The Language of Advent: Hope
Luke 2:22, 25-28
December 1, 2019
I think I speak for everyone in this room when I say that one of our favorite things to do as human beings is to wait. Especially as Americans we absolutely LOVE to wait, don’t we?! We will do anything we can to make sure we have the opportunity to spend more of our life waiting for something. Don’t tell me you haven’t intentionally gone out of your way to wait in the longest line at airport security. For most of us being put on hold is often the best part of our day if we are blessed with such an experience. I’m sure we all resonate with that giddy feeling you get when your Amazon shipping time is upgraded from 2-day shipping to 7-day shipping. And of course, we all know that the best part of going to Disneyland is that we get to spend more time waiting in lines than we do on the actual rides! Don’t tell me that isn’t worth the money.
By now you probably realize my sarcasm, or else you think I’ve gone absolutely crazy, because if there isn’t one thing more consistent than life, death and taxes, it’s that we all HATE to wait. For anything. Ever. We will pay money to shorten our wait times. Most of us are not very good at waiting.
Today is the first week of Advent, and Advent is a season when we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus. It’s a time of waiting. And it’s fitting that the first candle we light for Advent is the candle of hope. Because in Scripture, as we’ll see, hoping is not so different from waiting. So today we’ll be diving into what a biblical vision of hope is, in light of the Christmas miracle.
Our story this morning, which features Simeon and Anna who are waiting for God’s Messiah, resonates with us because we know what it is like to wait. Simeon, who is 112 years old, according to legend, and Anna, who has been widowed for 84 years, have been at the Temple in Jerusalem, waiting for God to show up for a LONG time. We are told that Simeon, a righteous man with the Holy Spirit, has been waiting for the consolation of Israel. Anna does not leave the Temple, fasting and praying day and night, waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. They are waiting for God’s promised Messiah, the one prophesied about since King David, the one who God would send to liberate his people and bring vindication and healing for Israel. Simeon and Anna are waiting for God to send the one who would liberate Israel from under the heel of the Romans, the one who would put Israel back on the map.
All of Israel has been waiting for God’s Chosen One, but they are not used to waiting for God THIS long. You see, what Luke doesn’t tell us is that God has been silent for 400 years. There’s a 400 year break between the prophets of the Old Testament and when Jesus is born in the New Testament. This is called the Intertestamental period. It was a period when God seemed to have gone dark. There were no more prophets, no fresh words from God. Just silence. People began to wonder if God had abandoned them.
But while some wondered, there were others like Anna and Simeon, who knew that God was present in the pregnant silences. Anna and Simeon did not give up hope that God would show up again, because they understood that the bedrock of their Jewish hope and faith was expectant waiting.
In Hebrew, “to wait” and “to hope” is the same thing. There is no hoping without waiting. There is no waiting without hoping. There are two main Hebrew words which we often translate as hope: Yakhal and Qavah. (Repeat after me.) While they’re both frequently translated as “hope” in our English Bibles, they both literally mean: to wait for, to look expectantly for. In Hebrew, to hope for and to wait for are synonymous. In the story of Noah, Noah has to Yakhal for the flood waters to recede. The prophet Isaiah depicts God as a farmer who plants seeds and Qavah’s for them to grow. The prophet Micah also talks about a farmer who Yakhal’s and Qavah’s for the morning dew to bring moisture to his plants.
Anna and Simeon take part in this biblical tradition of hoping, of waiting and looking expectantly for what God is about to do, even after 400 years of God-silence. They leaned on the experience of their Jewish ancestors who had to wait for God. Because if you read the whole Bible as one continuous story of God’s interaction with humanity, you will realize that the whole story of the Bible is about being patient with God, it’s about waiting for God to act. The Jewish people knew what it was to wait for God.
The Israelites spent 400 years in Egyptian bondage, waiting for God to send Moses to free them. They spent 40 years wandering in the desert, waiting for God to let them enter the Promised Land. After their nation and monarchy were destroyed by Babylon and most of them were carted off the exile, they had to wait 70 years for God to bring them back home.
The faith of the Jewish people was forged in these periods of waiting for God to act, these periods of pregnant hope. And now, God has gone silent again for 400 years, as the small nation-state of Israel is passed around like a used coin from world superpower to world superpower. Now the Jewish people belong to Rome and they wonder if they wait for God in vain.
We all know what it is like to wonder if we wait for God in vain. As the disease spreads in our body or in the body of a loved one, as our anxiety and depression gets worse, as we watch a loved one die we wonder if God has not heard our prayer for help. We know what it is like to wait for God. We know how tempting it is to give up hope, to stop waiting with expectation. We prefer the feel-good positivity and false optimism of our day rather than the hard work of waiting patiently for God to show up.
But after 400 years of silence from God, Simeon and Anna are patiently and expectantly awaiting the Messiah, they are “waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” They know that any hope that comes easily is not real hope. As Richard Rohr puts it, “Hope is the willingness to live without resolution or closure.” Hope is the willingness to cling to God even in the long silences and pregnant pauses between divine action.
What is incredible about Anna and Simeon though is not that they continued to wait expectantly for God, but it’s that they recognized God when he showed up. When Mary and Joseph bring their 8-day old baby Jesus to the Temple, Anna and Simeon know that this is God’s response to suffering, death, and bondage. They know this vulnerable, probably-crying baby was God’s Messiah. God’s Spirit reveals to them that what they have been waiting for, has arrived in the form of a baby.
