Advent Series: Hope, In the End, a Beginning

It is hard to speak of “hope” without thinking of the oft told story of Pandora’s Box. The short form goes like this: Pandora has charm, beauty and wisdom. She is the total package. She marries Epimetheus who is equally handsome and bright. Together they spend an endless succession of sunny days picking fruit from the trees, dancing, singing, and living the high life.

Then, one day, winged Mercury arrives bearing a box, a gift from the gods. Epimetheus warns his love not to open it. He might as well have told her not to buy another pair of shoes. Pandora promises she will not open the box, but as soon as Epimetheus turns his back, she can’t help herself.

Now here is the problem.:The gods have filled the box with all manner of suffering, disease and death. As soon as Pandora opens the box all these evils fly out in the form of ugly brown moths, biting and stinging Pandora and Epimetheus and all their friends. For the first time, they know pain, sorrow, suffering, and the fear of death. In desperation, Pandora opens the box a second time. This time, a beautiful Butterfly emerges. The Butterfly is hope, which is the one consolation the gods have left humankind. It was Wordsworth who described the importance of hope in the world saying:

“Hope rules a land forever green:
All powers that serve the bright-eyed Queen
Are confident and gay; 

Clouds at her bidding disappear;
Points she to aught – the bliss draws near,
And Fancy smoothes the way.”

Now there are several points I wish to make about hope.

First, most hopes are temporal, and many of these belong to the category we call wishful thinking. When a boy from a poor family pours over toy catalogs at Christmas and makes a long list he is engaged in wishful thinking. I speak from experience. The high school senior who decides he knows enough not to study for his final exam is engaged in wishful thinking. I speak from experience. The perpetual bridesmaid who eyes the brides brother, despite the fact that he is there with another woman is engaged in wishful thinking. I do not speak from experience, but from observation.

Other temporal hopes are characterized by sincere prayer.  The friendless hope and pray for a friend. People who are sick hope and pray for health. People who are without work, hope and pray for a job. Once, when flying from Greensboro to Newark, I was seated next to a delightful little lady who turned down the ham sandwich offered us by the stewardess and had a series of numbers tattooed on the inside of her left arm. I asked her if I was right in assuming that she was Jewish, and had been a prisoner in a Nazi camp. She told me she was indeed a Jewish holocaust survivor, and she went on to recount how she lost her whole family in the ovens at Auschwitz.  She alone had survived. I said, “In the midst of that terror, what did you hope for?”  She said, “I hoped to be alive at the end of the war.” We always hope for that which we have not yet attained.  As the apostle says, “For who hopes for what he sees; but if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

Second, we should note that many things give rise to hope. Wordsworth said that “hope rules a land forever green.” Those of us who live in a temperate climate take hope when the cold, gray days of January and February give place to sunshine and the greening of the world. People who live in a dry climate take hope because of the rain. In the Hebrew Bible rain was a sign of blessing from God. The birth of a child is always a hopeful event. I shall never forget the birth of my first grandchild. We rushed down to Wilmington to see her. When I first held Madison in my arms, I found myself thinking, “It is you. You are the one I have been waiting for. Now, if I have to, I can leave this world in peace.” My first grandchild filled me with hope. She reminded me that God was always doing new, hopeful things, if only we had eyes with which to see.

In the same way, Israel once looked forward to the birth of the Messiah. The people of God did not look for their perfect King to step forth upon the stage of history, a man full grown, a mighty warrior made doubly dangerous to the enemies of Israel by the wisdom of experience and years. They expected the Messiah to enter the world as a child. Thus the prophet Isaiah said to the people, “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” An ancient Jewish proverb declared that the next child born, any child, might be the messiah. Thus every child received the respect that children are due. At Christmas we Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus the Messiah. We say that in Jesus, God robed himself in human flesh and became one of us. That is just half the story. Not only did the Son of God become a human being but he started life among us as a fragile and helpless child. Still, Jesus was surrounded by a loving family, carefully selected by God. There is nothing so hopeful and full of promise as a child who is born to a caring family, who will raise him or her in the nurture and admonition of the LORD. By contrast, there is nothing so hopeless as a child born into poverty and filth, passed from hand to hand, forced to work or starve, sold into the sex trade in Asia, or recruited as a child soldier in Africa. When one’s childhood is stolen, one never fully recovers, even if one survives it.Thus, in the Andrew Loyd Webber play, “Whistle Down the Wind,” a disadvantaged child who has some how survived into her teenage years, speaks to a preacher of Pie in the Sky By andBy saying, “I don’t give a damn about life after death; I just want to know there is life after birth.” There are children all over the world this morning—and some just down the street who are still waiting to find out if there is a good life—after birth.

