University Congregational Church
Dec. 2, 2018
“Jesus As Hope”
Jeremiah 33: 14-16
I Thessalonians 4:13b
Hanukkah begins at sunset on Sunday. It dates back to 150 BCE. The historical context for the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah is one of war, mass-murder, torture, kidnapping, slander, and assassination. After Alexander the Great died, the Persian lands (what is now Iraq) were split into two empires with constant battles and horrific turmoil. It is a very sordid story for about 250 years of Jewish history.
But, in 164 BCE, the Jews reclaimed Jerusalem and wanted to cleanse the Temple. Inside the Temple was a lamp called the Eternal Light, which they were supposed to keep burning all the time. But there was only one bottle of oil left – enough to last one day – and they needed eight days to create new oil for the lamp. The miracle of Hanukkah was that the oil lasted eight days until new oil could be made and blessed according to Jewish custom.
We have all had experiences where something precious lasted way beyond our expectation:
• When you planned for a certain number of people at your holiday table and extra people come, you worry about having enough food. Through the whole meal, you keep watch and pray that there is enough for everyone. Miraculously, there is! And some leftover as well!
• When you sit at the bedside of a loved one and you think you cannot endure one more moment… and somehow, moment by moment, you continue to breathe and survive.
• When you are depressed or weary of heart and not sure if you can go on. But day by day – sometimes second by second – you continue to hang on until the fog lifts.
The celebration of Hanukkah is a celebration about the spiritual nature of light. It is a theme which all faiths can share – that of God’s light in our deepest darkness.
The prophet Jeremiah was writing in a similar episode of Hebrew history. Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed after the Temple was looted. Many of the leaders were executed and others were taken into exile in Babylon. The king, Zedekiah, was forced to watch his sons being executed before the Babylonians put out his eyes and dragged him away. This was the context in which the prophet Jeremiah was writing – and his task was to offer hope to the people.
Can you imagine that task in the midst of horrendous carnage? What the people had experienced was worse than what our own nation suffering on Sept. 11, 2001. Combine all the school shootings – from Columbine to Sandy Hook; add in the overwhelming fire in Paradise, California; add in the Orlando Night Club and the Vegas concert carnage. Think about the images from Aleppo, Syria. Consider the starvation you see in the poorest African countries. This is the circumstance Jeremiah is living in while struggling to offer hope to the people. And he writes, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”
According to writer Kathryn Matthews, “it’s at that moment, right there in the midst of despair, that the prophet arises, the prophet who is also a poet with an imagination and a deep sense of call to proclaim, even in desolation, destruction and loss, the promise of God’s future taking shape beneath and behind it all. What is happening underneath, what we cannot see, is nevertheless real.
Now, in the midst of the terrible suffering of the people, with Jerusalem destroyed and the temple in ruins, Jeremiah doesn’t heap more misery on the people; instead, he offers them something to grasp, a hope to which they can cling. In fact, the prophet’s voice takes such a dramatic turn that these chapters of Jeremiah are called the Book of Consolation, or the Book of Comfort.”
Jeremiah doesn’t say that the day might be coming. He proclaims that the day is surely coming!
“What will this great day look like? It will not be a day of revenge so those who are suffering can turn around and do damage to their own victims. There is a powerful video clip of Senator Robert F. Kennedy speaking to a crowd in Indianapolis the night that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot. He had to share this terrible news with the stunned and anguished crowd, and it is believed that his words helped to keep a level of calm in that city while others went up in flames.
That painful night, Bobby Kennedy spoke against the division, the hatred, the violence and lawlessness that had the power to tear our nation apart in those turbulent times, recalling that he had lost a member of his own family to such violence and hatred (as we know, he himself would be shot, and would die, a few weeks later). And then he lifted up, instead of revenge, a commitment to “love and wisdom and compassion toward one another. A feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country.” -Kathryn Matthews
When we feel:
• pushed down
• absolutely desolate
• without hope
• at a complete loss
• horrified by what we witness
• desperate for something to hold onto…
… that is the when we need Jeremiah’s voice to remind us that hopelessness, violence, illness and greed will not ultimately prevail. That hopeless situation, he proclaims, will give way to justice and righteousness! A day is surely coming, the prophet says, when all of God’s children will live in peace and safety. Everyone will have enough to eat, shelter and safety, the goods of life provided so generously by a loving God. Things will be set right – so much so that the city itself will be called “God is our righteousness.”
If you fast forward several centuries, you will remember that many, many people were convinced that such a ruler came in the person of Jesus. They looked backwards at the words of Jeremiah and other prophets and believed that Jesus fulfilled these words of hope. We are a part of that great cloud of witnesses who look to Jesus as our hope in a world still scarred from disease, political unrest, violence, and countless acts of injustice.
This hope is the opposite of despair. Despair, as defined by John Davis, “is the sense that things won’t change for the better and nothing that I do will make a difference.” Despair is real. There are many people who constantly live in very real, palpable, despair. Anyone who has lost a child or had a cancer diagnosis or who experienced rape or another violence knows despair deep within the heart. The Bible is chalk-full of people who knew despair. In this church, we acknowledge and honor people’s experience with heartache and pain… and we try not to offer empty words or pat answers when a person is suffering.
We hold in tension the very real experience of despair with our faith that despair is not the final end. Our hope is not that every distress in life will be removed. Rather, it is a belief that in the very midst of despair, there can be hope. It comes in various forms – a piece of music or a hug; a dinner on the doorstep or just the right words in a card; someone offering an understanding nod or a sympathetic ear; a consolation and a promise that a day will come that will be better. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is I Thessalonians 4:13 “Do not grieve as one who has no hope.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” Sometimes our perspective cannot always make sense of the seemingly hopeless nature of our world. From the depths of our being, we long for something more.
I have heard the story of an old teacher who asked more questions than she offered answers. She asked, “How can a person tell when the darkness ends and the day begins?” One student replied, “It is when there is enough light to see an animal in the distance and be able to tell if it is a sheep or a goat.” Another student guessed, “It is when there is enough light to see a tree, and tell if it is a fig or an oak tree.” The teacher gently replied, “No. It is when you can look in another’s face and recognize that you are connected. If you cannot recognize in another’s face the face of your own family, the darkness has not yet begun to lift, and the light has not yet come.”
I think this is why Jesus came into our world. He taught people to find something holy in the face of another. He gave us hope.
The survivors of 9-11 and the Pulse Nightclub and the fire in California lost almost everything. The list of what they lost is long. But what I hear when I see them tell their harrowing stories is that at the same time they lost all they knew, they found something else: hope. Because the heart of their neighbors and even strangers became evident to them in ways they could never have imagined.
• There were hands to hold
• Tears shed with others
• Food, clothing, supplies, volunteers, an outpouring of love
In the depths of their despair, if you listen closely, it is as if they are saying, “I have been through hell; and I have experienced an outpouring of love. That love is bigger and it gives me hope to go on.”
Perhaps we will feel overwhelmed at times. It wouldn’t be unreasonable, in the face of so much brokenness and despair, for us to lose heart. And yet, just when the people give up, God sends that person (or even a church full of them), to speak a word of hope. Some days there seems to be little reason for hope. But when we are in the trenches of despair, a light shines in the darkness. A light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. Ever.
Bratcher, Dennis. “Hope! A Homily for the First Sunday of Advent” www.crivoice.org.
Davis, John. “Living with Hope in the Face of Despair”. www.preaching.com
Haughee, Chris. “A Season of Hope”. www.intermountainministry.org. 2013
Lamott, Anne. “Almost Everything; Notes on Hope”. Riverhead Books. 2018.