Our passage doesn’t note any surprise on the part of Anna or Simeon upon seeing that the redemption of Israel showed up as a baby. Think about how ridiculous this would be though! It would be like a doctor offering you a pack of Sweet-tarts to help with your cancer—it would seem absurdly unhelpful! This is not the form of relief the Jews had been waiting 400 years for.
The Jews expected their Messiah to come riding in on a white stallion, swinging a sword around, slaughtering Romans left and right. But instead he showed up as a baby and in his adult life he preached radical nonviolence. It’s no wonder that almost nobody believed Jesus when he told them he was God’s Son. The redemption Israel hoped for certainly did not match what God sent. The way God showed up and broke the silence was not what they expected. And they weren’t happy about it. They eventually crucified him because he didn’t offer the type of hope and redemption they were looking for.
But Anna and Simeon understand what we and many of their contemporaries often have trouble accepting: with God, hope often shows up as a whisper rather than a shout. God shows up in our lives in unexpected ways. We have great ideas of how we would like or expect God to show up: an auditory voice, a clear sign, miraculous healing, an incredible event that has to be more than coincidence. And while our God does make some grand entrances throughout the Bible, God seems to delight in showing up in the ordinary, overlooked places of our lives.
As the prophet Elijah was waiting for God to show up while he was in hiding, he looked for God in a powerful wind, he thought God was in an earthquake, he expected God in the fire, but God was not in any of the places Elijah predicted he would be. Instead God showed up in a gentle whisper. And in God’s grandest entrance into the world, when he put on flesh to come dwell with us, he showed up as one of the most helpless creatures, in some back-woods, never-heard-of town, in a barn.
It’s almost comical the way God subverts our expectations of him. Each time we think we have God figured out, he surprises us again. Hope arrives when and how we least expect it. And biblical hope is more than waiting, it’s having the eyes to see what we have been waiting for when it shows up.
It is through prayerful attentiveness that Anna and Simeon have the eyes to see God when he shows up. They were willing to wait in the silence for God, and they recognized God when he showed up.
I am bad at both waiting for God and recognizing God when he shows up. I would prefer God on my own terms. I struggled most with this when I was a chaplain at the psych hospital – I didn’t know how to wait for God. I wanted God to act right now, to break down the walls of the hospital and to touch the minds of every patient, curing them immediately. I grew angry with God because he didn’t act in the ways I expected him to. Waiting for God left me feeling more helpless than I am comfortable with.
But on some days at the psych hospital when I slowed down enough to remember that God was present in that place, I would catch glimpses of hope and resurrection taking place, often in the quiet, hidden places of the hospital—hope was found in the flash of a smile that was not there before; a patient who wants to play UNO after weeks of staying in bed; a song of praise unabashedly belted out while strolling down the hallway; tears shed for another patient who passed away; the artistic creativity that is born from something as ordinary as a crayon; one patient’s ability to remember how to play the piano so beautifully though she remembers little else of her former life; the short moments of lucid conversation betwixt delusions; the carton of milk generously offered from one patient to another. These instances are sacred and bear the fingerprints of our God. Because God has not abandoned these patients. And he has not abandoned you or me, though it often seems that way.
I’ve been quite slow at learning that hope does not often show up in the form we expect. I’ve also been slow to learn that hope is not something we earn, accomplish or figure out. Hope is a gift to us: hope showed up as a baby in a manger. God’s answer to the problem of pain and death is not some theological or abstract truth; God’s answer was to put on flesh and come walk among us. God becomes someone we can touch, see and hear. God is not hope in the abstract, but hope embodied. Hope became a person. Hope has skin on it.
Hope is the hug of a loved one after a long day; hope is embodied in the people who volunteer their time to serve and make our community a better place; hope is embodied in the blood and organ donations that help keep people alive; hope is a vulnerable baby lying in a manger, in some backwoods, unheard-of town called Bethlehem. God shows up unexpectedly and with skin on: and this means hope is all around us and in us, waiting to be seen.
Kathryn Greene-McCreight, an episcopal priest who has bipolar disorder, wrote a book wrestling with questions of hope and faith in the midst of her bipolar illness. One of her experiences is that when she loses all hope, when the illness fogs her brain and she does not know how to wait expectantly for God anymore, she finds hope embodied in her friends and her church community. She writes that sometimes the closest you can get to hope is to stand next to someone who has it. God’s hope is embodied in the people sitting in this room, the body of Christ. Nobody has to hope or wait alone. Waiting on God is a community activity, a communal hope. Hope can be tangibly seen in the faces of the people sitting around you; hope can be experienced in a warm embrace or a meal shared together. Hope has skin on it.
As Simeon holds baby Jesus in his arms, he proclaims that his eyes have seen God’s salvation. As he holds that baby in his arms nothing objective has changed. The Romans still occupy Israel; the Temple religion of the day is still broken; sin, suffering and death still reign, yet Simeon proclaims that his eyes have seen salvation. Even though nothing seems to have empirically changed, Simeon knows that everything has changed. The story has been rewritten, and he knows the ending is a good one.
Friends, God is tenderly calling to us from the noise and busyness of the holiday season. God is present in the gentle whisper and shows up in unexpected places.
God does not always reveal to us how and when he will act. But for those long silences where God seems to be absent, we take comfort in knowing God’s heart. Because God cared enough for us to put on skin and come dwell among us. While we wait for God, even as suffering and death persist, we take comfort knowing that God’s tears are the first to fall. We know that suffering, tears and death will not write the ending to our stories; God has already rewritten the ending. And redemption and healing are the final act.
Like Anna and Simeon, we do not wait for God to show up in vain. God is already here among us, working his redemption plan, giving us the strength to cling to hope. Hope is a gift from God and this Christmas season it showed up with skin on it.