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The Hopes and Fears of All the Years
sermon based on Isaiah 40:1-11
Randy L Quinn 

I have often said that the most exciting part of my ministry is when I see the look of surprise or delight that comes with those moments when people learn something new or get an insight that seems to answer a lingering question.  My primary reward as a pastor is being a witness to those “aha!” moments in the lives of people.

I had one of those moments myself this week.  It wasn’t an earth-shattering moment, but it was a new insight for me, an answer to a lingering question, a moment when I sat up in my chair and said aloud, “Aha!”

You may have figured it out years ago, and maybe it’s an answer to a question you haven’t asked yet, but I want to begin today by sharing my “new” insight.

I just finished reading a book about the history of Christmas celebrations.  The book provides insights into the way Christmas has been celebrated over the past two millennia by referring to and directly quoting sources from various times and places.

What seems to be consistent throughout the history of the church is a sort of nostalgia that looks back to previous celebrations, as if they were somehow better, somehow more pure, somehow more appropriate than the current celebration.

·        It doesn’t matter if I’m talking about people here reminiscing about the Christmas of 1948,

·        Or the stories from the 1830’s wishing Christmas was more like it was in the 1780’s,

·        Or the tales told in the Middle Ages referring back to the days of the Roman Empire.

There is a longing for the past celebrations that seems to under gird all of Christian history.

That was not the “aha” moment for me.  I’ve known that.  I’ve seen it, and I’ve heard it before in other settings.  There is a tendency in western society to reflect on the “good old days” that I think has always been present – even though we know the “good old days” are no better than the present.

What was new was the realization that most Biblical celebrations focus on the better days of the future.

·        Jewish Passover celebrations have told the story of the Exodus for over 4,000 years, but they always include a sense of hope for tomorrow, for the coming year, in anticipation of the next liberation.

·        At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Mt 26:29).  He was looking to the great Passover celebration of the future as much as he was the past.

My new awareness this week was that we tend to look at the past wistfully rather than seeing in the past a sign of hope for the future.

In our text for today, Isaiah is speaking words of hope to a people in Exile.  All they had known had been taken away.  Their primary symbols of society were gone.  The temple was destroyed.  Their King had been taken away in shackles.  Their cities were in shambles.  The people themselves had been taken to a foreign land.

In many ways, their situation was worse than the situation in America following September 11.  Not just one building in one city, but an entire nation had been destroyed.

And in the midst of their despair, Isaiah offers a word of hope.  Not by wishfully looking to the past, but by seeing in the past hope for tomorrow.  “The glory of the Lord will be revealed,” he says (v 5).  The great king of their past, King David, could not compare with the King that God will bring.  The sense of peace that was present during David’s reign served only as an appetizer for the real thing that was just over the horizon.

The past may provide clues, but hope lies in the future.

We, on the other hand, look at America before September 11 and wish we could go back.

We look at the commercialized celebrations of Christmas and wish we could reclaim a simpler life.

And while we’re wistfully looking at the past, Isaiah is pointing to the future.  Isaiah says with confidence that God will come and bring something better than we have EVER known before.

Like I said, that may not be earth-shattering, but it was a startling realization to me and a pertinent reminder to all of us that the best is yet to come.  Advent is not intended to be a season in which we nostalgically look back.  It is an invitation to look to the future with a sense of hope.

One of the Peanuts cartoons this week posited the question about life’s peaks and valleys.  Charlie Brown’s little sister Sally said, “Life is full of ups and downs.  But what if I’ve already reached the highest point in my life?”

According to Isaiah, the answer is simple.  You’re asking the wrong question.  The highest point in your life, the highest point in any life, is in the future, not in the past!

That, my friends, is the essence of hope.  It’s the firm assurance that God is in charge of the future, an assurance based on our belief that God has been with us in the past.  And the future God has in store for us is filled with good things.

Shortly after the Civil War, an American pastor – who later became a bishop – made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and actually spent Christmas Eve in Bethlehem.  The din of war was behind him, and it looked peaceful.  He envisioned a peaceful night in history, not unlike that one, in which the Christ child was born.  Two years later, Phillips Brooks wrote a poem about his own experiences, and had it put to music.

In a few minutes we’ll sing his ‘poem,’ the familiar Christmas Carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.

His hymn has significantly influenced our understanding of the Christmas story.  But I’m not sure his hymn is an accurate portrayal of history.

His vision of Bethlehem came from looking to the past – and it probably wasn’t as idyllic as he thought.  He forgot about the crowds in the city that night.  There were so many people in fact, that there was no room in the inn.  He forgot that these people had not gathered to celebrate the birth of a baby.  They had not even come for a religious festival.  They came and were probably commiserating about the pain of taxation.

I dare say the first Christmas was anything but still.  Quite grumbling, perhaps, but not the pristine stillness Brooks envisioned.

What was certainly true, however, was that no one noticed the birth of a baby in a manger stall.  The people were too busy with other activities and affairs.

The crowds were too busy placing their hope in the future, in their anticipation of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s promises to notice how God was working in the present to answer all their hopes and fears.

And what was true then is true today.

Whether we are talking about peace in Afghanistan or an answer to the plague of AIDS,

Whether we are living in fear of anthrax or live in a home where the terror of abuse reigns,

Whether we are facing our own mortality or pondering the effects of pollution on our planet,

Our hope lies in the baby born in Bethlehem who still comes to us today.

♫. . . where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.

The hope that Isaiah proclaims to a people in bondage is a word that still brings comfort today.  But the hope lies in the future, not in the past.

Let’s stop looking for a nostalgic Christmas celebration from the past and begin looking for signs that God is already at work in our midst, looking toward the day when all the hopes and fears we have may be met.


[1]  The first in a series of sermons for Advent depending upon familiar Christmas Carols.