by Debbie Celsie

                                                                                       "There is Always Hope."

Scripture:  Ezekiel 37. 1-14

 

          

          How many here have ever felt like a pile of dry bones? This scripture we have heard today from Ezekiel this morning is one I have not used in Advent before, but since our first Advent candle represents hope, it actually is fitting for this morning.

 

          Hope is an important theme leading up to Christmas, and although we know it is a familiar message and a very important part of our Christian language, we often do not give due consideration to it in our Christian experience. Like so many parts of our faith, it is easy to preach and speak of when things are sailing along good in our lives but do we really value and nourish hope within and among us in times when we truly need it?

 

          Hope is a positive and potent spiritual practice that is rooted in God’s love, and has the power to transform our lives and the lives of others. It is often described as a metaphor, a ray of hope, a beam of hope, a glimmer of hope, the break in the clouds, the light at the end of the tunnel. But what is hope really? Many get it confused with other things. Hope is not wishful thinking; it is not the simple longing for something wonderful to happen to us. I can wish to win a lottery, marry the most beautiful person in the world, or score the winning goal in the world cup, but that isn’t hope, that’s pure wish.

          Likewise, hope is not optimism; which is always seeing the positive side of things in our

normal day to day lives. For instance, meteorologists observe weather patterns around the globe and release their forecasts for the next day: they may say, the day will be unseasonably warm, but in the early afternoon winds will pick up and bring some relief; so now you have reason to be optimistic that the afternoon will be pleasant, perhaps you even look forward to taking your boat out for a sail.

 

          Or, to take another scenario, you and your spouse are healthy adults of childbearing age, you have had no trouble conceiving, and the obstetrician tells you that your pregnancy is going well; you have reason to be optimistic that you will give birth to a healthy child.

 

          Now, when I hope, I expect something in the future. As far as hope goes, I cannot hope for my 29-year-old son to know how to ride a bike, or drive a car because he knows that already, I would hope for something that still lies ahead of him in an unknown way. We reserve the term “hope” for the expectation of things that we cannot fully control or predict with an absolute degree of certainty. We generally don’t hope for natural occurrences, like the sun to come up tomorrow, because we know more or less, that will happen. When we hope, we most usually hope against an undesired outcome or fear.

 

          The Apostle Paul has penned the most famous lines about hope ever written, “Hope that is seen is no hope at all. For, who hopes for what they already have?  But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” Emily Dickinson declares in her famous poem, “Hope is a strange thing, it’s a “thing with feathers” perched in our soul, ready to take us on its wings to some future good”, and she also tells us this ‘bird of hope’ never stops singing, not in the storm, in the chilliest land, or on the strangest sea. The common expression, “Hope for the best, but plan for the worst” is not correct. You cannot have hope and plan for the worse, that is not hope. You cannot focus or plan on the worse if you are embracing hope.

          When we are without hope, we easily can fall victim to gloom, doom, and despair. There’s an old expression that rings true here, “If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. In other words when you’re in a certain headspace, you’re probably going to only notice things that support that headspace. Thankfully however changing what you focus on to a

better thought which embraces hope has the ability to change that!

 

          Each of us carries within our hearts the seeds of enduring hope. Certain attitudes or virtues can support the development of hope in our lives. One attitude or virtue that supports a deepened sense of hope in our lives is patience, an ability to tolerate set-backs, a willingness to let events unfold in their own time. The other is courage, an attitude of confidence even when facing the unfamiliar. A third is persistence, the determination to keep on going no matter what happens.

           Without hope, we find it difficult to be patient. We may lack the courage to continue

struggling against hardship. We are often easily discouraged. Advent is about gestating hope into reality. Mary, Jesus’ Mother, is the pre-eminent figure of this. She shows us hope. Not only did she believe the promise from God, she became pregnant with it, gave it her own flesh, went through the pains of childbirth to give it reality, and then nursed a fragile new life into a powerful adulthood that saved the world.

 

          Let’s face it, Mary and Joseph more than likely felt little if any comfort on their journey to Bethlehem. Have you ever met anyone ‘great with child’ who wanted to ride a donkey for 90 miles? While Israel was living in hope of the coming of a Messiah who would restore and liberate the nation from foreign oppression, we can hear Mary ask, Are we there yet? Her physical experience probably got in the way of the bigger spiritual picture that was unfolding in her life. If there were angels with her, could she have seen them? What kept her going? It was a long road to Bethlehem, and a longer road that entailed being a young unwed pregnant girl with a promise that her child would be the salvation of many. Both her and Joseph must have moved constantly between despair and hope as they navigated the reality of all that was happening.

