Advent sermon: Holding Out Hope


Text used – Isaiah 35:1-10

For the last few weeks, the weather – both snow storms and dangerously frigid temperatures – have caused us to cancel our worship services. This sermon was preached a few weeks ago on the 3rd Sun. of Advent.

  • I want to tell you about an incredible children’s book this morning. Fletcher and the Falling Leaves by Julia Rawlinson[1]
    • Fletcher = little fox who loves his very favorite tree
    • Beginning of the book: The world was changing. Each morning, when Fletcher bounded out of the den, everything seemed just a little bit different. The rich green of the forest was turning to a dusty gold, and the soft, swishing sound of summer was fading to a crinkly whisper. Fletcher’s favorite tree looked dull, dry, and brown. Fletcher was beginning to get worried. → You see, being a very young fox, Fletcher doesn’t understand about fall – about how grass and flowers and even big, beautiful trees have to lose their color and vibrancy in order to hibernate for the winter and be reborn in the spring.
    • Fletcher’s first go-to = his mom
      • She tells him “Don’t worry, it’s only autumn.”
      • Fletcher relays this message to his tree: “Don’t worry, it’s only autumn. You’ll be feeling better soon.”
    • But then Fletcher’s big, beautiful tree begins to lose its leaves … and Fletcher is frantic
      • Starts with just one leaf → Fletcher catches it and does everything he can to put the leaf back on the tree
      • Next day = strong wind → Fletcher rushes to his tree to find many branches bare and leaves swirling everywhere → Fletcher tries to retrieve all these leaves so he can return them to his tree
        • But to his great dismay and consternation, Fletcher isn’t the only one gathering up these fallen leaves.
          • Excited squirrel gathers them for its winter nest → Fletcher’s response: “Help! Help! The wind and the squirrel are stealing our leaves!”
          • Overjoyed porcupine rolls in them – leaves stuck to its quills are insulation against the coming winter cold → Fletcher’s response: “Help! Help! The wind, the squirrel, and the porcupine are steading our leaves!”
      • Quick respite: flock of birds hears Fletcher’s cries, gathers up all the fallen leaves, and returns them to the tree → Fletcher, exhausted from his physically and emotionally taxing morning, thanks the birds and falls asleep under his beloved tree
      • But as Fletcher sleeps, the wind continues to blow, and once again the leaves fall to the ground. When Fletcher finally wakes up from his nap, his tree was entirely bare … all but one leaf.
        • Fletcher climbs tree to hang onto that last leaf
        • Clings to branch and holds the leaf firms in its place on the tree
        • Great gust of wind bounces branch → And in that jolt, the final leaf pops free and flutters in Fletcher’s paw.
      • Fletcher = devastated
        • Very carefully carries the leaf home
        • Makes a bed for the leaf next to his own and tucks it in for the night
        • Spends all night long sadly thinking of his once-beautiful tree
    • Now, that’s not quite the end of the story, but I’m going to leave it there for now. Because, after all, it is Advent, and this year, we’re listening through the voice of Isaiah and his anticipatory hope.
      • Already talked about how we are waiting in anticipatory hope for the Light of the World to come → what started as a faint glimmer = dawning brighter and brighter, stronger and stronger every day
      • Also talked about how absurdly and illogically powerful hope is → how hope blooms bright and wild in the unexpected story of Mary and Joseph and the manger as well as in our own unexpected stories
      • Today: talk about those times when we hold out hope → 3 very different ways that we do that
        • “Hold out hope” by holding it at arm’s length → keep it ever-so-slightly distant from us because hopes that go unrealized/unfulfilled can be so incredibly painful
        • Opposite: “hold out hope” by clinging to it → by embracing the faintly-possible in the face of the highly-improbable (what sometimes can seem more like the impossible!), investing our whole selves and hearts into our belief
        • “Hold out hope” in a manner of pride and declaration → similar to the way children hold out their latest creation
          • Pick Luke and Ian up at Amy’s – first thing they have to do is show me (at the top of their lungs!) their latest crafting creation or coloring sheet → giant smiles on their faces, excitement exuding from every part of them
  • Looking at Is text for today
    • Is gives plenty of scenarios that seem challenging at best = the kind of scenarios that make us want to hold that hope out at arm’s length because no good can truly come of such a bleak situation
      • Text speaks of deserts and dry land and the wilderness, weak hands and unsteady knees, “those who are panicking,”[2] those who have lost their sight and their hearing and their ability to walk and to speak, the burning sand and thirsty ground, fools and predators, grief and groaning → all struggles and pitfalls to which we can relate
        • Plenty of people we know and love around here make their living farming – threats of too much rain or too little rain, even too much snow or too little snow to melt in the spring = always on their minds → What will the fields look like this year? Too wet? Too dry? Full of too many weeds? Too many aphids or corn borers or some other kind of blight?
        • Plenty of people we know and love struggle with health issues – always make hope both problematic and paramount at the same time
        • Plenty of times when we feel like the fools and the predators are all that line our paths – threatening and intimidating, misleading and distracting, challenging and impeding us at every turn → affects all aspects of our lives
          • Personal lives (relationships)
          • Work lives
          • Spiritual lives
