Hope from the Holiday?
What do you hope from the holiday going on outside these doors? The one thing I can tell you not to hope for from it is help with people. But that's the main problem in all of our lives: People children, parents, siblings, friends, coworkers, neighbors, relatives, employers or employees. At this time of year, we rub shoulders with more people than usual, and in all these interactions, we want to be a loving, accepting, understanding person. This has been your longing for years, and for years you've failed. You don't want to ignore error, false teaching, or immoral living, but you want to get along with others and not feel like the Grinch or Scrooge or Herod. Our text is about Christian living with others, and the secret in one word is hope, and you won't get hope from the holiday going on outside.
We feel hopeless. Confessional Lutherans have a strong sense of how deeply sinful they are. Our First Article confession says there is no "merit or worthiness in us." Our Second Article says that we are "lost and condemned creatures." Our Third Article confession says we lack the reason or strength to do anything about it. Our sinfulness corrupts our love, words, attitudes. How many times to we go into an encounter with someone hoping it will be different this time, and it isn't? We're not any different, any better year to year. We hope each year to act more like the holiday outside tells us to. This is the magical time of year where everyone loves or at least likes each other. Yes, that's the expectation from this holiday, but it gives you nothing in the way of help.
We try to straddle the two holidays. The one telling us that we must have good will among men and the one declaring God is at peace with us. And we don't take what God's holiday gives to live in the holiday world. We try to be in their holiday spirit without the Spirit, and it is hopeless because we're trying to bring forth from fallen hearts love, acceptance, and understanding that isn't there. And so, after another blow up at a family Christmas, another irritation with a coworker, another exchange with an incompetent clerk, we feel hopeless about ourselves, about our Christmas, and about the holidays mixing the two of them together and rejecting both.
Hopeless people give up, and they give up when rescue in nearest. When the USS Indianapolis, the ship that carried the A-Bomb, was sunk by a torpedo, survivors say that about 900 went into the water. Only 300 survived. The startling thing is that after waiting days and nights in the open ocean many of them gave up and drowned themselves when they saw the rescue planes circling. Advent preaches the night is almost over the day has nearly dawned. The temptation to hopelessness is very great now to give up thinking you'll ever be any different, of ever having better interactions with people. Let go of the holiday going on outside these doors that decorates everything to give the appearance of good cheer, and while you're tossing that holiday pitch the one we're preparing for in here too.
Stop, there's hope. Not from what's outside but from in here. Paul says, "Accept one another just as Christ accepted you." How you think God accepts you that's how you'll accept others. If you think God rejects you, is mad at you, is fed up with you, that's how you will feel towards others. But how can God be that way toward you? Paul calls our God the God of hope. What a name! To be the God of something means you own it. You control it. You can't lose it. God never is hopeless not with the world, not with you.
Our God never gave up on us despite our condition being hopeless. Our God never lost hope for us. He sent His only beloved Son from the realms of joy, peace, love into our hopelessness. He descended into our very flesh and blood. "It's no use," Sin preached. "They're too far gone." "It won't work," cried Death, "because they are already on the way to see me." "You have no right," said the Devil through his teeth. "Your own laws that they break give me the right to claim them."
There really was no reason to be hopeful, but the God of hope was. You don't want to mistake what I'm saying for Alexander Pope's "Hope springs eternal in the human breast," or the pagan idea that the gods either gave or Pandora accidently kept one thing in the box when she released all the ills on humanity: hope. The thought of being hopeful no matter what, even though it springs from a Christian poet, is welcomed and understood by the world. In fact, they mistake the feeling of hope that doesn't die as proof they're heading for eternal life not death. The holiday going on outside is a celebration of that kind of hope which is their hope not ours.
Our hope is the God of hope who wouldn't give up on a fallen world, but sent the only perfect Son He had left to be born of a woman, to be born under the Law to redeem all those under the Law. Like Samson picking up the gates of Gaza, the perfect Lord Jesus stooped and picked up all God's Laws and carried those ever so fragile things intact all the way to Calvary. Then, even though Death and Devil had no right, God the Father gave Jesus into their hands. There was hell to pay, and not only hell but suffering, sadness, and hopelessness so deep that it squeezed out of Jesus the question that comes from a hopelessness that only the damned know. "My God why have you forsaken Me?"
