By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 1:21-25
Some of you are familiar with A Better Life Brianna’s Hope.[i] It’s a faith-based addiction recovery and support group. There is a Brianna’s Hope chapter at Grace United Methodist Church here in Lafayette. Trinity has prepared meals for their meetings and Trinity’s maintenance team has engaged participants in serving here at Trinity as part of our Caring Fund ministry. But even if you’ve connected with Brianna’s Hope, you may not know the story behind the ministry.
The ministry namesake, Brianna DiBattiste, was a young woman who grew up in a small rural Indiana town. In many ways, she was your stereotypical teenager – a cheerleader who played softball and liked to hang out with her friends. But along the way, Brianna started experimenting with drugs and became addicted to heroin. She tried rehab multiple times but always relapsed. 4 ½ years ago, Brianna left home to buy drugs and never returned. Her body was found months later. While she was missing, Brianna’s mom found a note she had written; it was a prayer to God, asking – expressing hope – for a better life for her and her family. While some might say that Brianna’s hopes went unfulfilled, the ministry A Better Life Brianna’s Hope now has 26 chapters throughout the state and has assisted more than 450 people with detox and addiction recovery. Many have found hope and healing through the ministry Brianna’s difficult life and heartfelt prayer inspired.
As people of faith in a broken, suffering world, sometimes our commitment to hope may seem naïve or even foolish. Far too often, the reality of everyday life seems to defy our hopeful expectations. Yet this morning as we’ve entered this Advent season, we lit the candle of hope. Followers of Jesus are – and have always been – people of radical, resilient, hope. The word Advent means “coming” and, as people of faith, we affirm that the coming of Jesus brought – and still brings – hope to a broken world.
Were we to journey back in time to first century Palestine, it would look nothing like the covers of our modern Christmas cards with clean, shiny, happy people. Hope, my friends, would have been a pretty hard sale in first century Palestine. Living under the thumb of Rome was no easy thing. In seminary I read 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. Even so, the early Christians were people of great expectations and radical hope.
This Advent sermon series is titled: A Cast of Characters: Finding Yourself in the Christmas Story. Our topic this morning is hope and I hope that – through the story of Elizabeth – you might be inspired to see the signs of God’s hope in your own life. Although Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph may have lived more than 2,000 years ago, their hopes and their fears, their expectations and longings, were not so different from ours. While Israel so desperately waited for a prophet and a messiah, the 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 the priest, Zechariah, could hope for 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.
Like Zechariah, it is often hard for us to believe when we have long prayed and waited for our hopes to be fulfilled. We can become cynical and feel as if our prayers are simply drifting into space. But as our gospel narrative unfolds, we learn that Elizabeth – despite the biological impossibility – does, in fact, conceive. God responds to their prayer. God fulfills their hopes. Day by day, the life within Elizabeth grows and, we might assume, is accompanied by growth in faith on the part of Liz and Zech. 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 (chapter 2), the call of Moses at the burning bush is introduced by these words:
23 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. “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked upon me,” says Elizabeth; a simple statement that proclaims the good news: God never forgets his people; our God is one who sees and responds to our suffering, to our great expectations, to our most radical and desperate hopes. And as the story of Elizabeth’s baby boy unfolds, we discover that he is a blessing not only to his parents, but to all of God’s people. But we’ll say more about that next week.
Our God, my friends, is not one of dispassionate objectivity. Our God does more than merely observe from a distance. Our God draws near to us for our God is Emmanuel. 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 we have more sunshine this winter. You hope that toy your child or grandchild wants for Christmas goes on sale soon. 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 need to understand hope differently because our hope is in God; the God who looks upon us, who sees our need and responds and acts. In scripture, hope is expressed as great expectation (something good 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 whose prayers and lives 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 inside of us, around us, among us.
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: Emmanuel – the God who looks and sees and comes to dwell among us.
Amid all the busyness of this holiday season, I encourage you this week to set aside just a few minutes to pray and reflect on this: where in your own life right now do you see signs of hope, places where God is at work to bring healing, peace and deliverance? And how might that baby of Bethlehem be calling you to join him in that work?
It wasn’t long after Brianna’s funeral that her pastor, United Methodist pastor Randy Davis, approached Brianna’s parents about establishing a faith-based addiction support group in their daughter’s memory. While some may have seen the death of Brianna as a reason to give up hope, Randy Davis saw it as an opportunity to bring hope to the lives of countless others. How might your life – not just the good things, but even places of struggle and difficulty – become a space for grace; opportunities for God’s hope to be birthed into the world through you?
[i] https://www.facebook.com/ABetterLifeBriannasHope/ Click on the “See More” link under “Our Story” on the right side of the page.
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