~ Luke 3:1-6/Luke 1:68-79/Malachi 3:1-2 ~
Our third scripture lesson for today is taken from Luke 1:68-79. It’s called the Benedictus (which is Latin for “blessed”). The Benedictus is the prophecy pronounced by Zechariah upon the birth of his son, John the Baptist. The church has included the Benedictus in worship for many centuries. And, in looking at it, we’ll see that it is a song of hope.
If you remember the story Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife, was to give birth to the man who would foretell the coming of Jesus. He was to be named John. An angel came to Zechariah to tell him this and when he didn’t believe the angel he was struck dumb until John was born. Then when Elizabeth gave birth all the relatives urged her to name him something else but she insisted it be John. When they asked the mute Zechariah he wrote on a tablet “John.” They were all amazed and, suddenly, Zechariah was able to speak again. This prophetic song of hope is what he then utters. It is a very typical Old Testament-type prophecy, rehearsing the great desire of Israel for God to redeem the people. Reading from Luke 1:68-79
“Blessed be the God of Israel, who has looked favorably on the people and redeemed them. God has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of God’s servant David, and spoke through the mouth of holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered God’s holy covenant, the oath that was sworn to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve God without fear, in holiness and righteousness all our days.
Then, Zechariah gets personal:
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Christ to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Very intentionally, Zechariah’s hope for his son, John, is based on the Old Testament reading we heard, in spoken word, from Malachi: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me…see, he is coming!” Although, as we heard sung, the question remains as to “who can abide the day of his coming.” Be that as it may, many years later, John the Baptist sets out on his ministry, proclaiming: “Prepare the way of God, make God’s paths straight…and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
All of these words from out texts for today brim to overflowing with hope. After many years of waiting, looking, doubting, hope is proclaimed: The light will shine, the dawn will break, peace will come. The coming of God is here, salvation is sure, God is at work. Hope is possible. Hope is sure.
But for many, hope is not sure; it is in fact quite illusive. All these proclamations of hope are just words, they would say. Maybe for some you, hope is not part of your experience. Hope in a new tomorrow is too much to ask. Just getting through the day is all you can expect. The darkness of today’s troubles obscures any thought of a new dawn tomorrow. Today’s wars, personal or global, overwhelm the prospect of living peacefully. Maybe hope is a luxury you just can’t afford. But then who ever said hope was easy?
Hope was certainly not an easy thing for the people of ancient Israel. For most, making it through to the end of the day was all they could hope for. Most of the population of Palestine, the peasants, lived under the crushing oppression of the rich elites, the landowners and the Romans. They lived under an enormous burden of debt that seemed unending. There was no relief in sight; no hope for the future. Make it through the day and then wake up to another day and get through that one. No reason to waste any energy on hoping for anything more.
As such, the message of the gospel today is an audacious statement of hope. Here was the beginning of a new thing, of redemption. Here was the introduction of a mighty savior who would save them from their enemies and from the hand of all who hated them. Ironically, the coming of the savior did not in truth save them literally from their enemies. Jesus came, he lived, he preached, he healed, and the he was killed. And the Romans continued to oppress the people relentlessly until they finally just had it and destroyed the entire country in 70 AD, some thirty years after Jesus had come and gone. Yet hope remained alive. Hope grew. In some mysterious, miraculous way the life and death—and indeed, the resurrection—of Jesus Christ was a source of hope for those who believed despite their desperate circumstances. They continued to hope in the work of God in the world, indeed, they hoped in God’s eventual coming to reconcile all things. It was a hope worth living—and dying—for in those early years of the church.
So it is for us today. Yet our hope is not just in some future event, as important as that is, but it is also hope in Christ’s presence with us now. Hope that Christ’s presence with us now somehow enables us to live as he would have us live. Hope that allows us to venture into the unknown territory of God’s grace and forgiveness and live lives characterized by that grace.
