December 2, 2018

A Tenacious Hope

Passage: Jeremiah 33-14-16; Luke 21: 25-28

Synopsis: The first Sunday of Advent is a time of waiting and hope. Our Scripture readings portray a tenacious hope in God’s deliverance in the face of evidence of God’s defeat. In response to the chaos and suffering of our time, we look for the smallest signs and actions pointing to a coming dawn. This is one of those times in history for us as a people and for our American churches to make a decision for truth over falsehood.


The first Sunday of Advent focuses on watching and waiting in hope. The two Scripture readings from the lectionary come from times of chaos and unspeakable suffering in Jewish history. Both involve the destruction of Jerusalem and their temple by foreign armies.


The prophet Jeremiah writes during a time when the Chaldeans overran Judah and carried their people into captivity in Babylon. Yet he looks forward in hope to a time when “Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” The second Scripture is Jesus’ prophesy of the second destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Roman armies. He uses apocalyptic language of fearful signs in the heavens and utter chaos among the nations.


The author of Luke’s Gospel wrote this prophesy one or two decades after that horrific massacre. He talks of people fainting in fear and foreboding, yet what stands out is a tenacious hope in a time when it appears that all hope has been lost.

He tells his readers to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” William Lamar, the pastor of the Metropolitan AME church here in D.C writes:

Apocalyptic language is the poetic speech of the oppressed and bruised straining toward hope. It declares God’s cosmic victory in the face of the evidence of God’s defeat. Luke is writing after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by bloodthirsty Rome. The people of God were straining toward hope. They needed to believe in the hidden victory of God.[1]


This past year has been tumultuous in so many ways, yet it doesn’t begin to compare with the chaos and suffering recorded in the book of Jeremiah and by the Gospel of Luke. At least not for us. It certainly had to feel more like that for people living in the Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as they fled the political chaos and violence in their communities.


And I try to put myself in the place of the thousands of refugees from Central American, migrating through Mexico to reach the U.S. border with the hope of applying for asylum. Where is the hope for all the people stuck in this chaos? What is a way forward for them and all concerned people who care about their plight? What will it take to fix the broken systems that created this situation?


One of my heroes of faith is Dom Helder Camara, the Catholic archbishop in Brazil from 1964—1985, during the time of a brutal military dictatorship in their country. He’s especially remembered for his social and political work for the poor, for human rights, and for democracy. He advocated for nonviolence and for a church closer to the lives of disenfranchised people.


His well-known quote is, "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” He had a tenacious hope in the face of all the suffering and violence in his country. I especially appreciate the way he expressed it as a reason to go on even when we can see only the faintest glimmer of light:

The spirit is breathing. All those with eyes to see, women and men with ears for hearing detect a coming dawn; a reason to go on. They seem small, those signs of dawn. Perhaps ridiculous. All those with eyes to see, women and men with ears for hearing uncover in the night a certain gleam of light; they see the reason to go on.


I sometimes struggle with despair about the future of human civilization. We can’t survive if we continue as we are. We have made progress in areas such as the number of people living in absolute poverty but, in many other areas, we have been losing ground or live with a threat that could destroy our world. These include the growing chasm between rich and poor, the threat of nuclear war, climate change, and the rapid depletion of our natural resources.


I have read the National Geographic for as long as I can remember. One of the things I loved about visiting my grandma Zimmerman was the long row of National Geographic magazines on her bookshelf. I could spend hours looks at the pictures and reading about all the different people and places in our world. To this day, I always look forward to receiving the next edition.


The most recent one includes an article by Jared Diamond, professor of geography at the University of California in Los Angeles and the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel where he documents the rise and fall of various civilizations through human history. His National Geographic article is about “The Global Peril of Inequality.”


He tells us that the average income in the United States is 100 times higher than in the poorest countries in our world. This doesn’t even consider the huge gap between the rich and the poor in our country. He considers this to be the greatest threat facing our world as inequality and globalization collide.


Among the threats are diseases that spread rapidly in poor countries without adequate public health systems and are then carried to wealthy countries. For example, drug resistant tuberculosis can spread rapidly in the slums of poor cities and in overcrowded prisons. Another threat is terrorism. While it’s more directly linked to religious fundamentalism, global inequality is a contributing factor.


The biggest threat is that poor people aspire to the lifestyles of people in rich countries. The average consumption in the United States is up to 30 times as high as in poor countries. Just do the math. There’s no way that the rest of the world can live like we do without completely overwhelming our planet’s available natural resources.


Jared Diamond says that the bottom line is that consumption rates in our country will have to come down within our lifetimes. “The only question is whether we’ll reach that outcome by methods of our choice or by unpleasant methods not of our choice.” While the peril of inequality is getting worse, the potential for solutions is getting better. He likens it to a race between a horse of destruction and a horse of hope in which each horse keeps running faster and faster.[2]


The pessimist in me says that we will not get there completely by methods of our choice. We have a disconcerting track record of not making necessary changes until absolutely forced to do so. The most important thing is averting a complete disaster. In that respect, I have hope. I think of resilient and visionary people who understand the problem and keep working tirelessly to help us change course.


I know, the things we can do are so small considering the magnitude of the problem. Even so, they have the potential to grow and eventually make a significant reduction in our consumption of energy and other natural resources. Consider the move toward urban agriculture in our American cities, including here in Fairfax. Our church garden, and our garden tool lending library are two small pieces of that movement.


You know I’m going to say this. Yet another significant, albeit still small move to sustainable energy is solar electricity. It gives me immense satisfaction to see cars regularly use our church’s electric car charging station. I’m also looking forward to seeing how much electricity is generated by the solar electric panels recently installed on our church roof.


Life is fragile. This in itself is not a bad thing. We live and we die. It’s part of the cycle of life. What’s bad, is denying this and living our lives as a scramble to climb over other people to get what’s mine. Jesus’ likened this to the man who tore down his barns to build bigger ones, with no thought to his own mortality. This is what will do us in as a nation and as a people.


Furthermore, it doesn’t all depend on us. After his apocalyptic description of fearful signs in the heavens and chaos among the nations, Jesus tells his disciples to look up, be on guard, be alert, pray. Our world often pivots in unexpected ways. During the struggle over slavery leading to the Civil War, American poet James Russell Lowell wrote:

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,

In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side;


Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,—

Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,

Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.


This is one of those times for our nation and our American churches to decide between truth and falsehood. I will add that God doesn’t only stand within the shadow, keeping watch. God moves in unexpected ways as seen when a Jewish peasant couple welcomed the birth of their first child in a lowly cattle barn and named him Jesus.


[1] William H. Lamar IV, “Living by the Word,” The Christian Century, (December 2, 2018), 20.

[2] Jared Diamond, “The Global Peril of Inequality,” National Geographic (December 2018): 20.

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