I can think of nothing sadder than a life lived without hope.
A hope that regardless of how bad things might seem, that things could get better. That ultimately every night has a dawn, every storm has an end, and every mountain has a peak.
Author and preacher Max Lucado writes, “We need hope. There’s nothing worse than to live a life of despair. For a person to have no hope just sucks the blue out of every sky.”
Many people living in Israel 2000 years ago were living lives without hope. They felt that the glory days of their country were but a distance memory. They saw no future for themselves and no future for their children.
For many of those living in Israel, each day was simply another empty day of existence. They knew that they would live under the Roman occupation and they would die under the Roman occupation.
In his Gospel, Matthew reaches back to the prophet Isaiah and the scripture that was read for us earlier and writes of the people who sat in darkness. They were people who had given up any hope of seeing the light.
This is the first Sunday of Advent; and things are different this year. Wow, is that an understatement or what?
Christmas this year will be different from in the past for each one of us.
There will be no large gathering, and perhaps not even extended family gatherings. We won’t be travelling from province to province, and for the most part we will be encouraged to “Stay the blazes home.”
And at Cornerstone, Christmas this year will be different. There will be no pageant, or Bethlehem live, we won’t have families reading at the front, we won’t have candles burning that need to be blown out after the service. And although we aren’t sure what our Christmas Eve services will look like this year, we do know they will be very different from previous years.
And for the next two weeks, our services will only be online, then we will need to see what the future holds.
This Christmas we will be looking at the four themes of Advent: Hope, Joy, Faith, and Peace
And so, on this, the first Sunday of Advent, the Hope Candle is traditionally lit. And while it is called the hope candle, it could more correctly be called the Hope Restored Candle.
While it is true that the people of Israel had no hope, that wasn’t always true.
Let’s start with the fact that They Once Had Hope The story of the nation of Israel is a story of a hope that was offered. That offer goes clear back to the story of Abraham, which is where we started our last series.
Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless in a time and culture where children were seen as a blessing from God. And God stepped into their lives and promised them the impossible, a child.
Now I know that having a child isn’t impossible, sometimes even people who have assumed that they couldn’t have children, discover that they can actually conceive. They usually name that child “surprise”, if only in their minds.
But in the case of Sarah and Abraham, they were old, and had been married for years, and they had given up any hope of every having a child.
A friend of mine told me years ago that he and his wife just had to sneeze, and they got pregnant. I’m not sure that’s how it works, but apparently nothing worked for Sarah and Abraham, not even sneezing.
And into their world stepped God with a word of hope. They were not only promised a child, they were promised a nation.
We read that promise in Genesis 12:1–3 The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”
And over the next fifteen hundred years that hope was reinforced over and over. Time and time again the people of Israel were reminded of the hope that came with the promise.
We see it in the story of Joseph and the story of Moses. In the story of Joshua and the story of the Judges. In the story of King David and the story of his son Solomon.
And for the people of Israel, they looked back to those days as a reminder of the hope that they once had. That once they had dreamed of being a great nation, that once they were a great nation.
On a more personal level, each one of us is statement of hope. When we were born, in most cases our parents looked and us and imagined what we might be. They imagined us making an impact and changing the world. They imagined us being everything they had wanted to be.
They looked into the face of a newborn and saw someone who would change the world.
And each one of us has changed the world, simply by being in it. Without you and your contribution the world would be a different place than it is now.
And we will never truly understand the impact that we will have in this life.
In these days of chaos and confusion and all the talk about vaccines, most of us know the name of Jonas Salk. He was the scientist who developed the polio vaccine.
A vaccine that virtually every person watching this morning has received. And while we know that Jonas Salk changed the world, we also need to acknowledge that a young immigrant couple who arrived in the US early in the 1900’s from Russia also changed the world.
Their names were Daniel and Dora Salk, and they were Jonas parents. Without Jonas there would be no polio vaccine, without Daniel and Dora there would be no Jonas. And not just in the sense that they were his parents, but they raised him in such a way that he was the first of their family to go to college, and eventually become a doctor and scientist.
Oh, and by the way, the Salks were Jewish, they were part of that great nation that was promised to Abraham 4000 years ago.
And it was Jonas Salk who said, “Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.”
