Jeremiah 33:14-16; Malachi 3:1-20
“Three years ago people on the East Coast of the US celebrated Christmas in the midst of Superstorm Sandy’s recent devastation. That year, in serious remarks he made at the otherwise silly national ritual of pardoning a turkey, President Obama mentioned a man he had met in a devastated area of New York. Houses everywhere around this man’s house had been smashed by water, trees, or both. This man’s own house had been riven by a falling 30-foot pine tree. But as clean-up crews broke down that tree to remove it, the man saved the top 7 feet of the tree and planted it upright in his front yard as a kind of pre-Christmas Christmas Tree—as a symbol of hope. He dug out a few surviving ornaments from his house. Soon neighbors added symbols of the storm itself—surgical masks, battered coffee cups, and the like. It was a sign of resilience, a sign of hope and of a desire to re-build in the midst of devastation.” (Scott Hoezee)
In Union Beach, New Jersey, a community decorated an artificial tree that had been found in a gutter with other storm debris; they called it “A Tree of Hope”. The sign posted next to the tree read: “Dear Sandy. You can’t wash away Hope. You only watered it so more Hope can grow. “
I also found out that after Christmas hundreds of Christmas trees were stripped of their decorations and laid on beaches and sand dunes to help gather sand that had been washed away by the terrible storm. The Christmas trees helped trap the returning sand until natural vegetation could again take hold.
On the United Church’s “adventunwrapped.ca” website, hope is likened to a seed that grows in to a tree, strong and resilient. In this season of Christmas, all of those images hold for me the power of the word that is HOPE.
Even back in Biblical times, when most people were illiterate and most knowledge was transmitted orally, people knew that an image can capture something that words sometimes cannot. In the back story to the reading from Jeremiah, the prophet arranges – from prison! – to buy a piece of land that is about to be overrun by the Babylonian army. Picture you or me today purchasing a building in Baghdad or Damascus and putting the deed of sale up on Facebook or Twitter. It would be a profound symbol of hope and trust that the devastation will end and that peace will return to those war-torn lands.
Jeremiah also has a tree image – a fresh new branch coming from the roots of the old and withering tree of the family of King David. Zedekiah, the king who imprisoned Jeremiah, was of that line – but Jeremiah trusts that one will come in place of the current monarch, who will bring justice and peace.
The prophet Malachi, too, has a few images for us. The One who comes before the Day of the Lord will be like “a refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap”. Picture the red hot of molten metal, and the scouring of the harshest soap. (Remember the powerful lye soap your grandmother used to use to clean the floors and bleach the laundry?) Fuller’s soap was used to bleach, cleanse, and thicken wool fibres so they had their maximum plumpness and brightness. “Prepare to be pummeled and purified”, says Malachi. In the 50s and 60s we might have said, “Put through the wringer”! Is this a hopeful image? It is if you are the nation of Judah and have seen your people become increasingly corrupt and the abuses of those in power growing. It is if you feel like the society you live in has forgotten God. Purification may be just what the doctor ordered. Don’t we want to be the finest we can be? Don’t we want all those grubby places in our inner selves scrubbed away? Sometimes – not always of course – but sometimes, it takes something harsh and terrible to do the job.
Hope often comes out of the most unexpected places and experiences. American Theologian William Dyrness, (“In Distress,” The Christian Century (Nov. 16, 1994): 1073.) wrote “Often in scripture the promises of God come in the most difficult circumstances, as if God intends that we not live by the certainties we see and know.”
One of the most famous quotations about hope comes from the English poet Emily Dickinson:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
Hope is a birdsong amid bomb blasts; it is a soothing hand during a radiation treatment; it is a cup of cold water given to the child dug out from under a collapsed building; it is the words “you’re hired” to an unemployed single parent. It seems that hope is the strongest when it comes in the midst of troubled times.
I saw a picture this week of a young man from Syria waving a Canadian passport – that is hope; I saw Berliners standing at train stations waiting for loads of Syrian refugees with signs welcoming them to Germany – that is hope; I listened as a man from a destructive and dangerous family background told me of finding a new family and a new sense of self-worth through the church and through his best friend – that is hope; I have felt the lift of spirit after a depressing day when encountering the power of people gathered together to share a simple meal – that is hope; we received an invitation from the local mosque to visit with them after church today from 1 to 3, because they have been so impressed by the way United Churches have reached out to them to work with them to shelter refugees – that is hope; every time I hear a story from Our Place of someone who’s been able to transition out of homelessness into finding work and a home – that is hope.
And surely, our Christian story is hope. The story that God would come to a people oppressed for centuries, former slaves, former exiles, ruled by empire after empire – a people subject to scorn and persecution and even genocide down through the centuries – that God would choose to be born as one of these people – is that not Hope? Is it not hope that light comes again and again to lighten the darkness? Is it not hope that God would gather together people from all the nations of the earth and make them one in Christ? Is it not hope that brings us together and gives us courage to see difficult days through side by side? German theologian Jurgen Moltmann quotes reformer John Calvin saying, “Hope is nothing else than the expectation of those things which faith has believed to have been truly promised by God” (quoting John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.2.42 ); cf. also 16, 30-32, 40-44, 85-89, 102-54, 190-229.)
The thing is though, hope is not always comfortable. It is a blessing, but it can be a difficult blessing. When one lives in hope, one cannot be comfortable with the world as it is. One cannot simply accept that things are the way they are, and enter into a kind of passive apathy or even a peaceful renunciation of passion or longing. This is one of the places where Christianity parts ways with some other world religions, gifted as they are. Christian faith is restless, passionate and visionary. Moltmann puts it this way: “That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.” ― Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope
Hope can be the star that lights the darkness. It can also be the far distant light of home, blinking faintly at the traveller on a storm-swept night with a long journey still to go. Hope can be the song of the bird when dawn breaks; or it can be the cry from on high of an eagle in flight, calling us ever higher.
The prophets shared God’s promise of hope and redemption with their people; along with the Jewish people, we are inheritors of those promises. We are living out the now-and- the-not-yet, the fulfilment of those promises in the coming of Christ and the yet-to-come time when Christ’s message of compassion and inclusivity will have transformed every life. We are living in a waiting time – a time when we see the promises come to fruition, here and there: seeds of hope, blossoms of new beginnings, branches of the tree that is rooted in God. It may be that the only way we will come to the fulfilment of our hope is through trial or tribulation. It may be that we will only see the strength of our hope when it is tested by adversity. Our hope is real, strong, enduring – for our hope is in God, and in Christ who walks with us, and as the apostle Paul assures us, “our hope will not disappoint us”. Amen.