Hope

Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is a time of waiting and a time of preparing, both for the birth of Jesus on Christmas. There are four Sundays in Advent, and we light a candle for each: the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love. On Christmas Eve we'll light the fifth candle - the Christ candle.



One of my favorite traditions as our kids were growing up was lighting the Advent wreath before Sunday dinner. Sometimes we took the wreath to my parents' house, if we were eating there. Sometimes we lit the candle on Monday if we weren't home or at Mom and Dad's on Sunday. I loved the way the candles "stepped," with the hope candle being the smallest because it had burned the longest. Julia got to light the first one, Jeff the second, me the third, Jay the fourth, and I think we let my Dad light the Christ candle. Once Jeff left for college our rotation got a little out of whack, but that is OK. We've added Vianne, and Mom and Dad are gone, so our Advent tradition has changed. In a couple of years Parker will get to light a candle, and then when he is old enough he will get to read the Christmas Eve scripture. Julia read it when she was in first grade. She did an awesome job, but our dog, Chester, was in the other room quite noisily finishing off the hors d'oeuvres (did I spell that right?) . No one wanted to interrupt Julia to go scold Chester, so several of the adults were stifling giggles. Unfortunately Julia thought we were giggling at her. It took some major reassuring to get her to believe that we were laughing at Chester!


Anyway, last night we lit the first candle. The candle of hope.


Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel.

That mourns in lonely exile here,

Until the Son of God appear.


Rejoice! Rejoice!

Emmanuel shall come to you

O Israel.


"Emmanuel" means "God with us." This 12th century hymn paints the picture of Israel, hopeless, homeless, and in mourning. Israel was under the thumb of Rome at the time of Jesus' birth. If you remember the story, "A decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered." (Luke 2:1; NKJV). That meant that Joseph and Mary had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Joseph's home town. Can you imagine the hue and cry if anyone tried to tell us we had to return to our birth place? We struggled to get our own census done this fall, with arguments how about who to count, when to count, and where to count. We didn't have to travel anywhere unless it was to the library to use the computer.


Israel felt separated from God. And if you read the Old Testament, you'll find that God felt separated from Israel. Israel had sinned, repeatedly, and despite many warnings, Israel thought they knew best. They continued their wicked ways even though God told them through the prophets to repent. Finally, God had enough and allowed the temple in Jerusalem to be destroyed, the army defeated, the people overwhelmed by violence, disease, and starvation, and any survivors exiled to Babylon from 597 BCE to 537 BCE, when Cyrus the Great of Persia allowed them to return and rebuild the temple. In 63 BCE, a civil war in Judea broke out after Aristobulus threw his brother, Hyrcanus, from the throne and high priesthood. Into the chaos stepped Pompey the Great of Rome, and his conquest brought Judea, and the Jews, under the control and authority of Rome. (This is a long and complicated history of the Old Testament in one paragraph. I've oversimplified it by a LOT).


The once powerful Judea was now diminished. Access to the Mediterranean was cut off. Judea's once-proud people were now subjects, not citizens, of Rome. Rome, of course, did not worship the one true God of Israel. The people were in exile once again.


Throughout these turbulent centuries, the scriptures are full of hope. Job lost everything - his family, his wealth, and his health, but he never stopped hoping in God, and because of his faith God restored him.


The psalmists wrote of hope: For the needy shall not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor perish forever (Psalm 9:18). Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, (Psalm 33:18). By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas . (Psalm 65:5). These are just a few of the examples.


There was always hope. God tells the prophet Jeremiah of his great and burning anger at the people of Israel. God vows to withdraw his support and send the people into exile in Babylon. But God cannot turn his back on His people entirely for He loves them with an unrelenting love:

10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. (Jeremiah 20:10-12, NRSV)


God also has hope. God tells the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah that after the people have suffered their punishment, the exile will end and, "They shall be my people and I will be their God." (Jeremiah 32:38; Ezekiel 14:11 and 37:23; Zechariah 8:8)


God always made it clear that although he was completely out of patience and punishment would be severe, God never stopped loving His people. God's hope was that the punishment would restore Israel to relationship with God. And God sent an innocent baby, God's son, into the world to show God's great love, not only to the Jews, who counted Jesus among them, but to the Gentiles (non-Jews) as well: He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope (Matthew 12:20-21).


God has kept God's part of the bargain. I'm not so sure about us.

This year in particular I have felt like we are living in exile. Our country is divided. Our President has spewed hate and sown discord. People have suffered at our borders, as children have been ripped from their parents' arms. The pandemic has killed almost 270,000 people, and as of today over 13,000,000 people have been infected with COVID-19. The suffering of black people at the hands of police has ripped the blindfolds from our eyes, and we see how lynchings, bigotry, and bias continue to make their lives difficult. That awareness extends to Native peoples, who have been treated unfairly and cruelly since shortly after Squanto helped the pilgrims survive.


