Hope: pulling us into the future
Advent 2021 • Sermon • Submitted • Presented • 22:26
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26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, 27 to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. 28 Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!” 29 Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. 30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” 34 Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” 35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. 36 What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. 37 For the word of God will never fail.” 38 Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her. 39 A few days later Mary hurried to the hill country of Judea, to the town 40 where Zechariah lived. She entered the house and greeted Elizabeth. 41 At the sound of Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s child leaped within her, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 Elizabeth gave a glad cry and exclaimed to Mary, “God has blessed you above all women, and your child is blessed. 43 Why am I so honored, that the mother of my Lord should visit me? 44 When I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said.” 46 Mary responded, “Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. 47 How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! 48 For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. 49 For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me. 50 He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear him. 51 His mighty arm has done tremendous things! He has scattered the proud and haughty ones. 52 He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands. 54 He has helped his servant Israel and remembered to be merciful. 55 For he made this promise to our ancestors, to Abraham and his children forever.” 56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months and then went back to her own home.
A New Hope
A New Hope
Forty-four years ago a little movie came out. It is known as “A New Hope.” Anyone seen it?
That’s right, it’s the first Star Wars movie. Does anyone know what the “new hope” mentioned in the title (which was applied later) refers to?
It’s probably Luke Skywalker, the new Jedi, but maybe the rebellion. I saw the next movie in the drive-in when it came out: The Empire Strikes Back. It was really exciting, and left you with a cliff-hanger for the third movie, Return of the Jedi, which revealed that the hope from episode 4 was worth pursuing, as Luke won back Vader and defeated the emperor and therefore the empire.
But in recent years, the story has continued in the sequel trilogy. And what happens? Spoiler alert: the emperor still lives, the Jedi have failed, and that “new hope” has been failed and been discarded for the lastest hope.
So Star Wars’ new hope turns out to be an empty hope. Strangely, the fantasy of Star Wars accurately reflects the reality of our world. It is tragic, but this is the only sort of hope that the world knows.
You just need to think about how we use the word “hope.” We say things like “I hope to do such-and-such.” Or, “I hope you get better.” Or, “Hopefully, I’ll pass this exam.” Our world’s version of hope is merely an expression of a wish or a desire for something.
But hope in the Bible is different. The New Testament Greek word for hope comes in only two forms, the verb ἐλπίζειν (elpizein), and the noun ἐλπίς (elpis). Hope never occurs as an adverb or adjective, because it never describes a subjective state of mind. In the New Testament, hope is either a concrete reality (in this hope we were saved) or a concrete action (we hope for what we do not see). It is never merely a state of mind. Hope is the certain expectation of what is still to come.
Hope in the Magnificat
Hope in the Magnificat
Mary shows incredible hope in her wonderful song of praise to God, traditionally called the Magnificat. She sings it before Jesus is born, before she has seen any of God’s promises come true. And so it is a song of hope.
This song of hope is such a contrast to Zechariah’s skepticism. Zechariah was a priest in the noble line of Aaron, chosen to serve God in the Holy of Holies of the great temple of Jerusalem. He was at the centre of religious practice in Israel, theoretically the closest to God. Yet he scoffed at God’s revelation that he received there.
Yet here we find Mary: an unmarried, pregnant, poor girl from a backwater town, and she simply trusts and then praises God in the confident hope that his promises will come true.
Mary’s song starts with praise for what God is doing through her. But then she turns to praise for what God will do through Jesus.
And when she does that, an interesting thing happens.
51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
She suddenly starts using the past tense! Why would she be singing of things yet to come as if they were in the past?
In fact, this is a common pattern in the Bible, and it occurs both in the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament. You see, God’s prophets and faithful people wanted a way to express how completely confident they were that God’s promises would come true, and so they used the past tense to talk about things that God would do in the future. God’s promises are so sure, you see, that it’s as if they have already happened. God’s word is as unchangeable as the past.
Hope vs Faith
Hope vs Faith
Now for Greek and Hebrew cultures, words were powerful, but we belong to a more visual culture.
So how can we visualise this concept of hope? And, while we’re at it, what’s the difference between hope and faith?
I want you to imagine a ship floating in a harbour. If the ship wants to stay in one place in the harbour, what does it do?
That’s right, it puts down an anchor.
Hope is like an anchor. It sticks into the floor of the sea and doesn’t move, holding the ship in place.
Faith, on the other hand, is like the anchor chain. It connects the ship to the anchor and ensures that the ship stays wherever the anchor is fixed. Our faith connects us to the immovable hope of God’s promises.
Jesus Christ, our hope
Jesus Christ, our hope
Now, in a world where hopes are dashed by things called “variants,” where we place our hope in what’s under the Christmas tree, or in the security of our job, or in a vaccine, we will never be happy. We will always be disappointed. And each disappointment makes our wound deeper, until we have lost all joy. That’s why you hear about grumpy old men, but not grumpy young boys.
Sure, we can be fooled by enough sunshine and beauty to forget the dark truth that Solomon reminded us of: that everything under the sun is meaningless, because it all comes to nothing. That’s the peril of the Gold Coast, it’s such a beautiful place that its residents can easily think they’ve found paradise. Especially those who live in Paradise Point! But lurking beneath that beauty is the ugliness of unemployment, disappointment, sickness, relational breakdown, and, ultimately, death.
But Jesus offers us a hope, an anchor, that is set in the bedrock of the future world, the world beyond this one. The world Jesus promises us, with words as certain as if they had already happened, is a world where everything unfair, uncertain, and unclean is made just, and sure, and brilliantly clean! Paradise Point will seem like a filthy stable compared to the humblest corner of the new world.
My misplaced hope
My misplaced hope
There are so many times I have misplaced my hope, anchoring it in this world instead of in Jesus. When I was young, growing up in Charters Towers, I used to dream of creating a world-spanning car manufacturing empire, based in Charters Towers. How silly that seems now. Then later I hoped to be like the apostle Paul, striding across the world stage, transforming people and countries with my brilliant theological insights. I was soon realised that God had other plans for me. Then I thought I could transform people’s life balance with an amazing smartphone app that almost read their minds, all while maintaining their privacy and supporting advertising at the same time. Again, my hopes were dashed and I had to face God’s plans for me.
Whenever we place our hope in people, or in things of this world, or in our own plans, we will be disappointed. The famous beginning of Psalm 127 states it forcefully:
1 Unless the Lord builds a house, the work of the builders is wasted. Unless the Lord protects a city, guarding it with sentries will do no good.
Where is our anchor?
Where is our anchor?
As we approach Christmas, we have an opportunity to think about where we have placed our anchor, our hope. Is our anchor hooked deep in our past struggles, dragging us backwards? Is our anchor hooked into our present fantasies and worries, keeping us from moving forward? Is our anchor in the things we buy—houses, cars, computers, clothes, an education? Or perhaps in the work we do, or the people we love, or even in the church we serve in. All of these keep us bound to this earth.
Christmas challenges us to pull up our anchor from the things of this world, and to let our anchor down into the only secure rock: into Jesus Christ and his work of salvation. That is where Mary placed her hope. No storm can unseat an anchor set in Jesus. Even the cross did not destroy Mary. The apostle Paul writes to the church in Ephesus,
4 For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. 5 There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all, in all, and living through all.
When we anchor our lives in this hope—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all—we can be certain that we’ll make it to the far shores on the other side of death. And our hopes will be fulfilled forevermore.