The Burning Ember of Hope
While out here the Spartans vs Wolverines is THE college football rivalry, where I grew up “the Big Game” was University of California Berkeley vs Stanford. And my all-time favorite comeback story is 1982’s Berkeley–Stanford Big Game. Future hall of famer quarterback John Elway in his final college game led Stanford to a 20-19 lead with four seconds left on the clock. Stanford’s fans stormed the field to celebrate their win, earning a 15-yard penalty since the game wasn’t technically over yet. One of Berkeley’s players even forgot to go back out for the kickoff, figuring the game was over already. And if our video will play, you’ll see what happened when Berkeley returned Stanford’s kickoff with four seconds left.
[Please refer to our video recording to see the clip of the Big Game’s final play]
My favorite part is the touchdown scorer smacking into the poor saxophone player in the endzone. Five backwards lateral passes. Multiple tackles just a split second too late. Even a marching band in the way. Yet Berkeley came back to defeat Stanford. When Americans talk about hope, we often imagine moments like that. Moments where we’ve done most of the work but need a little extra oomph to get home. But Biblical hope… is quite different. Pop culture’s hope sees you and me just shy of success, with mere seconds on the clock: we need God’s help if we’re going to make the big win in time. But when the Old Testament mentions hope… usually the game is long over, the referees already gone home, and nobody’s even watching anymore.
Because the prophet Isaiah in today’s scripture preaches to an Israel that has already been broken beyond recognition. King David’s realm has been split in two, and the Assyrian Empire has already annihilated the larger northern half. Now King David’s father was named Jesse. So it is no accident Isaiah calls what’s left of the kingdom “the stump of Jesse,” since it’s as if the towering redwood that was David’s kingdom has now been cut down, reduced to a dead corpse of a stump. And that is the Bible’s first lesson on the nature of hope. Hope does not belong to people who have it all together. Hope is not merely wishing for an extra oomph after you’ve done most of the work. Hope is for the stumps of the world. Hope is for folks like Israel, those reduced to ashes and dust beyond repair. Hope is for the little guys: the poor, the meek, the oppressed. These days many congregations host “Blue Christmas” Sundays, when they admit that Christmastime is not holly jolly for everyone, that for many the holidays can be painful reminders of things lost. Yet when I read Isaiah, when I think on this first day of Advent being the Sunday of Hope… I am reminded that it is this lack of holly-jolliness, this not-having-it-together, this utter destruction beyond mortal repair… it was this dreadful reality that caused us to have Christmas in the first place. Christmas exists because of that Blue Christmas feeling. Christian hope—and therefore I’d say Christmas itself—is given by God for those who feel like Isaiah looking over the corpse of Israel’s kingdom, for the struggling and broken who wonder how good could possibly come out of this life’s wreckage. Hope is given to you and me by God for when our world seems to fall apart, when there is no earthly way to restore what was lost.
So if hope is meant for us when we’re in trouble… what does it actually do? Does having hope mean blindly rushing forward like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, only for Lucy to pull it away for the hundredth time to send him flying? Is hope just wishy-washy optimism? No. Isaiah’s hope—and thus Christmas’s hope—is not wishy-washy or sugarcoated or bland optimism. Instead, Christian hope… is a resolute expectation, a firm dedication to endure because the Lord has promised a Messiah upon whom shall rest “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord… who with righteousness judges for the poor and with equity decides for the meek… and who shall stand as a signal”—not just to Israel—but to all the nations of the world. Optimism is not a bad thing, but it’s generic. Optimism trusts that things will generally work themselves out. Whereas Christian hope… is particular. You hope in something or for something specific. In truth, I’m a pessimist. I don’t have a high view of people in general, and I’m not terribly excited for humanity’s future. Yet even a pessimistic Grinch like me… can hope, because my hope is entrusted to someone in particular, that promised person with the spirit of wisdom, might, and understanding who is Jesus Christ. I often have to hold back from fully sharing my doom and gloom pessimism—though I would argue my dour predictions are usually justified—yet even I can have hope—not because reality is peaches and cream—but rather because I have someone who is worthy of putting my hope in who holds out a promise worth hoping in.
So what does hope do for us who are in trouble? Christian hope gives us something—or rather someone—outside ourselves whom we can rely on, who we can turn to and trust when everything else falls down around us. When the Kingdom of David has been cut down to a dead stump, with no chance on its own for a comeback… the Lord in whom we hope promises to draw forth a shoot of new life in a promised Messiah. When death and evil batter our lives as they did Isaiah’s… the Lord in whom we hope promises life and forgiveness. When disaster scattered Israel to the four winds… the Lord in whom we hope promised to not only draw them back but also to use that scattering… to draw every nation into his light and love, turning a thing of shame into a vehicle for grace. Nothing earthly could restore that shattered people… but Christian hope is in the promise that something beyond earth breaks into our mortal stories to inject life where it was lost, to give mercy where there is hurt, to instill strength where there is weakness. Christian hope is a determined trust that though things might get bleak down here, we are not alone in our troubles, we are not forgotten, we are not abandoned, and we are not in bad times forever. Life on earth may seem grim, but heaven’s cavalry is coming, so just hold on.
But my favorite articulation of Christian hope comes from 2010’s Grammy-nominated song “Beautiful Things,” by the Christian band Gungor. The song goes, “All this pain: I wonder if I’ll ever find my way. I wonder if my life could really change, at all. All this earth: Could all that is lost ever be found? Could a garden come out from this ground, at all? You make beautiful things; You make beautiful things out of the dust. You make beautiful things; You make beautiful things out of us. All around, Hope is springing up from this old ground. Out of chaos life is being found, in you. For You make beautiful things… [and on it goes]” The song’s message is the same as Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming of Jesus at Christmas. Our God once took the lifeless dust of the earth and breathed life into it to create humanity. Our God took the decaying stump of David’s Israelite kingdom… and caused the shoot of the Messiah to spring forth in new life from it. Our God used a dead and buried Savior… to bring resurrection life to the world. And so our God can surely take the dead places in our own lives—the guilt, the pain, the despair—and our God can make life spring forth again. That is Christian hope. It’s not passively assuming things will just work out. It’s trusting in someone specific—Jesus, our Savior—who has promised to do something specific—redeem the world in general and you in particular from evil and death.
When I worked at a summer camp, we always made “campfire soup,” which is where after you were done with a campfire… you doused the fire pit with water until it is soupy enough for you to put your hand in without getting burned. We did this because fire is a tricky beast. Even if a campfire looks dead, sometimes a burning ember can reignite with the right breeze to spark a forest fire. Dumping in water ‘til it was soupy was the only way to be sure it was out, for otherwise you never knew if the embers might come back to life. And Christian hope is like those sneaky smoldering embers. When the world is broken, when our lives feel like a dead stump, when there’s no mortal room left for optimism… when all the options on earth are exhausted, Christians believe heaven breaks in to set things right, that the Lord promises to breathe into our embers once again to spark life and joy and justice. That tiny burning ember, waiting for the Lord to breathe into it… that ember is hope, hope that endures the ashy firepit because it knows God has and will again come to reignite the fire. So this Christmastime, when things are hard or bleak or bad… know that’s exactly why we have Christmas in the first place. And remember hope isn’t vague optimism or forced cheer… but rather hope is trusting God to be with you, to bear your burdens, and to redeem you at the end of days. So tend that ember of hope, nurture your spark of hope, that your light of hope might shine before the world. Amen.