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Hope in a Season of Hopelessness


It will be said on that day,
“See, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”


It is a pretty hopeless world right now. Where is the hope of Israel, that still doesn't feel safe in its own land? Where is the hope in Gaza, where their land and homes are being blasted to oblivion and they have nowhere to go? Where is the hope of the families of those taken hostage on October 7, or those who grieve loved ones killed that day? Where is the hope of the Ukrainians who face the onset of winter? Where is the hope of the Russian people who are powerless to stop their president?


The World Food Program lists the top 10 hunger crises in the Democratic Republic of Congo (26 million people face severe hunger), Afghanistan (19.9 million people), Yemen (17 million people), Syria (12 million people), the Sahel (13 million people), Sudan (15.8 million people), South Sudan (7.7 million people), Somalia (6 million people), Northern Ethiopia (5.5 million people), and Haiti (4.7 million people). The two primary predictors of famine are armed conflict and climate change that leads to flooding, drought, and rising food prices. This data was published in March of this year, well before the humanitarian crisis in Gaza began to unfold. Where is their hope?


How will we ever control our climate crisis when we can't even agree one exists?


Where is the hope of survivors of gun violence, and those who grieve those killed by gun violence?


In the United States, where is the hope that our government actually cares?


This is the first week of Advent. This week Christian churches light the candle of Hope on the Advent Wreath. We sing "O Come, O Come Emmanuel." Christmas trees are decorated in many church sanctuaries, and people all over are beginning to prepare for ... Christmas. Not the Christ child, but Christmas. My first batch of Christmas cookies is about 2 minutes from completion. I've made a good dent in my shopping, and Jay just brought 4 boxes of Christmas decorations up from the basement. Somebody on Spotify is singing about frightful weather and letting it snow. It's a start, anyway. But it isn't the quiet reflection and preparation of Advent.


The world seems pretty hopeless, but in church on Sunday, and at my dinner table, we lit the candle of hope. Advent is a time to prepare for the birth of the Christ child. It is a time for quiet reflection. The secular world is busy with shopping, decorating, wrapping, parties, singing songs about Santa and Rudolph and snow. I love all that, too - but I also love Advent.


So this week I have been reflecting on hope, and the apparent current lack of it.


Resilience is the ability to withstand change, and I've been thinking about that, too. If we turn to Hebrew and Christian scriptures, we find plenty of evidence of hopelessness, resilience, and hope.


The Bible is full of hopeless people, from Naomi in the book of Ruth: Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons... (1:12); to Job: My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle

and come to their end without hope. (7:6); through the Psalms: Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live, and let me not be put to shame in my hope (119:116); to Jesus himself, who asked that the cup of the crucifixion be taken from him (Matthew 26:39), and then asked why God had abandoned him (Matthew 27:45).


The Bible is full of hopelessness, but it is also full of hope. In every instance, the person turns to God and finds hope. Naomi's daughter-in-law, Ruth, refused to leave her as Naomi asked her to do, and ultimately found prosperity and happiness for both of them in Ruth's marriage to Boaz. Job is found to be righteous in the face of suffering and does not turn away from God; ultimately his fortune is restored and he finds a new family. The psalmist rejoices in hope over and over again - he may lament that things are bleak, but always returns to hope in the Lord: Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you. (33:22).


Isaiah 25:6-10:


On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples

a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,

of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

7 And he will destroy on this mountain

the shroud that is cast over all peoples,

the covering that is spread over all nations;

8 he will swallow up death forever.

Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,

and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,

for the Lord has spoken.

9 It will be said on that day,

“See, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.

This is the Lord for whom we have waited;

let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

10 For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain.


What can be more hopeful than that?


Isaiah received his call to prophecy in about 742 BCE. This was a time when the Jews had fallen away from God:

“Go and say to this people:

‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ 10 Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes and listen with their ears and comprehend with their minds and turn and be healed.” 11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said, “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; 12 until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. 13 Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.”[c] (The holy seed is its stump.) (Isaiah 6:9-13)


This was also a time when the Assyrians were expanding and threatening Israel. The Assyrians were cruel and did a lot of evil, and were prevailing in battle. Remember Jonah of the whale? He spent time in the belly of the fish because he didn't want to go to Ninevah, which was part of Assyria, presumably because he was afraid of what they would do to him.


But back to Isaiah, who was trying to convince the people of Israel that they needed to change their ways or basically all hell would break loose. Spoiler alert: they didn't and it did. Ultimately the Israelites were taken into captivity in Babylon, the temple was destroyed, and too late they realized the error of their ways. Hopeless indeed.