That said we reach a point in life, a time of years, when we thank God that the hope of humankind is not limited to this life alone.  If it were, says the apostle, “we would be of all people the most foolish.”

The Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul. According to a report published by Plato, on the day that Socrates died, just before he drank the hemlock, he talked once more to his disciples about the possibilities for life after death. Socrates taught that the soul was a prisoner in the body, and only death could set it free. He told his disciples that he was not afraid to die, because he looked forward to his soul’s freedom and new life. He s told them that one of the opportunities his death would afford him was the opportunity of speaking with the great men of the past. Ironically, one of the great men I hope to speak with is Socrates. Any you might say, “How can you?  He lived before Christ.”  No, no one lived before Christ. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and theWord was God.”

By contrast, many Christians are surprised to learn that the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, does not offer a great deal of hope for life beyond death. It is in there, but you really had to look for it.That is why Jesus spoke to the Jews saying, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you will find eternal life, and they are they which testify of me.” A few passages are hopeful. Jesus called attention to God’s words to Moses at the Burning Bush. God said, “I am the god of Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob!” Jesus plays on the verb tense of “I AM” and says “‘I am’  not ‘I was’.God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” In Chapter 19 of the book that bears his name, Job says, I know that my redeemer lives, and without my flesh, I shall see him.” And in Chapter 26 of Isaiah, the prophet makes a promise to a nation riddled by death, destruction and exile saying, “But your dead will live; their bodies will rise; those who lie in the dust will wake up and shout for Joy.”

Today, many Jews do not believe in life after death, but some do. Perhaps you remember the name of Herman Wouk. Wouk wrote, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance, The Cain Mutiny, Marjorie Morningstar, and many other best selling novels. In a book about his Jewish faith entitled, This Is My God, he remembers the faith of his grandfather. Wouk’s grandfather, a rabbi, lived so close to God that he thought it was easier for God to raise the dead than it was for God to forget him.” In his book, In the End a New Beginning, the great Christian theologian, Jurgen Moltmann agrees with the rabbi. He notes that not only does God make an impression us, but we, in turn, make an impression on God. When we die God remembers us, perfects us,  and calls us back to life in the Eternal Kingdom. This, and not “the immortality of the soul” is the Christian hope. According to Ephesians 2:12 there are those who are“without God and without hope in the world.” We are not among them. Our confidence is in Jesus and his resurrection. The author of  the 1st Epistle of Peter has written:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,  4 and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 1 Peter 1:3-5

And in Romans 5, St. Paul has written:

We rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our suffering, because we know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character still more hope, and hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Spirit which he has given us.

In the end, we have a new beginning.  And that is not all. The God who does not forget us in death cannot possibly forget us in life.  For we know that the same power that took Jesus Christ out of the grave and raised him to new life  is available to us today, not just in the moment of death, but in the midst of life. It is because we believe in the God of the Resurrection that we have the courage always to pray, and not to loose heart.  When we are friendless and alone, we pray. When we are discouraged and almost beaten, we pray. When we are ill, and our illness points, as all illnesses do, to death, we pray. And every friend, and every encouragement, and every healing, is a reminder that God does not leave us comfortless, but comforts us in all our affliction that we might comfort those who are in any affliction.

So, we enter the Season of Advent in hope, and the hope we have is too precious to keep to ourselves. So let us creatively find ways to give it away, so that none of those whose lives touch our lives might be left without hope and without God in the world.


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