A Wrinkle in Hope

This Sermon was preached at Middletown Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky on December 28, 2014. Audio can be found here.

Luke 2:21-40

Hope is anticipated joy.

Last week Rebecca came home from the salon.  She hadn’t gone for a hair cut in months, in fact she had let it grow out and her hair was maybe as long as it had ever been.  She was excited about a light trim and being able to style and curl her hair for the holidays. I was excited about it too, because I had spent hours researching and purchasing for her the perfect Christmas Gift: a curling iron. I had scoured the internet to learn the difference between curling wands and curling irons, to learn which size iron was the most helpful–1″ or 1 1/4″?–and I had looked up lists of the “Best Curling Irons of 2014”.  I found a high quality iron, just the right size, for just the right sale price.

While Rebecca was at the Salon, I received the Curling Iron in the mail, nicely wrapped it–even put a bow and some ribbon on it–and had the present ready for the tree.

Hope is anticipated joy.

Then Rebecca returned from the Salon.  “Michael! I need you to come here and give me a hug!”  I ran up from the basement to find Rebecca in the front door, tears streaming down her cheeks.

Where was all her hair???

I gave Rebecca a big hug and learned that her stylist, who she loves and who often does a great job, just wasn’t paying close attention and took off WAY more than Rebecca requested. As she grieved her hair in my embrace, I heard her sniffle, “I really hope you didn’t get me a curling iron for Christmas…”

Anxiety is Anticipated Dread.

I pray you had no anxiety this Christmas. But the truth is you probably experienced some anxiety, in one form or another. Christmas, for all its wonder and magic, lights and cheer, seems brimming with stress.

There is that stress inducing anxiety which is anticipated failure: maybe not getting the right gift for a family member, or missing the all-important Christmas card mailing deadline, or fumbling that long-hallowed family tradition, or over-cooking the ham. Add to that the anticipated dread of holiday loneliness–loved ones profoundly missed; and the anticipated dread of finances–will there be enough to cover the cost of gifts and travel? Will I sink even deeper into the mire of debt?

The anxiety of anticipated dread is all around us, all too often intensified by the holidays. We smile widely and say “Merry Christmas” but few Christmases come and go without a bit of stress.

But hope, according to the theologian Jürgen Moltmann, hope is anticipated joy.

Hope is the melting away of anxiety, the relief from dread.  This Christmas season, while it may induce stress and intensify anxiety, is actually about welcoming and embracing and living in hope.

In our Scripture Passage this morning we see hope in the hands of Simeon. We hear it in the praise of old Anna as her anticipated joy echoes against the temple walls.

Hope.

This morning I invite you to behold hope, to reach for it with Simeon, to revel in it with Anna. I invite you to join them and find hope in the face of Jesus, wrapped tightly in Mary’s arms.

For hope, my friends, is the mark of Christian life, hope is the friend of faith.  Where there is faith, there is hope.  Where there is true hope, there is sincere faith.

What is more, life without hope is not only faithless, it is a peculiar form of human suffering.

I learned this week about efforts by our city and community organizations to address the terrors faced by certain neighborhoods: poor education, unemployment, and a culture of violence.  More than $200k has been invested by the James Graham Brown Foundation to help create Zones of Hope, cultures and environments of empowerment for young people at great risk because they are too often without hope.

Our community hungers for hope.

Humanity hungers for hope.

Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Holocaust, tells of the terror of concentration camps.  There, prisoners were stripped of all their possesions, even their names. Prisoners were instructed to forget who they were, forget where they came from, forget their dreams and their future, forget everything but the present. Only the present matters–only this bread, this ration. Only this labor and this toil. Cutoff from the past and the future, the present moment was a restricted universe dominated by fear.

Elie Wiesel believes that one cannot live without hope. And while we might think that hope is purely an orientation toward the future, Wiesel thinks differently. In his Nobel Laureate address, Wiesel writes, “hope without memory is like memory without hope…the opposite of the future is not the past but the absence of past. The loss of one is equivalent to the sacrifice of the other.”

I think Elie Wiesel has it right; hope is the sweet kiss of the past and the future in the present.

Hope is anticipated joy because hope remembers.

Our scripture passage this morning is a collision of the past and the future in the face of Jesus, a collision which yields an explosion of joy.

Jesus was only about 7 weeks old when he was brought to the temple. He had already been circumcised, as required by Jewish Law, marking his acceptance into covenant community.   The theme of fulfillment, past promises fulfilled, is rich in these verses from Luke’s gospel.  We see that Mary fulfills the words of the angel Gabriel by naming her child, Jesus, as the messenger instructed.  We see devout parents fulfilling the Jewish Law which required “the redemption of the firstborn” and “purification of the mother.”  According to Levitical Law, the firstborn child of a family was to be presented and redeemed, “bought back”, at the temple for a price of five shekels.  In addition, Mary was considered ceremonially unclean for 33 days after birth, and thus waited before offering a sacrifice at the temple to cleanse herself.