Most of us can remember the hope you had as a child. You were going to be an astronaut, or a fireman or a princess. You were going to grow up and marry and have a house with a picket fence and 2.3 children or have a cool car and the perfect job. But at some point, you may have lost hope.
That’s what happened to the people of Israel. They may have started with hope, but somewhere along the line, They Lost Hope
I wonder if Abraham and Sarah had lost hope when 20 years after the promise, they still hadn’t had a child?
When Sarah was reminded of the promise, we read in Genesis 18:11–12 Abraham and Sarah were both very old by this time, and Sarah was long past the age of having children. So she laughed silently to herself and said, “How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my master—my husband—is also so old?”
Or maybe Joseph, who was Abraham’s great grandson, lost hope when he was sold into slavery by his brothers? Or I wonder if Moses lost hope when he had to lead the people of Israel in circles for 40 years after their escape from Egypt.
Or perhaps it was after the Kingdom divided after King Solomon’s reign and then Israel was conquered, first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians, and eventually they were occupied by the Romans.
We don’t know. What we do know is that it had been hundreds of years since Israel had been in its heyday and people had lost any hope of their country being anything but a second-tier country, without a ruler of their own, governed by tyrants and bullies.
As Isaiah had predicated, they were people living in darkness. People without a hope.
They needed to have heard the words of Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
For hundreds of years after the first occupation, God’s prophets had pointed to a better future, and a future deliverer. And then, for four hundred years, nothing.
Not a prophetic word had been recorded since the prophet Malachi finished his prophecy with God’s words, Malachi 4:6 His preaching will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise I will come and strike the land with a curse.
And if you read the story of Israel, it was the story of a people who rejected God, they practised immorality and worshipped false gods, and somehow, they never connected God’s silence with their behaviour.
In 2020, it’s easy to lose hope, easy to feel that you are being singled out, that COVID has become personal. The other day, we cancelled our February vacation. I’ve had four work trips cancelled, including a trip to Egypt which has been cancelled twice, but it was cancelling our vacation that made it personal.
Last week I was talking to someone who has had the same ministry trip cancelled 4 times, they told me “We can’t fully discern if this is spiritual warfare or a sign from God” And because compassion ranks so high in my spiritual gifts I responded by saying, “It’s tough when you have to admit that you’re not that special and sometimes stuff just happens.”
But it’s been a rough year, and a big part of that has been that we are losing hope. Angela and I were talking about our winter vacation the other day, and if you know me, you know that I’m not a winter fan and never have been. My mother said that when I was little, I would cry when she put me outside in the winter. And so, a big part of going away in February is the looking forward to going away in February, having something to hope for.
My best friend told me the other day he thought I enjoyed the time leading up to our cruise almost as much as I enjoyed the cruise itself. And this year it feels like our hope has been taken away in so many different ways.
And I know that many of those situations really are first world problems. But that is the world we live in. And certainly, what we hope for is tied to our life circumstances. What you might consider a hopeless situation might be a blessed situation to someone else.
Something I read the other day put it into perspective. If you were walking along and someone gave you a ten-dollar bill you’d think it was awesome, but if you were expecting a million dollars and someone gave you ten dollars, you’d be crushed.
And problems become magnified when we lose hope. Whether it’s losing hope that a marriage will ever get any better, that we will ever get our weight issues under control or that we will ever get out of debt.
Because when we lose hope, we quit trying.
Why put anymore into the marriage if there is no hope of it getting any better. Why focus on paying off our debt if it’s hopeless? Why bother even trying to eat right, if we aren’t going to lose the weight we need to lose?
It was Samuel Johnson who wrote, “When there is no hope, there can be no endeavour.”
Here is the reality, as long as you have a pulse, there is hope. And while we don’t have control over everything, we have control over some things. And hope is a choice.
And to go back to my opening line, every night has a dawn, every storm has an end, and every mountain has a peak. And while it seems like life is just too hard, remember, today you just need to make it through today.
Jesus reminded his followers of that truth in Matthew 6:34 “So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
Robert Louise Stephenson said, “Anyone can carry his burden, however hard, until nightfall. Anyone can do his work, however hard, for one day. Anyone can live sweetly, patiently, lovingly, purely, until the sun goes down. And this is all that life really means.”
