“Hope” by Rosanna McFadden
Good morning. Welcome to this first Sunday of Advent. You may have already figured out what the theme of this Sunday is, and I hope you can carry it with you this coming week as you light your own Advent candles and find the scripture verses on your Advent calendars at home.
The song we heard at the beginning of the service started with the line “Hope is a candle once lit by the prophets . . .” and it is appropriate that we begin the season with a prophetic text. The simplest definition of a prophet is someone who speaks for God. Prophecy is not predicting the future for individuals in the crystal-ball gazing or palm reading tradition of “You are about to go on a long journey . . .” or You are going to meet a handsome stranger . . .” Prophecy is the ability to make a clear-eyed assessment of where a society or group of people is right now, and say where God expects them to be in the future. In that sense, it’s much more like going to your doctor, who gets your family history, sees that you are overweight and sedentary and says, “If you don’t make some changes, you’re likely to have a heart attack.” As with any prediction of bad things to come, prophets are not always popular — especially if and when bad things come to pass and it turns out that they were speaking the truth. But prophets aren’t always about bad news. Remember, prophets are not simply sharing their own assessment of society, prophets are speaking for God. And sometimes, prophets are telling us about good things to come, which God knows and has planned, but which we aren’t able to see yet. From our viewpoint in history, we can now see how God words have been faithful and true.
It may seem like and obvious point to make, but the prologue of the gospel of John states this pretty clearly, so I am going to, as well. We are aware of light differently when it’s dark. Here’s what John says about Jesus Christ, “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Hope is our awareness of light in the darkness, and even the anticipation of light which we cannot yet see, but we believe is coming.
Darkness is a part of our world — it was a part of the prophet Jeremiah’s world, too. It’s part of a natural cycle of night and day, but it is also the condition of societies and regimes and political systems which are not walking in the light of God. In Jeremiah’s case, it was kings of Israel who had made religion into a royal privilege, focused on the priests who led rites at the Temple in Jerusalem, rather than a way of life which cared for the poor and the vulnerable, and welcomed the outsider. Religion had gotten unhooked from justice and focused on ritual sacrifice, which is a recipe for practice which is empty, meaningless, or even a way for the Temple elite to get rich at the expense of the poor people whom they were supposed to be serving.
Jeremiah, speaking for God, predicted the darkness which would result from such a misuse of human power and authority. And just as the prophet predicted, in 587 BCE, the Babylonian army invaded Jerusalem, and made the city of God’s peace a war zone. They destroyed the Temple, took their leaders into exile, destroyed the cropland outside the city and left most of the people behind to starve. Jeremiah stayed behind with the people in Jerusalem. He could have said, “I told you so; this serves you right for not listening to me. I hope you all starve.” Instead, Jeremiah preaches a message of comfort and hope; it was part of this message that XXX read to us from Jeremiah 33. He didn’t use the language of light and darkness, but used a metaphor of growth and flourishing: a righteous branch which will spring up for David, the forefather of the kings of Israel: a leader who sill stand for justice and righteousness, and save his country and restore Jerusalem to peace and safety. Jeremiah doesn’t name this leader as Jesus Christ, but we know that Jesus was the hope of that society and every society since. Jeremiah wasn’t predicting the future so much as he was declaring his faith in a God who fulfils promises: the promises of a hope and a future. Jeremiah had hope in the future because he had faith in God.
[Slide Starry Night] You have probably seen this image before: it is one of the most-recognized works of art in the Western world: you can find it on T-shirts, phone cases, mugs, whatever. It’s called The Starry Night, or Starry Night by Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. You can find detailed analysis of this painting, but I want to share some basic things I learned from the websites of the Museum of Modern Art and the Van Gogh Gallery. It was painted in 1889, one among hundred of images Van Gogh painted in 1889-90, this one in mid-June of 1889. It is a night sky which includes the moon, stars, and the planet Venus in the left lower part of the sky. The lower third of the painting is a village with a Cyprus tree in the foreground. The village is an actual place, but Van Gogh couldn’t actually see it: he painted it from memory. He wasn’t painting at night, either. Van Gogh worked during the day to reconstruct something which was real, but beyond his vision.
The reason Van Gogh could not travel to the village he was painting was because created this painting during the 12 months he was in the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Remy. His official diagnosis was epileptic fits, but he had experienced a relapse of paranoia and depression, and had thoughts of suicide. Starry Night was part of a tonal shift in his work to darker blues, browns, and greys. It’s a striking painting, and notable because of the emotional immediacy which Van Gogh gave the night and the darkness. But it illustrates that the ability to see or imagine things which are not part of current reality is not necessarily hope. There is a dark side to vision which is not rooted in reality.
People with paranoia are suspicious of other people or situations, even when that suspicion has no basis in reality. People who are anxious invest a lot of energy in imagining the worst outcome to any event, scenario, or diagnosis, even though that anxiety will not have any effect on how things ultimately work out. People who are depressed lose the ability to experience joy even on joyful occasions, and go through each day with a sense of dread, helplessness, or hopelessness. People with anxiety or depression may be very intelligent or gifted; a few, like Vincent Van Gogh, may actually translate their distorted reality into something beautiful or inspiring, but there is a terrible price to pay for that kind of genius. God doesn’t want us to deny reality and be trapped in a world of delusion.
Hope is the ability to see not only the darkness, but the stars. Hope is the ability to see with eyes of faith, and faith sees best in the dark. God knows there is darkness in the world — I don’t need to list all the ways that governments and regimes and groups of people turn their backs on God. You may even be familiar with the more personal forms of darkness which shroud people you know or care about: depression, anxiety, worry about your health or the future. That darkness is real, and it may even be warranted. Hope doesn’t deny the darkness or try to explain it away with shallow platitudes; hope is the candle which burns despite the darkness. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It is the conviction that even though there are realities we see with our eyes, there are greater realities which we know to be true. Those greater realities are the things which we have been promised by God: we read them in the Bible, in the words of the prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Jesus Christ. We hear them in the words of those who speak for God, words of comfort and peace, the prayers of those offered on behalf of our families and friends and leaders and kings.
We have hope because we believe that Jesus Christ is the light which the darkness cannot overcome: will never be able to overcome. Jeremiah called Jesus a righteous branch which will spring up from the ancestors of King David, but in the centuries since Jeremiah spoke, that branch has grown to be a tree of life for all people, for anyone who believes in the hope and the promise of Christ, and knows that Christ is the hope and the promise of the world.
For those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, there is plenty of darkness to go around during late November and December. I saw a beautiful sunset on Friday evening: it was 5:30. It is dark when I get up in the morning — even if the sky is clear, and it isn’t clear that often — and dark for hours before I go to bed. Darkness doesn’t mean that God has left us, or that God didn’t really mean the words which were spoken by the prophets: darkness doesn’t hide God, darkness reveals the light which God created: the light which is there whether or not we believe it, and whether or not we bother to even look. Jesus Christ is the light of the world, and the darkness cannot overcome that light. Jesus Christ is our hope, and when we see with eyes of faith, we see the world not only as it is, but believe that it will be as God has promised, by God’s power and in God’s time.
I wish you the eyes of faith to see the stars amidst the darkness; I believe that the hope of the world is Jesus Christ. May the promises in God’s Word take root in us and grow into a branch of justice and righteousness for all people. Amen.