“Awaken To Hope”
Written by Will Ed Green for Foundry United Methodist Church December 1st, 2019—Isaiah 2:1-5
If you’ve ever known a sleepwalker—or walked in your sleep—you’ll know what a peculiar, unsettling, and altogether fascinating phenomena it is.
Somehow, in the deepest states of sleep, our brain can overlay the world around us with an alternate reality so convincing that our bodies can’t help but engage it. What we would otherwise know to be “true” about our reality—the temperature, the setting we find ourselves in, the presence of others around us—is supplanted with a dream state so convincing that the sleepwalker can travel barefoot in subzero weather or step into a noisy room full of people without ever knowing they’re there.
Even more fascinating is the brain’s ability to draw on our knowledge and skills while sleepwalking, allowing sleepwalkers to perform complex tasks like driving, cooking, or carrying on a coherent conversation with someone doesn’t even know they are asleep. And the entire time, the person sleepwalking has no idea what’s real for them is really just a dream. They don’t even know they’re asleep.
As we explore Advent through the lens of our new sermon series—Awaken—sleepwalking seemed like an appropriate place to begin. As Christians, our faith is grounded in the truths that God is good and just, that God’s love endures and is available in all circumstances, that God is faithful to us. But the world—like a sleepwalker’s brain—has a way of layering over that truth with an alternate reality so convincing that we begin to forget what’s real. The wearying dreams of a world fractured by injustice and poverty, the nightmares of violence against and the abuse of black, brown, and queer bodies, the lucid dreams of our news cycle with its always-imminent crises—these become our reality. Like sleepwalkers we wander through the world convinced that these things—not God’s promises of hope, peace, joy, and love—are what’s real. And like a sleepwalker, we may not even realize we’re “asleep.”
But God desires that we become fully awake and alive to the power of God’s active and activating grace. God works to rouse us from the those dreams and liberate us for abundant living that embodies hope, demands and works for peace, claims and cultivates joy and lights up the world with love. And Advent is our wake up call. As we journey through Advent toward Christmas, we’re invited to examine our lives. To remember what’s real. To let go of what’s not. And to re-awaken in ourselves the power of hope, joy, peace, and love that sets us free.
“Optimism and hope,” writes Catholic priest and teacher Henri Nouwen, “are radically different attitudes. Optimism is the expectation that things—the weather, human relationships, the economy, the political situation, and so on—will get better. Hope is the trust that God will fulfill God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. The optimist speaks about concrete changes in the future. The person of hope lives in the moment with the knowledge and trust that all of life is in good hands.”
“The person of hope lives in the moment with the knowledge and trust that all of life is in good hands.” What would you do if you trusted that your life was in good hands? What would you be liberated from or for? How might you come alive if you were free to believe it?
On this first Sunday in Advent we draw our attention to the Christian virtue of hope. It’s integral to our identity: First Corinthians 13:13 says that above all the other gifts of Spirit, which will fail and falter, “faith, hope, and love abide.” Romans 5:2 tells us that we are to “boast in our hope” of God’s saving mercy and grace and in verse 5 that “hope will not disappoint us.” I Peter 3:15 tell us to “always be ready to make [our] defense to anyone who demands from [us] an accounting for the hope that is in [us].”
As Walter Bruggeman says in his book, The Prophetic Imagination, “…we are ordained of God to be a people of hope.” It’s written into prayers spoken at baptism and communion, proclaimed at the end of every creed, sung out in many, many hymns.
And yet the world for which we hope—in which justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, in which implements of war give way to words of peace and the common good outweighs self-centered desire—feels at best unlikely if not all together impossible.
Both for those to whom these words were spoken and to those of us reading them today, this Isaiah’s vision might seem so distant from our present reality that it doesn’t bear hoping for.
It seems like a pipe dream to speak of lasting peace when we can’t even stop the murders on D.C.’s streets. It feels impossible to envision a world where all are free to live abundantly when on this World AIDS Day young people in the District of Columbia are twice as likely as anyone else in our country to contract the virus and we lead the nation in new HIV infection rates. It may come across as crazy to think about God doing a new thing with the people called Methodist when for the last 47 years we’ve argued over and arbitrated the lives of LGBTQIA+ persons and gloss over or ignore our long history of institutional racism. How are we to trust in each moment that our life is in good hands when the world feels so broken?
Hope is a funny thing. We tend to reduce it, as Nouwen says, to concrete changes we desire for our future. I hope for world peace. I hope I pass that test. I hope they like me. I hope I get that job. This is what I like to call a…brittle hope, hope built on a foundation of our own action or desire and bound to outcomes which—despite what we may think —often lie far outside our control. We’re taught to build our hope on the actions of others—politicians who will “make America great again” or who “still believe in a place called hope.” To invest our trust in institutions which will give us what we need to get through. To believe that we have the willpower to make the world in our own image.
