Dare We Hope?

December 15, 2019
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Amos 9:11-5; Isaiah 11:1-9; Luke 1:5-13; 18-25

A bird flies through the snowy woods of Advent.

In the pronouncement of an ancient prophet speaking to a people in exile and offering a vision of justice and beauty and peace, it flutters ahead.

In the story of an older couple finding their prayers for a child answered, it darts in and out of the trees, leading the way.

Emily Dickinson writes:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

Hope wings its way through this pre-Christmas season, guiding us to the place where it will rest.

But hope doesn’t come easy in troubled times. The ancient prophets knew that. They declared stern judgement on “a people who walked in darkness.” They decried a people who had lost their way and whose leaders were corrupt, a people no longer caring for “widows, orphans, and foreigners living in their midst.” The seers of old did not shrink from naming the sin of their leaders and their neighbors.

Yet, the prophets also pointed beyond divine disappointment to a new day coming. They focused on the long arc of history. They knew God’s justice would be ushered in one day on the heels of hungry people fed, refugees welcomed, lives restored.

So, they preached hope. They leaned into the winds of injustice blowing through their world and insisted that it all would change. They understood that the little “thing with feathers,” has a voice not easily silenced. Here’s the poet again:

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm –

Sometimes it’s unrealistic to hang onto hope. In the face of a terminal diagnosis, or a relationship falling apart, or change that never comes, why continue to hope? Seven years ago yesterday the mass shooting took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and not much has changed since that horrific day.

With unabating gun violence and deep-seated racial and religious bigotry, with worsening economic disparities and the ongoing spoiling of the earth, these times breed cynicism, and not much in the way of hope.

And yet, say the prophets in their Advent word to us. And yet, does not our faith ask more of us?

During the time of apartheid, when nights were long and days bleak, South African pastor Allen Boesak spoke of “hoping against hope.” He was describing the struggle we have within our hearts when there seems no reason to hope, but we long for it so fiercely we refuse to give it up.

This week I sent Advent greetings to Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian pastor in Bethlehem and one of Westminster’s global partners. Those living – as he does – behind the massive walls surrounding the little town of Jesus’ birth feel particularly isolated this time of year. Mitri describes himself as a “prisoner of hope.” He likes to say of the shrinking Christian community in Palestine, “Hope is what we do.”

Can that be said of us, as well – that hope is what we do?

Hope can be a liability. It takes us places we don’t want to go and asks of us things we don’t want to do.

That happens to Zechariah when the angel tells the old priest his wife will have the child for which they used to pray. This is the first of two Advent Annunciation. In the other, Mary responds to the angel with a resounding “yes” and breaks into song.

Not so, with old Zechariah. He swats at the little bird and rejects the good news. To trust in such things would be foolish, and would invite derision and disbelief. So he snubs the hope offered by the angel – and promptly loses his voice.

Yes, hope can be a liability. To hang onto it in our time could mean refusing to think the worst of others and affirming our common humanity with those with whom we disagree. It could mean trusting the light will actually dawn.

But that would run counter to the culture and expose our faith in something beyond ourselves. It’s easier to keep quiet like Zechariah. Practicing hope is hard, especially when times are tough. The path of least resistance would take us in the opposite direction, where everybody else is going.

Yet this season calls us back, back to a new day coming. Dare we hope against hope?

Years ago, I visited a church member whose family had been torn apart by a painful split that had lasted decades. The person expressed a deep ache, a wound in the heart caused by broken relationships.

It sounded like what we feel today in our communities and in our nation. I wonder if that ache might be the tune without the words that never stops, a longing for reconciliation, rooted in what God gives to us in our faith. The thing with feathers perching in the soul,

Even when Zechariah doesn’t dare hope, it happens anyway. Hope is fulfilled when Elizabeth gives birth to a child – and with that child is born new confidence that God is, indeed, at work in the world. The baptisms we will celebrate today signal that same hope in the One born of Mary.

It may not be easy to hear the little bird sing while navigating the fear and anger of our time. But as followers of the One who is to come, and who has come, hope is not only what we do, it is who we are.

And the world needs to hear that word.

Thanks be to God.


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