The Hopeful Gospel
Advent Sermon #01 - The Hopeful Gospel
Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • Nov 27, 2016 • Anna Hillaker, Pastoral of Spiritual Formation & Care
Today, as you may have gathered, is the first Sunday in Advent. This is a season of waiting, a season when we experience the tension between hope, celebration, and joy, and the deep and unsettling knowledge that all is not yet right with the world. We anticipate both the birth of hope, and its need for fulfillment. We wait together for the return of Jesus, when all things will be made well, and the tears of our torn world will be wiped away. Our sermon series over the next four weeks will walk us through the classical themes of Advent: hope, peace, joy, and love. We will be examining each of these through the lens of one assertion: that the gospel that is offered to us in the person of Jesus is very good. Today, we will be spending time looking at the gospel of hope.
Darkness and Light
Me being me, we are going to use one overarching metaphor to consider the biblical perspective of hope: light and darkness. We are lucky, I think, to live in a part of the world where Advent aligns with the darkest time of the year. I know it probably doesn’t feel like luck to you that it is dark outside at 5:30, but I think that times of physical darkness also put us in touch with the existential and practical darkness that we face everyday. This is a season of contrasts— we lean into the tension between the darkness and light that live alongside each other. I also think that darkness has a unique and instinctual effect on us as humans. It calls out fear and uncertainty in us. It limits our perceptions both in our physical ability to see and recognize what is around us, as well as our spiritual ability to discern the true nature of reality. When we reside in seasons of profound darkness, it can become quite difficult to believe that the light will return. Whenever I think about this idea of darkness, it reminds me of times when I struggled with depression. I remember comparing my experience of depression to a black hole. There is a sort of inertia where it seems like the only possibility is down. It becomes hard to see or believe that there is another possibility than falling further in. And the interesting thing about it is that it is not an accurate picture of reality. But that’s what depression is, as well as being a complex physical and emotional reality, it is at its core a perversion of reality. We become unable to see the truth of our situations, to see the very real possibility of emerging from the darkness. In my experience, it wasn’t until I began to come out of the darkness of depression and into the light that I started to really believe that it was really possible to do so. It is this kind of experience that we find voiced in Isaiah 9:1-7. Interestingly, this is a passage of hope that is offered to people that are about to experience exile. It is a promise to those who are feeling the impending doom of a foreign occupying force, which is about to come and remove them from their land, land which was not only their home, but also a key part of their identity as the people of God. Even though the disaster has not yet struck, God in his mercy is offering the promise of hope through the prophet Isaiah. This, too, shall pass. These are words that the Israelites probably did not know that they needed to hear. Even before the darkness falls over the people of Israel, the promise of the light returning again is issued.
But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
I wonder how the Israelites must have felt upon hearing this. Were they relieved that the foretold disaster was not the end of the story? Were they angry that God promised hope, but did not avert the disaster in the first place? There is a great tension in this part of Isaiah. He is the voice of God’s judgment upon the unfaithful Israelites, and he is also the voice promising that the time of disaster will end. In one breath he is foretelling destruction of what matters most deeply to the people of Israel, and on the next breath, he is promising the reinstatement of ancient promises. It is significant that Isaiah is speaking about the future as if it is already happening. There is certainty in the difficult words that God has given him to speak. And this voice does something profound— it embodies the tension that so many of us experience in our lives and in our faith. We feel the tension between God’s promises of goodness, joy, and restoration and what we see in the world around us. The darkness feels so real, so palpable that it can become hard to believe that the light will ever return. And so Isaiah speaks about something that has yet to occur as if it is already happening. So great is his certainty, so powerful are the promises of God, that it is as good as done. We need to hear this voice of certainty because it is all too easy to get lost in the darkness.
Hope is Out of our Hands
One of the reasons it is so easy for the darkness to overwhelm us is that we put all the pressure of bringing the light on ourselves. Or at least I do. If you’re anything like me, you’re likely to try every possible solution before asking for help— be that help from other people or from God. Reaching out so often becomes our fallback plan when our self-sufficiency runs out. And even in this song of profound hope, Isaiah addresses this tendency. It is really easy to miss it, but he goes out of his way to remind the Israelites that God’s hope and restoration is entirely out of their hands, and had absolutely nothing to do with their own efforts and abilities. Let’s take a closer look at verse 4:
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
I know that a lot of you are probably looking at this verse and wondering where on earth there is a reference to the fact that all hope and victory comes from God and not our own power. Bear with me, it’s there. Don’t take this as a guilt trip or anything, but the Israelites really knew their history and their Scriptures. So when they heard “as on the day of Midian,” they knew exactly what Isaiah was talking about. It would be like saying to a huge Michigan fan “like what happened in 2006.” Except of course in that example God’s side clearly did not win. All kidding aside, upon hearing a reference to Midian, a story would pop into the minds of the Israelites: the story of Gideon’s army defeating the Midianites, which can be found in Judges chapter 7. I am going to give you a quick summary of what happened:
- The Israelite’s army, led by Gideon faced an enormous number of Midianites— too many to defeat.
- God has Gideon send away all but 300 of his soldiers, telling him he has too many men to defeat Midian. Yahweh says he wants Israel to know that they were saved by the Lord, not by their own strength.