This works out well for a time, I suppose. But we all know that people will inevitably disappoint us. That empire uses hope more often as a tool of control than a vision for a better world. That institutions will—despite every good intention—cause harm and hurt. And when what we’ve placed our hope in fails us, this brittle kind of hope buckles and we are lulled into a version of the world in which hope feels like a pretty hopeless endeavor.
The purpose of prophetic proclamation is to awaken us to a different kind of reality. One in which the true rests upon the solid foundation of God’s loving action and justice, rather than the whims of empire or the fragile premise of our own strength. In the vision of the world to come offered by Isaiah, a close reading of the text reminds the listener that our future is not dependent upon our ability, force of will, or political prowess, but upon God who will be faithful to bring about justice and lasting peace. God is arbiter and judge in this new reality. God is the teacher and provider. The listener’s only job is to journey toward that reality in the light of God’s love, remaining true to what they know God is doing and will do on their behalf.
Isaiah wrote to a people, not unlike those of us today, who’s world was being torn apart by war, poverty, and greed. It must have felt truer to their reality to be hopeless than hopeful. But establishing our hope not in the strength of human ingenuity or action but in God’s, Isaiah offers hope that can simultaneously insist God will make a way even when we can’t see a way. By centering the temple—the physical dwelling place of God—in this new reality, Isaiah offers a hope that makes space for the proclamation of impossibility as possibility because we know all things are possible with God.
Today’s lesson reminds us that what we build our hope on matters. And it awakens us from a reality full of brokenness and fear with a “truer” vision of what’s possible when our hope is established on the firm foundation of God’s faithful action in our lives and in the world. Trusting that God is indeed birthing into the world the beloved community we so long for, we are liberated from the places and things which makes it feel impossible. Believing that God’s story is bigger than the dreams of this world can hold. And standing in this strength, with the knowledge of what is real, we are able to work and resist the forces of this world which deny that anything like the anti-racist, anti-colonial beloved community of God we aspire to be is possible.
It’s in the strength of this hope—that God is yet at work—that we are able to resist the schemes of empire and institutions which insist that it is their vision that will bring about the world for which we hope. It’s in the strength of that hope that we can rest, trusting that we do what we can do but in the end God’s got it. It’s in the strength of this hope that we are able to let go of our need for control and to trust in each moment of our lives that we are enough and that God will be faithful when we offer ourselves to make of that offering a blessing to others.
Once awakened, hope becomes less of a thing that we experience or desire that we have than it is an attitude we cultivate in ourselves and in the world, a living hope which is capable of facing our present circumstances with the trust that our lives are in the good hands of a faithful and loving God.
And the good news of this season is that—even as we wait and watch for the world to come—it is breaking into the world around us all the time. We see it—I see it—in the joy of a neighbor’s face when they receive the birth certificate they need to move from homelessness to housing. I see it when LGBTQIA+ people, despite what the church might say, continue to be faithful in claiming their calls to ministry and showing up anyhow. I saw it on Wednesday when John Wesley AME Zion, Foundry and Asbury Churches gathered in worship and for the first time in 183 years—since we were separated by the forces of institutionalized racism—shared communion together. I feel the power of what God is yet doing among us when I realize that people—despite the violence and harm caused by Christianity—continue to walk through those doors and find life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ.
In this season of Advent we celebrate that our hope is built on nothing less than a God that so desired for us freedom and life that God became one of us. That through the surprising birth of one who came from a place which no one thought could produce good things, born of an unwed mother and skeptical father, one who challenged our perceptions of what was acceptable by welcoming those no one would accept, one who would challenge the power of empire not through military might but by self-sacrifice. In Advent we awaken to the possibility that despite what the world might tell us is true, God’s truth in Christ is truer still.
The invitation for us this season, then, is to in the words of First Peter: “prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring [us] when he is revealed.” To cultivate an attitude toward the world that allows us to lay its brittle hopes and to take up the living hope offered to us through God’s love embodied in Jesus Christ. To slow ourselves down enough that we might perceive the ways God’s love, justice, and mercy are breaking into this present moment with the promise of a future with hope—and therefore be strengthened in our ability to embody that hope for others—living light through which the world is set free.
These glimpses of the kin-dom are what give us strength to stay alert and together on the journey toward that world in which all will be might right and good. And in claiming them—in cultivating spaces and times in our lives when we open ourselves to remembering and naming where God is at work—we reject the temptations of brittle hope which leads only to disillusionment—and establish a firm foundation from which we can with joy, peace, love, and hope trust and proclaim that all is in good hands. May God make it so for you, and for us, in this season. Amen
Friends, God has given to us a living hope—one which endures despite disappointment, and disillusionment. God has established for us a foundation from which we can anticipate the faithfulness of One who makes a way when there is no way, and who is always working, always working, to bring about good in the world. So go out from this place and be that kind of hope brought to life for others, and “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”