Hope: An Orientation of the Spirit

Paula Northwood  December 2, 2018

Scripture Isaiah 61:1–4, 8—11

We are a people who tell stories of hope! This past Friday, I spoke with my dad, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska. As you may have heard, they had an earthquake that registered a 7 on the Richter scale. As they were watching dishes fly off the shelf and feeling the deep rumblings of the earth, they were praying to survive. They put their hope in God and the roof that it wouldn’t collapse. They are safe. However, they used to have an attached garage . . . apparently, no more.

Our sacred text, our Bible, is a book of stories about hope maybe more than any other thing. From the very beginning in the mythic story of Adam and Eve, would it not have been hope that sustained them once they were exiled from the garden? In the story of Noah’s ark, is it not hope for life after the rain that sustains Noah’s family? For Esther, is it not for hope of saving her people that she risks her life? For people of Israel wandering in the desert for 40 years, is it not the hope for a promised land that keeps them alive? In the Christian scriptures, stories about Jesus’ teachings, his life and his death gave a small band of followers unrelenting hope that has been shared for generations.

In our text this morning, the prophet Isaiah laments throughout the book that their world is in trouble. There were wars and rumors of wars, the Persian Empire would soon occupy their land, the earth was being devastated, religious leaders had gone astray, and the people had lost their faith in God. But throughout the tales of gloom and doom, a prophetic thread is being woven into a tapestry of hope: “a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning and a garment of praise and hope instead of a spirit of despair.” (Isaiah 61:3) The prophet Isaiah pleads with the people that God’s ways are different. Woven throughout the story are invitations to drink from a deeper current. “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the water”—the wellspring of hope. (Isaiah 55:1)

We are starting a new sermon series during Advent called “Witnessing.” We will explore how to give witness to the themes of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. To give witness is to see an event and be able to testify or report to others about it. This morning we are looking at hope and asking the question, “How do we give witness to hope in our lives?”

I started by telling you how God’s people are a people of stories of hope. I don’t think I need to make a case that life is more meaningful with hope. Hope is as necessary as oxygen and water. But we do get a few other things confused with hope. We use the word “hope” in a variety of ways and thereby trivialize its meaning, or we confuse it with optimism. Optimism is just being positive or as Julie Neraas (long-time Plymouth friend) writes in her book Apprenticed to Hope, “Optimism lightens our load by promising a good end, even if the basis for the promise is faulty. Hope, by contrast, doesn’t lighten the load but strengthens us to carry the load.”[1]

We often find that stories of hope are what sustain us; what is your story of hope? And by story I mean in the broad sense. It could be a verse scripture, the lyrics of a song, a mantra. When everything is going wrong, are there words that you tell yourself that give you strength? My wife, Andrea, who works for the Center for Victims of Torture, tells of a client group who end their group sessions by joining hands and saying, “Let’s keep hope alive!” Think about what they have been through and still they say: “Let’s keep hope alive!”

What has sustained you through the loss of a job, the death of a parent or spouse or sibling, a cancer diagnosis? When your heart is broken, what gets you through it? When the world is seemingly filled with nothing but bad news, what gives you hope? I’m asking you to think, in your darkest hour, what is your story of hope? I am asking you to think, in your darkest hour, what is your story of hope? At a time in my life when I lost a husband, a job, a faith community, a book deal, my extended family and many friends, I worked hard to keep hope alive. I found hope in the words of a hymn, “How Can I Keep From Singing?”

No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that Rock I’m clinging. . . . The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing; all things are mine since I am Christ’s, how can I keep from singing?

In his book Hunting for Hope: A Father’s Journeys, Scott Russell Sanders tells the story of an argument he has with his teenage son. His son says, “You look at any car and all you think is pollution, traffic, roadside crap. You say fast food’s poisoning our bodies and TVs poisoning our minds. You think the Internet is just another scam for selling stuff. You think business is a conspiracy to rape the earth.”

