and the catcher is the one who catches. As the flyer swings high above the crowd on the trapeze, the moment comes when he must let go. He arcs out into the air. His job is to remain as still as possible and wait for the strong hands of the catcher to pluck him from the air. One of the temptations of flyers is to try to reach out and grab the catcher, but this action causes disaster. Instead the flyer must wait suspended in air, in absolute faith and hope that the catcher will catch him.
When we hope, we live in a similar pregnant expectation. Of ourselves we have no being. We draw being from the One who is. Christian conviction holds that I do not have any real existence apart from my relationship with the Holy. Simply said, I live in God or I do not have real enduring life.
This conviction puts us in a position of radical poverty before God. We are the trapeze flyer pausing midair. We draw our very being from the One who gives us life. Sure, others have been instruments of that giving – our parents, our mentors, and all those who have helped us become who we are. But it also puts us in a position of radical wonder. We are most amazing human beings. We have histories and stories. We can love wildly, hope expectantly, and believe resolutely. We can laugh and cry, dance and sing, and argue our convictions. And these facts put us in the most marvelous position to ponder Advent in its deepest significance.
Our humanness flourishes because it is in relationship with the Holy, whether we acknowledge it or refuse to acknowledge it. When we acknowledge it, we come back to the most amazing truth. There is Someone in the dark of life with me. Someone is with us, or we couldn’t even be. What would happen if we remembered this quietly every morning? What would happen if we remembered this often during the day? What would happen if we were assured of this fact in crisis?
This fact, that we are not alone, even if we forget and think we are, is revealed to us in the most concrete of ways: a woman carrying a child in her womb. With this image, the church starts a new year. The message of God united with humans in a woman’s womb is a message for each of us: that when we are locked in the darkness of faith’s womb in this life, the Holy One is still taking on humanness.
We sit in the darkness and ponder who is with us in the dark. Mary must have sat often, heavy with the life in her womb, wondering what on earth was happening. We join her in her pondering. How can it be that the Holy One is not content with one full human manifestation in history, but has arranged mystically to be revealed again and again through the likes of us?
Lisa Davison goes on to say that the words in Isaiah have lasting value – not because they predicted the birth of Jesus – but because they speak again and again to new generations. “If we do not limit the message of Isaiah 7 to a specific historical event, then each newborn child can be a sign of Immanuel – God with us – and can offer hope to those living in war-torn countries, to those facing an uncertain future, and to anyone who needs to be reassured of God’s faithfulness.
The idea that God is being born in us over and over again is cause for hope. We don’t have to wallow around in the mires of our making. We don’t have to trudge through the ugliness of life without ever reaching the mountaintop. We don’t have to wander around in depression thinking that it will never end. God is becoming incarnate in us! There is reason to hope.
Spending time in Advent with God-with-us is dangerous. It could have a transforming effect on our personal lives and the life of the church. God-with-us teaches us to keep watch and whistle in the dark. God-with-us teaches us to believe there is a new life within. God-with-us shows us how to hope. God-with-us models how to wait it out.
There is a story entitled the “Light of Christmas” that speaks to hopeful waiting. About 30 years ago there was a house at the entrance of a subdivision that kept their Christmas lights burning long after the season was past. They burned through January. Even through the first of February those outside lights burned every night. Finally, about the middle of February, a group of neighbors became a bit critical and talked among themselves. One said, “If I were too lazy to take my Christmas lights down, I think I’d at least turn them off at night.”
But about the middle of March there was a sign outside the home that explained why they’d left the lights on. It said simply, “Welcome home, Jimmy.” It turned out that the family had a son in Vietnam, and they had unashamedly left their Christmas lights on in anticipation of his return.
Advent is a time of darkness, of night. The night of this time is broken only by the tiny pinpoints of light that the stars provide. Our relationship with God reminds us that someone is in the dark of life with us. We are not alone. Advent is the journey toward that tiny glimmer of light peaking out of the darkness giving us hope!
Rev. Dr. Lisa W. Davison, “Isaiah 7:10-16” notes
“Emphasis; A Preaching Journal for the Parish Pastor” Volume 31, Number 4. Lima, Ohio: CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 2001.
Streeter, Carla Mae. Seasons of the Soul; An Intimate God in Liturgical Time. St. Louis: Chalice Press. 2004.
“The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology”. Edited by Alan Richardson and John Bowden. Philadelphia: Westminster Press. 1983.