Here's the thing: it strikes me that if we don't suffer, we can't have hope, because we don't need it. Imagine for one moment that all of your needs and desires were met - where then would your hope be? Now, I don't want to hear anyone say, "You want hope Kathy? Well, here's some suffering so you can hope." I especially don't want anyone to be like Ebenezer Scrooge and say that if people are going to suffer, maybe they should go ahead and die and reduce the surplus population.


I think we are called to not inflict suffering on anyone. Suffering will come - legs will be broken, fevers contracted, and loved ones pass away. It just seems that so much of the world's suffering is inflicted by the powerful upon the powerless, and that is NOT the way God calls us to be.


The scripture on Sunday was the story of the priest Zechariah from Luke, chapter 1. The angel of the Lord comes to Zechariah to tell him he will be a father. Zechariah scoffs because he and his wife, Elizabeth, are old and beyond childbearing, and Zechariah says something along the lines of, "Suuuure we are!" So the angel, peeved by Zechariah's insolence, strikes him dumb. He doesn't speak another word until his son is born, and rather than follow the convention of the time and name him after someone in his family, Zechariah names the baby John (as in, the Baptist). This is a story we hear every Advent, but this time, I heard Elizabeth's voice: "After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me in this time, when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” (Luke 1:24-25)


Elizabeth, living in a time when infertility was never the fault of the man, was disgraced by her childlessness. Disgrace is a pretty strong word. Disgrace means shame, shunning, and despair, and at that time children were expected to provide labor and income, and to care for their aging parents. Elizabeth was hopeless - the one thing she needed to regain her social standing in her community and in her home wasn't coming. She was too old. But - a miracle! God looked favorably on her (and her cousin, Mary) and she conceived a child. Her hope was restored!


It was also the time of Roman occupation - remember it was Caesar who decided to tax everyone (men) in the city of their birth, which is how Mary found herself on the back of a donkey while in labor. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't have been calm and serene in those circumstances. But I'm guessing that if Mary had more children (some say she didn't), those labors would have been easy compared to the one on the donkey. I can hear her saying, "If I survived that, I can survive this."


That is hope. When we look at the past and see that we have survived something similar to our current hopelessness, we have hope. I live in a safe home, and the likelihood that something terrible is going to happen is fairly slim. I am aging, though, and illness and infirmity is somewhere on the horizon. And yes, I know hopelessness - I think I have shared that I struggle with depression, and hopelessness is a hallmark of that illness. And if you say to me, "What do you have to be sad or hopeless about? You have it so much better than so many other people!" I will say to you, "I know, depression isn't rational, and thanks for adding GUILT to my already addled brain." I have survived grief, and illness. I have hope that if called to do so, I will survive again.


If we look at the past that is recorded on the pages of the Bible - really look at it and not just read the words - we see over and over and over again that God provided for his people. God continues to be present now.


"O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel." Emmanuel means God with us. So into this world where Israel needed to be ransomed, Rome was in brutal control, and things looked pretty hopeless comes a baby.


What is more hopeful than the birth of a baby? Mary and Joseph must have been very afraid - Mary especially as she realized her baby would be born in a strange place, among strange people. Joseph must have been afraid as he realized that he couldn't provide what Mary needed to deliver the child. But deliver him she did, and as they gazed into that face, what hope must they have felt! This child of God, healthy and strong, was here. His life was yet to unfold, and his story not yet written. What hope every parent has for their newborn child! And Mary knew that hers was the Son of God. Hope was there, in Bethlehem, in that stable, with that small family. And Hope is with us, too, no matter how hopeless the world seems right now.


It occurs to me that in their new parenthood, Mary and Joseph depended on others to help them. All parents do - neighbors, family, teachers, friends. We can't raise children alone. So as Mary's people were called to help her nurture and raise her son, we are called every December to reflect on how we can nurture and raise the child of God that is present in each of us.


Emmanuel has come and is coming. God is with us, so we have hope. How are we called to share that hope? Where do we need to embrace that hope? How are we, inadvertently or not, smashing the hope of someone else? This is a time to reflect, and as Isaiah prophesied, we need to do better.



On another note, I want to recommend a book I am reading titled The First Advent in Palestine: Reversals, Resistance, and the Ongoing Complexity of Hope, by Kelley Nikondeha. It is giving me a lot to think about, and lots of background information. It is very interesting to read at this time of Advent and conflict in the Middle East.



Blank, Sheldon. Isaiah. Encyclopedia Britannica. Nov. 2, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Isaiah/Isaiahs-theology. Online, accessed Dec. 6, 2023.


Cherry, Kendra, MSEd. How Resilience Helps You Cope with Life's Challenges. VerywellMind. May 3, 2023. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-resilience-2795059. Online, accessed Dec 5, 2023.


Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. 1843.


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