Strong on hope

Jaylene Johnson’s sermon for the fourth Sunday in Advent

Please note that we were unable to get a good audio recording of this sermon, so it is just the text that is available this week.

And so, here we are – the fourth Sunday of Advent. On the horizon is a feast of seasons; Christmas Eve, the twelve days of Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany; great celebrations after our season of waiting and longing. However, this end of “Advent” for us, marks a beginning that changed the course of history. We are coming out of darkness in a sense, darkness that hearkens back to the three hundred some years the children ofIsraelwere without hearing from God… No word from the Hebrew prophets at all. The last was Malachi whose prophecy is referenced in Luke 1. But after Malachi – lights out. Just waiting…passing the scriptures and the old teachings from generation to generation – all of this under political occupation. I have marveled at how there were people still waiting for Messiah at all…people who still believed. I don’t like darkness, and I don’t like waiting, so, sadly, I wonder if I would I have been one of them. There was no Holy Spirit to comfort or guide them…Just the law and the prophets and traditions.

We now, however, live in an “epiphany” world, and evidence of the Gospel abounds – we have never known a world not touched by the grace of God through Jesus. We have access to the Word of God and have been given the Holy Spirit…God WITH us…Emmanuel, whose birth we will celebrate at Christmas. And yet, many will still say: there is no God, or perhaps – God has abandoned us; God will never show up; God doesn’t care. Some of us may even get stuck in Advent, whether we know it or not, doubting the gospel of Jesus who said “I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly” – rather being overwhelmed by a dark void in our lives. If that is you (and I admit it has been me at times) – there is yet hope.

The events of Luke chapter one are like a match finally being struck in the darkness…A match that sparks what will become a blazing fire at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit is poured out…But that is a text for another season. For now we have this watershed moment in scripture – God speaks! And to what may seem like unlikely characters. For example: Mary? Young. Unimportant. Poor. A woman! Considering the times, this is quite something.

The Luke 1 text reads like a movie script or storybook. Storybooks are birthed in imagination, and tonight, imagination figures prominently because it is at the root of hope. In fact, there is considerable evidence that what we imagine has a direct impact on our emotions and our very health.  If “faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen”  (Heb 11:1) then imagination, inspired by the Holy Spirit (God with us and in us – Emmanuel) is essential to our Christian faith.

The quote from Rowan Williams that Jamie sent those of us on the mailing list beautifully depicts this in the figure of the angel Gabriel, God’s messenger:

He says:

Angels see things in terms of their relationship with God. They’re full of imagination. When they look at the world, when they look at you and me, they see the extraordinary potential buried in us because they see us in our relationship with God. The Angel Gabriel comes to Mary and says, ‘You may be a teenager in a village nobody has heard of, on the edge of the Roman Empire in an occupied country, without any education, without a vote, without even a change of clothes, and you are going to be where God happens.’ The Angel Gabriel is strong on imagination.

Rowan Williams may also have said: The Angel Gabriel is strong on “hope”…Not “pipe-dream” hope, but hope rooted in an understanding of God and who God is because of his relationship with God. Gabriel knows what God can do, and he knows God’s heart, saying to Mary in Luke 1:37 (Amplified Bible)

For with God nothing is ever impossible and no word from God shall be without power or impossible of fulfillment.

I have skipped over this one in the story too many times, so here it is again!

For with God nothing is ever impossible and no word from God shall be without power or impossible of fulfillment.

What things? No thing. Not even causing a virgin to become pregnant with Jesus – not even resurrection of the dead. The very essence of hope is believing something is possible, and Gabriel’s declaration is that HOPE exists WITH God…God and ‘hope’ are inseparable. With God, longing and waiting and searching and enduring, become anticipation with imagination – not in the make believe, but in what we can make and be WITH God, the ultimate Maker. We can imagine the possible, and ANYTHING is possible with God. As we grow in our relationship with the Almighty, we can see the God-desired potential in circumstances and people, however challenging.

So, if hope EXISTS with God, it also begins with God, and it is the Holy Spirit who inspires it – we imagine, we dream, we envision, and with the Spirit we are given confidence that things can actually happen. When it is God who inspires hope, the promise is that it will not be “without power nor impossible of fulfillment”.

We see this confidence and work of the Spirit inElizabethand her encouragement to Mary…and in Mary, from whom we hear the “Magnificat” – a song of jubilance! Passion!  Justice – finally! Vindication – finally! Hope, longing, waiting fulfilled in God! Mary’s imagination for what was to be, was sparked by the Holy Spirit in her…leaving us powerful words to reflect upon and to give voice to the hope of nations: God with us. Emmanuel. The promise made to Abraham and all of his descendents from generation to generation and age to age – fulfilled. God moving in power…Hope.

Who other than God could spark such words? Mary was unsophisticated, uneducated, and judging by a lot of God’s prior choices in Scripture, probably pretty average. She, by the world’s terms, was nothing and no one. But had God sent Jesus through a wealthy or powerful family, he would not have been glorified in the same way. In fact, as history progressed, accusations that “Jesus” was some political movement from a powerful group of people might have held sway – had he not had such a humble beginning. But more than that, Mary was postured in such a way that when the message came to her from Gabriel, she received it, and became the mother of God whom nations call blessed to this very day. Mary! Who would have imagined it?

God did. Gabriel did. And Mary filled with the Holy Spirit did as well.

True and lasting hope and the ability to imagine good things for our world is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, and not something we conjure up on our own – at least not to lasting effect.

Our arms may be too tired to lift in the area of hope, but Jesus said: Come to me you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.  Abide with Him. Enjoy Him. He has promised to never leave nor forsake us, and he now dwells with us by the Holy Spirit. In what I earlier referred to as our “epiphany” world, we are the tabernacles of God. “The very temple of the Holy Spirit” it says in the bible, and Jesus also said that God is happy to give the Holy Spirit to us when we ask. The world before this moment that we mark on the fourth Sunday of Advent did not have the Holy Spirit…But we have been given this ‘Helper’. I want to suggest that as we move into Christmas and make our plans for 2012, our first prayers be for a fresh filling from top to bottom with the Spirit of God, that the eyes of our spiritual understanding be enlightened, that we would know the hope of his calling; the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints (Eph 1:18). In other words, that our imaginations would be sparked through and in our relationship with God – who is the source of all hope and who backs up his word with power to fulfill it.

I realize the significance of Advent is multifold, but I want to share that for me, Advent does two very important things:  It acknowledges the darkness that existed before Jesus came into the world but, secondly, that darkness still exists in the lives of so many today. Advent gives space for the broken, the lonely and the deeply hurting in a season that has become hijacked by commercialism – a season where the depressed are often more so, and suffering felt more acutely, especially when juxtaposed against the bounty of others. Our commercial Christmas offers pleasure, food, gifts (and these are not bad in and of themselves…In fact, it’s good to feast) But for many it’s the most painful time of the year. Observing Advent builds empathy for the hopeless and the lonely, and this is good, as it moves us to act compassionately.

Here’s the thing, though: Whatever any one of us may feel, however bleak the circumstances, God HAS come. 1 Peter 2:9 says “He calls us out of darkness and into His glorious light” With God, nothing shall be impossible, not even sparking the most beautiful imagination in the most horrible or hopeless of situations…May we all posture ourselves as Mary did – and as Elizabeth’s son “John the Baptist” would call so many to do in his ministry, believing the word of God and allowing the Spirit to ‘strike a match’ in the darkness of our lives, toward lasting peace, joy and hope in us.

Finally, I borrow words from Romans 15:13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”

Jaylene Johnson

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