Like baseball cards, autographs, or rare books, over the years, I have found myself collecting sentences—sentences which put words to things that are so hard to say. And one of those sentences is by Barbara Kingsolver, where she says, “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance, but live right in it, under its roof.”
The very least we can do is figure out what it is that we hope for. And the most we can do is live inside that hope.
That is the purpose of Advent: to figure out what we hope for and then to live inside that Hope. Because today we start that journey, where we are waiting and expecting and anticipating the birth of Jesus who comes with Hope for this world.
But, as we know, hope is rather elusive. We don’t always know where to find it, or when we find it, how to hold on to it. Hope doesn’t jump up and down waving its arms, making a scene like that person twirling that sign in front of the sandwich shop that just opened. Hope quietly walks up beside us and takes us by the hand in the midst of the problems of this world.
Before we stand in the Hope of the nativity scene we find in Matthew and Luke, we are first confronted with the grave concerns and alarm bells of Isaiah and Mark. At the nativity scene, the journey to Bethlehem is finally over. Joseph has made peace with all of his apprehensions, Mary has moved beyond her fear, Jesus is born, and we can rest ourselves in the Hope of God.
Before the nativity scene, we are faced with all of the problems of this world, which is where we find Isaiah and Mark. They noticed all of those concerns that we notice. It is the distress of conflict that we see around the world. or experience in our families. It is the heartache of suffering that we witness in the headlines or that we see in our hospitals. It is the prejudice or malice that we can trace throughout history or that we see unfold on the playgrounds of our elementary schools. That is where Isaiah and Mark begin. They sound the alarm.
Isaiah looks around at all these problems and prays for God to tear open the heavens and to come down, for mountains to quake and nations to tremble. And then Mark looks at all those problems and starts to envision the light of the sun going out and stars falling from the sky. They are crying out for change, and none of it sounds rather comforting.
You wouldn’t ask Isaiah or Mark to read the Christmas story when the family comes over. They would scare the kids—mountains quaking and stars falling. But they start where we all start: longing for a lasting Hope.
But then Hope quietly walks up beside Isaiah and Mark and takes them by the hand. where Isaiah says. “We are the clay and God is the potter.” The hands of God hold us and mold us with steadfast love. And then Mark points to the fig tree and says, “When you see the branches become tender and leaves begin to sprout, you know that summer is near.” A season of renewal and new life is arriving.
When we look out at the problems throughout this world, and we feel the weight of that suffering and heartache, to be honest, there are times when a quiet Hope seems a little ridiculous.
In the story of Harry Potter, which is usually on television this time of year, we find Harry in class with Professor Lupin, and they are talking about fear—that universal concern that we find everywhere that pushes against our Hope. They’re talking about what to do when you face a “Boggart”. A boggart apparently is this mystical shape-shifting creature that takes the form of your greatest fear. Whatever you are afraid of, that’s what you’re going to see. So when they open the box in class and the boggart comes out, the students see things like this gigantic, threatening spider, or this terrifying, venomous snake.
As MaryAnn McKibben Dana reminds us, the spell to use against a boggart is saying “Riddikulus!” while imagining something that’s funny, where all of a sudden this terrifying spider is now wearing roller skates and falling all over itself. or this terrifying venomous snake now looks like this silly jack-in-the-box. She says it’s one way to cultivate Hope.
It is not that our concerns or fears are a laughing matter. Rather, it is seeing them as they really are and not giving them power they do not deserve over us or this world. It’s a little like that bully that’s always nagging us, picking on us at recess. But, one day, we notice that bully is really acting out of his insecurity. That the bully, in fact, is afraid and weak. And it changes how we see the situation.
The attempt of fear to rule our lives and this world compared to the strength and endurance of love and community is ridiculous. Hope quietly walks up beside us and takes us by the hand in the midst of the problems of this world.
McKibben Dana reminds us, “Hope isn’t what we feel. Hope isn’t even what we imagine as possible. Hope is what we do in the face of pain, suffering, and injustice.”
Hope is what we do. We share mercy with others. We show up for one another. We practice compassion. We say “yes” to perseverance and “no” to apathy. Hope is less of a feeling and more of an ethic for our lives.
In the moment when Joseph was about to leave, he decided to stay. And when Mary was overcome by fear, she proclaims the Goodness of God. And despite the brutality of Herod, Jesus is born as a vulnerable baby.
It might seem a little ridiculous, but it’s actually Hope at work. And the least we can do is figure out what we Hope for; and the most we can do is live into that Hope.
When I was growing up, we had all these nativity scenes around the house. They became something that our family collected. They were bought on a trip somewhere or given as a gift from a loved one. They all had special significance, which means they were out of reach from us, up on a shelf somewhere.
Well, when Katharine and I became brand new parents, my mother bought for us and our family a nativity scene which was quite different. It was made by Fisher-Price—virtually indestructible. You could pick it up, you could drop it, it was always fine. And, at first, I thought, “This makes no sense. Why would you make a nativity scene where you could take the angel and throw it across the room?”
But, then I realized the answer is Hope. The Hope of Christmas is not meant to be displayed on a shelf. We are to pick it up and to use it, because the Love of God quietly walks up beside us, takes our hand in the face of all the problems of this world, giving us a lasting Hope, which can change what we do.