There is Always Hope
If you were among the millions who did any shopping out and about or simply breathed this weekend, there’s no mistaking in our culture, what is coming. For the anticipation has been building for weeks now. . . .
Walk into Starbucks (as I seem to do a couple of times a day with Kevin) and what do you see and hear? Festive music and large signs inviting you to try out a gingerbread latte with whipped cream on top.
Do some grocery shopping at Traders Joes and what do you see at the checkout? Pre-packaged gifts of chocolate for children in the shape of candy canes and Mrs. Claus.
Drive around your neighborhood and what do you see? Lights, wreaths and lawn animals beginning to adorn the walkways.
Hit the scan button on your radio dial and what do you hear? Pop and rock stations seeking to outdo one another with how hours and how commercial free their holiday music selection goes on in a given day. (With such going on since nearly Halloween, you’d think that the climaxing event was this week!)
What is coming of course is Christmas. There is no mistaking this. And, so even though we haven’t officially even turned the calendar to December yet, we begin our pre-Christmas festivities here at church this morning. We do so not as a church that is taking our cues from the hyper obsessed “All I want for Christmas (you fill in the blanks)” culture. We do so not so that we can get our fill of Christmas spirit here this morning and rush out from the sanctuary and sing, “This is the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” We do so not as a church who is trying to hit over the head our neighbors of other faiths, seeking to say, “We’ve got the market on ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’ so you’d better listen to us.”
Rather, we claim this Sunday as the beginning of our celebrations as a community in anticipation of what is to come on Christmas Eve because we know we’ve got some work to do before we’re really ready to receive. We call this coming Advent.
And, in celebration of Advent, we take our cues from the heart of what Advent is about– waiting, anticipating, and readying our hearts to believe again that something amazing is coming. We go about the conspiracy of setting our hearts on the stuff that money can’t buy and can’t be ruined by the most dreadful of family dinners awaiting us a couple of weeks and that comes in gift boxes we will remember receiving 10, 20 or 30 years from now. For what is coming is actually going to fill our souls . . .
This morning, we began this journey by lighting the candle of hope. And seems appropriate doesn’t it to begin such a journey of Advent, doesn’t? For isn’t this how most physical journeys you and I start, begin with hope.
When becoming a teenager, we can hope to receive our driver’s license and thus our freedom soon. When we start college, we can hope to finish in 4 years. When we get our first job, we hope we won’t get fired on the first day. When we find ourselves in mid-life, we can hope I’ll make it to retirement with our sanity intact. And, the list of “hopes” can go on and on.
Rarely to do you and I start something that we don’t hope we can finish. And, finish well.
When we consider our gospel lesson for this morning, a story essential to the Christmas narrative, but often overlooked for it never appears in the lectionary (I just had to add it in on this day), what we find is an elderly married couple who we can assume began the story of their lives together with hope as well. They dreamed of having a productive life. They hoped and expected children. They hoped to grow old happily together. But, what we quickly uncover as we read this tale, is that their dream of “there is always hope” had seemingly passed them by: they found themselves well on in years with not exactly the life they’d planned for themselves.
Scripture tells us that Zechariah was of the priestly line of the order of the priests of Abijah. It was the kind of guy who had his life together and had tried really hard throughout to do the right thing and usually did. Not only was he a priest, as his family lineage had asked of him, but he married good girl, Elizabeth. Elizabeth was the daughter of a priest and of lineage of Aaron– the first priest ever and brother sidekick of Moses. Look with me in verse six to hear the narration about them: “[Zechariah and Elizabeth] were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”
(And, isn’t our assumption that if we do the “right” things in life and don’t offend God too much that we can find our way into “living a good life” category?)
Well, in this case, the Zechariah and Elizabeth were known to have a good life– a really good life, except one thing: they couldn’t have the son or any child for that matter that would ensure their lineage for generations to come. Long before the idea became popular in modern times that a woman or man’s worth was not determined by their childbearing status, in this time and place, having a child was everything. Absolutely everything to “success” in life as a Jew, where the growth of the nation had everything to do with Jewish families birthing more Jews.
And it is to this state of affairs, we find ourselves at the moment when it was Zechariah’s turn to offer the incense offerings on behalf of the rest of the community– a privileged honor that only happened once in one’s lifetime– that a visitation occurs with an angel. And, not just any angel: Gabriel.
As the hopes Zechariah and Elizabeth had of passing on the good thing they had going on to a child, were already long past (verse 18, tells us that Elizabeth was long past childbearing years), Zechariah hears the proclamation of hope.
Look with me in verse 13. The angel says: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you will name him John.” Consider this, the name John, that the baby to be would be asked to take, meant in fact, “Yahweh has shown favor.”
And, it was true after all of these years that Zechariah and Elizabeth were going to be biological parents!
