A SIGNPOST OF HOPE
Isaiah 7: 10-16
Matthew 1: 18-25
DECEMBER 19, 2004
The Fourth Sunday in Advent
a sermon preached
the Rev. Maxwell Vines
First Baptist Church of Oakland
Telegraph Avenue at 22nd Street, Oakland, California
Many expressions we use come from the past, some of them from quite ancient settings. We are familiar with the proverbial saying about opening up a can of worms. That’s not so old, but a similar saying, of quite ancient reference, which we sometimes hear is about the opening up of a Pandora’s box. We use it when some action generates many unmanageable problems. Those who can recall this saying will mostly have visions of a box with the lid raised and a host of butterflies being released, followed by someone racing around unable to capture the butterflies to put them back in the box. This saying has its origin in the Greek myth of Epimetheus and Pandora. According to Hesiod in his journal, Works and Days, Zeus, king of the gods, sent Pandora to Epithemeus who was so enraptured with her beauty that he made her his wife. Now Epimetheus possessed a large earthenware pot, covered with a lid, containing all the evils and only one good, hope. Pandora was barely settled on earth when, overcome with curiosity, she lifted the lid from her new husband’s storage container, releasing all the ills into the world. Quickly replacing the lid she succeeded in trapping in the pot only hope, which was at the bottom.
There are, however, two versions of this story and the alternative form of the legend says that the pot actually contained not all the world’s ills but every blessing. By opening it carelessly, Pandora let all the good things escape and return to the heavens instead of staying with humanity. That is why men and women are afflicted with every form of evil; and that is why only hope, which many regard as a poor consolation, is left to them, to us. Now, my guess is that, if we remembered this story, what most of us actually recalled was the escape of all these butterflies or whatever, but perhaps not many of us remembered that this was a myth or a legend concerning hope. Studs Terkel used the alternative forms of this ancient mythological story as part of the introduction to his book, Hope Dies Last. His book recounts a selection of interesting stories of people who persisted in spite of great hardship, overcoming enormous obstacles to achieve what they set out to do. It is a remarkable commentary on the resilience of the human spirit and the way in which a few otherwise quite ordinary people persist beyond the point where so many just give up. It is a collection of stories about people of faith, and of no faith, and of unusual variations of faith. The common element is that they are all examples of the theme, hope dies last, for surely when men and women in the face of trial and difficulty, lose hope, they lose everything.
Our reading from Isaiah the prophet concerns the sign of Emmanuel. A young women will bear a son, says the prophet, and will call him Emmanuel as a sign that God has not abandoned the people of Judah, and will continue with them in this time of great political turbulence. This was a passage around which there was enormous debate a generation ago when fundamentalists took objection to the fact that in the then new Revised Standard Version of the Bible the Hebrew word was translated as a young women rather than a virgin. They claimed this was an attempt by liberals to undermine belief in the virgin birth of Jesus. No matter that the Hebrew word normally meant simply a young woman of marriagable age. On the other hand, hardly anybody got around to discussing the fact that Isaiah said this birth would take place in their own lifetime (see Isa. 7: 16), and this was several centuries before the birth of Jesus. In other words, Isaiah was not talking about some remote future time; he was talking about the very time in which he and his contemporaries lived. Whatever and whoever this sign, who was to make visible the assurance of God’s presence with the Judaeans as a people this was a hope for their own time. Centuries later, the writer of Matthew’s Gospel saw a secondary meaning in this prophecy and drew together the promises of Messiah, inspired to connect them with the baby to be born in Bethlehem.
Jacques Ellul, the French writer, published a book a generation ago ago called, Hope in an Age of Abandonment. As I recall it, this came out following the period when the so-called Death of God debate had preoccupied American institutions. Abandonment and futility are two great fears of the human spirit, and only hope can help people through such experiences.
The Advent message is a signpost of hope. The text we read tells us that the promised one will be called Emmanuel meaning God with us. When human beings feel abandoned, it is because God is not perceived to be with them. This was the great fear which tore at the Jewish psyche during the Nazi Holocaust. If they were truly abandoned then perhaps their whole understanding of God was erroneous, and indeed while some emerged from that dreadful, horrifying period, as believers still, others came through their ordeal saying that either there was no God or that God had indeed abandoned them to the Nazi bestiality. When human beings feel that life has become futile, without meaning and without purpose, it is then that the restoration of hope is most needed. This child is called Emmanuel because his birth is a sign that in him God is truly with us. Hope may die last for unbeliever and believer alike, under the impact of life’s troubles, but when the divine presence is promised to be with us, among us, accompanying us, then hope, however fragile, will not die out.
In his little treatise, Beyond Cynicism - the Practice of Hope, David Woodyard speaks of God being understood as the power of the future. “God,” he says, “is experienced as One ahead of us opening up our possibilities in the present.” He reminds us that God is the giver of the future. The future may not be what we expect, and it may not be easy to understand, but it is God’s gift to us. It is the future which God will give and Jesus Christ is Emmanuel, God with us. That is a signpost of hope. God is God in relation to whatever is coming in our world, because for all the damage we humans do to it, it is still God’s world.
This does not mean, however, that we can simply accept God’s presence and relax about the future, without any concern about our responsibility to help shape it. The engagement of the church with the world is what we understand as mission, and, as David Woodyard points out, “the church embraces the world as the point of impact for its vision of the future.”
The assurance of God’s presence with humanity in their suffering is the peculiar claim of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. God entered the situation when the slaves in Egypt cried out from their oppression in bitter bondage. Moses was God’s gift to them for the future and the sign that God had not forgotten them. God did not abandon them but was with their descendents through the years of Exile later in Babylon. Again it was the God of the Bethlehem birth who was with estranged humanity in the terrible, seeming failure and suffering of the cross when Jesus gave himself for humanity. All these episodes tell us that the suffering of God alongside of humanity, with humanity, is the ground of our hope. To quote Woodyard one more time: “Hope affirms that the world can be changed, that reality is not fixed.”
Robert Coles, Harvard author of Children in Crisis experienced a conversion experience as a young Air Force doctor stationed in Louisiana during the late 1950s. A six-year old black girl was selected to integrate an elementary school near his base. Every day Ruby was escorted to school by federal marshalls and passed through a gauntlet of vindictive, jeering, spitting crowds of angry white people. Wondering how she would continue to cope with such bitterness Coles decided to make a case study of it. He arranged with her teachers to call him if she showed signs of breaking under the strain, as he expected her to do. One day he received a call saying that Ruby was beginning to talk to herself. When Coles arrived the teacher con-fronted Ruby: “You were standing right by the window, and I saw your lips moving.” But Ruby said: “I wasn’t talking to myself. I was praying, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’” While the main point here is her devout and forgiving spirit we must also say that she knew the meaning of Emmanuel: God was with her. And this whole episode became a transforming experience for Coles.
What does all this mean for us, apart from the season and its promise of hope? Does it have anything to say to us as a church in our struggle to have hope for the future. The message is basically simple. It is the God whose grace in the past we remember who is with us now. It is God, in Christ, seeking to reconcile the world. It is always Emmanuel - God with us.