2nd Sunday of Advent, year A, preached 12/4/16
first reading: Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
second reading: Romans 15:4-13
gospel reading: Matthew 3:1-12
Way back when I was in seminary, my dear friend, Violet, preached a sermon whose main point has stayed with me for over 20 years now.
She began her sermon by talking about “four letter words,” and their power. She got a few chuckles, including from me, because Lord knows there have been times in my life when nothing else seems to fit a situation except a four letter word or two.
But then Violet shocked all of us, when she said the four letter word she was think of – the four letter word that hold such great power is… HOPE. HOPE wasn’t even in the top ten list of four letter words I was thinking of!
What Violet was illustrating is exactly what our readings today also show us – that in the midst of very trying, practically impossible circumstances, HOPE is the power that gets us through.
In our first reading we have a vision of hope despite a bleak reality. The prophet imagines the shoot coming out of the dead stump of Jesse – King David’s line will be restored, and what a wonderful time that will be. The peaceable kingdom as it’s popularly called. The wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear, all living together; little children playing with snakes – no more pain or destruction.
Our psalm is a prayer of hope for an earthly king who will bring justice, who shall “defend the needy” and “rescue the poor and crush the oppressor.” A prayer that under this king “the righteous flourish” and “there shall be abundance of peace.”
Our second reading from Romans speaks it plainly. St. Paul even uses hope as a blessing: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
He wrote these words to a community with struggles from within and without. The Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians were having a hard time accepting one another. It wouldn’t be the first time a church has suffered from factions within.
Yet, in the midst of their division, Paul reminds them that the scriptures were given to us so that “we might have hope,” and that our God is a “God of hope.” His wish for those in the Roman church, is that these competing factions “welcome one another” and “abound in hope.”
The hope in the gospel is less clear. When we look at the surface of it we see a lot of judgment. John the Baptist calling the religious leaders poisonous snakes, and warnings about the wheat and the chaff. I see hope here in John’s warning for the big shots not to be presumptuous. We are ALL called to repentance. No one is better than another.
You and I have as much right (or NO right) to God as the richest tycoon or the holiest saint. I don’t know about you, but that gives me a LOT of hope. Through faith, through repentance, through our baptism into Jesus, I, a poor penitent sinner receive grace and mercy. Our pedigree or social station has no bearing on whether we are “good enough” or NOT “good enough” for the kingdom of heaven.
When confronted with the times, it would have been easy for our biblical writers and prophets to despair. And certainly in the Bible there are those moments – and sometimes the moments last for DECADES. But despair does NOT prevail.
HOPE is a four letter word in the face of despair. Instead of capitulating or simple cursing our circumstances, hope speaks a TRUTH to those circumstances. Hope looks at reality and says, “Yes, I acknowledge you, but I will not give IN to you.” THIS is the power that hope has – the power to carry us.
When seen this way, hope is one of the ultimate acts of defiance. Hope is resistance. Hope gives us strength to carry on and to ACT. This is what we mean when we say hope is a four letter word.
We look at the growing darkness around us. Winter is fast approaching. The solstice is in a few weeks, when we will experience the “shortest” or “darkest” day of the whole year. Into this darkness comes the child of hope. The one of whom John the Baptist spoke – more powerful than him, or any one of us.
This hope is THE light that shines in the darkness, THE light the darkness cannot overcome.
THIS hope, gives US hope. This hope lifts us up when we are weak and breathes in us the power of the Holy Spirit. This hope gives us hope even when we know we will fail. This hope gives us the strength to even work for a thing that we know we will never see. This hope has given people through the centuries courage to stand up against all odds – martyrs, prophets, teachers – all regular believers who had hope.
It’s so easy to find that perfect four letter word to curse. But for God, the perfect four letter word is word that actually brings energy and passion and a vision for justice and righteousness – the peaceable kingdom, the righteous king, the ability to “with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
How could the people in the prophet Isaiah’s time have imagined a new king from the dead line of David? How could the psalmist dare imagine a king who would defend the poor and needy? How could Paul possibly think the Jewish and Gentile Christians would find a way to live together?
How can we, you and I, find a way to make it through all the challenges that come OUR way from within and without?
We see the coming baby in the manger, the savior on the cross, the risen Lord for US – and we have HOPE.