<b>Advent Week 1</b>

OK, I guess I’ve ‘outed’ myself. Yes, I can carry a tune. When I worked in New Mexico at Philmont Scout Ranch, I was part of of a group that would perform every night around a campfire for hikers who were staying at our camp for the night. We recorded several of our songs and you can listen to one of them here. I’m singing lead, if you really want to know. We sang every night. And because we were in the backcountry and didn’t have a sound system, I had to sing loud in order to be heard – even with sore throats or other afflictions. After weeks of singing like that, I’m pretty sure I damaged my vocal cords. I’ve never been able to sing like I did up until that Summer was over. So, although Virginia said she’s going to wring my neck because I hadn’t revealed this important piece of information, I never really thought it was something to divulge because my singing voice is only a fraction of what it used to be.

With all that being said, here’s a link to this week’s sermon, Clinging to Hope. We had audio complications this week and the beginning cut out. I guess you’ll have to read the opening paragraph from the manuscript. I’ll see if I can somehow enhance the audio. If I can fix it, I’ll definitely repost it!

In 1995, a man was hiking in Yellowstone National Park. Tragically, he slipped and fell into a cavern. When he did, several rocks slid and filled the hole where he fell. He was held down by rocks and in the cavern for ten days – until someone heard his cry for help. When he was rescued he was asked, “How in the world did you make it down there for so long without any water or food?” He answered, “I could always look up and see a tiny beam of light shining through the top and it gave me hope.” And he clung to that ray of hope.

As friends of God, we have been given a ray of hope to cling to. And that ray has been gleaming since before time began. In the account of God’s creation of the world in the book of Genesis, the serpent convinces Adam and Eve to taste of the fruit that God had forbidden them to eat. With that one event, sin came rushing in to God’s creation, upending the perfection it had. Death had entered the realm and things would never be the same. As a result of Adam and Eve’s choice to pursue glory and power over a friendship with God, they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. They were forced to live a life of turmoil, strife, pain, and death, living in conflict with the serpent – who was cursed to be the lowest of the animals. As a result of that one act, things began to spiral out of control, further and further into despair. But there was still a ray of hope. God promised that one day an offspring of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. And humanity began longing for that one day when things would once again be made right and all of creation would be restored to its original state.

And when Eve gave birth to a son, Cain, surely they remembered the promise of God. Surely they thought, “This is the one! This child shall crush the head of the serpent. Out of his life, death will be defeated. And all will be right with the world. Everything’s going to be OK.” Of course, we know that everything was not OK – not by a long shot. Rather than crushing the head of the serpent, Cain crushed the head of his brother, Abel, instead. And so creation continued to spiral further and further into despair. And creation continued to groan for the One who would restore creation to its intended original state. And humanity along with the rest of creation clung to the ray of hope.

“O come, o come, Emmanuel! And ransom captive Israel.”

As the chosen people of God, the nations of Israel and then Judah encountered times of great victory and other times of great despair. As history continued to unfold, they clung to the hope of the promise that they were the Lord’s chosen people and would continue to be throughout time. Larger, more powerful nations would come in, rattle their swords, and threaten the sovereignty of these tiny nations. And as it became more apparent that they would eventually be defeated, they were still given a ray of hope for the future.

Judah’s sister-nation to the north, Israel, eventually fell to a large nation called the Assyrians. The people were carted off into exile and history essentially never heard from the northern nation again. The fall of this nation surely shook the people of God in the southern kingdom at their core. They were God’s chosen people. True, Israel had strayed from following the Lord, but they were originally part of the people of God. “How could God allow this to happen? And if this happened to them, what’s in store for us?” Israel was much larger and much more powerful than Judah, the southern kingdom. If the Assyrians could wipe out their neighbors to the north with such ease, how much easier could the southern kingdom be annihilated? Out of this context, the prophet Isaiah shared these words of hope for the people of the Lord (Isaiah 2:2-4). He gave the people a glimmer of hope. Yes, things were crashing down around them. Yes, it seemed pretty dark. But there will soon come a day where all will turn towards Jerusalem as the center of worship and justice. God will deliver His people. He will send a Messiah – an anointed one – to be their deliverer. And so they clung to that ray of hope offered by the prophet Isaiah.

“O come, o come, Emmanuel! And ransom captive Israel.”

