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United Church of Jaffrey
Cary doesn’t like to drive after dark, so somewhere just shy of Carlisle Pennsylvania, she pulled off the highway to switch drivers.
And then, of course, as soon as we were back on the road, it started raining.
“I see you arranged for the rain to start just when I took the wheel,” I said to her.
“Yes,” she said, “wasn’t that clever of me?”
We were on I-81 heading south into Maryland. Interstate 81 is big part of our annual thanksgiving trip. After we merge onto 81 up in Scranton, we have a 300 mile straight shot to our exit in Harrisonburg Virginia.
300 miles of low-lying farmlands, now cut down to corn stubble.
300 miles through the echoes of the Civil War – exits that lead to Gettysburg, Antietam, Chambersburg, where Stonewall Jackson fell.
But most of all… 300 miles of…
Big trucks… yuck
Small trucks… yuck
Fast trucks… Slow trucks
Yuck, yuck, yuck…
I got the too-many-tractor-trailers-barreling down-the-interstate-blues
The oncoming headlights from the other side of the median are distracting.
But the most charming of all…
Is that wake of spray that the trucks kick up in their wake.
I do believe that I need to get out from behind this truck…
…so I pull into the fast lane and step on the gas.
I hope this truck driver can see me in his rear-view mirror.
I hope so!
Allie, my mother-in-law, and step-father-in-law John, live in a cozy little house in Port Republic, Virginia.
You can’t call Port Republic a “One Horse town” because there are, in fact, at least four horses (that I know of) in town – and a handful of goats too. If you count the feral cats that live in the forest primeval (a wooded lot thus named by the mother-in-law) the number of quadrupeds likely outnumbers the human inhabitants, whose modest homes are spread here and there between two parallel streets.
From your spot in arms of a deep green sofa in Allie and John’s spacious back room – a room that somehow succeeds in being both a living room and backporch – a body can look out across a long yard of hummocked grass, that ends at the town’s other road. Beyond that, an ancient graveyard with askance stones dating back to revolution; the sluggish north branch of the Shenandoah river; the railroad; a scattered collection of towns, and then, along the horizon, the gentle sweep of the Blueridge mountains.
The room is the inevitable gathering place of the family. A place of where young’un’s go to work on ice cream sandwiches and elders nurse a single malt. This is where cats nap and the titan’s clash. On this stage, the dramatis personae of the clan enter and exit making their cases in favor of, or against the urgent requirements that lean in from the outside world. This room, in short, is our family’s Agora – the plaza in the middle of an ancient Greek city, where all the minds of the day gather to report and discuss the whimsies of the Gods.
Amos, my fifteen-year-old son, stands up and stretches. He has been curled up on the couch reading The Week magazine.
“The world is a mess” he proclaims.
“Yes, it is,” his grandmother replies.
Amos has a look on his face that is half bemused smile and half grimace. “You’re lucky,” he says, almost accusingly, to his grandmother.
“Me? Why am I lucky?”
“Because you’ve had most of your life already.”
“And why, may I ask, is that state of affairs suddenly considered lucky?” she asks.
“Because,” the boy says, with a smile, “you won’t be around to watch everything fall apart.”
After a little thought she admits: “That’s true.”But someone else says: “Maybe it won’t all fall apart completely in your lifetime.”
“Maybe not,” he says.
“I hope not,” I say.
Today, as we light the candle of hope, we are given an opportunity to ruminate over hope.
What is hope?
How does it work?
When I consider this problem even a little bit, the first thing that pops into view is that hope is all about the future.
Whether it’s the next ten seconds of your life, as you grit your teeth, press the accelerator and careen past a 45-thousand-pound tractor trailer semi that’s kicking up spray on the highway…
Or it’s the next ten years of humanity’s shared destiny and the problem of global climate change that threatens our very survival as a species…
We peer into the future to try to find signs of hope.
Hope for the good outcome.
But there’s a catch…
We can make a prediction, or a prognosis… We can place bets, forecast changes in the weather, interpret omens, or make educated conjectures, but ultimately, whenever the future is at stake, the results are uncertain.
We don’t know what is going to happen.
So when we hope, we do so in spite of the presence of uncertainty…
This uncertainty could be in the form of a tiny suspicion lurking at the edges of the mind…
Or it could be a black cloud that stretches from horizon to horizon.
In either case our hope… our hope is our way of pushing back against uncertainty.
And it stands to reason then, that the nature of our hope is related to the kind of uncertainty that we face.
Neither of the two passages that Dotty read for us this morning, are from the New Testament. Both are from the Hebrew Bible – one from Isaiah, and the other from Zechariah.
That said, we Christians, who accept the Hebrew Bible as scripture, often point to these two passages as prophecies of the coming of Christ.
Isaiah certainly sounds like he is talking about Jesus, when he says:
Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
Doesn’t that remind you of the stories that we remember from the Gospels, about the bright star in the east…. About the shepherds who looked up into the sky to see, and hear a heavenly choir of Angels? Isaiah even seems to have a prophetic awareness of how Christianity will change from being a form of Judaism to a light that shines for all nations.
The passage from Zechariah also seems to predict the appearance of Jesus – speaking of a
king that comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
Biblical scholars waste no time letting us know that these similarities are not coincidental, and that rather than Isaiah and Zechariah prophesying Jesus, the story of Jesus was reverse-engineered, by the gospel writers, to fit neatly into traditions of Jewish prophecy.
Many Christians feel that this kind of scholarship is cynical – that it takes God out of the equation, and, in this way, makes the story less powerful.
But I disagree.
Because I think the relationship between this morning’s passages from the Hebrew Bible, and the gospel stories shows us something else that is at the core of the notion of hope.
To find hope, we find ourselves in story.
This morning is the first Sunday of Advent.
During Advent, we intentionally insert ourselves into the story of Jesus.
We do this because it gives us grounding in a tradition.
It centers us.
And when we find ourselves centered in a tradition, we feel hope.
Hope that, like our fathers and mothers, we too, will find our way through the uncertainties that challenge us.
Hope that, as mothers and fathers, we will recognize, in each child, the spirit of the divine.
The essence of Advent, is the hope that we have in a child.
A child, born to a mother.
Held in a mother’s arms.
Of all stories, this is a story that we can all place ourselves within.
A story that gives us hope against the uncertainties that plague us.