Hope for the Hopeless

Advent 3B-23

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The sun rose at 7:13 this morning and will set at 4:20. It will feel like midnight by about 7:15. The winter solstice comes at 9:27 pm this Thursday and I’m looking forward to the upward swing of lengthening days. In our world of wars in Sudan, Ukraine, and Israel, it’s easy to be seduced by despair. Doubt and despair can feel especially authentic with the added weight of 15 hours of night. Doubt and despair become a sort of false idol, and we begin to feel that we are the first and only people to struggle against an uncertain future.

But Advent comes to meet us here, in our deepest dread fears and doubts, with ancient words of the prophet Isaiah who testifies about a God who “comforts those who mourn.” The Psalmist proclaims, “God has done great things for me, and will do the same for you.” And who can forget Mary’s song, the Magnificat, with dreams of a world more just than ours where gross inequities of wealth and power are overthrown. Here, on the cusp of Christmas, Advent preaches hope amidst despair and gives testimony about a light that shines in the darkness of our confusion — Immanuel, God is with us. Here comes Advent to rekindle our hope and to re-light the fires of our faith.  It all begins with hope.

Tom Long tells the story of Rabbi Hugo Grynn who was in Auschwitz as a little boy.  In the camp, amid much death and horror, many Jews held onto whatever shred of religious observance they could without provoking the wrath of the guards.  One winter’s night, Hugo’s father gathered others in the barracks.  It was the first night of Chanukah, the Feast of Lights. He remembered watching in horror as his father took their last pad of butter and made a makeshift candle using a string torn from his prison clothes.  He struck a match and lit the candle. “Father, No!” Hugo cried, “that butter is our last bit of food! How can we survive?”  His father said, “We can live for many days without food. We cannot live for a single minute without hope.”

You and I are not the first person to feel alone and overwhelmed by life and the challenges we face in an uncertain future. Here comes Advent to say you and I are not alone.  God fights with us to toward the dawning of a new and better day.  John the Baptist cried out from the wilderness, ‘make straight the way of the Lord’ (John 1:23). John’s words were a sharp rebuke to the religious authorities of his day. To rekindle our hope today, we too must be ready to clear away the clutter accumulated over a thousand years by patriarchy which has persistently obscured the biblical witness to the character of God.

American poet John Hollander tells the story of his childhood impressions of one of the most familiar, best loved psalms –psalm 23.  As a child, he misheard the final verse. As you know that verse goes like this: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long (Psalm 23:6).  But in his mishearing, he instead heard: “Surely the good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life. And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, edited by David Rosenberg (1987) (John Hollander, “Psalms”, pp. 293-312)

Bible scholar, Walter Brueggemann, affirms Hollander’s childhood image of ‘Good Mrs. Murphy’ attending to children like a beneficent nurse resonates deeply with our scripture and helps us to recover from the dominant Western theological tradition mesmerized by masculine and muscular adjectives of sovereignty—omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. We overlook other more neighborly sets of divine characteristics in scripture, namely, “goodness and mercy, righteousness, justice, steadfast love, and mercy. For example, El Shaddai, which is frequently translated in our English version of our bible, as ‘the lord God Almighty,’ refers to God in the original Hebrew as the ‘many breasted one.’

Brueggemann writes, “It turns out that the deliverer of Israel is quite like the good Mrs. Murphy in her capacity for the wellbeing, security, and dignity of all the children in the neighborhood of creation… These maternal markings of God matter in the world, as they mattered to Jesus who did the mothering work of feeding, healing, and forgiving. Beyond that, these maternal markings bespeak another way to be the people of God in the world, a way of vulnerable self-giving, after the church has had a long-running season of Constantinian domination.” (WALTER BRUEGGEMANN, Church Anew, “The Goodly Company of ‘the Good Mrs. Murphy’” 12/13/23.)

Mary sings praise to God, “You have cast the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). Being different in the world requires an embrace of mothering among those who frequently “feel like a motherless child.” Here comes the good Mrs. Murphy to rekindle our hope and faith, and courage.

The proclamation of the Good Mrs. Murphy finds an echo in the preaching of John the Baptist and in the witness of the Hebrew prophets shouted in the streets today: No justice, no peace. The coming Messiah proclaimed by angel choirs and attended by simple shepherds is synonymous with the advent of fairness and dignity for all.  John would have us get ready for Jesus.  Hurry, “Bind up the broken hearted, bring good news to the oppressed, proclaim liberty to the captives, release the prisoners, proclaim the year of Jubilee’ (Isaiah 61:1).

All four gospels tell us people went out to John in droves.  His was not merely a message of judgment and condemnation.  His message sparked the light of hope and restoration.  John offered a new rite called baptism that opened the way of salvation to bunches of people otherwise categorically excluded from accessing grace at the temple in Jerusalem. God who called Israel out of Egypt and led it across the Jordan River would create a new people in the waters of that same river, regardless of race, religion, class, occupation, or past transgression.

Dressed in the simple, uncomfortable clothing of a prophet, subsisting on a diet of grasshoppers and wild honey, living in the desert beyond the Jordan—unauthorized, unsanctioned, and not ordained—John is clearly operating outside the religious authority in Jerusalem.  Nobody ever heard of a baptism for the forgiveness of sins before.  This message did not fit the teaching of that time about how God works in the world.

The religious authorities demand to know who John is. He tells them mostly what he is not.  He is not the Messiah; not Elijah; not the prophet, but a voice calling out in the wilderness. Perhaps we, also, should begin where John begins by being clear about who we are not.  We are not Jesus.  We are not Saviors.  We are not infallible.  We are not omniscient.

“One of the costliest mistakes the historic Church has made is to claim identities, powers, and privileges that don’t actually belong to us.  When we Christians adopt messianic ambitions for ourselves — either personally or corporately — we hurt ourselves, we hurt others, and we hurt the cause of Christ.  When we make promises we can’t keep — promises of prosperity, promises of immunity, promises of consumer-based “peace” and “blessing” — we become stumbling blocks to those who seek consolation in Jesus.” (Debi Thomas, “Who Are You?”, Journey with Jesus, 12/06/20)

In contrast, John begins his ministry from a place of humility. Like John, all we can do is point to Jesus. Clear away the clutter. Make his pathway straight.  Make room as the innkeeper did for Mary and Joseph. “If in your heart you make a manger for his birth, then God will once again become a child on earth” (Angelus Silesius, Polish priest and poet, 1624 – 1667). By tradition, Jesus birthday became connected to the winter solstice as a kind of poetic metaphor pointing to the new dawn of hope for humanity in the lengthening of days. See! Here comes Christ, our morning star, who shines on God’s future and scatters the night till shades of fear are gone and our hope is restored.