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Cause for Hope: Christmas 2013

A minor cold expectedly turned my health upside down this week. As I adjust yet again, I am trying to believe what I wrote for the Pasadena Presbyterian Church in December, 2006.  These words remind me of the real reason Christians celebrate Christmas:  God’s love for the world.  Here is what I wrote in 2006.  It is based on Jeremiah 33:14-16.

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.  And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness. (Jeremiah 33:14-16)

The Prophet Jeremiah’s words were spoken by one who, while standing in a time of hopelessness and despair, encountered the sovereignty and love of the God who saves us and for whom we wait.  I met that same God last week in a parking lot.

It happened at Home Depot at 6:30 on Saturday morning while many of you were still asleep or getting an early start on your Christmas shopping.  Our two young dogs have turned part of our back yard into a patch of dirt.  My mission was to cover the dirt with sod and, in so doing, save our carpet.  In addition, our son Chris’s golden retriever was spending Thanksgiving with us and that would give us 3 sets of paws to track in dirt.

After 4 trips to Home Depot in one week, two of them long before dawn, I was desperate.  I just missed the last of the sod at the Monrovia store at 6:00, but heard the Covina store still had some. I headed to Covina.

There it was:  my holy grail.  Then I couldn’t find a clerk to sell it to me.  Finally, someone in lighting said, “Go find Hope.  She works in the garden department.”  “Really,” I thought rather cynically, “I’ve been looking for hope all week.”

Hope wasn’t visible, however, when I reached the garden department.  But someone else agreed to take my money.  As I walked out to get my car, another customer walked out beside me, calling over his shoulder in a deep baritone to the young man at the cash register, “I’ll get my car and be right back.  I know where to find Hope.”

I couldn’t believe it:  The whole point of the Christian faith had just been stated confidently by a tall, strong baritone at 6:30 on a Saturday morning in the parking lot at Home Depot: “I know where to find Hope.”  Thank you, God for parents who name their children Faith, Grace, and Hope.

The sun was rising as I drove home, and my car was full of the fresh smell of grass and dirt.  Tendrils of coral, pink and blue stretched across the horizon. The hills grew clear against the sky.  My heart quieted in the presence of such beauty.

On the way home I listened to National Public Radio tell the latest on the wars in Iraq, assassinations in Lebanon, and a court battle over air pollution.  I remembered people whose struggles I know–struggles of unemployment, grief, illness, and loneliness; people who struggle to get out of bed, to put one foot in front of the other, to find hope.

Over and over again, that baritone voice echoed in my being, “I know where to find Hope.”

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.  And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.

I watched the sky change hue as the sun came up. The interplay between sun and shadow, light and darkness, spoke to me of life and death, of good and evil, of struggle and of hope that day, the hope that comes from knowing our existence rests not in our hands, but God’s and that God will come to save us.  God’s hand, not mine, made the sun to rise.  I know where to find hope.

Some of Israel’s most pushy, hopeful, and imaginative poetry was uttered during times of military defeat and Babylonian exile. We might have expected words of resignation. But no. Israel’s faith was in a God who is an active participant in creation and deliverance.  Here again, in a dark hour, God’s prophet Jeremiah proclaims extravagant hope: God hears. God comes. God saves.

What is our cause for hope this Advent 2006?

Is it the courage of soldiers walking through a shattered country
or the persistence of fragile governments?
Is it peace envoys sent to the Middle East?
If it is only our self–our military might or our diplomatic wisdom–there is no cause for hope.

Does our hope lie in denying the reality of suffering,
the tenacity of sin, the existence of evil, our own culpability?
Can living in a Disneyland world where the sky is always blue, and
we refuse to see the suffering of the world or
feel our own heartache
ever let us know
the deep and true joy that Christ’s birth brings into the world?

Can such denial give us the strength to fight for good?
Can it give us the commitment to work for peace?

If this is all we have, there is no cause for hope.
If it is left up to us to save the world or to make our life right, then what real hope have we when the chips are down?

But our hope is in God.

Jeremiah speaks to Israel when it is exiled, powerless, far from home, with no end in sight, seemingly deserted by God.  In such a time as this, the prophet says, “We know where hope is!  There shall be justice and righteousness in the land. God reigns!”

Twenty-five hundred years later, Jeremiah still speaks in a time of uncertainty and war, of anxiety and sorrow, of pain inside the church and out. We long to be saved, not merely in some other-worldly sense, but in this world, right now, because there is much from which we need to be saved.

In such a time as this, we hold onto truth spoken in a parking lot, truth spoken by Jeremiah: We know where to find hope.

We celebrate Advent and sing of freedom because we know ourselves captive.
We celebrate Advent and sing of comfort because we have allowed ourselves to see our brokenness.
We sing of joy because we have dared to love and hence have known sorrow.
We sing of peace because we know the horror of war.
We sing of hope because at times we ourselves feel hopeless.
We sing the prophet’s words and we prepare for Christ’s birth
because we know the cause for hope, and we hunger yet for more.

It takes a great deal of hope to be honest about our situation in exile. The church calls this very faith, hope, and honesty: Advent.  We admit that we need some future not solely of our own devising. We tell the truth about our condition because we believe that God has made our situation God’s own. In Advent, we give thanks that God’s love shines through even human sin and suffering and will come to us in a babe born into a sinful and aching world. We know where hope is.

Come, Lord Jesus, though we know not when.  Come, Lord Jesus, and save us, in this life and in the life to come.

*Note:  Advent is the name by which the Church refers to the four weeks before Christmas, as time of internal reflection and prayer in preparation for receiving anew the message of Jesus’ birth at Christmas.

I need to see Jesus

Thank goodness I took my advice on sorting priorities* as I prepared for Christmas this year, and didn’t fret about items on my to-do list that never got done.  Mark and I lost the first two weeks of December to a wind storm and family illnesses, so my chief priority was keeping the household boat afloat, rather than decorating for Christmas.  I set out fewer Christmas angels than usual, decorated the mantles less than usual, and bought a new Christmas tree that already has lights on it.  On Christmas Eve morning, I finally found our crèches and hung ornaments on the Christmas tree.

In the process, I learned something I need to take into account in every future Christmas season:  I need to see Jesus through-out my home to truly prepare for Christmas.  It wasn’t until I set up the crèches that I realized how much their absence had affected my spiritual life.

As much as I try to maintain the true meaning of Christmas–God’s love for the world made visible in human form–I still need to see Jesus in my home to remember most fully why all the fuss of the season matters.

Since I’d spent so little quiet time preparing for Christmas, I kept the Christmas tree and crèches out until today, and sat quietly every day where I could see them.  I read the scriptures I hadn’t read before Christmas, pondered what Jesus’ birth and God’s love mean for me in this particular year, and prayed the Advent/Christmas prayers for myself and the world.

I put the crèches in a new box with a green lid today, and a big label that reads, “Crèches.”  I’ve set it on top of the other Christmas boxes so I can reach it easily at the beginning of Advent in 2012.

I still don’t plan to fret about getting the house decorated perfectly next year, but I’ll certainly put out the crèches early.  In 2012, Jesus will be visible in our home long before Christmas Eve.

*See “How a Jar of Stones Saved Christmas,” posted 12/17/2011.