Are you hopeless? The God of hope specializes in working with the hopeless. He makes a point of confronting sinners with their hopelessness. In Eden, their sin left nothing but judgement and death, but God came promising the Seed of the Woman would crush the heard of the serpent. Abraham with a body as good as dead and his wife beyond childbearing was promised a child by God, so Romans 4 says Abraham hoped against hope. David confronted with his sins that deserved eternal death repented, and Nathan said, "The Lord has put away your sins, you shall not die." Remember how God took Ezekiel to the valley of dry bones and confronted him with the hopelessness of these bones living again? And a 16th century hymn depicts what we heard in the O.T. reading about a green shoot from a dead stump: One little flower comes forth "In midst of coldest winter, at deepest midnight hour."
The God of hope gives hope. In the last verse of the text is a rare Greek optative. "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peaceso that you may overflow with hope." This means that St. Paul desperately wants this to happen, and if Paul does God does. God doesn't want the holiday out there and certainly not the holiday in here to bring you to hopelessness. The God of hope wants you overflowing with hope.
Notice how our text opens. Scripture is described as giving "endurance and encouragement." The next paragraph says that God "gives endurance and encouragement" using the same Greek words. The same qualities are attributed to God and to Scriptures. This means the invisible, Almighty, God gives hope by means of His Word. God doesn't infuse hope in us without means. He doesn't zap hope into human hearts. God doesn't travel the path of emotion to churn up feelings of hope. But the world thinks otherwise, and so do you. In search of hope for the holidays, you watch tug at your heart Christmas specials, read warm fuzzy holiday stories, or listen to music that is more about nostalgia than Christ. You don't reach for the Word that can and will teach you better but you reach for whatever makes you feel better.
Our Lutheran confession of faith which is over 430 years old quotes our text twice. We state all that has been written for us in God's Word was written not that it might drive us to despair but rather so that by the patience and the encouragement of Scripture we might have hope (FC, SD, XI, 12). But we even go farther than that: "Any interpretation of Scripture that weakens or removes our hope and encouragement is certainly contrary to the will and intent of the Holy Spirit" (Ibid. 92).
The Word of God whether read, mark, learned or inwardly digested by eyes, ears, or mouth is the antidote for the hopelessness that steals over you in the holidays. Whether the hopelessness comes from watching the world around you lost in consumerism or from watching your own sinfulness as it again pollutes an interaction with family, friends, others, the Word says you may keep on hoping. The God of hope never gets to the point of saying, "You can give up hoping in Me or My promises." No one gets to heaven and hears the Lord say to them, "You know; your problem was that you hoped too much."
The problem is that since the 40s Biblical hope has been replaced with human hoping. It's thought of as little boy defined it, "'Hope is wishing for something you know ain't gonna happen" (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 194). Lewis said, and this too was in the 40s, that the "specifically Christian virtue of Hope has in our time grown so languid. Where our fathers, peered into the future, [and] saw gleams of gold, we see only the mist, white, featureless, cold and never moving" mist (Miracles, 265).
No, your hope in Christ, the God of Hope, is the forgiveness of your sins, the resurrection of your body, and your life lasting forever. Your hope is not in what you are able or not able to do but in what God has done for you in Christ. Your hope is not in how much you believe but in how firmly the God of hope has a hold of you. While others struggle to churn up a feeling of hope this time of year, you have the God of hope giving it to you in every syllable of His Word, with every drop of baptismal water, and under every drop of His Blood and every crumb of His Body.
The Gradual for Advent quotes Zechariah 9, "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion.your King comes to you." Three Verses later the Lord says, "Return to your fortress, you prisoners of hope." You're not prisoners of a worldly festival celebrating joy in the world; you're not prisoners of a world that uses your carols to hawk their goods; you're not even prisoners of your sins or sinfulness. No, you're prisoners of hope, and you're "doomed" to do what your jailer commands. And He says to the most downcast soul, "Hope in God your Savior." Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday in Advent (20161204); Romans 15: 4-13