The Dangerous Business of Hope [Advent 3B]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Isaiah 61 & Psalm 126

The Dangerous Business of Hope

I kept telling myself: “Don't get your hopes up.” Because hope is a dangerous thing. And I did not want to end up disappointed, again. But then the Browns took a two touchdown lead, in the second half, and I started to feel it bubbling up. But I've been a Browns fan far too long. And so I kept telling myself, “Don't get your hopes up.”

But then it was the fourth quarter and the Browns still had a 14-point lead. And my resolve was diminishing quickly. I could feel it slipping away. When the two-minute warning hit I started thinking to myself, “They might actually do this. They might get their first win of the season.” They were, after all, still up by a touchdown and the clock was ticking. But then with 17 seconds left in the game last Sunday, the Packers scored the game-tying touchdown. And then the Browns threw an interception in overtime and the next thing I knew the Packers were celebrating the win after scoring twenty straight points. The Browns fell to 0-13. And I was wallowing, again, in disappointment. I knew it. It was my own fault. I should have never got my hopes up.

Like I said, hope is a dangerous thing. It opens the door to disappointment. It feels much safer to keep the expectations low and hope at bay, to hide our dreams, and to hedge our bets.

But still hope is the dangerous business to which we are called. Hope compels us carry the torch into the darkness – despite the long odds, despite the risk to our hearts.

It should be said, hope is not to be confused with optimism. Optimism is easy, you see, because you do not have to put your heart into optimism. Optimism requires no risk, no courage. It's passive. Cornel West makes the distinction, saying: “Hope and optimism are different. Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there's enough evidence out there to believe things are gonna be better, much more rational, deeply secular, whereas hope looks at the evidence and says, 'It doesn't look good at all. Doesn't look good at all. Gonna go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever.' That's hope.”1 Or as Archbishop Desmond Tutu asserts, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”2

The Bible is rarely optimistic – just read the Prophets or the book of Revelation. But the Bible is absolutely drenched in hope – hope placed in a God who has a history of doing the impossible. It always believes beyond the evidence – because every dead end gives way to a new future. That is our story. That is why we are called to the dangerous business of hope.

And this is what hope looks like: a flickering flame in a pyramid prison. Hope looks like a ragtag band of slaves, beat down and stranded in Egypt, roasting their Passover lambs with their sandals on, ready to walk out of captivity. Ready to go even though the Pharaoh had no interest in letting them go. But they hoped for a future beyond their bondage. And when they stood between death by sword and death by sea – in an impossible situation - they still had enough hope to keep walking towards the water. It did not look good at all. There were no guarantees on the shore of the Red Sea. But there was hope – hope that God would hold back the waters, hope that life was waiting for them on the other side. They marched into their new future – holding on to nothing but hope. That is what hope looks like.

Hope looks like Joshua and Caleb spying on the Promised Land. The other ten spies weighed the evidence and pumped the breaks. But two, Joshua and Caleb, saw the light despite the darkness. Sure, their people were out-numbered, were starving in the desert, were weak and defenseless. And sure, there were giants in the land; it was an impossible situation; they did not stand a chance. All of the evidence said: It does not look good at all. But they remembered the Exodus; they remembered the walls of water and their impossible God. And so they dreamed of a future in the Land. They held onto hope. That is what hope looks like.

Hope looks like Joshua marching around Jericho. He did not have an army; he had band of desert wanders who did not stand a chance against a fortified walled city packed with weapons and warriors. The evidence was that Joshua was leading his people to certain death. But this is the audacity of hope: they bring no weapons, just trumpets. And they don't attack; they march. And they do not hide their disadvantage in the shadows of night; they shout and stomp in broad daylight. It shouldn't work. It made no sense. But the God who marched them through the sea and fed them in the desert, was by their side, and so they marched with trumpets and just enough hope to bring down the walls. That is what hope looks like.

Hope carried them from slavery to freedom, from Egypt to the Promised Land. And for a time the dreams of the desert gave way to the settled comforts of home. And the memories that buoyed their hope faded in the day-to-day responsibilities of nation building; they traded their God for a king; they replaced hope with ambition; no longer did they follow God into a new future; they were stuck in a moment. But then one day their stable routine of production and consumption was displaced by chaos and despair. And they lost home and found the dizzying sadness of Exile.

But even in the darkness of Exile the embers of hope still burned. There was no reason to be optimistic. The Temple was destroyed; the holy city lay in ruins; and those who survived survived as strangers in a strange land – far, far from home. But even though it was dangerous business, they continued to hope.

It is from that context – from the pain of exile, from the darkness of despair, that our readings from Isaiah and today's Psalm come. These are the songs of the ones shifting through the ruins. That is who sings these songs. These are the songs of the ones staring down the devastation of the Temple. These are the songs of the pilgrims returning from exile to find their homes destroyed, who enter a Promised Land of broken dreams.

So this is what hope looks like. Hope is watching the new shoots push up through the rubble. Hope is believing that those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. Hope is wearing a mantle of praise in a land of despair. These songs, from Isaiah and the Psalms, they are not songs of optimism. These are songs of hope. These are songs that “go beyond the evidence, to create new possibilities, based on visions that become contagious.” This is what hope looks like. Hope looks at the ruins of life and says, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.” That is hope.

Hope is salvation born as a tiny baby in the shadow of a murderous emperor. Hope is the stone rolled away after three days of despair. Hope is 120 dreamers packed into a room on Pentecost waiting for the future. Hope is shouting Alleluia at the grave through your tears. That is what hope looks like. And that is the dangerous business to which we are called.

I want to tell you one more story about the power of hope – a story that I was told just this week. It is a story about hope, a story about us. Ten years ago, this congregation experienced the pain of exile. Many of you know at least some of the story; it is too long to get into the details now. But ten years ago, the then-Rector and vestry decided to abandon the Episcopal fellowship – and take the building, resources, and people with them. Locks were changed; friendships were lost; trust was violated. The continuing congregation spent two years in exile, worshiping away from this building.  

We are here today because a faithful remnant had enough courage to hope for a future that seemed unlikely, maybe impossible. But this story is about one man, one man who was willing “to engage in courageous actions...against the odds.” The thing that I learned this week is that this dream almost died. Had the entire vestry agreed to go, Grace and St. Stephen's, our parish, the vibrant church we love, would have ceased to exist. But there was one, only one, member of the vestry who broke rank and so this parish survived. There was one heroic man who had the courage to object, who had the courage to stay, who had the courage to believe that God was not done with us. His was a bold move. And he didn't have to do it. But Robert McJimsey is our hero. We are here today because he believed that Grace and St. Stephen's had a future. And while Bob is not here with us today to see what God did with the seeds he planted, because he was fighting for his life while he was fighting for us, we are the dream he dreamed, we are the future he hoped for.

We are here because of hope. We are the offspring of hope – hope shouted down through the ages. Hope is always dangerous business. But we are here today, because countless generations of faithful people stared down darkness and pain and despair and dead-ends and still believed in hope, still believed in the future, still believed in a God who does the impossible.

Hope is still lighting the way. The future relies on us to carry on the legacy of those who dared to dream, the legacy of Moses and Joshua and Isaiah and Bob and all those who have risked their hearts for hope. The future is waiting for us to get down to the dangerous business of hope. The future is waiting for us. We carry the flame that scatters the darkness.