First United Methodist Church
December 3, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
Our Shocking Hope
If I were to choose one phrase to describe this past year, I think I would choose “wild and wondrous.” Each month has included much anticipation, expectation and hope, as well as a variety of challenges as we work to overcome the building issues that have plagued us for four and a half years. This year has also been, at times, unsettling, as we have reached many milestones, while at the same time facing a schedule that seems to be continuously changing. I’m sure it is difficult, especially when you aren’t a part of the daily decision-making process, to understand and trust that things are going to be ok, especially since this year has also involved various disruptions and upheavals that lie beyond our control. And yet, we carry on. We have received generous settlements from the Insurance company that have allowed us to cover most of our construction costs. Although we are not as far along as we had hoped, we are closer to finishing now than we have been in four and a half years.
And it is in the midst of all of this that Advent begins. Once again, as Christmas approaches, we watch and we wait.
Our readings begin with a yearning, a calling out by Isaiah.
“Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” – This is our cry, even if we have a hard time giving it voice.
Isaiah’s plea to God is as simple as it is stark: Show up and do something! You know, like God used to do when God rescued Israel from Egypt. And we’d like God to rescue us now. But instead, God does what God does. Despite our desire for a miracle that will whisk us into our building, God continues to quietly shape us, smoothing out the imperfections, patiently creating something beautiful, although we sometimes struggle to see that beauty, because we are too consumed by the darkness described in our Gospel.
With his description of the end of days, Jesus employs a complex and sobering vision that is rich with ancient layers of symbolism and meaning. In doing so, he offers us a vision that disrupts our everyday world. We are to attend to the signs around us, to look beneath the surface of daily patterns and relationships. It is here where Christian hope is to be found. Jesus reminds us that God works in the darkness as well as the light, and we are to remain awake to discern for ourselves the activity of God.
The prophet Isaiah presents hope in picture after picture, image after image, of what lies ahead for God’s people. Isaiah cries out:
“Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all your people.”
Work on us. Reshape us. Help us to mend our broken relationships. Help us to be in right relationship with you. Anticipating something more and better, we wait, we imagine, we believe, and we grow in character, as God does what God does, smoothing us, reworking us, making something beautiful out of an old lump of clay.
The author of this portion of Isaiah most likely wrote these words during the time following the return of the Israelites from their exile in Babylon. Having made their way home, they were now wrestling with questions of what their life, their community, their relationship with God would look like now. Isaiah gives voice to their yearning for a God who seems absent, even as they grapple with guilt over their own brokenness.
The components of Christian hope are waiting, imagination, faith, and character. When we hope, we do not have what we have been promised or expect. We sometimes struggle to visualize the outcome. This lack of sight where hope is concerned comes because hope is so tightly connected to faith. We wait. We imagine. We trust. And we anticipate.
Faith and hope are partners. Faith gives hope its content, its substance. Faith roots what we imagine in the sure promises of God fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Faith tells hope, “I know we’re missing something. This can’t be all there is. This is not the whole story. God has promised more. God has promised better.”
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, which by definition is a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the coming of Christ. We begin advent with a focus on Christ’s Second Coming, and over the next few weeks we will read passages that speak about a future hope, revealing a new timeline begun by the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.
At the heart of the Christmas story is the promise that God not only came in the small and vulnerable form of a baby born to poor and frightened parents, but also that God keeps coming in small, vulnerable, unexpected, and unlooked for ways even now. In fact, each time we reach out to another in love, God is once again invading the kingdoms and structures of this world with God’s radical and transformative presence and grace.
That, in turn, not only transforms how we approach and experience Christmas, but also how we look at our lives in the world. What small things can we do in love through which God’s presence and redemption are revealed? What small gestures might we offer that signify our trust that God is with us and for us? What small sacrifices might we make that provide opportunities to see God still at work loving and shaping and blessing God’s people and world?
This year perhaps we’ll be able to hear that promise more clearly: that whenever and wherever we act in love, God is present. So indeed, watch, wait, look, and most especially listen, for in the Christ child who will grow up to embrace all of our longings and experience all aspects of our life, God is whispering, “Emmanuel, I am with you!”
This is the way that God gives us time, imagination, faith, and even hardship. When these come together, we have hope, not just a wish, not even just a prayer, but Christian hope. This is how hope works. Isaiah calls out to God and seeks a better world for Israel.
“But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
And God continues to shape Israel, remolding them again and again in preparation for the Messiah.
Jesus Christ is our hope. His love, power, wisdom, and promises. His sacrifice, victory over death, and constant presence – Christ-in-us gives us hope! And this hope, as it becomes evident through the hands of the potter, shows up in all different shapes and sizes. Let us pray:
God of justice and peace, from the heavens you rain down mercy and kindness, that all on earth may stand in awe and wonder before your marvelous deeds. Raise our heads in expectation,
that we may yearn for the coming day of the Lord and stand without blame before your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns for ever and ever. As we pray this morning, Lord, hear our prayers which come from the most unlikely corners of our lives. Together we pray for [names, Russia, Ukraine, Israel, Palestine, and the Gaza Strip, children and teachers, etc.) May God bless each person named today, that we all may know your presence in our midst during this holy season of joy as we anticipate the coming of Jesus Christ. Amen.
And now may the light of Christ shine in us. May God continue to shape us and fill us with love. And may our almighty God, Father, Son and Spirit bless and keep us now and always. Amen.