“None of that bothers you?” asks the dad. “Of course it does,” the son replies, “but that’s the world. That’s where we’ve got to live. It’s not going to go away just because you don’t approve. . . . Your view of things is totally dark. It bums me out. You make me feel the planet’s dying and people are to blame and nothing can be done about it. There’s no room for hope. Maybe you can get by without hope, but I can’t. I’ve got a lot of living still to do. I have to believe there’s a way we can get out of this mess. Otherwise what’s the point? Why study, why work—why do anything, if it’s all going to hell?”[2]

The young man was caught between a chorus of voices telling him that the universe was made for us—that the earth is an inexhaustible warehouse, that consumption is the goal of life, that money is the road to delight—and the stubborn voice of his father saying none of this is so. No understanding of hope can be honest unless it reckons with the absence of hope, the dark night of the soul when nothing comforts and nothing reassures. What are our resources when there seems to be no hope?

In Julie’s book I mentioned earlier she writes, “Like the air we breathe, hope cannot be bought or sold, hoarded or stolen. It cannot be possessed or made permanent: it must be renewed again and again. The good news is that hope is a constantly renewable resource, and happily, it can be shared, nurtured—even borrowed, if necessary.”[3]

Advent is a season of darkness, the Winter Solstice, and, in this season of darkness or dark night of the soul, we place our hope in the return of the sun, the coming of spring. We place our hope in the celebration of the birth of a child who brings the light. We trust in the mystery greater than ourselves. We trust that stories of hope can heal the wounds of soul. We trust that there will be a light shining in the darkness that now surrounds our days.

In the earlier story, the father has to come to terms with the messages he has been sending his son. Had he left out hope? What are the messages we are sending by the way we talk, live and act? How can we be a witness to hope in this heartbreaking world? We inhabit a world where we humans are often cruel to one another; we shoot tear gas at the innocent, sometimes even kill one another, because we fear the Other. Our fears or implicit biases are based on a person’s color, ethnicity, social class, religion, gender and sexual orientation. Too often, we act as if someone else’s life doesn’t really matter all much, as long as we are safe, warm, secure and have our privileges. Sadly, we who are the beneficiaries of ancestors who committed genocide when they came to this land now behave as if we never did these things and that the land was always ours. We act as if this planet Earth is not be shared but something to pollute and exploit. We may be at a place where humans have done irreparable damage to our planet. An honest hope must reckon with these real atrocities and life-destructive forces.

Our reading this morning is from an interview with Václav Havel after he was released from a series of prison terms for his protests against the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, and well before the democratic revolution that would overthrow that regime and raise him to the presidency. “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism,” Havel writes. “Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.” Havel’s political activism makes clear that he was not saying that our hope should be invested elsewhere—in heaven or a utopian future—but that it is necessary now, to encourage and strengthen us for good works here. It’s a way of being in the world, an orientation of the spirit, a practice of being what you want to see change.

Many Christian groups have spent a great deal of energy promoting a hope that is longed for in the afterlife, but that is not what we find in our text or in the story of Advent. We are waiting for something that is going to happen. In the celebration of this season, Mary will deliver and give birth to new life. Some of us will celebrate the solstice. New light will come.

We are a community of hope. With deep roots in a courageous past, we are grounded in the present, in the here-and-now, looking with hope toward the future. We have a vision of a better world that is possible, and we live that vision not standing idly by waiting for it to happen in another lifetime. We experience the freedom of our faith, a freedom that allows us to dream, to live towards a world where diversity is respected, the earth is cherished and peace is possible.

It is a vision that we witness in others and witness about to others. This communal shape of hope is made up of common stories, such as Mary’s story and your individual stories, songs and mantras. What are your stories of hope today? What will you give witness to that spreads hope to others, today?

Hope, you see, is holy, Divine. We each have a little bit of it inside, and without finding it we cannot live. It is the essence of our faith. Let us make hope an orientation of our spirits. Let us put our hope into action. “Let’s keep hope alive!” May it be so. Amen.

[1]Julie E. Neraas, Apprenticed to Hope: A Sourcebook for Difficult Times (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009).

[2]Scott Russell Sanders, Hunting for Hope: A Father’s Journeys (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998).

[3]Neraas, op. cit.