Where is God? As I have read the books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel this year, I see the United States in the scriptures. I see us as the sinful and unrepentant Hebrew people, most interested in ourselves, our wealth, our power and status, and quite willing to step on others to maintain them. Then we demonstrate our piety, which is an abomination to God: "So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said, 'This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.' (Matthew 15:6-8)

O Come, O come, Emmanuel, indeed.

We have work to do. God asks that we repent, and turn from our evil ways. We need to be sure that our "faith" actually reflects who God is and expects us to be. It does feel like God has withdrawn God's support and presence, because I believe that what has, in the past, made America "great," has been replaced with what didn't: hatred, bigotry, racism, misogyny, classism, power, greed, - the list goes on and on. These things were always there, but so were our better selves: generosity, compassion, creativity, and a desire to promote democracy. I used to believe that our inner hearts were good, and while we might disagree about how, there was never an argument about whether what we wanted was the best for everyone. I don't believe that any more.


We are so deep into our evil that we don't even recognize it. And if we do recognize it how do we stop it? How can we help at the border when we live thousands of miles away? How can we affect change for the climate when those in power won't listen? How can we stop racism when we refuse to acknowledge that we just might be racist?


First, we hope. We hope for a more just world, we hope for a return from exile, we hope that God will come and be among us. If we hope for it, we can imagine it, and if we can imagine it, we can ask God to help us make it so. If we listen to God, study the scriptures, pray, work, LOVE, God will help us.


Usually, for me, the hope of Advent is abstract - something that will happen someday. If I think about it I can always find something to be hopeful for - world peace, good health, that sort of thing.


This year, hope looks very different. This year the hope is for something concrete, something tangible. We hope for a vaccine. Some of us hope for positive change with a new administration in the White House. We are talking about racial bias and beginning to recognize that it is much more pervasive than we wanted to believe. We are talking about police reform and what that would look like, given that we also have laws and want order. Scientists have warned us about climate change, and our new administration is at least open to listening. Smog has decreased since people have been working at home - maybe our work and driving habits will change when this is over. Some of the institutions that were developed and are run by human beings perpetuate systemic injustices, but they are also the ones that have held and protected our democracy. Maybe now we can take a hard look at our institutions and strengthen what is good and discard what is rotten. Maybe our paradigm is shifting for the good. I hope so.


The most hopeful people in the world are children - they don't yet know what it is like to be disappointed and to fail at something. They aren't constrained by reality - in their minds anything is possible. So God came to us in the body of a baby. Could the message there be that anything really is possible? This infant is innocent and pure and hopeful. He doesn't know anything else. If he came to the world as an adult he might be cynical, disappointed, angry. But he was an innocent, hopeful infant.


I feel hope. God is coming in the birth of Jesus, even as God is already with us. We hope for God's presence. We hope for God's love. We hope that God's kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.


The hope of Israel was that the Davidic kings would be restored. No one anticipated that the "king" would be a helpless, hopeful baby, descended from David. Our hope is that God remains with us, and that we remain God's people. And that hope has come to pass.


I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive; I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together, so that all may see and know, all may consider and understand, that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it. (Isaiah 41:18-20)



If you are interested in an Advent wreath celebration with your own kids, here are some resources:


10 Simple Advent Wreath Ideas That Will Make Your Classroom Beautiful (ministryspark.com)


Advent Wreath & Candles - The Meaning, History and Tradition (crosswalk.com)


Celebrating Advent with Children - Parenting Tips and Advice (more4kids.info)


Some scriptures to go with each candle (from the NIV):

Week 1 (Hope) Isaiah 9:6-7: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.


Week 2 (Peace) Luke 3:4-6: As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God's salvation.


Week 3 (Joy) Luke 2:8-15: And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord

shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you: he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to all on whom his favor rests." When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."


Week 4 (Love) John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.


Christmas Eve Luke 2:1-20: In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you: he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to all on whom his favor rests." When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.


Feel free to vary the colors of the candles, the Bible verses, and to add Christmas hymns and prayers. The purpose is to bring Jesus into your holiday preparations.


Have a blessed Advent.




Hope candle. https://sacredheartglendale.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/advent-week-1-Google-Search.html Accessed November 29, 2020.


New World Encyclopedia contributors. "Babylonian Exile". New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved November 29, 2020 from Babylonian Exile - New World Encyclopedia.


Wikipedia contributors. (2020, November 20). Siege of Jerusalem (63 BC). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19:14, November 29, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Siege_of_Jerusalem_(63_BC)&oldid=989753969

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