A pregnant mother and her husband are sitting in the doctor’s office, going through a routine ultrasound visit. They see the baby’s fingers and toes. They see all of the little parts of this beautiful child that God is knitting together in her womb. And then the technician’s face changes. He zooms in on the baby’s heart and makes some more detailed analysis. He tells the couple that he noticed a specific reflection on the baby’s heart. While it could be nothing, it is also a sign that there could be potential problems, including Down’s syndrome. “How could this be?” They said to themselves. “What are we going to do? Where’s God in all of this?” If God was knitting this child together, did He make a mistake? Did he mean for this to happen? What are we going to do if this is true? And as the darkness grew around them, they clung to the ray of hope that God would never leave them nor forsake them, and He is there even in their darkest hour.

“O come, o come, Emmanuel! And ransom captive Israel.”

Jerusalem survived the assault of the Assyrians. And as the years went on, they faced many political obstacles. They held on to the belief that God would continue to deliver them – that He would continue to protect them as their people. But things seemed to continue to spiral further out of control. They continued to spiral further and further into darkness. Eventually, a new nation had risen up – the Babylonians. Babylon swept in and wiped out all who stood against them – including the nation of Judah. Many people fled to Egypt. Others were carted off into exile in Babylon. And the world had fallen apart around the people of God. “How could God have allowed such a thing to happen? We were God’s chosen people. Jerusalem is supposed to become the center of the world. How will that happen when it lies in ruins?” As homes were destroyed, possessions were carted off as booty, and families were separated, the prophet Jeremiah shared this promise from God found in Jeremiah 31:31-34. As darkness came crashing in, they clung to the ray of hope.

“O come, o come, Emmanuel! And ransom captive Israel.”

A teenage girl cries herself to sleep again. All she has ever wanted was to be accepted by her parents. All she ever wanted was to be known that she was loved. Nothing is ever good enough for them. She’s a beautiful young woman with a gifted mind and a generous heart. But that’s not good enough. It’s never good enough. She buries her head in her pillow and wonders if she will ever be worthy of anyone’s love. She wonders if she will ever find her place. And she remembers that God is the God who welcomes the fatherless. He is the God who wipes away every tear and He has shown time and time again throughout the Gospels that He has a special place for the unloved – the outcasts. And although she cries herself to sleep again, she clings to the hope that she is accepted by the One who made her.

“O come, o come, Emmanuel! And ransom captive Israel.”

After the Persians defeated Babylon, Cyrus the Great eventually issued a decree that all of the exiles could return to their homeland. And they did. As we discussed a few weeks ago, the Temple and Jerusalem were eventually rebuilt. This must be the time, they thought. This must be the time that God is going to establish His kingdom here on earth. He is going to restore the kingdom of David and all nations will look at Jerusalem and know that He is the one True God.

Things were fine for a while. There was rejoicing because God had kept His promise and Jerusalem was rebuilt, just like He said it would be. But they were still occupied. They were not the free, independent people that they had hoped.

Over the course of several hundred years, things began to spiral out of control. Things did not get better as they had hoped. Eventually, the Persians were conquered and Alexander the Great ruled all of the Mediterranean world – including Judah and Jerusalem. Hundreds of years had passed since the promise of Israel that they would be delivered. Thousands of years had passed since the promise in the Garden that the serpent’s head would eventually be crushed and all would be rightfully restored. When the people looked around and saw their situation, they surely thought that they were no closer to the promises being fulfilled. But they didn’t give up. It was tough, but they still clung to that hope that they had in the faithfulness of God’s keeping His promises.

And then – things got worse. Much worse. After Alexander the Great died his untimely death, his kingdom was divided amongst his generals. And Antiochus IV consolidated his power and tried to force the followers of the Lord into submission. His army stormed in and took over the city. He entered the Temple of the Lord and had a gigantic statue of Zeus Olympus raised on a pedestal behind the Altar of Sacrifice. The Temple courts, where formerly the Levites had raised their voices in reverent psalms, now became the scene of lewd revelry and debauchery. The people were humiliated. They were promised a nation where God’s covenant would be written on people’s hearts. Instead, they were facing a world where an idol to Zeus was desecrating what was known as God’s house. But they clung to the ray of hope that God would establish His kingdom.

“O come, o come, Emmanuel! And ransom captive Israel.”

A man walks into his house with a look of defeat. He shows his pink slip to his wife. Laid off. Again. How are they going to make it through this? They have a mortgage to pay. There is a car payment to make and bills keep piling up. And on top of that, it’s the Christmas season. This couldn’t have come at a worse time. Defeated, deflated, and depressed, he clings to the hope that if God provides such extravagant clothing for the birds of the air, He will surely provide all of the needs of someone He loves. He doesn’t know how God will do it, but he clings to the ray of hope that God will provide.