Fulfillment. The past is brought to bear on the present. Jesus is born with a past, in the context of the covenant established between God and the people of Israel.

Enter Simeon.

Simeon has been waiting his whole life to glimpse the “consolation of Israel”, the Messiah, the annointed one of God. And there, waiting at the temple, he recognizes in Jesus’ face all that Israel has longed for, all that he himself has waited for.  He sees God’s past promise cooing before him.

And then Simeon scoops up the baby in his arms.

I told Melvin LeCompte, our pastoral care minister, that I was going to “get into the text” this week by going to the malls, teeming with shoppers, find a mother with her baby, scoop her child into my arms, and declare that her beloved baby will one day change the world–just to see if she would believe it, or what her reaction might be. Melvin talked me out of this great idea by saying in his kindly way, “Michael, I don’t think I have any money left over in the pastoral care budget to bail you out of jail.”

Remarkably, Mary and Joseph did not press charges against Simeon. They did not scream or panic.  They welcomed Simeon’s blessing, indeed they marveled at his joy-filled words:

Simeon declared: “Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people.”

Did you catch that?  Simeon did not say “I have seen the Messiah who WILL save his people.”  No, this is strange. Simeon mysteriously declares that future salvation is here, salvation has come into the present.  Saving is going on already in this peasant baby. Somehow, someway, salvation IS the baby Jesus.

I sometimes sense that we have an impoverished view of Christmas, that it has become only a festive prologue/introduction to the important stuff that really matters later on in Jesus’ life.  What seems to matter about Christmas, besides the food, gifts and family gatherings, is that it eventually gets us to the cross. On this take, Jesus as a baby is cute, but his infancy has no saving significance, it’s just what it takes for him to enter the scene; instead salvation is a byproduct of a transaction adult Jesus makes with God at his death. In other words, only Jesus’ adult death saves us.

The Scandal of Salvation is that Christmas is consistent with the Cross: God saves us in a cooing infant and an accused criminal. God’s salvation is just as much in the manger as it is on the tree of Calvary. As Simeon declares, God’s salvation is, mysteriously, a person, not a product. A person in whom past promise and future consolation become present.

Friends, this matters profoundly, because Hope flows from Salvation, from who Jesus IS. Hope is fueled by remembering the paradoxical way God always and forever chooses to be with us and for us: in the weakness and frailty of a baby, in the compassion and vulnerability of a traveler, in the humiliation and shame of a despised enemy.

Borrowing from Paul Tillich, Hope that flows from Jesus can see “power under weakness, the whole under the fragment, victory under defeat, glory under suffering, innocence under guilt, sanctity under sin, life under death.” Hope says, “My eyes have seen your salvation!” (“Has the Messiah come?” in The New Being)

Hope is anticipated joy because hope remembers.

What I love about old Simeon and old Anna is that they show us there is no age limit on hope.  You cannot be too old to hope.  Hope is not innocent youth, hope is not naive idealism, hope is not tempered by experience, hope is not lost to the ravages of a cruel world with time. Hope is for all people. Hoppe is the mark of a Christian Life at 6, 16, 46 and at 86.  Hope is what happens when our eyes have seen salvation and we boldly declare God’s future is breaking into our world, somehow, someway, right now.

We live in a world of cynicism, skepticism, and indifference. Too many people will tell you the world is going to hell in a hand basket–wars proliferating, culture changing, politics infected with undue influence, cartel kidnappings, religious extremism… We don’t need to argue. The world does not have to be “getting better” to hope. Hope is not a calculated probability based on the present. Hope remembers the improbable action of God in Jesus and leans into a future he inaugurated. A future where God is fully with us.

Hope is anticipated joy because hope remembers.

Hope looks at our past life, at our shame and guilt, at our seemingly unbreakable pattern of defiance and damage, and anticipates joy–because however bad we look, that’s where God is at work. Hope frees.  Hope looks on a blighted community, abandoned and ignored, and anticipates joy, because however bad the streets look, that’s where God is at work. Hope builds.  Hope looks at an apathetic student, consigned to be a dropout, and anticipates joy–however bad his grades, that’s where God is at work. Hope mentors. Hope looks on those who are homeless and anticipates joy–however bad it looks, God is at work there.  Hope feeds, hope houses. Hope dignifies.

It is Hope in God’s salvation that drove Martin Luther King, Jr to boldly proclaim:

“I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.” (“I Have A Dream” Speech)

Hope is not deterred by how bad things look.  Not because Hope is silly or unrealistic.  No, hope stares into reality and hope knows how God moves, how God saves, how God has chosen once and for all to be with us and for us in the otherwise forgettable face of a peasant baby.

Hope remembers.

Will you?

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