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December 1, 2019

God’s Promised Day (Hope) Can’t Wait

Passage: Isaiah 2:1-5

The theme running through our worship this season comes from our friends at A Sanctified Art, a group of preachers/artists, and it’s titled, “What Can’t Wait?” You’ll hear it in our prayers and preaching on Sunday, but also in the Advent devotionals (which are in a stack at the back of the sanctuary) and in the images painted by the artists that’ll be posted on our social media accounts each week. Here’s what the folks at A Sanctified Art have to say about the theme:

“Advent is a season of waiting, but is idle waiting what God wants of us? In preparation for the coming Messiah, we wonder together—what things can’t wait? What demands our immediate attention? What requires our work and preparation? What is it that God can’t wait for? Is it our praise, reconciliation, and proclamation? Is it the end of suffering, isolation, and fear?... As we wait, what can’t?”

Hope is where we begin on this First Sunday of Advent, and a vision for hope comes to us from the prophet Isaiah:

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!

Have you ever thought of hope as urgent?

Perhaps you have. But I think it’s safe to say that, at least in practice, it’s more of a passive concept. Think for a moment about how we speak about hope in the day-to-day. “I hope it’ll work out.” “I hope that doesn’t happen.” “I hope I make it through this.” “I hope [insert your desired outcome here]” and that’s the end of the track.

“Hope” might be one of those words that’s used so much in so many different ways that it’s become almost useless. I came across a tip from a sales coach—don’t ask me how, the internet can be a rabbit’s hole sometimes—about alternatives for “hope all is well.”

At least one-third of the sales emails I get start with a variation on: "I hope all is well." Both the recipient and the email writer know it's a nicety thrown in before the real point of the email. With buyers' attention spans at an all-time low, reps can't afford to waste a single line…

To that end, here's our list of alternatives that will make your email less vague, more personal, and -- hopefully -- endear yourself to the recipient enough to get a reply.

I won’t read all 29 of them, but they’ve got you covered:

"I hope this email finds you well."
"I hope you're having an A+ [week, month]."
"I hope everything's groovy at [company name]."

The banality of it all… Hope, a word that we risk rendering meaningless.

And not only do we speak of hope in passive ways in our ordinary living, but hope as a theological concept can render us passive. I’m thinking of the work of Dr. Miguel De La Torre, a theologian and ethicist, who wrote a book entitled Embracing Hopelessness. In that book he makes the case for hopelessness because, he believes, it motivates ethical action better than hope. Hope, as a Christian belief, according to De La Torre, has a way of sedating people to their oppression and the oppression of others. In a cruel and corrupt world, hope functions to perpetuate injustice more than it motivates resistance to injustice.

That’s a provocative idea with which I continue to wrestle. Preaching that uplifts a hope that is only a future rescue can do a lot of damage by emphasizing divine action at the expense of human action. “God is going to sort it out so don’t worry about it” kind of thinking. Then there’s the alternative: placing our hopes in our efforts alone, or in some assumptions of inevitable human progress. One only has to look as far as the last century and the beginning of this one to see how that has fallen short.

The substance of hope, as the Bible speaks of it, as Isaiah proclaims it, is found entirely in the faithfulness of divine action… yet in a way that includes, that beckons, that draws out human response.

Hope, for Isaiah, is very urgent. It really was an audacious vision of salvation that he cast for his first hearers. “In the days to come,” he prophesies, Jerusalem will become a seat of world governance. God’s law will become the law. God’s ways will become the ways for all nations, even the Gentiles. God’s justice will be delivered to all people. And the result will be peace, everlasting peace. Isaiah dares to utter these words that have inspired people for millennia:

They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

What hope! I say the vision is audacious (bold, even gutsy) because it was borderline ridiculous. Zion was by far not the highest mountain. Jerusalem was by far not the most distinguished capital city. Nations flocked to Jerusalem for sure, but to extract its people and its resources. They brought their swords and spears there, for sure, but to conquer, not to learn from the wisdom of Judah’s God. Peace was far off for a city that perpetually found itself drowning in the violence of the powers that churned around it.

But this marvelously hopeful vision for salvation is pressed between pronouncements of judgment. We’re allergic to that word these days, but the meaning it carries in scripture is of God holding human beings accountable to God’s moral standards. And what God holds God’s people accountable to in Isaiah is the “bar” of shalom: deep, abiding peace where all creaturely life flourishes as its intended. The people have ruptured shalom with their murder, rebellion, injustice, and corruption and, through the prophet, God gives them an opportunity to turn around.

The hope for a world of peace demands human participation. God will surely save… but not without us. God enlists human agents—co-conspirators, if you will—in recreating life as it is meant to be.

Hope, if you think about it, is what undergirds any prospects of change. Whether that is a change to an interpersonal situation or to a problem on a global scale, hope is the horizon of what is possible. Hope is an act of imagination. That’s what makes its alternatives, cynicism and despair, so tempting, because they’re easier to grab onto; they’re closer within reach.

With Isaiah’s first audience, we’re tempted to despair. We’re tempted to give into cynicism. The violence they knew many in our world still now, perhaps in more sophisticated forms. Yet there are people who, in the face of the seemingly impossible, dare to make this vision their horizon. Last year, a group of people in Philadelphia, victims of gun violence, took AR-15’s and did exactly what Isaiah describes, melting guns into gardening tools. Through her megaphone one activist told the crowd that it took her 4.5 minutes to purchase one of the weapons. 4.5 minutes. It took 2,000 degrees in a smelter to forge weapons into pruning hooks. One of the activists, Shane Clairborne, looked at the camera and said that the vision of Isaiah:

is also the inspiration for us repurposing and transforming guns into garden tools. And that vision is really beautiful because it ends with ‘nation will not rise up against nation and will study violence no more… It begins with the people who refuse to kill and begin to transform tools of death into tools of life. We’re not just changing metal today. We’re reimagining the world. When we beat on this gun it really does feel like we’re participating in changing our streets, our country, our world.

An uphill battle if there ever was one…

This Advent, it’s worth pondering: what changes can we make in our lives to create the conditions for hope?

What hope creates urgency for us? We can’t claim to hope for things we’re not prepared to work for some way.

There’s a line from a Billie Holiday song: “The difficult I’ll do right now. The impossible will take a little while.” What do we hope for—really yearn for—that inspires us to work with God for the “impossible” shalom that begins right now with the difficult?

I’ll close with “Blessing of Hope,” by Jan Richardson:

So may we know
the hope
that is not just
for someday
but for this day—
here, now,
in this moment
that opens to us:
hope not made
of wishes
but of substance,
hope made of sinew
and muscle
and bone,
hope that has breath
and a beating heart,
hope that will not
keep quiet
and be polite,
hope that knows
how to holler
when it is called for,
hope that knows
how to sing
when there seems
little cause,
hope that raises us
from the dead—
not someday
but this day,
every day,
again and
again and