 

          In this season we are called to imitate Mary’s hope by, like her, gestating it into real flesh, because all of our journeys involve birthing of some kind that can be hard, and the pain of that birthing can often get in our way. When this happens, we often are tempted to give up hope, or let it go by the wayside. We try to deal with life in a secular manner. There is a really big difference in handling something in a secular or spiritual way. Counselling for instance, can be like night and day, if you compare two phycologists who have the same level of education, the same degrees and the same experience, but one is also trained in spiritual direction and/or is a spiritual person of faith themselves. After all, hope and these things we speak of as themes of Christian life in Advent are spiritual tools which are powerful for the mind body and soul. Extensive research has documented that patient who believe in a positive future for themselves are more likely to take action towards their recovery, they have a decrease in psychological symptoms, and have higher levels or resiliency. It was a doctor that actually said, “witnessing hopelessness is like watching a balloon slowly deflate, slowly but surely you watch someone’s spirit wilt away along with any semblance of optimism or problem-solving abilities. They lose their will to live.”

          Too often people forget that when we turn our eyes to something greater than ourselves, the hope we seek and truly need is much closer than we could possibly imagine.

 

          This I am about to read is part of an article on ‘The Hope Theory” that was found unnamed in the archives of a journal magazine I found doing some research for a school assignment. It explains the importance of hope, and how, if harnessed, can support our well-being and mental health throughout our lifetimes.  

 

“I look back at the times when I felt hopeless; circumstances beyond my control had a severe impact on how my loved ones and I could live our lives. The reality which was facing us was not lining up with the big and small expectations and dreams which we had collected up to that point. One of the potentially crippling things about giving up hope for a while is that it can morph into an energy black hole; everything feels harder, heavier and our perceptions of the world can fuel a self-perpetuating

cycle. The gravity of the situation translates into feeling physically and mentally heavy and the very things which you think or know will probably make you feel more able to make the best out of the situation feel too hard to do. Conversely, finding that hope again can be liberating, creating a bit of distance from our immediate reality and a clearer picture of our desired future, taking into account limitations and challenges as well as opportunities and resources and supporting us in taking positive steps to make that future more likely to turn into reality.”

 

And that is true, for instance, if I’m hoping for an A in my class, that hope will motivate me to study. If I’m hoping for a raise, I will work harder. If I want world peace, I can stop shouting at my own children or spouse. If I want to be well, I will try to help that outcome by following doctors’ orders or perhaps making some heathier choices. It is our call as Christians to live with hope each day of our lives. Martin Luther suggested something similar to that, he said, “Just as love transforms the lover into the beloved, so “hope changes the one who hopes into what is hoped for.

 

Here are some comments on hope I came across.

 

          “In the days of apartheid, which was a system of institutionalised racial segregation that existed in South Africa and South West Africa, Christians there used to light candles and place them in windows as a sign to themselves and to others that they believed that some day this injustice would end. A candle burning in a window was a sign of hope and a political statement. Lit candles, more than firearms, overthrew apartheid. To light a candle as an act of hope is to say to yourself and to others that, despite anything that might be happening in the world, you are still nursing a vision of a better day ahead.”

 

          “For me, hope is confidently expecting something good despite circumstances that suggest otherwise. My hope comes from God. I focus less on what my situation currently looks like and more on what I want it to”.

 

          “Life has thrown a lot at me. When I was at my lowest point and had nothing else, I had hope. Hope kept me going like a light in the dark. I started using hope as an aspiration to do more. It was no longer, ‘Hope to make it.’ I stopped hoping to just survive, but using my hope to thrive! Once I embraced hope, I became fearless and a source of inspiration to others.”

 

          “Hope is a fighter. Hope may flicker or falter but doesn’t quit. Hope reminds us that we are Teflon tough, able to withstand the dings, scratches and burns of life.”

 

          “Hope is deciding not to live in fear. It is a conscious decision made many times over to believe in all of the good possibilities that lie ahead. There’s something up ahead, around the corner, in sight, and it’s going to be good.”

                                                                                                                                                

          Well, over two thousand years ago, hope showed up in a baby, the best symbol of hope there has and will ever be. Hope was laid in a manger, literally a feeding trough, a sign that generations to follow could feed on this hope to keep going. Like so many other things in the bible that was written at different times by different people, it all fits in. First born Jesus was placed in the only thing available and that was a feeding trough, amazing how that baby 30 some years later would be known as the bread of life, and the living water, Incredible, isn’t it?

 

          There’s that old saying that says God does not give you more trouble than you can handle and that may be true in the fact that God is NOT the giver of trouble, God is the giver of life. Human experience will always call for hope, and God is bringing this lively hope to all of us, he is breathing life into our dry bones. Hope doesn’t require you wear your Sunday best, or be your best, (how worse can you be than a pile of dry bones?), it finds you where you are. And when you are blessed enough to catch a glimpse of it, hold on and run with it, be a hope bearer for others, it’s catching and it spreads. The book of Peter says, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

         Who better to do this than someone who has been in the trenches themselves?

 

          I now ask you to fold your hands in front of you and focus on the candle of hope we have lighted today. When you are ready, I want you to ask yourself, do I have hope? and just reflect on that question for a moment. Now, I want you to pray your own prayers of hope – whether they be for yourself, people you know, world situations, whatever it is you may hope for. And if you can’t find a sense of hope in yourself this morning, use this time to ask God to help you find and notice it within you....(a few moments of silence).

 

          All Glory be to God. Amen