4 Advent: Where hope is found

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A video version can be found by scrolling to the end of the text

Micah was a prophetic oracle
of both judgment and hope,
and he announced the coming destruction of Israel –
which would have seemed obvious
to anyone not in denial.

But then Micah locates hope for the future
in someone to come from Bethlehem –
which would have also seemed
like an obvious choice
to his contemporaries.

The Matriarch Rachel, died in Bethlehem
and her grave was a place of pilgrimage.
Bethlehem was the setting for the Book of Ruth,
itself an eloquent oracle of hope.

King David was born in Bethlehem.
So it was an auspicious location
to posit the future of hope.

Then in Luke, two pregnant women connect
and a gusher of hope rushes out
like a heart pumping blood.
We know that Bethlehem
will be brought into that story too.

I think this year,
heck, the past two years or more,
might constitute a dark time

in which it has been
a challenge to have hope.
That seems obvious to me,
but maybe I’m wrong.
Maybe this hasn’t been a dark time for you.

I knew someone once
who made me feel like a real Derick-downer —
when most people, I think,
would see me as optimistic.

I’ll come back to that in a moment.

But dark times never have clear outcomes —
that is part of their darkness.
When we can see light at the end of the tunnel,
even just a sparkle,
we know we can get through.
It is the not-knowing,
or more particularly, the not-seeing
that we find so difficult.
When we cannot tell
if something is going to end well
or how it might be resolved,
and all we know are the hazards,
then we feel surrounded by darkness.

Light and dark
have to do with what
we can see
or not see.

This is a dark time
because we cannot see how it gets resolved —
the pandemic
our democracy
or the Earth’s climate.
The stage curtain is closed
on those big items
that fill the atmosphere around us.
So if we want some light,
some hope,
then staring into that darkness
will not deliver it.

I’ll come back to hope
but first I want to go back
and tell you about Theoda.

Theoda is one of those saints
I always bring to mind and give thanks for
on All Saints’ Day.

She used to tell people,
“I was married three times
and the only husband that lived
is was the one that left me.”

She was raised by a
7th Day Adventist minister-father
and her growing up
was as stern and as harsh
as the back of an old fashioned church pew.

She was told she was ugly,
and truth be told,
she was not beautiful to look at.

She was told she was stupid,
but I think she was dumb like a fox.

She was called names
and given a name
that stuck out like a sore thumb.

I didn’t get to know Theoda
until she was in her 70’s
when she walked laboriously with a cane,
and had to watch every penny she spent.
But Theoda was like a cat.
You know how you can drop a cat
upside down
and it always lands right side up?
Theoda was like that.
No matter how desperate things looked
or how sour the taste of sorrow,
she found an up side.

Some would call it naivete
wishful thinking
or even magical thinking
or denial,
and it might have been all of those
and more.

But still…
Theoda was able to survive
and thrive,
in spite of horrendous pain
that might have wiped out
someone else.

I knew her when I was a
baby priest only a couple years out
of the very liberal
Episcopal Divinity School
of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
I was suddenly surrounded by cornfields
and preaching and teaching
to my fellow Hoosiers
who I frequently felt out of step with.

So I was aghast
every time I drove Theoda somewhere
and she prayed for a parking space.
And I was infuriated
that every time she did,
we got one.

She took the Bible literally,
more or less word for word, whatever it said.
She prayed for people and things
I would never have had the chutzpah to pray for.

As far as I know
she never wrestled with God
and instead,
walked through much of her life
holding hands with God.

There are days that I live
that I wish I were more like Theoda.
But I am not.
If indeed God has a plan for Cam,
I generally do not recognize it
until it is in the rear view mirror
and I am too tired wrestling with it
to resist any more.

The demons
and angels
of my better nature
are more often than not,
indistinguishable from one another,
at least to me.

And when I get dropped
I land on my back.

It was people like Theoda
that helped me begin to be curious
about prophets like Micah
and Isaiah
and Jeremiah.

At the time, I was much more like the prophet Amos,
ferociously pointing out
all the threatening stuff
floating around in the darkness with us,
and naming those to blame
for our misfortune.
The other prophets do that as well,
but they also do something else.

Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah
are good at drawing lines
between current darkness
and future hope.
They see the hope
buried in the moment
and they name it.

They see the hope
like a fleck of gold in a gravel sieve
and they point to it.

The see the hope
when everyone else shouts
or cowers
or flees the present dangers,
and they find safe-keeping for it
knowing it will be discovered
sometime in the future.

While those prophets
are good at naming what darkens the moment,
they are also good at recognizing
and naming the hope of restoration
at the other end of the dangers.

That is also
what I think the Christmas story
does for us.
You may not remember
or care
that I said at the end of last week’s sermon
that the Christmas story,
at its core,
is a prophetic story.

The Christmas story
is surrounded by darkness.

Masses of people
who have nothing —
I mean nothing —
are being pushed and moved around
through the arid hill country of Judah and Galilee
on the whim of distant imperial bureaucrats
moving pins around on a map.

People who own enormous resources
and who have deadly power
to employ against peasants,
and shepherds,
are squeezing even more taxes
from already burdened people.
While some imagine they can rebel
against the darkness,
most see no chance for change.

Then the census comes along
and everyone knows it is for more control
and yet more taxes.
Now they will be able to record
every name
and every property owner
and every male heir.

There will be no guessing
as to how many sheep or goats or donkeys,
crops or children you have.
They will know.

And then there is the slaughter of the innocents.
As God’s plague in Egypt did,
Herod sought out every male child
with orders to slit his throat.

It wasn’t enough
to live with the randomness of death
that comes from wild animals
or mysterious illness,
or suffer rape and robbery
from bandits or soldiers.

Now it would come in methodical,
and engineered means
by an empire
that spoke other languages,
wore clothing that was strange and foreign,
and with an emperor they claimed as a god.

That and more is the darkness
that surrounds the story of an anonymous infant
born homeless
in the darkness of night.
The story of an infant
tearing open his mother’s womb,
his throat breaking the silence
with loud cries from the sudden coldness on his skin,
the coo of his mother
as he his brought to her breast,
the sound of him sucking loudly
when he discovers her in his mouth.

This is the story
of human beings,
of a baby
and his mother and father
surrounded by night
and danger
and randomness
totally beyond their control.

We know they make it
when thousands of others
born that night
will not.

We know they crawl
into the future
together as a family
until they don’t.

We know that baby
becomes an embodied hope
even though his body
is cruelly taken from him
by the same murderous power
that sought him out
as an infant.

We know that somehow
in spite of randomness
in spite of violence
in spite of brute force
and in spite of the thousands of hazards
that surrounded him that night,
and that eventually took his life,
he lives as hope
within our own darkness.
That baby, and who and what he becomes,
is a veritable constellation of hopeful light
texturing any darkness.
I think many of the places and people
we look to for hope
in our present darkness,
may not shine.
But I do think there is light
we do not expect to see
residing in the Christmas Story
we are about to tell.

Let’s look for
and give thanks for that hope
next Friday.