So We Might Have Hope
Based on Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12
I want you to take a moment and finish this sentence silently to yourself, “hope is…” Emily Dickinson wrote that, “…hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all….” Other responses when I typed that phrase into my search engine were, “hope is a traveler”, “hope is a function of struggle”, “hope is like the sun which as we travel toward it casts the shadow of our burdens behind us”, “hope is alive”, “hope is on the way”, “hope is always stronger than fear”, “hope is that beautiful place between the way things are and the way things are yet to be”. How many of you thought, “Hope is a medium sized black Labrador that lives with Pastor Dan”?
These are all nice secular definitions, but what is hope to those of us who believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit? In the Bible, the Hebrew and Greek words translated to the English word “hope”, give the sense that hope is a feeling or mindset that contains a fair amount of certainty. “Hope” in scripture means “a strong and confident expectation.” Thus, hope for us who are believers in the promises of God contained in God’s inspired word, is an active, positive and forward-looking worldview. This is the hope that we are to have in this season of Advent and beyond. This is the hope that the Apostle Paul was writing about when he penned, “…For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope….” Let us go to God now in prayer asking to be filled with this kind of durable and informed hope…
The reading today from the Book of Isaiah shows the hopeful vision of a world working within God’s shalom. It opens with a stark image, however, that of the stump of the family tree of Jesse. The invaders may have believed that in the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah and the exile of the surviving leadership they had effectively ended the line of David. Yet, the promise of God was that there would be new growth from that tree – a shoot shall grow up and “the Spirit of the LORD shall rest on him”. This Spirit would convey wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and awe-filled delight of the LORD. This offspring of Jesse will be equitable and just, righteous and faithful. The hopeful promise in this oracle is that God’s shalom shall once again be an embodied reality for all of creation – “for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD….”
John the Baptizer is front and center in our reading from
Matthew today. John was dressed as one
who lived simply and in harmony with the harsh wilderness. He came to the people preaching the need for
repentance because “the kingdom of heaven has come near”. Many people responded to John’s request for
repentance and were baptized in the Jordan after confessing their sinful
ways. The Temple leadership were drawn
to this very public revival and John castigated them for their
transgressions. He called them names and
warned them of the coming judgement from the One who would baptize not with
water, but with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Here we see the biblical hope that all oppressors will be called to task
for their lack of God-centered leadership.
Paul’s ecclesiology, that is, his vision for what the Church of the Christ should look like is on full display in our reading from Romans today. Harmonious living of all members of the Body of Christ, Jews and Gentiles, in one community which glorifies God with one voice – that is Paul’s view of what the sacrifice of Jesus is all about. He sees in the prophet Isaiah the oracle that predicts just this outcome through the God who is both steadfast and encouraging. Whatever was written in the Bible by the people inspired by God, was written for the purposes of instruction and encouragement that we might be steadfast in our discipleship through the hope contained within. Paul’s contention is that this whole book was written for us so that we might discover the hope in a God who is steadfast, faithful, gracious and forgiving, and always loving. Now that is a hope that has wings!
Many people struggle with spending time with the Bible. It is a thick book to be sure, both in size and sometimes in the struggle to understand what it is saying. One has to read the Bible with an eye to the context of the times in which much of it was written. For the first Testament (aka Old Testament or Hebrew Bible) much of it was written down while the remnant of the leadership of Jerusalem was in captivity in Babylon. During that 70-year period, there was an inspiration to come back to the teachings of God and to write it down so that it would not be forgotten (and the people not punished anymore). In the second Testament (the so called New Testament) we have writings from as early as the 50’s C.E. stretching until almost 100 C.E. It was a time of great growth of a new Jewish movement, but also of the destruction of the second Temple, dispersion of the Jews, and persecution of the movement that would become Christianity. Different Gospel writers penned their inspired words to different audiences, and those teachings and the letters of Paul were much later gathered together into this section of the Bible.
Both parts of the Bible need to be considered together in order to begin to see the self-revelation of God as experienced across thousands of years of lived experience. The stories narrated, the poems and teachings provided, reflect the larger meta-narratives of what it means to be human. It is the reason that the Bible can still speak to us long after some of the stories began to be told of how our ancestors were chosen by the One, true and immortal God. It is the reason that preachers like me can continue to get up in front of fellow believers and dare to speak on behalf of God. The genius of this book is that no matter what might be happening in our lives individually or as a Body of Christ, from the highest joys to the deepest despairing, there is something that speaks to what we are experiencing. Not just a way to express, but to find the narrative of a God who is always loving and faithful and in which we can hope for God’s promises to be fulfilled as of old.
The Apostle Paul was elderly by the time he wrote the letter to the believers in Rome; not just in years but in the miles that he covered planting new faith communities. It was the last of the “authentic” letters we have from Paul, and as such it is a distillation of all that Paul had attempted to communicate in his other six letters. It is instructive, I believe, to compare the writings in Romans to the writings in his earliest letter, 1Thessalonians. One can see the evolution of his thinking in both his theology and ecclesiology. Romans is his “last word” that we have on many subjects. This is why the Apostle Paul can write in this climax to the believers in Rome and to all who have come to this epistle, that the Word of God contained in the scriptures is there for us so…that we might have hope in something greater and more consistently faithful than is humanly possible.
While “hope is” many things, “Christian hope” is a hope in God’s steadfast and faithful love and mercy, hope in God’s promises made incarnate in Jesus, hope in teachings and admonishments that build us up along with all our neighbors, hope that as one body of believers we might come to glorify God with one voice – no matter where in the world we live, study and worship. God has provided us with all that we need to discover the hope that can overcome all life’s obstacles. Therefore, let us dedicate ourselves to the study of the Word and to the building up of the Body of Christ so that the God of hope might fill us “…with all joy and peace in believing, so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit….” God has provided us with the Word and Word made flesh so that no matter what happens, we might have hope. Amen and amen!