“Hope” / Jeremiah 33:14-16 / 2 December 2018
“In those days,” a hope-filled prophet declares to a fearful and brokenhearted people, “In those days,” everything’s going to be alright. “In those days,” everything you lost will be restored to you, but better than before. “In those days” things will not be as they were, but as they should have been, might have been, could have been, as they were meant to be and ever will be! Ah, hope. In an age of utter despair, when their whole nation and all its symbols and institutions stood on the brink of destruction, the weeping prophet Jeremiah spoke a farfetched word of hope. “In those days…” How much of human history has been spent just waiting for better days? Hope is not exactly incurable, but it sure is persistent. It’s the one flower that blooms in even the most neglected garden, the sun that forever rises, no matter how gray and dim its light. Hope. Martin Luther said that everything that was ever done in this world was done by hope. With the world as they knew it crumbling like a sandcastle in high tide, Jeremiah speaks sacred words of promise for better days. And us, in our day, does he still have a sacred word…for us? Hope! Hope! It belongs to every age and to none; hope is from beyond the realm of time. Our word today…is hope.
Tex Sample, a well-known churchman of the last generation, used to tell a true story about a friend of his who worked as a professor at a large state university. It was one of those schools where lecture halls were the size of auditoriums, with as many as 150 students to a class. And so the teaching was largely done by graduate assistants, while the tenured old professors spent their days amid the library stacks, writing books or journal articles. But Tex’s friend liked to know his students, as much as possible, so he did most of the lecturing himself. And he took a real interest in the students’ lives, making an effort to learn their names, their interests, their backgrounds. In one introductory class, he couldn’t help but notice a young woman with bad cerebral palsy. She had an automated wheelchair, and she always showed up early in the classroom because it took her such a long time to get settled. This was in the 1990s, when students used pen and paper to take notes in class, and this girl would sit there and painstakingly transcribe all that the professor said. Her fingers were bent, tangled, weak. It was hard work, and she often sat late in the lecture hall, begging professor to leave his notes up on the blackboard, so that she could catch up. Her hands moved so slowly and poorly. One day, the professor decided to speak to her while she was packing things up to leave. “I see how dedicated you are to your education. It can’t be easy to keep up with all the note-taking in three or four classes each week.” The student replied, with a slight slur in her speech, “When it became obvious that I had cerebral palsy, they told my mother that it was severe, and I’d have no use of my hands. They said that if I was to have any hope of using my hands, even a little bit, then my mother would have to do stretching exercises on me for half an hour every day. I hated the exercises; they hurt so bad. But each night, after dinner, my mother would take me into the bedroom, lay me on the bed, and stretch my hands the way the therapists taught her. And all the while, I would beg her to stop. Then I’d scream and cry. Then I’d start to call her the most awful things you can imagine. I told her how much I hated her, how I knew that she wanted to hurt me, how sick and cruel she was. I said things that I wish I could take back. And then each night, when the exercises were done, she would go into her bedroom and cry. And each evening after dinner, we did it all over again.” The professor didn’t know what to say; he was moved by the story and a little overcome. Then the student said, “But professor!” With a smile she demonstrated the movement in her gnarled hands.
Hope! That thing with feathers. It’s what we live for. And when we can’t have a big hope, we’ll settle for a small one. Hope is mostly just a given, an unspoken assumption at the heart of all we do—otherwise we wouldn’t do any of it. You often don’t even notice hope till it’s gone. Hope drives all things. It’s the simple faith that the world will stand long enough for our work, and our play, and our words to matter somehow. Hope is the expectation that there’s value to our living and perhaps even meaning to our dying. The essence of hope is the feeling in our bones that things will be okay. And sometimes when things are clearly not going to be okay, hope will help us to enjoy happy illusions, or dwell on happier things. That’s hope. Every time you put a deposit in a bank, or wash a load of laundry, or put a bookmark into a book, with the expectation of returning to it later, you’re building on hope. Hope is the natural human condition, for without it nothing would ever be done. Hope endures outside the realm of time. It belongs to every age because springs eternal.
“In those days,” the weeping prophet Jeremiah promises the trouble people of Judah and Jerusalem, “in those days” all will be well. The time and place into which he writes is one of utter despair, when his people are on the verge of losing everything that they know and hold dear: their homes, their temple, their monarchy, their cities, and monuments, and orchards, and fields. The ruthless Babylonian Empire was poised to sack Jerusalem, level it flat, and kidnap its people back to Babylon, where their lives would matter little and their language and traditions not at all. If you’ve ever wondered why Jesus spoke Aramaic instead of Hebrew, this is why; his ancestors were robbed even of their language. It’s as if an alien space ship the size of Jupiter had parked alongside the earth and made it known that they were going to draw all earthlings aboard, destroy the planet with a death ray, then whisk us all off to a planet where we don’t matter, and all that we love will be but a distant memory. It would be hard to keep hope alive under circumstances like that.
But you know that, don’t you? Oh, it’s not too difficult to imagine a scene like the one facing Jeremiah and his people today. Many of the things that we hold dear seem threatened with destruction, and there’s always a vaguely menacing peril on the horizon, lurking like a frighteningly black storm cloud in the distance. But remember that today is the first day of Advent. It’s the New Year’s Day of the church year. And in the holy time in which God moves, this holy season of blue and white is a time to sit with your longings; sit with all you’ve lost and all you fear you might. Sit with the yearnings of the heart that you dare not utter aloud, and hear the hope-filled promise of Jeremiah. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord.”
Advent—not Christmas, but Advent—is my favorite time to be a pastor. Sometimes at Christmastime, I just don’t feel the joy. Sometimes in Lent, I just don’t get the penitence. There are seasons in Eastertime when I don’t feel all that triumphant. But Advent? Oh, I never fail to feel Advent, the season of longing and hope. This is a time to open the most exiled quarters of your heart to the hope that is promised in Christ. Advent is for longing, and we all live with longings, do we not? In the face of Advent hope, we know the despair of our times. It’s very real. It’s plenty dark. And though our world is vast and full of wonders, we end up carving out little trails in it and rarely diverging from them. We end up getting stuck in all the same old ways again and again. The magazine Psychology Today says that, “If sociologists know your zip code, education, occupation, religion, and income, they can predict with reasonable accuracy your politics, shopping habits, travel destinations, and taste in books, TV, and movies.” We’ve all dug ourselves pretty deeply into channels of our own making. This is the beauty of Advent! It comes once a year, for just four weeks, to remind us that we do not belong to time. Like hope itself, we belong to eternity.
“In those days,” the Prophet Jeremiah promises, all that we long for will be fulfilled. Fast-forward to the Book of Luke, where it says, “In those days a decree went forth from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” And then the Gospel of Mark declares that, “In those days, Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Our great hope is that we, too, are part of this great, unending story. And in those days for which you long, what will there be? How will it be for you, for your neighbors, for our world? Hope! Hope is a time warp because, if only for an instant, it lifts us above the world of calendars and clocks to another realm where all that ought to be, is. And all that shouldn’t have been but was, is not. Hope. It’s a spring breeze from our far-off home, the kingdom of God. It belongs to every creature who has ever drawn breath, and it links us to eternity. Your only task for the coming week is to take this word “hope” and whisper it to yourself many times each day. Speak it again and again into every situation you face. Rub your tongue over it. Let it settle on your heart, your mind, and all your many cares. Hope. We’ve got but one candle burning in the nighttime of our age, only one candle to light our way against the darkness of our world. But never fear! Have no fear! It is the candle of hope. Its light will grow. Amen.