    • But even though it mentions all of these terrible scenarios, our Isaiah text this morning is a text of joy-filled hope – text: The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus. … Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared. Then the lame will leap like the deer, and the tongue of the speechless will sing. … The burning sand will become a pool, and the thirsty ground, fountains of water. … A highway will be there. It will be called The Holy Way. … Even fools won’t get lost on it; no lion will be there, and no predator will go up on it. … Happiness and joy will overwhelm them; grief and groaning will flee away.[3]Isaiah is truly holding out hope, clinging to it and encouraging the people to do the same, even in the midst of all the challenges that they face – betrayal, war, oppression and all of the emotions that those bring: fear, uncertainty, shame, sadness, doubt. Isaiah is reminding the people that even when they are faced with the worst of circumstances, God is with them. God is their strength and their renewal. God is their source of security and joy.
      • Hear Is encouraging them in this belief – text: They will see the Lord’s glory, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the we hands, and support the unsteady knees. Say to those who are panicking, “Be strong! Don’t fear! Here’s your God, coming with vengeance; with divine retribution God will come to save you.”[4]
      • Same God for whom we wait today → Advent = time of waiting for Christ
        • Waiting for the birth, yes → But this emphasis is a liturgical and theological development that has only happened in very recent history – within the lifetimes of nearly everyone in this room, the exception being the youngest children.
        • Waiting for Christ to return → Now, I know this is something we don’t often talk about in the [PC(USA)/UCC] because we trust that Scripture tells us that we aren’t meant to know the day or the time of that return, and that’s okay. We aren’t consumed by trying to figure it out – to pinpoint all the details (the who, what, where, when, how, and why of Christ’s return), but in the face of all the challenges and fears and uncertainties that surround us, we hold out hope that indeed Christ will return one day.
          • Say it every time we celebrate communion: “Whenever we eat this bread and share this cup, we proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection until he comes again in glory.”
          • Powerful hope
          • Strong hope
          • And yet it can be a hope that, like many, grows more and more difficult to hang on to the longer we have to wait. → Advent = time when we lean into and live into that hope a little bit more as well
    • And in the end, just like a proud little kid with his latest art project, Isaiah hold out that hope for all to see and to cherish – text: The Lord’s ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing, with everlasting joy upon their heads. Happiness and joy will overwhelm them; grief and groaning will flee away.[5] → Being overwhelmed by happiness and joy were about as far from the minds and lives of the Israelites as they could possibly be at the time. But Isaiah not only clung to his anticipatory hope, he shared it. He declared it boldly, without apology and without shame. He held out this hope for a people who were hurting and a nation that was reeling – a light in their darkness, a stream in their wilderness, a Holy Way for those feeling lost and alone.
      • Our call today as well → to hold out the good news of the coming Savior, the one who was born and the one who will return in glory – to declare boldly, without apology and without shame our hope in Emmanuel, God With Us
        • Remind our broken and hurting world happiness and joy are not lost
        • Remind our broken and hurting selves that with God With Us, grief and groaning will indeed flee away
        • Audacious hope – takes guts
        • Anticipatory hope – takes patience
        • Active hope – takes movement (being the hands and feet of God in this world → living out that hope)
      • Scholar: We still live in that in-between time, as this prophet’s people did. We are asked to take heart. God will come and save; we will find our Holy Way toward home, and our mouths will be filled with no more sighing, only singing.[6]
  • Fletcher’s initial hope was that his tree would “get better” – that the effects of autumn would miraculously be reversed and that his beloved tree would return to its former green and luscious glory. It was a hope for what he knew. For what was familiar. For what was comfortable. But as I said before, we left off the end of the story.
    • Ending: At dawn Fletcher tiptoed outside. The wind had finally stopped blowing, and the air was cold. The moon still hung in the clear sky and pale stars glimmered. As he came to his favorite tree, Fletcher saw a magical sight … The tree was hung with a thousand icicles, shining silver in the early light. “You are more beautiful than ever,” whispered Fletcher. “But are you all right?” A tiny breeze shivered the branches, making a sound like laughter, and in the light of the rising sun, the sparkling branches nodded. Fletcher gave his tree a hug. Then he went back to the den for a nice, warm breakfast.
    • Fletcher never expected that in the face of such loss, he could find such beauty. As he mourned for what was, he never dared to hope that there could be something even more beautiful in store for his beloved tree. And yet, in that moment, Fletcher’s eyes were opened to a world of possibilities – a whole new hope for the wonder that his tree could be. Friends, let us go out into the world this morning with eyes opened wide like Fletcher’s – wide to the possibilities of God’s immense and powerful hope in this world, holding that hope out before us with giant smiles on our faces, overflowing with excitement for how in can change our own lives as well as the world around us. Amen.

fletchers-treeIllustrated by Tiphanie Beeke

[1] Julia Rawlinson. Fletcher and the Falling Leaves. (New York, NY: Greenwillow Books), 2006.

[2] Is 35:4.

[3] Is 35:1, 5-6a, 7a, 8-9, 10b (emphasis added).

[4] Is 35:2b-4.

[5] Is 35:10.

[6] Stacey Simpson Duke. “Third Sunday of Advent – Isaiah 35:1-10, Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 54.

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