Advent 2
December 5, 2010

What do you hope for in the coming year? What holy dream keeps you searching in the midst of darkness? I don’t mean what the children are waiting for Santa Claus to bring them in a few weeks, but we could all learn something from the earnestness and energy of that childish anticipation. Most of us adults are too shy or fearful or even ashamed to name our big and lasting hopes. We make do with lesser things, like shopping for things that won’t answer our hopes for more than an instant.

This is the place of hope and the season of hope and the community of hope. And we’re all in the same boat – we’re looking for home, we want to belong, we want to be valued, we want to be welcomed in a place of safety and warmth by people who love us. Once we get a little experience of that, we just might have enough courage to go on back out there and get to work on our hopes. We’re here to catch a glimpse of a dream that’s big enough and encouraging enough to begin to drive out our fear. Everything we’ve heard this morning is inviting us to experience a deep and abiding and transforming hope.

Isaiah is broadcasting hope to a people who are lost, depressed, and feeling abandoned. Those exiles in Babylon are a lot like us, for we all live as strangers in a land we didn’t choose – economic downturn, government that doesn’t work like it should for the good of all, people afraid of unemployment or not having access to medical care, never being quite sure that we’re good enough or loved enough. Isaiah’s telling his fellow Israelites to dream big, because God is eventually going to heal all of that, and he’s going to send them a good king faithful to their relationship with God, God’s going to install a government that will bring peace to the people and justice to the nation.

Many people are quite surprised by how much the prophets talk about good government – and it’s related to why Jesus is called Wisdom’s prophet. The language in the gospels about Jesus as Lord is a direct contrast and challenge to Caesar as Lord, and it’s a commentary on the unjust government that Jesus and his neighbors are experiencing. When you think about government in Lake Forest, Chicago, Illinois, or this nation, what do you hope for?

These readings are dripping with hope – the psalm we sang names the same hope for a good and just king, [and Paul tells the Romans that all of the scriptures are written to give hope. He, too, reminds them that a new shoot from the root of Jesse will bring hope for all the nations, and not just Israel]. The gospel gives us Jesus’ cousin John, who is challenging his neighbors to come and wash away their own injustices in the Jordan. When John the Baptist tells them, “repent, the kingdom of heaven has come near” he’s saying something like, “turn around and start down a new road, because a better government is coming, a divine one, that’s rooted in justice and not in corruption.” His language gets pretty confrontational – prophets aren’t always filled with sweetness and light – and he takes on the religious leaders by demanding to know why they’re running away. They can’t just keep on going through the same religious motions and expect to be part of the hope that is coming: “Who warned you to flee?” ‘Why are you running away, when what the world has hoped for is coming?’

Those Pharisees and Sadducees don’t want to think about better government – it’s easier to focus on the details of religious forms in their own lives. Transformation that leads to new relationships and just government is challenging. What are we afraid of?

If we can’t touch our own deep fears, then maybe we can listen to all the public communication around us that’s filled with doom and gloom. The great majority of Americans are afraid of not being able to make it. The reported unemployment rate in this part of Illinois may only be about 10%, but there are at least another 15-20% who are underemployed or still not making enough to support themselves, particularly if they are male, minority, younger, or less educated. The state of Illinois is #10 in foreclosure rates. Personal bankruptcy filings are up two or three times over what they were 5 years ago. Chicago is in the midst of unprecedented budget cuts, which are going to hurt most those least able to survive them.

Where is hope in the face of statistics like that? What keeps us from running away like the leaders John the Baptist took on, or burying our heads in the sand? The answer lies in why we’re here this morning – our yearning to be part of that ridiculous, absurd expectation that a better rule is possible. We have lots of companions in our irrational hope. Even the wind this city is famous for might be an indication of the sweeping changes that are coming.

Everywhere I’ve looked in the last few days, I’ve seen hope. The hospice patient I saw recently knows that the waning days of his life have meaning, he’s grateful for his wife of 50 years, he’s giving thanks for the blessing of the sun’s warmth, and he’s hopeful for what is coming. The healing ministries of Rush Medical Center, and Bishop Anderson House, and the passion of those who work there to find new partnerships to serve the sick and injured, bring hope to everyone they touch. St. Edmund’s community redevelopment is bringing hope to hundreds of children and adults through decent and dignified housing at affordable rents. The growing ministries in this diocese that are building bridges between English speakers and Spanish speakers, recent immigrants and the great-great-great-grandchildren of immigrants, speak hope to strangers in a strange land. That bridge-building work also brings hope to people who had almost forgotten their yearning to have lively children in their communities and churches. The Church of the Holy Spirit knows something about the new life of God’s wind/breath/spirit – and it has much to do with your partnership with Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe.

And eight more exude hope – the Julians – young adults living together in community, offering their gifts in service in several ministries, exploring their faith and their vocation. The saint for whom this group is named, Julian of Norwich, lived in a small stone room set between the world and a parish church, with windows into each. Her counsel offered hope and strength to many visitors, and she is probably best remembered for reminding us that “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Hope makes all things possible. That hope can transform the structures of this world into the “good government” that Isaiah expected, and Jesus taught us to pray for. Hope is what it means to say that Jesus is Lord and not Caesar. Hope means that we really do expect the reign of God, on earth as it is in heaven.

Yet that kind of hope requires enough vulnerability to own our fears. We can’t really hope unless we know what’s wrong. When we can begin to name and acknowledge those fears, we’ll find that hope is the cure. Hope – holy hope, even holy hope-filled boldness – is the only known antidote for fear, depression, boredom, abandonment, lostness, exile, grief. Hope is what this season means. We wait and work and yearn for light in the darkness and for the prince of peace. If we can name the fear, hope will blow in like the wind under the door – or the babe in the stable.