Practicing Hope | Patrick Ryan – Psalm 72:1-8, 16-19 and Isaiah 11:1-10 – 11/29/15
The book of Isaiah begins with a stomach growl. It’s full of longing—hunger pangs. Isaiah looks around at his fellow Israelite people, across the landscape of his nation and he hears their cries for something wondrous and unexpected to happen.
The beginning of the book of Isaiah was formed as the Jewish people were being threatened off of their land by stronger armies. The people were shouting out for God to come to their rescue—to save them from the darkness that was mounting all around them. And Isaiah speaks up on his peoples’ behalf, and asks God to do something new and miraculous for them. Isaiah knows that the hunger pangs of his people can only be satisfied by divine intervention. It is God alone who can take the violence that is swelling up on every side, and bring peace and healing to the warring nations.
Isaiah is often called the 5th gospel. The word “gospel” means good news, and Isaiah is the first person in the bible to use the word. In Isaiah 40, Isaiah hears God speak to him. God says,
Go upon a high mountain and shout! Raise your voice, messenger! Raise it, and don’t be afraid. Say to the cities of Jerusalem, ‘Here is your God!’
And amid all the rumors of wars being waged nearby, threats mounting up all around them, getting closer and closer, the people of Israel are starving for good news, for Gospel. And so are we.
Aren’t we also world-weary right now, intimidated by the violence we see all around us? We turn on our TV sets only to find out what we need to be scared of next. We ask exasperated and hopeless questions like, “What’s this world coming to?” because all that’s brought to our attention is the bad news. We wonder if there’s any good news out there. There is, in fact, much good news out there, much more good news than bad; we just need to seek it out. Good news is never brought to us. We have to hunt it down, but it’s there.
Once again, we enter Advent well aware of how broken our world is. We’re well-aware of its darkness, and we long to see bright spots. We long for a world that is kinder and more peaceful. We hope for a safer place for our children and their children, too. But there’s a weariness to that hope. But there’s also a challenge to that hope. It isn’t a let’s-all-hold-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya kind of hope. Isaiah’s brand of hope—scripture’s kind of hope— doesn’t sound like a beauty pageant contestant wishing for world peace some day and then smiling real big. It’s a patient hope, a hope that knows failure and heartache, disappointment and many setbacks. Advent is a season full of juxtapositions just like that: anticipation and fear, hope and disappointment, darkness and light.
Hope isn’t a wish made upon a star, it’s more like a growling in your stomach—a hunger pang that will only go away if it’s nourished morning, afternoon, and evening—day after day after day, year after year after year. Hope is something tended to. Hope is something practiced. And Advent is the season where we practice hope tenaciously, where we dare to walk forward into the darkness up ahead of us, just like those astrologers did as they set off on their journey to find Jesus. They saw a faint light up ahead, but it meant walking through many long nights of darkness first.
The cedars of Lebanon were mighty trees. Strong and tall. They could grow up to 130 feet tall and up to 8 feet in diameter. They were used by the Phoenicians to build military-grade ships. They were used by Egyptians to mummify Pharaohs with its resin, and by the ancient Israelites to built King Solomon’s Temple and other holy structures throughout their history.
The prophet Isaiah spoke of the cedars of Lebanon as a metaphor for national pride. Their strength signified Israel’s strength among the nations. But here those mighty trees have all been cut down into stumps. They have been made into firewood for other nations to enjoy.
The stump of Jesse—all of Israel’s pride—has been leveled to the ground. There is no future left for the people. But in the middle of this devastation, Isaiah speaks up and says that out from the dead stump of all that Israel once was will grow a shoot. A sprig. Out of something that appears lifeless and hopeless, dead and spent and left-behind, a tiny little green thing will begin to grow. Something small, fragile, yet tenacious. That’s what hope is. Just a tiny little fragile thing that blows in the wind, withers in the snow, but pops back to life anyway.
