Give Hope A Chance
Second Saturday in Advent
Judges 13, 2-7, 24-25; Psalms 71 3-6, 16-17; Luke 1, 5-25
On you I depend from birth;
From my mother’s womb you are my strength;
Constant has been my hope in you.
Ps. 71, 6
What an extraordinary claim the psalmist makes! He asks us to believe that he had hope in God before he was trained in religion, before he learned to speak, even before he was born. He claims to have had hoped in God when he smaller than a bug – without even that much faculty. If you’re even half-awake when you read this passage, you realize that a literal interpretation of the verse makes it utterly and hopelessly absurd. He hoped in the LORD from his mother’s womb. Really? It’s the kind of thing that we can forgive our ancestors for believing; but it’s the kind of thing that those of us who understand how nature actually works should regard as a fanciful fairy tale.
Hope is the characteristic of a healthy spirituality. When we walk with God, we are constantly surprised to learn that the limitations we thought we had are far more limiting than the expansive capacities God can draw out of us. There are things that God wants us to give up and relinquish, and chief among these things are the piteously low expectations we have for ourselves, for the people around us and for God. When we actually reach a point in our intellectual and spiritual development where we’re capable of hope, we begin to appreciate what it means to say that God is our salvation; and we begin to appreciate what a magnificent salvation that is. How can I direct my efforts toward hope?
Hope. Hope in God. Hope for more than I thought I could hope for. These are the topics that have been rolling around in my head since I opened the scriptures to today’s readings. The stories from Judges and Luke present us with an angel who stirs up hope in Samson’s parents and in John’s parents. Of course, these parents are old enough, and wise enough, and experienced enough to appreciate what hope means. I’m encouraged by these stories, but I know better than to take encouragement to ridiculous lengths. Perhaps and angel could get the parents to hope, but I can’t think that their children were ready to hope as well. At the point in either story where the angel arrives, Samson himself and John himself are literally microscopic. Their parents are capable of hope, but their sons aren’t capable of anything. They can do nothing, nothing at all. Nothing physically, nothing intellectually, nothing spiritually.
Can absolutely anyone hope in God? I wouldn’t want to say “yes” if it isn’t true, and it isn’t true if it isn’t reasonable. I pity anyone whose faith offends reason. Such people are constantly insecure. They have to defend their brittle faith from logic itself. They’re invested in the self-destructive business of fooling themselves – and no one can win at that game. A woman of holiness, or a man of holiness hopes in God – but they can only hope once they’re well traveled along the path of human development. It’s hard to put your finger on the exact moment when we’re able to hope. I suppose we have to be somewhat advanced, intellectually and spiritually. No doubt the ability to hope comes on us gradually; but we certainly don’t start off with it.
How do I generate a hope in God? What is it that I can actually do to raise my level of hope? I’m better off being hopeful, so I really ought to discipline myself to build up my ‘hope muscles’. Trouble is, I can’t think of a single thing to do that will reliably increase my hopefulness. I’m actually not that much better off, in the hope generation department, than I was before I developed those marvelous human capacities for sensitivity and cognition.
Where does my hope in God come from? It turns out that it doesn’t come from me. My hope in God is actually the flip side of God’s hope in me. God is doing all the heavy lifting. From my mother’s womb, God hoped in me; and I didn’t have anything to say about it. What is it that God has been hoping for in all this time? It’s that I should rejoice, and be the cause for rejoicing in others. Like everyone else, I’m designed to be a joy manufacturing plant.
Samson hoped in God, John hoped in God, the psalmist hoped in God; but their hope was just a reflection of the hope God had in them. Wherever they were in the path of human development, God was hoping in them. It never mattered a bit what capabilities they had. It only mattered what God hoped they would have. When we investigate the matter of hope from our own perspective we don’t get very far. It’s only when we realize that hope comes from God and goes to us, rather than the other way around, that we start to get a handle on the whole thing.
God’s way to express his hopes for tiny Samson and tiny John was to share hope with others. In today’s stories an angel is the agent for hope generation. I say that you don’t have to wait for an angel before you can start hoping. God has hopes for everyone you will ever encounter, and God wants to share that hope with you. If you want to find the path toward hope in God, begin by hoping for other people’s happiness. The person in front of you is someone God created for joy – no matter how limited we happen to think that person is. To hope for that person’s happiness is to share God’s own hope. When we follow the path of hope from God to God’s creation, we follow the inclination of the universe. How do I hope in God? There’s nothing at all I can do – but I can hope for my neighbor’s happiness and give her or him a taste of God’s hope. We don’t have to generate that hope, we simply have to be a conduit for the hope God generates.
Samson and John fulfilled their parent’s hopes; but those hopes were God’s hopes. Imagine how much better things would be if we gave up on our own hopes and started hoping for things that God wants, things like our neighbor’s happiness. We might find ourselves getting past the barriers that limit hope. We might find ourselves becoming open to God’s salvation.