Though today as we hear this story and the ones to come about Joseph, Mary and the shepherds, our natural response is to feel all warm and fuzzy inside. However, what we might not realize at first glance is that truly it was a LONG road of feeling as though God had forgotten this family and pure hopelessness for YEARS and YEARS to get to this moment. Though it is easy to focus on the “happy ending” saying, yes, everyone finally got what they really wanted– life, as we know it too, often spends more times on the process than it does with the “happy” solutions. There’s always a process to get to the end– and often the process can be quite dark and quite painful.
Consider this: while we read our Bible from cover to cover and see a seamless transition between Old and New Testament– a transition for us that is as speedy as the time it takes to turn the page– in actually the transition to the good news of the New Testament was not that fast.
Did you know that there was 400 years of silence, as far as prophetic words of the Lord went between the time the acts of the first testament ended and the second testament began? 400 years. If you consider our nation as only been an independent entity for 237 years, with pages and pages of history books telling what happens in this nation in this story period of time, can you consider 400 years of nothing from God? Nothing new? Nothing.
With this true, I wouldn’t have blamed them for thinking that God had forgotten them, would you? After such a rich history of prophets and leaders to guide them at every step and from generation to generation in the bad times and the good, to go SO long without as much as a word from God, would be the epitome of life without hope.
Yet, sometimes it takes a really long wilderness of despair to position us for what is next in this sin sick, broken world of ours. We just can’t avoid the pain, no matter how good we are.
But, if we consider the meaning of Zechariah’s name, “Jehovah remembers,” we understand that he was the right guy to hear the news of promises of what was to come next. For, as this gospel opened: there would be a new calling for the entire community. No longer were they to go about business as usual. Now was the time to know that there is always hope. For if angels were now appearing to ordinary priests and older women, long past childbearing time were conceiving, and if grown men went mute in awe of the word of the Lord, then, reason to hope could be alive and well.
Though I really want to take issue with the Lord on this one– “400 years, really, what did you expect them to do if you were truly quiet this long? and “Why, why, why?”– what was coming was in fact so good that it was long worth the wait.
Though in the context, hearing that a barren couple was going to have a baby was not that big of deal, was it? It was just one couple, right? Though I am sure it was a painful life for the two of them, what really was the point for the community gathered around this story then and for those like us gathered around the story now?
As is the case with any blessing of God– blessings are not meant for self only. We are given much so that others can receive much as well. Sure, it was going to bring Elizabeth and Zechariah a lot of joy to finally have the child they thought they’d never enjoy (which I’m sure God wanted to overflow in them), but this son of theirs would play a much larger role in salvation history.
John, the cousin-to-be of Jesus, would be full of the Spirit and would be used by God at this crucial time in history to bring about the coming of God’s favor: a favor for all people in manner unprecedented before or since.
So, not only would Elizabeth and Zechariah receiving blessing from cuddling and showing off their miracle baby, but God would use their offspring to send a message to the entire world of: get ready, I’m about to remind you that there is always hope.
Hope, as concept is one of the hardest things to lose when life’s seas get rough, isn’t it? Sure, we might keep going, but it is so easy in your life and mine for bitterness to seep in when we find ourselves with nothing but broken pieces in our hands.
Yet, the “why” of this great hopeful message comes in claiming and seeing ourselves in the particularities of the characters of the story.
Though it might be easy to say, “I’m old” and if life really needed me to do anything important “it would have happened years ago” the example of Zechariah and Elizabeth reminds us that if we are still breathing then there is always hope. So I ask you today, are you still breathing? Check your neighbor to the right and see if they are still breathing. If so, tell them: “In your life there is always hope.”
Though it might be easy to say, “I’m broken” as Elizabeth must have felt– her body was broken and couldn’t seem to do what came to every other woman so naturally, this story reminds us that God’s time-table does not take cues from the untruths we think of ourselves. For no matter how broken we feel in our bodies, our spirits or even how broken talents are, there is not a single one of us that is too messed up for God to give us our particular part to shine in. Look at your neighbor to the left and say, “No matter how broken you may feel, there is always hope.
And, though your life story might tell a tale of being sight unseen in a crowd, being the one who was left out in your childhood family when plans were made, being the one whose birthday gets forgotten year after year, or the one who just feels as if though no one has understood you in years, find kinship with Zechariah and Elizabeth and their soon to be outlaw preacher son, John. Though from humble and as ordinary as they come beginnings, God saw them and God used them to be the catalyst in God’s great plan to bring hope to the world again. So, turn behind you to someone different and say to them too, “I see you and there’s always hope.”
Author Emily Dickerson describes hope like this: “Hope is that thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops… at all.” So, though we may walk through many dark nights and cold shadows to get to the place where you and I are to go, we keep singing. For there is always hope.
This, my friends, is the good news of the first Sunday of Advent. No matter who we think we are. No matter who we think we aren’t. No matter where we have been. No matter how old, washed up or how many broken pieces there are around us, today we lit the candle of hope to remind us as we prepare our hearts for Christ’s coming that what? “There’s Always Hope!”