“But you Bethlehem, too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.”(Micah 5:1)In the name …
Three weeks ago, I had mentioned that the Advent wreath’s first candle, the candle of promise, would have to deplete itself for us to reach the fulfillment of that promise, which is when Christ comes to us at Christmas.This symbolizes that promise has to be strong enough to endure the times of trial and also patient enough to wait.The candles of light, joy and today’s candle of hope can only come after that of promise.The promise must first be accepted and also must endure if the others are to be offered.Now today we read from the prophet Micah who promises peace to the people of God. That promise of peace has not yet been realized.It is still a dream for the future.The promise is now an ancient one, but it is still one that people of faith hold on to in their lives.If the promise is strong enough to endure, it becomes our motivation to work for the good, to make this world a better place even if that means only by making ourselves better people.But all these efforts are what can deplete the gift of promise at the same time.They each can take a little bit away, just as the candle of promise slowly burns away.And this leads to the last candle of the Advent wreath, the candle that represents hope, the candle that stands fresh and tall even as we now come to the end of our Advent journey.This is the candle that complements that of promise.
This newness represents a special quality of hope.It is realized even before what is hoped for is achieved, and this is why it is different than promise.Hope is part of what religious thinkers call the already-not-yet aspect of our faith.When Jesus enters into our world on that first Christmas night, already God had won the victory, already evil had been defeated, already we were part of God’s plan of salvation.This is the reason why when Mary travels to the house of Elizabeth her relative after learning from the angel Gabriel that she will be the mother of Jesus, the Elizabeth who is six months pregnant with her first child who we will come to know as John the Baptist, that according to the Evangelist Luke, the baby leaped for joy in his mother’s womb when Mary entered the house.Elizabeth is six months pregnant.Mary is in her first month.John the Baptist is decades away from preaching his first message of repentance out by the Jordan River.Jesus is 30 years away from His first miracle.And yet, already, the fullness of God’s act is achieved.This is the already-not-yet of our faith.This is the reality of Christian hope.It is real as soon as believed.
Friday night Sharon and I were at a Christmas concert in Boston that took place at OldSouthChurch in Copley Square.We bought our tickets weeks in advance and those tickets reserved space for us on one of the pews in the balcony.And we needed those tickets because every space in every pew was filled that night.Now I may hope that someday in my ministry, we would have to take reservations so that all the people who wanted to come to church could have a spot in a pew during Mass, but that’s not the same kind of already-not-yet hope that God can manage.What I hope is a wish; what God hopes is a revelation of what will be.This is why Christian hope is fulfilled even before it is fully accomplished.This is why the candle of hope is always fresh and new. Christian hope isn’t fulfilled in waiting; it’s fulfilled in believing.Christian hope isn’t made real when we have evidence that it’s been accomplished; it’s already real as soon as we hope.
The first line of this morning’s reading from the Old Testament prophet Micah is probably the reading that Matthew refers to when we hear the story of the Magi who arrive in Jerusalem looking for where the newborn king of the Jews will be born.King Herod consults with his religious advisors who must have drawn upon the words of Micah:“But you, Bethlehem, too small to be among the clans of Judah, form you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel.”Then the prophet also reveals another unexpected message.This promised ruler, says Micah the prophet of God, “He shall be peace.”There is no wavering in his voice.There is no doubt in his statement.The prophet is giving voice to the already-not-yet of God.“He shall be peace.”As unexpected as was Bethlehem, as was peace, their hope is real long before their promise is fulfilled because they are based upon the will of God.
There were 700-plus years of violence and war between those words of Micah and the birth of Jesus.There have been an additional 2,000 years of human savagery and atrocity since then.In the nearly three millennia since the prophecy of peace has been revealed by God, the hope of peace remains strong.Why hasn’t it dwindled down to nothing?Why haven’t we all become completely cynical?Why do parents dare bring a new child into this world of endless violence?The reason is that hope stays fresh when it is believed rather than when it is fulfilled.Four years ago I mentioned in a sermon that during World War I an unexpected and informal truce was arranged between the German soldiers on one side of a no-man’s land and the French and English soldiers on the other.This happened on a Christmas Eve in 1914.The violence stopped because the soldiers heard each other singing Christmas carols.After that sermon, Shirley bought me a copy of a book called Silent Night about this amazing truce called forth by the soldiers rather than the generals.If you have a chance, find the book, and then I think you will see that hope is real long before it is fulfilled, that hope is strong even after 27 hundred years of violence that should have given birth to hopelessness.
Hope is one of the most powerful gifts of Christmas.It helps us not only to be religious, but to be human, to be humane.Hope doesn’t only keep us from depression.It protects us from savagery.Hope lets us believe in what is good and right because we already feel its power as soon as we believe. That hope may burn brightly within us as we stand but steps away from the Bethlehem manger so that its humanity and humaneness may be shared by all of us, for this we pray in Jesus’ name.Amen.(+)