Advent 3, 14 December 2014
Is. 61, Jn. 1 INI
During this Advent season we are thinking about hope. We’re waiting for good things to happen, and some of us are pretty specific about those good things. We have lists, with model numbers, and we know where the cheapest prices are (go to Best Buy). Others are hoping for gift cards so that lists won’t even be needed. It feels great to be hopeful.
Our words from Isaiah today invite us to take a deeper look into hope than we often do. It’s a gorgeous reading – what is not to like in it? Good news to the poor, comfort to the broken-hearted, freedom to captives, great! But underneath, there is a hard question: What is it like to be hopeful when all you have is hope?
Most often we are never that hard up. We make goals. We make plans to accomplish those goals. We have connections, bank accounts and lines of credit. This is how we are brought up. It seems wrong to want some-thing without trying to figure out how we ourselves will go after it. Hope for us largely means that we will find some way to get what we want. There is a lot to like in this attitude. But it has its limits.
What happens mean when there is quite literally nothing that you can do on your own? When you are so poor that you do not have the money and have no realistic way to get the money? When you are so broken-hearted that you are being swept along in an avalanche of grief and can’t stop the bad feelings because the person you grieve for is gone and never coming back in this life? When you really are a prisoner and are locked in and someone on the outside must let you out because only he has the key? When you are very sick, and can only hope the doctor can do
something you can’t? Some of us know far more than we want to what
that feels like. Hope then takes on a different color.
Hope then comes to focus on some other person and what that person can do. Doctor, have you done this surgery before? Dad, will you bail me out of here? Friends, will you come and visit me? Can you do what I am not able to do for myself? Do you have the power to help me? Are you even willing to? Hope comes to have less simple optimism in it, less self confidence in it, and more flat-out faith or trust in someone.
What’s it like to live by hope this way? It’s not easy, but we can do it. For one thing, we’ll always be plagued with doubts: “What if they forget about me? What if they let me down? What if it’s hopeless and there is nothing to look forward to?” These doubts may be so strong they look like the plain truth, but we must call them by their right name: they are temptation, pure and simple. A con job meant to cheat us out of hope.
So we will fight these temptations off any way we can – get with friends, sing to the radio even if the people in the other cars think you’re crazy, and we will refresh ourselves with the promises of God, who does not lie. We will remember past deliverance and we will refresh ourselves in every memory and thanksgiving for the faithfulness of God.
If we’re caught in trouble too big for us it’s easy to get depressed and let things go to pieces – eat too much or too little, drink too much, sleep till noon, let the garbage pile up, let it all go. It’s a natural impulse. We sink to the level of our misery. But God bids us simply hold on and wait even if we can’t yet see what we are waiting for. We are children of the light, not children of darkness, and we live by the rules of the day even if the sun has not yet risen. We may not be able to do all that is needed for our
deliverance, but we can keep up our strength and discipline to grab the
help when it comes. Just do the next right thing. God will give us the strength to do that little bit. Often he will do this through our friends.
A third thing is to keep our eyes open without trying to guess too much ahead of time what God will do. He certainly will help. It is not always clear just what form his help will take. If we have our hearts set on one particular thing we may miss what he does when he acts. We may even slip into trying to boss God around – a bad idea. Luther calls this outlook Naked Hope – hope so filled with trust in God that we leave it up to him what he will do. We all know the joke about the man in the flood who prays for help, then turns down the helicopter and the boat. Enough said.
The one thing we’re sure of is that help will come to us from Jesus, even if he does something he has never done for us before. This is why John the Baptist prepares the people for God not by giving them 100 positive phrases to repeat, not by telling them to look in the mirror five minutes every morning and say, “You deserve the best the universe can offer,” but by pointing at the Lamb of God. For it is our Lord’s work not just to get us out of ditches but to bring us to God. This is what the good life is.
There is another danger, that we may believe we deserve our trouble and so just need to put up with it hopelessly since we do not deserve help. This is especially likely in a blame-the-victim culture like ours. But even if we have caused our own trouble, hope always comes on the wings of forgiveness. In fact this lies at the heart of all our hope, that God will free us even from the effects of our own sin and self-destruction.
Now, the great thing about this text from Isaiah is that Jesus picked it as his text the time he went home to talk to his home town. “Look,” he said, “this right here is what I am about, what I came to do.” This was indeed Jesus’ stump speech, his platform, for the whole campaign that lay ahead of him. He is willing to do whatever it takes to raise up the humble and hungry – willing to scatter the proud, to cast down the mighty from their thrones, to send the rich away empty, to offend so many people who are righteous in their own eyes that they conspire to kill him. He was willing to do that to fill the hungry with good things. These are world-changing events. When God acts he may start a revolution to break the power of the powers that be.
And when he rose from the dead – he showed beyond any shadow of doubt that he had full power to make it stick. Willing and able to help us. Willing and able to help us. Thanks be to God.