As many of you might imagine, most preachers do their sermon planning weeks (in some cases, months) in advance thereby never being sure of what may or may not occur in the intervening time between planning and preaching. This week, as I prepared this message on hope, I watched a news clip of the 14 people shot in San Bernardino. Reading the names, I heard the newsman say, “Michael Wetzel, father of six.” And then, for no more than a couple of seconds, a video flashed across the TV screen of Wetzel with his family standing at an Advent wreath; with candle lighter in hand, Wetzel said, “We light the candle of hope.” That image of Wetzel in church, alongside that Advent wreath, speaking those words, “We light the candle of hope,” is an image I can’t shake. And it is not just this week’s events that unsettle us. As some of you know, I was out of town on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving and so, this Sunday marks – for me – my third Sunday in a row to step into the pulpit following an act of mass killing: France, Colorado, California. Yet even so, this morning we lit the candle of hope. This week I tried to follow news of the Climate Talks. Aside from debates over the cause of global warming; the fact remains: the planet is warming and it’s not very pretty. Yet even so, this morning we lit the candle of hope. There was rioting in Chicago over the past week: the latest location for yet another violent clash between law enforcement and persons of color as mistrust and resentment grow. Yet even so, this morning we lit the candle of hope.
We light that candle of hope as we journey back in time to first century Palestine where things were really nothing like the covers of our Christmas cards with clean, shiny, happy people; for history tells a different story. Hope, my friends, would have been a pretty hard sale in first century Palestine. Living under the thumb of Rome was no easy thing. I remember in seminary reading an historical account of one small village that lay, unfortunately, in the path of Roman troops. Winter was coming on and those hungry troops cleaned out the food supplies of that small village. Many villagers died of starvation that winter as others struggled to survive even eating weeds and grasses. Such an account might reveal why the miracle of Jesus feeding 5,000 is the only miracle to be narrated in all four of our gospels. What Rome wanted, Rome took. Maybe that’s why our gospels so frequently separate out only one group of people from the more generic heading of “sinners:” tax collectors. Hope was a pretty hard sale in first century Palestine.
This current sermon series is titled: A Cast of Characters: Finding Yourself in the Christmas Story. Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph may have lived more than 2,000 years ago but, as they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Their hopes and their fears were not so far removed from our own. While Israel so desperately waited for a prophet and a messiah, this elderly couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth had their own, more personal concerns. They were righteous and yet they’d spent their entire marriage childless. And so it was almost more than that priest, Zechariah, could comprehend on that day long ago when he entered the temple and came face to face with the angel Gabriel who announced the good news that they were going to have a baby. A personal blessing, to be sure, but this child’s life and his work would be a blessing to the nation. They were to name him John and, once grown, he would go out into the wilderness to baptize and preach and prepare God’s people for the coming of the Messiah.
That message was hard for Zechariah to believe. It is often hard for us to believe when we have long prayed and waited for the desire of our hearts. We can become cynical and run the danger that our prayers become merely a holy habit. When Zechariah voices his skepticism, the angel Gabriel renders him mute. It’s to be a sign from God, with the added bonus that Zechariah will be forced to keep his doubts to himself.
But sure enough, as our gospel narrative unfolds, we learn that Elizabeth – despite the biological impossibility – does, in fact, conceive. Day by day, the life within her grows and, we might assume, is accompanied by growth in faith on the part of Liz and Zech. Now, within the story, Elizabeth is a woman of few words… which, in light of her husband’s experience, may be a wise choice. The somewhat lengthy account of the announcement of John’s birth concludes with a simple summary noting the fulfillment of the angel’s message: “After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. Elizabeth said, ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked upon me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’”
But when Elizabeth says the Lord has “looked upon” her, she describes no mere passing glance for the word used for “look upon” is the very same word used to describe God looking upon the Israelites when they were slave labor way back in Egypt. It is the Greek word epeidon. In English it is a simple word – look – a kindergarten level word, for sure. But, more often than not in the Old Testament, it denotes more than an ocular action. It often means to look with concern. It is a passionate gaze and one which ultimately results in deliverance for God’s people. In the book of Exodus, the call of Moses at the burning bush is introduced by these words:
After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24 God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25 God looked upon the Israelites,
and God recognized them.
This form of looking is more than meets the eye; it is a look of concern and compassion. Though likely limited in their communication due to Zech’s muteness, nevertheless, Elizabeth appears to have comprehended the glorious good news that this child in her womb will pave the way for Israel’s Messiah. Such a simple statement (“he looked upon me”) proclaims the good news that God never forgets his people and that our God is one who sees and responds to our suffering.
In the fall of 1990, Bette Midler released a song that topped the charts that Christmas season. The title: From a Distance. The refrain: God is watching us, God is watching us, God is watching us from a distance. It was so popular, Midler re-released it on her 2006 Christmas CD. I can only assume listeners appreciated the message that God was watching us. But, my friends, the news is far better than that because our God does is not simply watching from a distance, like an objective observer taking notes. Our God draws near to us because he looks at us with concern and compassion. God looks at us and God acts for us and that’s why we could light a candle of hope this morning.
Friends, out in the world, what we label as “hope” doesn’t always mean much. We hope the Colts win. I hope it doesn’t rain. You hope that toy your child wants for Christmas goes on sale soon. I hope my husband doesn’t order anymore books on his Amazon Prime account… he’s kind of bookish, you know. Out in the world, hoping doesn’t always mean much. Out in the world, we’re prepared for our hopes to be dashed. But we, my friends, need to understand hope differently because our hope is in God; the God who looks upon us and acts in response to our need. In scripture, God’s word to us, hope is not expressed as desire (as something good that one would like to have happen). Rather, in scripture, hope is expressed as great expectation (something good that one knows is going to happen): faith in God’s loving kindness, faith that our God both looks and acts in response to our need. That very faith is what feeds our hope. Friends, hope is a part of this holy season. And if Christmas is more than a season of shopping and good cheer, if it is, fundamentally, a Christian celebration, then we must celebrate this season as people of hope who offer hope to a world in danger of succumbing to despair.
When the Israelites long ago groaned under their slave masters in Egypt, God looked upon them, and God acted to save them. When those first-century Jews of Palestine suffered the oppression of Rome, God looked upon them, and God acted by sending a Savior. And today, God is looking upon us – not from a distance – because that is not the way of our God. Our God is Emmanuel, the God who is with us, who came among us as a baby in a manger to save and deliver us. And when we welcome that baby, we welcome God’s hope to make a home within us.
The close of Friday evening’s news posed this question: “How do we keep from losing hope in times like these?” Friends, how do we keep from losing hope in times like these? By trusting in our God; that’s how. We celebrate hope; we boldly give voice to great expectations because we believe God is at work.
We believe; we hope; and we light a candle to defy the darkness and despair of the world.
Because our hope is in the Lord, that’s why this morning we lit a candle of hope.
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