Hope Is Hard
Advent I; November 29, 2015
Is anybody else ever tempted simply to give up? To stop trying? I'll tell you about a recent Friday. It was at the conclusion of a difficult week – too many meetings, too many chores, too little rest, too little laughter. That Friday started with a series of text messages urging me to do something in a particular way which, given the mood I was in, I interpreted as being critical of the way I had chosen to do it. That was followed by a conversation that led me to feel like a real loser. And then I received an email bawling me out for a recent decision.
Not long afterward I heard the news from Paris. Yes, it was that Friday. So by that evening I was ready to give up on my work and give up on the human race. Well, I have often wanted to give up on the human race, especially since the Presidential campaign season began.
Sometimes – I'm being honest with you here, and some of you may not want me to be – sometimes Scripture makes it worse. Take the prophecy from Jeremiah: "In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety" (33:16). I don't think the prophet had in mind a wall to keep Palestinians out; surely he didn't, because he says that the whole prophecy in 33:14-16 is summed up by the name "The Lord is our righteousness." We read that prophecy during Advent because he predicts that a "righteous branch" will spring up "for David." Jesus, of course, descendant of David, a truly righteous man, is that righteous branch.
But when will Jesus make Jerusalem live in safety? When will it be a place of safety for Jew, for Christian, for Muslim? A place of welcome for Israeli, for Palestinian, for Arab? And to attempt an answer, we read these apocalyptic words of Jesus, when he talks about the confusion of nations and the shaking of the heavenly powers and the coming of the Son of Man. Familiar stuff; you've read or heard something like it before. But Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place."
You see why I say that Scripture sometimes makes it worse? I could try to fudge that statement (and I have tried, and many smarter than I have tried) but it sits there, staring at me, saying that Jesus said that all that he predicted would happen before another forty or fifty years would have passed. And what did happen felt like an apocalypse to those who lived through it: massive Roman invasion, the destruction of Jerusalem, death on a large scale, the scattering of the people of God throughout the known world. Maybe that's what he meant. But something nags at me that even Jesus expected more than that soon.
So what do we do, when we take Scripture seriously? It is tempting to give up. And many have given up. I can think of two different ways to give up. One way is to say that it's all emptiness. Every time we think we're making progress as a human race something else happens to remind us that we are selfish, aggressive, ready to hurt other people if they interfere with what we want. And when Scripture tells us that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Prince of Peace, that he comes to save Judah and make Jerusalem live in safety, and to create a new humanity – well, has he? His new humanity, people who claim to belong to him, are eager to use torture and warfare and justify them. Why not simply give up on humanity, on the Church, on Jesus?
At the other extreme are those who take these words in Luke and others like them elsewhere as a reason to give up trying to do anything. They say that everything is getting worse and is going to get worse and there's nothing we can do or should do because it means that Christ will return soon. Now, they've been saying this for a long time: the world was supposed to end by March 1844, according to William Miller; then by 1988, according to Hal Lindsey; and you remember all of Harold Camping's billboards saying it would be October 2011. Anyway, they persist in seeing in these apocalyptic words predictions of great horror that will culminate in God's redemption of the faithful, and so in the meantime all we should do is try to be as righteous as we can, without regard to anyone else's well-being. Give up trying to save the world; it cannot be saved.
And yet… and yet. Something in me will not let me give up, will not let me say that it's all pointless or that it's all fixed. Something in me will not let me give up on Scripture or give up on the world.
You know what that something is: hope. Hope is one of the gifts that God gives to God's people. You've heard where Paul writes about it, that "faith, hope, and love abide; these three" (I Corinthians 13:13). Faith and love are a lot easier to talk about. Hope is hard, not only to talk about, but to sustain. A colleague told me that recently; in response to a sermon, one of her people said to her, "Hope is hard."
You see a beautiful baby, hold it in your arms, nurse it, have it baptized, send it to school, buy new clothes (and new shoes every few months!) and hope. Hope that the child will follow Jesus, will become a responsible citizen – knowing there is every possibility the child will deal drugs or suffer a series of failed relationships or… well, you don't need me to tell you the possibilities. Having a child is an act of hope.
You buy a business, open a restaurant, join a new start-up, go for a Master's degree… acts of hope. You contribute to your Church's building program, help sponsor a refugee family, give a stranger a few dollars… acts of hope.
Let's go back to babies, and talk about one baby in particular. What makes that one birth by a manger in Bethlehem such a sign of hope? Year after year we come to church to sing "Silent Night," and even people without much faith find hope in this story. And it is not simply the sense we have that every birth is a sign of hope, because we know how this one's story turned out. No, there is good reason that we who follow Jesus Christ do not give up, but live in hope.
The first reason is that Jesus showed that it is possible for there to be a new humanity. We may not follow through and we may not live it as consistently as he did, but he showed us that it is not necessary to strike back every time we are harmed, to blame others for the way our life turned out, to be cruel. We can touch lepers, we can turn the other cheek, we can welcome the stranger – yes, even the stranger from Syria – because Jesus did it. A better way is possible, is not futile, and Jesus has already lived it.
Likewise I often remind myself of the ways the world is better than it was, and often we can see how these things are the outgrowth of the Jesus movement in the world. The world is a better place for Jesus having walked in it and taught in it and that some – possibly more than you and I are willing to say – take seriously what he lived and taught and actually do it. The new humanity is possible, and so we take hope.
And the other reason we live in hope is that God has vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead. This time of year we commemorate a birth not simply because we love babies, but because of the way that Baby's story turned out: with death and resurrection. Christmas always carries Good Friday and Easter within it, or there would be no point to Christmas. Christ is alive, the new humanity is not only possible but is filled with the presence of Christ. Not even death can defeat the promises of God, the God who raises the dead. Who would give up, if I am a follower of the One who was raised from the dead?
The upshot of these troubling words of Jesus in Luke 21 is that he expects to return to the world. He did return, he does return, and he will return. He returned from the grave. Death could not keep him away from the people he loved, a people who had been consumed with despair when they saw his body carried away to that garden, and who were made alive again in hope when he returned to them.
He returns again and again in his Church. Whenever and wherever the people of God take seriously Jesus' demonstration of a new humanity and actually try to live it, Christ returns. When Christian people feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, forgive the sinner, then Christ returns and gives hope.
And he will return; he said so, and everything else he has said and done has been reliable. So perhaps he thought it would be sooner than it was, or maybe we misunderstand what he said. Does it matter? He said he would return, the promise of that Day gives me hope, and what a day that will be. Come, Lord Jesus.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Benson Presbyterian Church
Omaha, Nebraska An insight from St. Augustine