We often decide too soon where things can grow, what things will never have a chance to survive. We have a tendency to overlook and dismiss the small and fragile things that come to life all around us.
Advent is that season where we’re invited to look closer, slower, so we will notice even the tiniest expressions of hope and good news among us. They’re out there—fragile, meek, yet tenacious. The Gospel says that even the smallest things can grow into a new beginning for us. That’s how to practice hope. To slow down enough to see how, over and over and over again, God uses to tiniest bits of things and does remarkable things with them: Mustard seeds. 2 loaves and 4 fish. A Christian-hating, death-dealing Pharisee named Paul. A man named Moses who can’t string two words together without stuttering. You. And me.
Hope says that no one’s story is over. Hope knows what it is to fail and fall, but hope always gets back up on its feet and tries again and again. It’s got bumps and bruises all over, but it stumbles forward anyway. Hope knows what it doesn’t yet have, and it won’t stop until it finds it. It knows failure and longing, but it also knows that both the failures and the longings are precious and holy. Hope inevitably meets disappointment, but it walks straight through it. And the most impressive thing about hope is that it is patient. It knows about roadblocks and long lines and doing without, but it still has faith that it will one day get to where it’s going.
Advent is full of precious longings, stumbling onward, fragile yet tenacious steps forward. All of it holy.
This Advent season, we are charged and challenged to practice hope. It’s not something you have, it’s something you find. Hope is a visible, shared yearning for new growth when everything else has been cut down.
Isaiah’s vision seems crazy, and fantastical, and utopian. He mentions children going out to play by themselves without the danger of being bitten by snakes. Calves cuddling up with lions, bears becoming vegetarians and grazing next to cows. It’s a world without fear or terror or anxiety.
According to the magazine Atlantic Monthly, the world is actually a much safer place for our children to grow up in then it was when you and I were young. Crime is down, kidnappings are down, instances of violence are all down. The difference between today and a generation or two ago is that because of the media, we all become instantly aware of these sort of threats whenever and wherever they take place, and it freaks us out. These days, if we want good news and perspective, we have to go searching for it. We have to practice it, because no one listening to the endless voices on our TVs will ever know what hope sounds like, let alone be taught how to practice it.
Precious longings. Steps taken forward. Noticing tiny reminders of life that grow all around us, fragile yet tenacious. That’s what Advent is made of.
Advent is not about nostalgia. It’s not about going back to simpler and better and more decent times. It isn’t about coffee cups with images of snow flakes or Santa Clauses on them, scoffing at people who say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. All those say more about our fondness for cultural Christmas nostalgia then they do about our faith in Christ.
Advent hope is never nostalgic. Never backwards-looking. It’s always forward-facing. Always “eyes ahead” to see that star shining far out in front of us—the Light who has come among us full of grace and truth. Advent hope is about finding light even through the vast amounts of darkness surrounding us. It’s about preparing ourselves for the newness that Isaiah declares has sprouted to life among us—this tender, fragile shoot. This infant who will be born among us, wrapped in swaddling cloth and lying in a manger.
I mentioned the wise men last week. We will be following them this Advent as they make their journey towards the Christ-child, Emmanuel, God-With-Us. If we want to find good news, we, like those ancient astrologers, have to go searching for it. We have to go scampering and stumbling through the dark, because once we saw a dim but constant light up ahead and we want to know more, we want to see more, we want to hope more.
And on our journey we should think and meditate upon many things, but first and foremost, we should ask ourselves these questions: If God can take these old, dead, and chopped-down dreams of ours and grow something new from them, then shouldn’t we prepare ourselves to encounter something new and even better up ahead of us? Shouldn’t we too hunger for something more, long for something greater, and expect to be awed by its goodness, its wonder, its majesty? And with this little child as our King and our Prince of Peace, shouldn’t we expect a day when our hunger pangs—for righteousness and justice—are no more?
What is our world coming to? Let’s walk toward this bright star ahead of us and see for ourselves!
All praise to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!