Sermon for Christmas 2020: Hope trumps Wish

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Ps. 96; Isaiah 9:2 – 7; Titus 2:11 – 14; Luke 2:1 – 14

Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.  Romans 8:24f.

 

It may seem peculiar to you that, as we observe the Feast of the Holy Nativity, I should choose as a scriptural anchor a reference that comes not from the lectionary appointed for Christmas, but from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans.  In addition, it may appear strange that I—someone who struggles to understand the card game of Solitaire—should use a term from card playing in order to underscore in our lives the significance of the celebration of the birth of Christ.  And so you say: “This is Christmas.  However, where is the Babe in the Manger?  In these dark times of political stress and medical uncertainty and fear, what we/I desire and need most are the tried and true, that familiarity, those stories that we have heard annually from childhood on.  Nothing in Paul’s statement points us/me, Padre, into that direction.  Paul’s assertion is not the comfort food that my/our soul desires and needs right now!”

But that is exactly where I beg to differ.  However, first I must do a “truth in advertisement.”  That I should dare to deviate from the expected, I owe to our Bishop – diocesan, the Right Reverend Alan Gates. He called us clergy together recently (virtually, of course) into small groups so as to encourage us and to reassure us of his concern for our own spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being, even as we attempt to carry out our various ministries but may be feeling (as are our congregants) overwhelmed and overtaken by a ministry for which no seminary had trained us.  As Bishop Gates conducted our meditation, my thoughts wandered to the words of St. Paul, whom he did not mention.  Paul addresses our hope that we, as people of faith who were not privileged to walk with God’s Messiah during his earthly ministry, are an advent people, a people of hope.  And Paul distinguishes between wishing and hoping, and concludes that HOPE has endurance, has the upper hand over a WISH.  I am indebted to Bishop Gates that, addressing us all, he gently reminded us of that crucial difference, and thereby of the nature of God, as we have come understand Divine Creativity.

I make the case for HOPE.  Recall, if you will, that the biblical Hebrews, enslaved in Egypt, wished to be liberated, and they were.  Moses parted the waters so that they passed through on dry land en route to the Promised Land.  They hoped for a return to the land that had been promised them should they observe the covenant that God had established with their forebears Abraham, Sarah and Isaac.  They were granted their immediate wish.  They wandered some forty plus years, during which Moses and the original group went the way of all living things and creatures.  Hope did not die.  Rather, their hope lay on the other side of their wish.  The hope was passed on to those who followed.

Leading up to Christmas, our mercantile world makes us wish for many things.  Even to this day, no longer with childish disappointment, I recall still how I had so desperately wished at Christmas for two things (not both in the same year): for a Lionel train set, like that of my best friend next door whose family had come over from England; and for a violin, after becoming enthralled by a live performance of the St. Louis Symphony.  Only one wish went into fulfillment—and then only decades later—and that was to acquire a violin.  Wishes are transient, but HOPE?  Our desires are many, of which most are totally unselfish in origin: a secured income for our families; an end to systemic racism; the discovery of vaccines that will help us to combat effectively Coronavirus/Covid-19; a realization that we are stewards of the earth, our island home, and are, therefore, responsible for preserving it for those who come after.

Yet, and here is the rub, to use the vernacular: To move from mere wish to hope, we must recognize that HOPE stands on the other side of WISH, and to get from the one side to the other, may, and almost certainly, require letting go those things, those wishes that have held us captive and, more often than not, have contributed to our comfort, but at the expense of others.  Some of us will have to allow others to share in the privileges of class that we have enjoyed.  We will have to deal patiently but firmly with those whose fears have kept them from seeing that God has endowed us with a curiosity and an ability necessary to find (within ourselves and with the help of others and nature) cures for pandemics, medical and social, that keep us from realizing the HOPE of COMMUNITY.

In addition to collaboration among ourselves, I should like to suggest further that we can rely on a source beyond our own individual and communal ability and understanding.  My examples?  They are three.  This is Christmastide.  However, to get to the first Christmas, a path had to be prepared.  A messenger, an angel of God, came to Elizabeth and her husband Zachariah with the declaration that Elizabeth had been chosen to conceive a son who would become a contemporary advance man for God’s Messiah.  Zachariah scoffed at such a ridiculous notion.  Relying solely on his own knowledge of nature, he refuted such a possibility, given Elizabeth’s post-childbearing age.  The messenger, the angel, was so displeased with Zachariah’s setting himself equal to or above God, that he caused Zachariah to lose his speech.  In Bible-speak: Zachariah was struck dumb.  After the birth of John the Baptist and at the naming ceremony, Zachariah’s speech was restored.  (cf. Luke 1)

A messenger, an angel of God, was sent to Mary, cousin of Elizabeth, to inform her that she was to be the vessel of God’s Messiah.  Mary’s wonderment was well founded: She had not yet been given as wife to a man.  For Mary, understanding also the same principle of procreation, a husband was found in Joseph.  In a quandary, Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth to share with Elizabeth her wonderment and predicament.  What she gained from Elizabeth were two things: 1) mentorship and companionship and 2) the assurance that with God all things are possible.  The older woman removed uncertainty and fears from the younger.  Mary need not travel life’s journey alone.

Third, a messenger, an angel of God, came to Joseph who was confronted with a dilemma of his own.  His young wife, whom he believed and expected to be virgin in that arranged marriage, was found to be pregnant.  By rights, he could have declared the marriage null and void, and he could have had Mary excluded from the village and possibly stoned.  And this we know from an encounter years later between the adult Jesus and a group of male accusers who wished to keep hidden their own interaction with a prostitute in a village. (‘Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone.’)  Some older biblical translations have described Joseph as a “just man” who wished to put Mary away privily.  Indeed, Joseph had justice and tradition on his side. But more than justice, Joseph was supported by compassion and by a belief that he was a conduit towards the HOPE of Israel.  His WISH for upholding his own good and honorable name was trumped by HOPE, that the one to be born would restore the fortune of Israel.  HOPE stood on the other side of WISH.

I cite these three instances for they say to me what I, as a person of faith, firmly believe.  God said to Zachariah: ‘Before you were, I had a plan to reconcile the alienation that occurred at the time of creation.  I shall prove that to you through your wife Elizabeth.  With me nothing is impossible.’  To Mary: ‘Your individual being is unique and of incomprehensible value, as are all others who come to experience the wonders of my creative powers.  But life is not to be lived alone.  Those who have come before, as well as those who are your contemporaries, can give you aid.  They are my messengers, my angels.’  To Joseph: ‘Different circumstances and different times require innovative approaches towards a creative solution.  Know therefore, you are not alone.  I am here to support you and to guide you and to walk with you along your path.’

Christmas 2020—which we as a community will celebrate this year in a novel way, not necessarily via ESP, but in our recalling the Mass of Christ of  prior times—Christmas 2020 will come and will go, with an exchange of gifts, for which we may or may not have wished.  However, ADVENT, the symboIMG_1833l of HOPE, will continue throughout the years ahead.  And that advent will demand of us that we search daily for those things, tangible and intangible, which we must evaluate, change, discard, take on anew, so that those whom we encounter, whenever and wherever we encounter them, will see in us the HOPE of that sacred community on the other side of a mere wish for unity of all humankind.  As un-Christmaslike as it may seem in our traditional thinking, Advent instructs us that the HOPE of Christmas, the celebration of the arrival of God’s Messiah into our lives, can be a daily occurrence, by the grace of God.

St. Paul gets it right: Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.  Romans 8:24f.  Christmas is about hope, and HOPE triumphs WISH.  Amen