- Gideon overhears Midianites telling about a dream— bread bowling down a tent.
- 300 surround Midianites— go into battle with trumpets, jars, and torches. Midianites basically defeat themselves.
The parallel here is striking. God is saying to Israel, through Isaiah, that their hope does not lie in their own strength. You cannot deliver yourselves, he says. But there is hope. I will come to your aide.
Hope is Here
And Isaiah offers three concrete foundations for this hope that he declares. There is hope because their oppression will be ended. There is hope because not only will violence and subjugation end, but even every symbol of these things will be destroyed. There is hope because a strong, wise, and competent ruler will emerge. But again, Isaiah states these reasons to hope for the future as if they have already taken place! Through this interesting and somewhat unorthodox use of time and tense, Isaiah is saying that hope is already here. Even though the realization of those hopes may still reside in the future, the reality of that hope, the presence of God among you, working for your benefit, is already present.
What an interesting and difficult thing to say to those who are about to go through tremendous difficulty and upheaval! But what a beautiful hope to cling to— the vision of oppression not only ended, but decisively broken, the vision of even the suggestion of violence destroyed, the vision of a wise, peace-filled, enduring reign of leadership emerging. I can’t imagine anything more powerful to hold onto in the face of the challenges of exile.
The significance of this present-tense but future-bound hope deepens further when we take a look forward to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew 4, where this section of Isaiah is referenced as one that is fulfilled in Jesus. This is Matthew 4:12-17:
When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
This passage highlights another important detail of our passage from Isaiah 9, which is where the light begins to break in— Naphtali and Zebulun, Galilee of the nations. This was the part of Israel that felt the brunt of the onslaught of the Assyrian takeover of Israel. This was the epicenter of Israel’s darkness and gloom. This was the hardest hit, the most ravaged point of contact during the Assyrian takeover. And during Jesus’ time it was a cultural melting pot, and something that was considered out of the way and a little backward both geographically, socially, and spiritually. And it is this place where Jesus goes, in the midst of a new occupation and a new crisis in order to begin his ministry. This is where the literal preaching of the gospel begins.
As one commentator notes, “Jesus works where Judaism touches paganism, where the nations intersects the nations, where light meets darkness. Jesus lives among the marginal peoples, on the frontier.” And it is in this place where light breaks in, where our hope is unleashed. This is the God that we serve. Both in the time of the Assyrian exile as well as the time of Jesus’ active ministry, the hope and brightness of the Lord flows first to those on the outside, those who are downcast, brokenhearted, despairing, despised. And even when this hope is not yet fulfilled in all its promise, it is in a very real way present to us right now. Our hope, my friends, is here.
The Hope that Is Coming
The season of Advent is in many ways similar to this mysterious present-yet-still-emerging hope that we find in Isaiah. All we have to do is look at our lives, our families, our communities, our world, to see that all is not yet as it should be. Yes, the light may have dawned, victory may have been declared, but sometimes it seems like the merest pinprick of light, the faintest lightening in the eastern sky. It doesn’t take a pessimist to see that there is so much in our lives and in our world that is still broken. In Advent we both remember and we anticipate. We remember that Jesus, the divine word, present before the creation, chose to take on our humanity in all its pain, all its flaws, all of its complexities. So we anticipate and remember this event, not just as an important bit of history, but as something that affects our lives right now. But we also live in the tension and anticipation of the fact that we are waiting still. We are waiting for all darkness and despair to be vanquished in their entirety. As Isaiah 9 says it, we are still looking forward to endless peace, and the continual reign of the Prince of Peace. Now I mentioned that we were going to be jumping around a little bit in the Scripture today, and here comes our last leap. Let’s look at Revelation 22: 1-5:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
This is the picture of fullness that we anticipate. We look for the day when there will be no more night. Not necessarily in a literal way, but in all of the other ways that we talked about— the cessation of fear, confusion, evil, and chaos. We will have no more need for lamps or for the sun because those are not sufficient to drive out the true darkness. Only the presence of the Lord can do that. Both lamps and the sun itself are provisional. They both help to limit the darkness, but neither can banish the darkness in any permanent way. This passage also reflects other elements of Isaiah’s promise— the abundance of the harvest. Food, like light, is one of the essential and elemental concerns of human beings. It addresses another of our most basic needs. We seek not only safety and peace, but also sustenance. The curse which came from our attempts to control for ourselves the fruit of the tree of life, will be reversed. All our needs will be met in fullness. In Advent, we lean toward this. We anticipate this coming, the ultimate fulfillment of all that we long for, all that we need. We yearn for the reversal of all our curses. We desire together for the healing of the nations— all of the nations. We pray for enduring peace. We pray for the occupational forces of our world to be conquered. We pray for violence and evil to come to an end. We pray for the light of a full and glorious day to burst open upon all of our darkness.
- Practice Advent. With kids. In small groups. On your own. Advent booklets available on the table in the lobby.
- Spend some time being present to the darkness in your life. Don’t ignore it or deny it. Simply acknowledge it and then invite Jesus to be present to you in the midst of it as light breaking into the darkness.