It never ceases to surprise me, when I pay close attention to how we talk, and I notice how much of casual conversation consists of stock phrases.
I don’t mean formulae, like “Good morning” or “Thank you” or “Excuse me.” Those have to do with manners – good manners – and they are there to make encounters and relations smoother and easier than they would be without them.
No, I’m thinking of things like “It is what it is,” something lots of people say today. Or “the whole nine yards.” Something lots of people said ten or so years ago. Or for that matter, “It never ceases to surprise me,” which we heard at the beginning of this sermon.
There’s nothing wrong with stock phrases. We need them almost as much as we need words themselves. They can, however, become stale, and then we drop them. The worst thing, though, is when a stock phrase becomes a platitude, for as strange as it may seem, platitudes have a way of hanging around for ever and ever.
Here’s one: “Where there’s life there’s hope.” “Where there’s life there’s hope.” A platitude, certainly, and how many times have we heard it? It’s one of those phrases one seems to learn with the language, and I suspect that all of us have said this from time to time. Like most stock phrases we just let it drop without thinking. “Where there’s life there’s hope.”
But, you know, if we do stop and think about it, we will be forced to admit that it is absolutely untrue. Perhaps that’s too strong. Let’s just say that it is a combination of words that sounds all cheerful and optimistic, but in fact has little connection with reality at all. “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” Well, yes . . . sometimes . . . if it is a hopeful situation in which life finds itself. So, where there’s hope there is—yes—hope.
But what if the situation is not hopeful? And there are situations in life which are like that, aren’t there? Dead ends. Times when all the possibilities have been exhausted, and there is nothing to look forward to. The field comes up all tares, no grain. The patient does not respond to treatment. Life . . . but no hope. Hopeless. What then? . . . “Where there’s life, there’s hope. It doesn’t hold water, does it?
The funny thing, though, is that if we take this mindless phrase we’ve heard so many times and simply turn the words around, then we get something that is true and, indeed, profoundly true. “Where there’s hope, there’s life.” The Bible teaches that one on every other page, and it’s something most of us come to know instinctively, just from living. “Where there’s hope there’s life.”
Haven’t there been times in your life—there certainly have in mine—when things seemed so bad, so down, that the only thing that got you up in the morning and through the day was the hope that at some point the bad would stop and the good get going again? I’ve lived that way myself, and I’ve seen the same in others. Doctors and nurses and anyone who works with people who are gravely ill will tell you about this in a particularly dramatic way. Sometimes people seem to stay alive and eventually they recover by the sheer force of the hope which is in them and the will-to-live which springs from that hope. At other times a person—perhaps a person who is not really that sick—nevertheless loses hope and very quickly there is decline and often death. Life and hope: for human beings at least, the two are related, very closely related, and in such a way that life, it seems, often depends on hope. Without hope life just fades away.
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This is certainly what the Bible teaches, and scripture teaches it because this is what the people of the Bible learned from their experience of life and God, and they pass this lesson on to us to learn as well. It would be hard to imagine a story more motivated and determined by hope—hope disappointed and hope fulfilled—than the history of the Old Testament. The ancient Hebrews were a people sustained by hope and expectation and the promise which they believed their God had made to them: that they would always be His people, and He would always be their God. He would never abandon them. Without that trust and hope in God’s faithfulness there would have been no Old Testament. Life depends on hope, and their hope kept the Jews alive. It sustained them through defeat after defeat, betrayal after betrayal. It held them together when they were in exile in Babylon. They were a people of Covenant—yes—but a people also of promise and hope. They would be His people, and He would be their God.
And without that hope there would have been no New Testament, for at a certain point the hope of Israel began to focus itself and become specific: the God of Israel would send to His people One who would realize all their hopes—the Messiah, God’s anointed and the agent of His action and His promise. Through that Messiah God would overturn the disappointments which Israel had suffered. In that Messiah God would be with His people and would be their God in a way which they had not yet known. The Messiah would be Emmanuel, God-with-us, a name of promise, a title which points to hope fulfilled.
And, paradoxically, at the same time that Israel’s hope focused and became specific in a Messiah to be sent by God, it also blossomed out and became universal. A hope not only for the Jews, but for all people. It became the hope that all the peoples of the earth would become the people of God, that all nations would be included in His loving promise to the Jews. By God’s Messiah all humanity would be gathered into His Kingdom. There would be a new cosmos in which the purposes of God for creation and for humankind were fulfilled.
We heard Zephaniah’s prophecy this morning:
The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. . . . Behold, at that time I will deal with your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown. . . . I will make you praised and renowned among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.
And we heard also from St. Paul, as he writes to the Philippians:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say Rejoice ! Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
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Dear people, that focused, specific, and yet universal hope is for us a precious legacy of Israel, and something which we Christians share with the Jews of ancient times. In Advent, we look forward to the celebration of the birth and first appearing of the One whom we believe to be the Messiah, God-with-us. And we look forward as well to His second coming—to the end of time and of the world as we know it, to the creation in Christ and by Christ of the new heaven and the new earth promised by God. And we no less than the Jews live by that hope.
Jesus’ Second Coming is more than something tacked on to the end of the Creed, as if an afterthought. It is, rather, as Fleming Rutledge so ardently insisted two weeks ago, an essential part of the faith and an essential part of the life of Christians. It is something which we both expect for the future and which we realize within ourselves in the present. And that is to say, that in this world in which we await Him, we are called by our manner of life to make His Kingdom, the next world, present and active. We are called to live here and now, as if it were then and there.
His peace, His love for us, His active grace and holiness makes real within us the Lord’s Kingdom, which is His coming Sovereignty within the world, a Sovereignty of truth and peace and love and holiness and grace.
You and me, Christ’s Body, the Church, brings the future into the present and is nourished by the substance of her hope.
At the Altar Jesus comes to us and offers us the new bread and wine of His Kingdom, which is Himself.