We are reminded in Galatians 6:9 So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time, we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. And the converse of that is true, if we do give up we will not reap a harvest of blessing.
And so, in their despair, the people of Israel had somehow forgotten the promise given to their ancestors, through the prophet Jeremiah, Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”
Let’s go back to the scripture that Ben read for us earlier, Isaiah 9:2 The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.
And so two thousand years ago with the birth of Jesus Their Hope was Restored
But the hope they were given wasn’t the hope they were expecting.
And though out the story of God’s people, we see the hope fulfilled in unusual ways. It wasn’t long after Sarah had laughed at the very thought of ever having a baby that she had a baby and we read her response in Genesis 21:6–7 And Sarah declared, “God has brought me laughter. All who hear about this will laugh with me. Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse a baby? Yet I have given Abraham a son in his old age!”
They didn’t name their child surprise, they named him Isaac, which in Hebrew meant, “He laughs” But when the promise came to Sarah and Abraham, they had no idea they’d have to wait for 25 more years to see it become a reality.
If you know the story of Joseph, you know it reads like a rollercoaster. He was a favourite son, and then his jealous brothers sold him into slavery, where he became a trusted servant until he was falsely accused of rape and was thrown into prison. Easy to lose hope. But at the end of the story, Joseph tells his brothers, Genesis 50:20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.
David wrote in Psalm 13:1–4 O LORD, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way? How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul, with sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy have the upper hand? Turn and answer me, O LORD my God! Restore the sparkle to my eyes, or I will die. Don’t let my enemies gloat, saying, “We have defeated him!” Don’t let them rejoice at my downfall.
Have you ever felt that way? That you have been forgotten by the God you love?
But the Psalm doesn’t end there, David continues, with these words, Psalm 13:5-6 But I trust in your unfailing love. I will rejoice because you have rescued me. I will sing to the LORD because he is good to me.
The people may have been waiting in the darkness, but God hadn’t forgotten them.
Across the Old Testament, we read the prophecies that pointed toward the coming Messiah. That he would be a descendent of King David, that he would be born in Bethlehem, that he would be born of a virgin.
But those who were expecting the Messiah were expecting a Messiah who would arrive as a great warrior, someone who would overthrow the oppressors, whoever the present oppressors might be. Someone who would restore Israel to its former glory.
They were expecting a king, they received a child.
Even after all he did and all he taught, there were those who were still waiting for him to become the triumphant ruler who would turf the Romans on their ear.
Just days before his arrest, we read the story of the triumphant entry, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on what we know think of as Palm Sunday, listen to how he was greeted, Matthew 21:9 Jesus was in the centre of the procession, and the people all around him were shouting, “Praise God for the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Praise God in highest heaven!”
For some, they were disappointed in the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed, that wasn’t what they were hoping for.
But throughout the story of Jesus, you read a story of hope. The hope of a light shining in the darkness. The hope of mothers and fathers who came to Jesus, with the hope that he would heal their children. The hope of healing.
The hope of a woman laying in the dust in front of Jesus. Charged with adultery and now waiting for Jesus to pass judgement. She had the hope of grace.
After Peter denied Christ not once, not twice, but three times, Peter held onto the hope of forgiveness.
And for each of us, we have the hope of salvation, and not only salvation but a changed life. Paul wrote to the early church in Romans 8:1–2 So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death.
Or like the old lady said, “I aint what I oughta be and I aint what I’m gonna be but thank God I aint what I was.”
Isaiah spoke of those who sat in darkness, in Matthew’s gospel we read this, Matthew 4:15–16 “In the land of Zebulun and of Naphtali, beside the sea, beyond the Jordan River, in Galilee where so many Gentiles live, the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. And for those who lived in the land where death casts its shadow, a light has shined.”
And in response John writes in his gospel, John 1:5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.
Today, like 2000 years ago, hope is a choice. We can choose to embrace hope or to embrace hopelessness, but it will be our choice.
Jim Wallis summed it up when he said, “Our choice is between cynicism and hope. Hope is a decision you make. Hope means believing in spite of the evidence and then waiting for the evidence to change. Be the ones that we have been waiting for.”
We are thirty-two days from 2021, I’m embracing the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson who wrote, “Hope Smiles from the threshold of the year to come, Whispering ‘it will be happier’…”