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If you know me, you know that I always look on the bright side. I’m an optimist. Perhaps even to a fault sometimes. There’s just something inside me that holds on to the possibility that things can work out for the better. The movie Titanic came out when I was 13 and I’ve seen it a few times since then. Now, I know Titanic is a true story, I know how it ends. But somehow, whenever I start the movie, I think, maybe, just maybe, they won’t hit the iceberg this time. Maybe someone will notice it and the captain will steer the boat away in time. Maybe they will fill the lifeboats and hundreds of people won’t die. Maybe this won’t end in tragedy. There’s always a little part of me that is waiting for this new ending to the story. Of course, they always do hit the iceberg, people die and Leonardo DiCaprio sinks to the bottom of the ocean.
This morning, we are talking about hope. Like the word ‘love’, we use the word hope a lot, I hope I see you soon, I hope he remembered to buy milk, I hope I can fit into my jeans after they’ve been in the dryer. These are more wishes than hope. Hope is different than optimism. While optimism is looking for the best, hope looks at the worst and asks expectantly, what will you do now God? Hope stares grief and anxiety and death in the face and stands its ground, trusting that despite the mess, despite the impossibility of the situation, God can and will bring redemption. Hope longs for what it does not see.
Michelle Obama, in her book, talks about hope. She has a line about meeting Barrack and how he changed her perception of hope. She says that she saw hope as something you need when you are stuck, but for Barrack, hope was about getting the whole place unstuck. I thought there was something very Biblical about this, this image of hope being not just situational but universal. Hope as a grand movement toward freedom. We’re going to look at Biblical hope this morning because it’s something we all need, for ourselves, for our church, and for our world. There are some pretty awful things happening around the world. We all came here this morning with our out troubles and pains and maybe questions of how does God fit into to my suffering? What does hope look like in the midst of these events? How do we pray for God’s redemption in these situations? And what does it mean to wait expectably for God to act?
No one was better at waiting expectantly than John the Baptist. Perhaps he had learned a thing or two from his parents who spent decades waiting expectantly for a child to arrive. I’m sure Elizabeth and Zechariah had a lot to teach him about hope. John set up his ministry out in the wilderness by the Jordan river. We read about the Jordan a lot in the Old Testament. This was the place where Naaman the leper was healed. This was the place where the prophet Elijah was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. And this was the place where God led the Israelites across the river into the Promised Land at the end of their 40-year journey. The Jordan river was a place of new life and of hope. People would travel over 30 kilometers from Jerusalem to get to John and to hear him preach. He called them out to the desert. Perhaps to remind them of the stories their ancestors told of wandering in the desert. To remind them that God had freed them from oppression before and he would do it again. The prophet Hosea foretold that God would one day call his people into the desert like a husband wooing an unfaithful wife and that he would speak to her heart. The desert is a place of covenant renewal and it is here, with a voice crying out in the wilderness, that our story begins.
John called upon people to repent, to turn from their sinful ways and to be baptized. His message was like the message of many prophets before him, repent. Except repentance was urgent because John understood that the day of God’s visitation was near. His call to repent is an appeal for people to turn around or to change their perspective. The time when heaven would open up and intersect with earth had arrived. The kingdom of heaven was here. The kingdom of heaven does not refer to a place, but to God’s dynamic activity as ruler. The kingdom of heaven is the outworking of God’s purposes on earth through his chosen people.
John has some words with the Pharisees and Sadducees who come for baptism. He wants to know what fruit they are bearing. He wants to know if their lives show true repentance or if they are coming to the river just for show. John finds them to be insincere. He tells them it’s not about their position or their pedigree, it’s about the state of their hearts. The arrival of the kingdom of heaven means that there is a new way of doing things. Things are changing. Advent is here. And Advent is not only about the coming of Christ as a humble baby, but it’s also about the coming of Christ as a ruler and judge of all people. So perhaps John’s admonishment of the religious leaders is the most loving thing he can say to them. They better get their hearts right with God because God knows the state of their hearts and judgment is coming. They need to put aside their ideas of what worship should be. They now need to live life according to the vision and hope of the Messiah.
And what is that vision? The prophet Isaiah recorded it long ago. A king who will rule with righteousness. A king with the Spirit of God. He will bring justice to the poor and equity to the meek. Wolves will dwell with lambs and leopards will lie down with goats and children will play among them and be unharmed. The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord like the waters cover the sea. God will rest on the earth and it will be glorious. This is where we are going. This peaceable kingdom is our final destination. And we see in the kingdom of God that those who are vulnerable are at the centre. They are safe. There is a raising up of those who have been brought low by life. Babies can play safely without the threat of danger and children will be leaders. Not those who are the most educated or powerful or popular, but those who have faith and childlike faith. The language Isaiah uses is definitive; this will happen. There will be justice for the poor. There will be peace on earth. This is a promise of what is to come. Living with hope, means that we are living knowing that God’s promises will come true. And with this knowledge, we think and act and pray and plan according to the will of God.
