In the name of the God of hope, who is always coming into the world. Amen.
I must admit it’s been pretty grim recently in the world of news. Just picking up the Times this week I was often concerned, appalled, or frightened.
But it’s not all bad news, is it? Now and then there’s a hope-studded story about personal triumphs and the growth of love in the world. It’s like going out into the darkness of the night sky and finding comfort in the glimmers of light that reach our eyes after years in the vastness of interstellar space.
How we yearn for these bits of hope! How we yearn for things to be better. And how we often are left waiting and waiting for something that takes way too long to come about. Advent reminds us that we are people who wait in hope for better times. We wait for the birth of the Savior afresh into our midst. We also wait in hope for the ultimate—which is our promised reunion with God. And we believe that our reunion after death is enabled by Jesus—who taught us, loved us, forgave us, and invited us into the heavenly places to live with him forever.
There’s a beautiful poem I found about Advent, written by Christina Rossetti. She was a British poet of the late 19th century—she’s the one who wrote the words to our beautiful Christmas hymn, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Now, her long poem called “Advent” plays with the different movements of the season, from hopeful waiting to fulfillment in the birth of the Savior. I’m going to quote the very first stanza because I want to use a line from it for the rest of this reflection. Here it is:
This Advent moon shines cold and clear,
These Advent nights are long;
Our lamps have burned year after year,
And still their flame is strong.
"Watchman, what of the night?" we cry,
Heart-sick with hope deferred:
"No speaking signs are in the sky,"
Is still the watchman's word.
“Heartsick with hope deferred.” That speaks even today, I think. But sometimes, now and then, we are granted glimpses of hope NOT deferred. Episodes that remind us that God is here, that everything will be ok after all. We often experience these infusions of hope when something beautiful breaks out into a place it doesn’t belong.
I think of the famous photos of the man whose name is Vedran Smailovic—otherwise known as the Cellist of Sarajevo. In 1992 he had had enough of the internecine warfare that nearly demolished his once beautiful city in Yugoslavia—what is now called Bosnia and Herzegovina. He took his cello and sat down in the rubble of destroyed buildings and he played as a protest against the war and as a prayer for peace. Time and again he played the Adagio in G minor often attributed to Tomaso Albinoni. The pictures of the Cellist of Sarajevo went around the world, an eloquent statement about beauty holding on, even in a hellhole. The pictures were an eloquent and heart-breaking statement of hope.
Something beautiful breaking out into a place it doesn’t belong is an antidote to the heart sickness we feel when hope is deferred too long. When I was thinking about this sermon this week I remembered in my own life when something beautiful broke out into a space it didn’t belong. Let me tell you about it.
It happened when I was learning to be a hospital chaplain, in preparation for ordination. I was called to the NICU, or the Newborn Intensive Care Unit one morning. A young couple were standing at some distance from their newborn’s isolette unit, and they were appalled and about as heart-sick as humans can ever be.
Their baby was born at about 22 or 23 weeks of gestation. He hardly looked human. He was hooked up to more tubes and things that beeped that we can imagine. And the nurses were appalled too because this couple couldn’t even look at this child, who was sure to die very, very soon. They were so shocked and so sad.
After introducing myself to them and giving whatever sympathy I could, I asked their permission to go over to the isolette and speak with the baby, and touch him. I asked the nurse’s permission, too. And as I did so, touching ever-so-gently his crepey-thin skin, I spoke to him, welcomed him into the world, and tried to comfort him.
And a beautiful thing happened: his oxygen numbers stopped dropping. And they even went up.
And an even more beautiful thing happened: the baby’s mother then had the courage to want to touch and to love her baby, too, despite the fact that he wouldn’t live long. That was a glimmer of hope for them—a breaking-out of something beautiful where it does not belong.
Isaiah today gives us prophecies of hope breaking through the darkness of despair. You can see one such prophecy on the beautiful cover of our bulletin. Isaiah says that when the Lord comes to save his people, the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and the mute will sing. And even the suffering of the Creation will be overturned as streams flow in the desert and burning sands are cooled. Isaiah’s oracles point us to the coming of the Savior, God’s Messiah. And that is itself a breaking out of something beautiful in a world where it doesn’t seem to belong.
In our gospel John the Baptist needs hope to keep going in the face of his own imprisonment. He who was so sure of Jesus’ identity when he baptized Jesus, later on needs reassurance so that he can keep on hoping and keep on waiting. And Jesus reassures him in Biblical code—accessing today’s passage from Isaiah. “Tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
Note that Jesus didn’t fix everything for John in a spectacular, clear-as-can-be way. He didn’t spring him from jail or assert in black and white terms that he was “The One.” But he certainly gave him hope.
And hope is there for us as well—there for the taking. When we are heart-sick with hope deferred, God—Jesus—brings us hope: a breaking-out of something beautiful where it doesn’t belong. But often it’s so subtle that it’s hard to notice.
I’m not sure about each of you here today, but for me those little drops of hope are the beauty of the woods and the skies, the lovely way that ducks sail across a placid pond, the beauty of candles and time-hallowed words, the wonder and joy of plunging deep into Scripture, a slow fall of snow, and the beauty of good friends and family members who can receive my deepest worries and fears, and not abandon me. These all say HOPE.
So do what you can to find hope. Cultivate it like you cultivate a garden or a potted plant.
· Ground your hope in the soil of healthy community—a parish filled with good people and good friends who can pray for you and who can pray FOR you when you can’t pray because of exhaustion or heart-sickness.
· Water your hope with Scripture. Pray either Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer each day and feel the water of the Word of God pouring over your soul and refreshing you for what lies ahead.
· And fertilize your hope with prayer. There’s no better way to know God than to pray and to listen. Conversing regularly with God helps hope grow and flourish.
Cultivate hope in community and in the quiet of your own soul, and the God of hope will fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. And look for those glimpses of beauty springing forth where they don’t much belong.