But I think it is important to point out what Christian hope is not. For one, hope is not wishful thinking. Too often that is how we think of hope, as wishful thinking. “I hope the 49ers win today” (Well, I don’t because they’re playing my Denver Broncos today). “I hope I can find a parking spot” (My mother used to pray for parking spots). “I hope she likes me.” We use the word hope, but what we really mean is that we “wish” those things. Wishing is about little things. Hope is about big stuff—stuff that matters. Hope is about the work of God in this world.
A Peanuts cartoon from many years ago. Lucy, walks up to her little brother, Linus, and says, “You know what we’re going to do to tomorrow. Patty and Violet and I are going to have a picnic!” Looking up at the sky, she says, “I just hope to goodness that it doesn’t rain…” To which, Linus responds, “Hoping to goodness is not theologically sound!” Linus is right, “Hoping to goodness” is not sound. Our hope is not in goodness, it is in God and the work God is about in the world—big stuff—resurrection size stuff.
Another thing hope is not is looking to our own devices as the source for hope. We are quite tempted to hope in the future based on our own abilities to accomplish things. And we are quite tempted to be hopeless based on our inability to accomplish such things. That is not say that there isn’t a lot of hard work to do. But as we go about doing the work we are called to do, in this church and in our personal lives, the hope that motivates us is the underlying presence of God moving us into the future.
Yet, again, all this talk of hope and peace and redemption seems like so many empty promises, meaningless rhetoric that doesn’t accomplish anything. Is God really going to fix this mess? Let’s keep it real – probably not. All this sentimental hope and comfort talk is, well, just talk.
Another Peanuts cartoon: Charlie Brown and Linus are walking in the snow all bundled up in their parkas. A way off, they see Snoopy shivering in the cold. “Snoopy looks kind of cold, doesn’t he?” says Charlie Brown. To which Linus says, “I’ll say he does…maybe we’d better go over, and comfort him…” So, they go to Snoopy and stand over him. “Be of good cheer, Snoopy,” says Linus. “Yes, be of good cheer,” Charlie Brown chimes in. And they walk away, leaving Snoopy completely bewildered.
We are two Sundays into Advent and it might seem hard to get into the “hope” message of the season. Things in our world today seem hopeless. It’s really been a discouraging few weeks, months…year? Devasting fires, refugees turned away at the border, children removed from their parents, corruption at the highest levels. The homeless are still homeless, for goodness sake! When is something going to happen that actually changes the situation?
Yet, we have this Advent call to be hopeful. The Christ child will soon be born, bringing salvation. Yet, to claim and live such Advent hope in a world fraught with private struggles, public heartbreak, injustice and rage and violence, strains credulity. To claim and live Advent hope in such a wounded world is to understand that hope is not quite as simple as lighting a candle or singing Advent hymns.
When it comes down to it hope is a matter of perspective. It is a way of looking at reality, at our lives. We could just decide that what we see is all there is and so manufacture our own hope, whatever that may be. Yes, we may be inclined to rush through the disarming angst of Advent and just get to the merry and joyful experience of Christmas morning. Or just dismiss it all as a foolish fairy tale that goes poof in its clash with the harsh realities of the world. Yet practicing Advent hope is our call. Practicing Advent hope in the face of hopelessness is the fundamental work God has given us to do. Who said hope was easy?
How do we do Advent hope? We do it by being people of hope in the face of unrelenting hopelessness. We keep doing it by knowing that this hope is not realized by some pie-in-the-sky miraculous intervention. Indeed, we keep doing the hard work of hope. We act. And in our actions, God works to bring salvation. May we live out this hope in this very real world.
And, thus, in this community, we tell each other of that sign of promise. The hymn we are about to sing encourages us to keep on keeping on:
Watchman, tell us of the night,
What its signs of promise are.
Traveler, o’er yon mountain’s height,
See that glory beaming star.
Watchman, does its beauteous ray
Aught of joy or hope foretell?
Traveler, yes; it brings the day,
Promised day of Israel.
May we be the Watchmen and women always looking for the signs of hope. May we be the Travelers continuing on the journey to that promised sign of hope. Amen.