It’s hard to believe that there will be peace on earth. But that is where the profundity of hope is different than optimism. Hope is fully aware of the darkness that surrounds us and yet still insists on reflecting the light of Christ into that darkness.
In my reading lately I’ve come across this concept of the sanctified imagination. God created us with imagination and as people whom the Spirit indwells, we can learn to cultivate that imagine to see things the way God sees them. A sanctified imagination allows us to see and understand truths we would normally not see or understand. One theologian wrote a story:
Two stonemasons were hard at work. When asked what they are doing, the first said: “I am cutting this stone in a perfectly square shape.” The other answered: “I am building a cathedral.” Both answers are correct, but it takes imagination to see that you are building a cathedral, not simply blocks of granite... It takes the eschatological imagination to look at a sinner and see a saint.
Having hope is about learning to use our sanctified imagination. With a sanctified imagination, we begin to see our enemies as people who bear the image of God. With our sanctified imagination, we see ourselves as chosen, holy and beloved. With our sanctified imaginations we see church buildings as a place where those without homes can come to rest and a place where kids growing up in a rough neighbourhood can come to camp. Because in the Kingdom of God, those who are on the outskirts, or in the margins of society are moved to the centre. Sometimes we can look at the world around us and think it’s not getting better. And it’s true, there is still a lot of evil in the world. But there is also the Church – God’s chosen vessel to be the light in the darkness. And the light is bright. Overwhelming even. Not that the witness of the Church has been perfect over the years. But the Spirit of God hovers over us the way it hovered over the waters at the beginning of creation; breathing life into hopeless places. This is happening all around us and maybe we need to do a better job of telling those stories of hope. Our Mission arm, Canadian Baptist Ministries, does a great job telling these stories of hope. In their issue entitled “Hope”, Terry Smith who is the Executive Director writes,
In our work around the world, we encounter hope-filled people on a daily basis. Young people are seeking to know the God of creation. Vulnerable children in Africa… want to know the love of God and find hope for tomorrow. Aymara women in the Bolivian Andes are learning about redemption and forgiveness. Child soldiers in war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo are discovering that their life can be made anew. Refugees from Syria and Iraq have been given reason to hope because of the love of a Christian community. Drug addicts are finding victory through Christ in Northern Thailand.
These are stories of what the global Church is doing. Stories of people answering their God-given calling. So, I have two questions for you this morning. I invite you to pray for the Spirit’s guidance as you use your sanctified imagination to answer these questions. 1) What calling has God placed on your life? How does your life look with the Spirit of God resting upon you? The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and of might, the Spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord. As believers, we all have the same calling – to make disciples of Christ, but what does that look like for you? And how does your placement within this community help you live out that calling?
Question 2) What calling has God given our church? As you use your sanctified imagination, how do you see Blythwood living out that call to proclaim good news for the poor and freedom for the captives and recovery of sight for the blind and to set the oppressed free. Our hope does not lie in programs or money or pastors. Our hope lies in Christ alone. It is Jesus who makes the way so that you and I can have life with God and so that with can live a community where we are set apart, not from each other but set apart for holy living. Jesus, our hope, does this for us and no power of hell nor human scheme can separate us from his love.
So, if you feel like you’re stuck or if you feel like Blythwood is stuck, know that God is working through His Church to get this whole world unstuck. Biblical hope means that God is not only working for our good, but the good of the world. God is reconciling all things to himself. God is building his peaceable kingdom here. There’s a Canadian hymn writer named Margaret Clarkson. She was born in Saskatchewan in 1915 and died here in Toronto in 2008. Her childhood was marked by illness and pain, her parents divorced when she 12, and she spent her adult life getting countless surgeries and in her final years became lost in a world of dementia. She, unfortunately, is not in our hymnbooks, but she wrote many great hymns. One of her hymns speaks about Christ our hope. The final verse says
Lord of the universe hope of the world How Your creation cries out for release Looks for You longs for You watches and waits Prays for Your kingdom of justice and peace Maker, Redeemer, triumphant One come!
May this be our prayer this morning. May God pour his Spirit out on us so that we can imagine a world where there is peace, a city where there is hope, and a church where God’s people are flourishing and loving and embracing their call to make disciples in Jesus name.