The Promise of Hope

Comfort, comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
    that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord[a];
make straight in the desert
    a highway for our God.[b]
Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
    the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out.”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All people are like grass,
    and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures forever.”

You who bring good news to Zion,
    go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,[c]
    lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
    say to the towns of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
    and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
    and his recompense accompanies him.
11 He tends his flock like a shepherd:
    He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young.
Isaiah 40:1-11

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,[a] the Son of God,[b] as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way”[c]
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”[d]

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with[e] water, but he will baptize you with[f] the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 1:1-8

This morning I’d first like to celebrate how beautiful our sanctuary looks. The new painting has really transformed this space, and it makes the worship and flower committee’s decorations even more striking. I especially love our banners – the one signifying peace, the other signifying hope. This season of Advent is one of excitement, anticipation, and HOPE. In the coming of Jesus, our hope is fulfilled.

The theologian Emil Brunner says that hope is as necessary to life as oxygen. “What oxygen is for the lungs, such is hope for the meaning of human life. Take oxygen away and death occurs… Take hope away, and humanity is constricted through lack of breath. Despair [follows], and we are paralyzed by a feeling of senselessness and purposelessness. The fate of humanity is dependent on its supply of hope.”

The loss of hope – this was the experience of those people to whom the prophet Isaiah spoke. His message was to a Judean community who had been living in exile for some 150 years. The institutions and structures that shaped their lives had been stripped away. Their temple had been destroyed. Their homeland lay wasted. They suffered under the thumb of the Babylonian conquerors. They were an oppressed, and depressed people. They had lost hope.

The loss of hope – most of us have known it at one time or another. Despair and depression are common symptoms of hopelessness. We see the signs of hopelessness all around us. In horrifyingly high suicide rates. In school drop-out rates. We see hopelessness in alcoholism and other addictive behaviors. The loss of jobs and homes fill the news. Lack of confidence and respect for our government and other institutions deepens. Hopelessness is not hard to find.

So, we have the HOPELESS – those people who can’t see, or even reject, the promise of hope – what’s been called “slamming the door in the face of God.”

At another level we have those people I would call the HOPING. The hoping are the people who WANT to hope, but fall a little short, often trusting in false promises instead. For example, what used to be chain letters — nowadays I suppose they’re called chain e-mails. These are messages usually sent by our best friend in college, saying that if we break the chain, we’ll have incredibly bad luck. Like the bricklayer from Brooklyn who broke the chain, and lost all his equipment in a snowstorm, and his union card too, and then his wife left him. Meanwhile the grocery clerk from Minnesota continued the message, and walking along she found $6,000 on the sidewalk THE VERY NEXT DAY! Have you ever seen those sorts of messages?

The hoping are those who think that success and happiness will be ours, if we can only find that perfect job. Good health will be guaranteed, if we just take the right pill. Fame and fortune will be ours, if we can win that one big deal. Friends and fans will flock to our side, if we drive the right car. It seems more like it’s HOPING – not real HOPE – that springs eternal. HOPING people often trust more in wishful thinking than in true hope.

Trusting in false promises – how easy to do. The Bible calls these objects of false promise “idols.” And NOW is the season for them. John Calvin said that “an idol is anything that blocks the way of hope, clouds its vision, and gives a false promise of security for the future.” It’s a thought to ponder during this season of commercialism and Santa Claus. Idols block the way of true HOPE.

So we have the HOPELESS, and we have the HOPING. Who are the hopeFULL? What does it mean to have true HOPE?

The meaning of the word hope is expressed by the Hebrew words “to trust, to wait, to seek refuge.” The prophet Isaiah carried this hopeful promise: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!”

Centuries later, John the Baptist spoke words of hope as well: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

There is CONFIDENCE in these words: “Here is your God!” There is PROMISE in these words: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” These are words and promises of HOPE. And in the birth of God’s child, in the birth of Jesus, we find the fulfillment of that hope. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of true hope.

Jesus is no longer merely a prophetic WORD, but an historical person. In the person of Jesus, God suffers what we suffer, and God celebrates what we celebrate. In the person of Jesus, God comes to live with us, so that we might finally understand how God wants us to live with each other. In the person of Jesus, the promise of hope is fulfilled. It’s fulfilled when the downcast and fearful are strengthened. It’s fulfilled when the wounded are healed. It’s fulfilled when there is perfect communion between God and God’s people. The promise of hope is fulfilled when people gather together to celebrate God’s presence among them. The promise of hope is fulfilled when we gather together at this table.

We need God. We need God in the same way that we need oxygen. We need God, who is our hope – in person, Immanuel.

During this season filled with candles, stars and lights, we don’t simply want the trappings of Advent. We don’t want the idols of THINGS that we’re hoping to have. We want to know that we will be whole, and that there is a future. We want to know that there is no place too dismal for God to reach us. We want to know that there is no sin too enormous for God to forgive us. We want to know that there is no transgression too great to separate us from the love of God. We want to know that there’s more to life than tinsel and empty hoping.

God comes to us. Defenseless. As a baby. Jesus Christ enters the world, and the world is forever transformed. That is the promise of hope. Amen.