“Hope” by Howard Lake, 2011 (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Luke 1.5-25 (NIV)
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink,and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”
Man, this is the first Sunday of Advent! Can you believe it? Weren’t we just catching our breath after Burro Days, and now here we are … Christmas time.
One evening this week, while I was washing dishes, I listened to an interview with a Jesuit priest named, Greg Boyle. In the 1980’s, for his first call, Father Boyle was assigned to serve a campus ministry at Santa Clara University, but his heart wasn’t all that into campus ministry … his heart was somewhere else. During his training to become a priest he had served in prisons and poor communities … through these experiences he developed a desire to “throw in his lot with the poor.” He asked his supervisor to send him to the poorest place he possibly could. Father Boyle wound up serving a church in East Los Angeles. His parish had the highest concentration of gang violence in all of Los Angeles … in his career as a pastor he has officiated over 200 funerals for people who have died from gun violence.
Father Boyle had been trained as a peacemaker and hoped to use his peacemaking background with the gangs in his neighborhood … but his efforts to make peace weren’t working.
Sure they would make agreements not to shoot into each other’s houses … rival gangs would sign truces … but none of it would lead to lasting change. After a while, and after many failures, he made a discovery.
Father Boyle came to see that “Peacemaking requires conflict,” but the violence he saw all around him, wasn’t about conflict – it was about what he has come to call, “a lethal absence of hope.”
This is what he learned, in his own words:
It’s about a lethal absence of hope. It’s about kids who can’t imagine a future for themselves. It’s about kids who weren’t seeking anything when they joined a gang. It’s about the fact that they’re always fleeing something — always, without exception. So it shifts the way you see things … It’s about kids who’ve ceased to care. So you want to infuse young people with hope, when it seems that hope is foreign. (https://onbeing.org/programs/greg-boyle-the-calling-of-delight-gangs-service-and-kinship-nov2017/)
Confronting despair has become central to his life work of helping former gang members and drug addicts and drug dealers and prisoners … he even goes so far as to call this work of infusing hope, healing.
Just a few minutes ago, we lit our first Advent candle, our “hope” candle.
Often I think we water down our understanding of hope to some sort of vague optimism … when we talk about hope, as we see it in the bible and as we understand it as Christians it is so much more that just a pollyanna-ish outlook on life that somehow or another things will be ok. Christian hope … the hope we are proclaiming and holding onto when we light our first Advent candle is so much more than optimism. It is the conviction that things aren’t what they are supposed to be … that our world … that we aren’t who and what God wants us to be … that things could be different … that God will take action … God will do something to make things right … God will do something to keep his promises and to make us and the world what God has always intended for us. Our Christmas hope has everything to do with confronting and challenging despair, with longing for change and transformation.
Walter Brueggemann, a really helpful and challenging bible scholar, writes,
The hope articulated in ancient Israel is not a vague optimism or a generic good idea about the future but a precise and concrete confidence in and expectation for the future that is rooted explicitly in YHWH’s promises to Israel … YHWH’s promises characteristically do not concern escape from the world but transformation within it (Brueggemann, “Reverberations of Faith,” p. 100.”)
I think this “concrete confidence and [expectation rooted in YHWH’s promises]” is the hope Father Boyle seeks to infuse into his community and into the lives of so many people … and I think it is the hope we see in Christmas.
Christmas hope … Christian hope is concrete confidence that God has acted in Christ and will continue to act in Christ to change us and to change our world.
There is no one better to teach us about this hope than John the Baptist.
As intense and feisty as John was, John knew his life purpose. John understood he was called to go before the Lord, he was supposed to point people toward hope … toward God’s action in Jesus Christ. Through John, God brought joy and hope to a couple who had long ago given up hope of having a child … John pointed God’s people who had been living under the oppression of the Roman empire and who longed for the freedom and agency and life God had long ago promised to them toward hope … John pointed God’s people to the hope that life could be different … that through Jesus, they could turn back toward God, that they could change and the world could change … that there could be peace … there could be wholeness … that communities could thrive … that the world could be what God intended.
Even though our lack of ice and snow is throwing me off, it really is Christmas time … the Holiday Bazar was yesterday … Christmas lights and decorations are showing up all over town … our decorating crew has done an awesome job “hanging the greens” and making the church look ready for Christmas …
Our first Advent candle is even burning … we are on the road toward Christmas!
There is so much that demands our attention during this month … it is a busy time of year … it can be really hard to find time to slow down and take time to reflect … to prepare our hearts to celebrate the amazing gift God has given us (and that God has given the world) in Jesus Christ. Maybe during this season of Advent, during these four weeks before we celebrate Christmas day, we can call a few time outs and sneak a few moments here and there to reflect on the condition of our hearts and to ask God to grow Christmas hope in us … and to seek for that hope to shape our lives and the way we see life and faith, the world and each other.
Hopeful hearts are hearts that are looking and longing for God to act … they are hearts that are open … hearts that aren’t content with themselves or with the world … hearts shaped by Christmas hope are hearts that expect God to bring change and transformation to our lives and to our world through Christ. This hope shapes us … this hope informs the way we live … it impacts the way we understand the world.
As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, so long ago,
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13 NRSV).
** Here are some links to really interesting interviews with Father Greg Boyle