“O come, o come, Emmanuel! And ransom captive Israel.”

The Jewish people had had enough. They fled to the mountains and began a revolt against the reign of Antiochus. The band of rebels led by the Maccabeans eventually expelled the oppressive rule of Antiochus. They threw off the bonds of wickedness and were given their independence. And the people thought, “Finally! The promised Messiah has come! God is establishing His kingdom here and now. Now we will shine the light of God to the world and they will turn to Him. Now is the time. Praise God for His Anointed One!” And for a while, the nation did serve as a testimony to the world of the power of God. But pursuit of personal power and riches threw the tiny kingdom into civil war and the nation was thrown into turmoil. And so the people began to hope again. They clung to the hope that God’s Messiah would come and deliver them from the despair they faced.

“O come, o come, Emmanuel! And ransom captive Israel.”

A woman takes off her wedding ring for the last time. The divorce has become final and she is alone again. Her husband has run off with another woman and she is left at home to pick up the pieces. Her heart breaks every time she thinks of the promises they made to each other – the vows that were broken time and time again. She should have seen it coming, she thought to herself. What was wrong with her? Did she bring this on herself? Filled with more questions than answers, she puts the ring away – and tries to find a way to move on with her life. And she remembers the promise that God will never leave her and He will never forsake her. And as she picks up the pieces of her life, she clings to this ray of hope.

“O come, o come, Emmanuel! And ransom captive Israel.”

Eventually, Jerusalem invited Rome to intervene and bring peace. The stipulation was that they had to submit to Roman rule. So the people were occupied. Again. And they continued to look for the Messiah who would rescue them from their despair. They continued to look for the Messiah who would usher in God’s kingdom of peace and justice. They continued to hope for the One who was promised “When, God?” They continued to ask. They kept praying. They kept looking. They kept hoping that the God who had proven Himself time and time again throughout history would again prove Himself and fulfill His promise. And so they waited. And they watched. And they waited.

Nothing.

Silence.

And they kept on waiting. And then one day, in God’s perfect timing, the culmination of all of history and all of His promises from as far back as the Garden of Eden occurred in the body of a young, teenaged girl. (Read Luke 1:26-35.)

That baby boy we celebrate this time of year crushed the serpent’s head. That baby boy we celebrate this time of year delivered us from the bondage of sin. That baby boy – Jesus Christ – brings us the hope of a changed life today and the hope of glory afterwards. And all of creation continues to groan for that day where He will ultimately restore everything to its rightful place. It’s only a matter of time. Of course, it’s God’s timing – not ours. If it were up to me, He’d have done that yesterday so we wouldn’t have to face the difficulties we continue to face. If it were up to the people of Israel, I’m sure it would have happened thousands of years ago so they wouldn’t have to live lives under oppressive rulers. But it’s not our timing. It’s God’s. And knowing that, we wait. We watch. We hope.

Things may feel like they’re spiraling out of control. You can be surrounded by darkness and difficulty, but you and I can deal with whatever we face because we have the hope that the God who was at work throughout history is still at work in our lives today. It might not feel like it all the time. Circumstances can make life seem hopeless sometimes. But when that happens, cling to the glimmer of hope that God continues to shine to us. It’s not like wishing on a star. No, hope is trusting that God has been faithful to His promises and He will continue to be faithful to His promises. And in His own time, He will do what He said He will do.

If your life is spinning out of control, there is hope. If your life is surrounded by darkness and you don’t know how you’re going to make it through the day, there is hope. If life seems pretty hopeless right now, there is hope.

There is hope because God is radically in love with you. There is hope because Jesus Christ, the promised one, came so that we could have an abundant life in friendship with God. If you have not experienced that hope, you have an invitation this morning to taste it for yourself. You have an invitation to allow God to change you – to give you a new heart and a new life. And although your circumstances around you won’t change, the way you handle them will. The way you approach events in your life will be completely transformed based on the hope of the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ. If you want to have that kind of life – a life where you can face any circumstances with confidence – then you are invited today to begin a relationship with the Father.

It’s not your traditional three points and a prayer sermon. Actually, it’s different from most of the sermons I tend to shape. I was trying to illustrate how we can continue to hope – even when we can’t see God at work because God has been faithful and continues to be. I hope I communicated that point.

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