At some point in ancient Biblical history, an older couple left their home, their family behind and with their nephew and servants, their considerable herds of livestock and all their possessions, they took to the road, uncertain as to what lay before them, ignorant even of a particular destination. They gathered up their lives in faith, trusting God to lead them to a better life - a time and place of greater opportunity. God beckoned this childless couple forward with the tantalizing offer of descendents, fulfillment of a long held and long denied dream. And so they set forth. How must their hearts have quailed when familiar landmarks at last fell well behind them. What did it feel like, to be a deeply rooted link on a generational chain? To be bound to the land of their forefathers and foremothers in a sacred trust? To be urged to uproot themselves, their traditions, their taken for granted daily moments in order to follow a very ambiguous sense of call?
Romans 4:18-22 - “Hoping against hope, he (Abraham) believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’ according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’ He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’
In the year 597 B.C., the first of three deportations of the Israelites to Babylon occurred. For the next 60 years, the Israelites lived in a foreign land, cut off from their people and customs, in mourning over the destruction of their temple in Jerusalem, center of their very religion. Psalm 137 gives voice to their despair. “By the rivers of Babylon--there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion?’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
Despite the grim circumstances, the Israelites dreamed about the day they would be allowed to return to their home to rebuild. In 538B.C., the Babylonian Empire fell and Cyrus, the King of Persia, gave the Israelites permission to return to Judah. They returned to a land utterly ruined and to a remnant people totally demoralized. With defiant determination, the returning exiles rallied the nation and the work of rebuilding the temple began, to be eventually completed 23 years later.
A young, unwed small town teenage girl found herself pregnant. Immaculate conception? Likely story. Her dear family and friends were appalled. Mary was ruined. And yet, new life stirred, awakening within an unknown sense of possibility. She sang her terror and joy - “For the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name!”
A grief stricken former follower headed out to sea, hoping to dull his sorrow with the work of fishing. A too good to be true and longed for Messiah was dead and dreams along with him. The burden seemed too great to bear. And then….a stranger on the shore, empty nets mysteriously teeming with fish, vulnerability cast aside in an impetuous dive into the waters to reach the shore, the Savior, first.
In 1204 a young and wealthy man walked away from war. On a pilgrimage to Rome, he decided to join the beggars at the side of the road. This simple act forged a powerful connection. Renouncing his wealth, he chose to live in poverty and called others to do likewise. In time, he formed several orders of men and women who were willing to commit themselves, their lives, in service to the poor. St. Francis of Assisi seemed to encapsulate the very mission of his life with these words, “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
Beginning in 1942, in an area of France increasingly sympathetic to the Nazi movement, the small town of Chambon, under the leadership of a local minister, Andre Trocme, banded together, resolving, against all odds, to nonviolently shelter Jews and aid them in their attempts to reach the relative safety of Switzerland. Despite many threats to their lives, it is estimated the village people of Chambon saved between 3,000-5,000 Jewish people from almost certain death.
In response to a terrorist attack on a Christian church on New Year’s Day in Alexandria, Egypt, January 2011, a moving story unfolded, one not readily reported by our western mainstream media. As Coptic Christians headed back to their church with a great deal of fear and trepidation that January to mark the Coptic Christmas Eve, thousands of their Egyptian Muslim neighbors gathered outside the church to act as a human shield for their Christian brothers and sisters. One Egyptian housewife commented, “I know it might not be safe, yet it's either we live together, or we die together, we are all Egyptians.”
I have very intentionally not used the word hope in any of these vignettes, but these are indeed narratives of hope. It is the thread the connects them all. See how hope moved these individuals beyond themselves, enabled them to embrace unlikely, if not impossible dreams and then work to make those dreams a reality.
On Friday morning, December 14th of this month, a sick young man fired his way into an elementary school, armed with his mother’s guns. The nightmare that unfolded was unimaginable. Precious lives lost. A nation in mourning. Tears have been close to the surface for many of us I think as we’ve watched and read about funeral after funeral this last week. In the wake of this tragedy there have been many different responses. I’ve heard many people talk about a need for better gun regulations. Many have called attention to the inadequate structure this country has built to address the needs of those struggling with mental illness. Many have pointed to movies and to video games as examples of the ways in which this society glorifies violence. All of these are voices of hope in the wilderness. These are voices which are facing into mountains of financial, philosophical, political resistance and yet the voices insist we can do better. This country could be a safer place for our children if we had less guns, if we did better in getting people the help they needed, if we started to wean ourselves off our addiction to gratuitous violence.
Unfortunately not all the voices out there are in tune with hope. Many people are also insistent that their right to own as many different types of guns as they wish must be safeguarded at all costs. Gun sales are surging. I’ve heard some individuals insist it is time to take matters into their own hands and be ready to protect their family, no matter the cost. A school in Texas has already armed some of their teachers and other schools are considering similar measures. This last week in Utah a student was placed in juvenile detention for bringing an unloaded gun to school in order to keep himself and his friends safe. He was simply practicing what so many people in this nation insist on preaching. None of this is about hope. This is resignation. This is a closed realism. This is acceptance of the way things are with no hope that the situation could get better. This is resorting to the lowest common denominator instead of aiming for the impossible that can only be achieved when we do everything in our power to first do all that is possible. A famous line from Don Quixote reads, “Sanity may be madness but the maddest of all is to see life as it is and not as it should be.” Amen to that.
This is the season of hope. A time to remember that God moves and appears in the most unlikely guises imaginable. That some 2,000 years ago a baby was born who in time would be called, The Prince of Peace. It’s not like things are so much worse now than they were at the time Jesus was born. His birth narrative in Matthew is followed up in the very next chapter with words about Herod’s massacre of all the little boys in Bethlehem. Yet even in the face of this hopelessness and despair, of generations old oppression and persecution, Jesus rolled up his sleeves and got to work. Not with weapons, but with instruction and action. With instruction and actions that transformed peoples’ lives. With instruction and actions that revealed the very face of God in the person of Jesus.
This Christmas season may we do likewise. May we seize opportunities to roll up our sleeves and get to work, living into a fierce hope that even with only the faith of a mustard seed, mountains can be moved. The impossible can become possible.