Rev. George Miller
Dec 2, 2012
Today is the 1st Sunday of Advent, and we have lighted our first Advent Candle, symbolizing hope.
George Herbert, who was a 15th Century poet and priest, once stated that “Hope is the poor man’s bread.”
This statement is fitting as today is Communion Sunday, and we seek to be fed, not just physically but spiritually.
Speaking of hope and spirituality, recently I read the book Life of Pi. Though the first 100 pages bored me, I was whisked away by the story.
Life of Pi is about a boy who loses everyone and everything in a shipwreck and learns to survive in a tiny lifeboat…even with a Bengal tiger on board.
The story is fantastical and miraculous, and without giving anything away, Pi survives to tell his story. But no one believes him. How can a teenage boy and a 450-pound tiger survive the chaotic seas?
They keep asking Pi to tell them the truth. Frustrated, Pi says to them:
“I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. (A story) that will confirm everything you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want a dry, yeastless factuality.” (pg. 302, Yann Martel)
So Pi gives them what they want, a story devoid of all splendor and wonder…
Thankfully the writer of Luke does not do that. Like Pi, his story will not be dry or yeastless; it will not lack mystery, bite or hopefulness.
As a story teller, Luke reminds me of a southern gentleman: he shows restraint, he takes his time and he enjoys reveling in hyperbole if it will get his point across.
Unlike Mark and John, Luke is going to tell us about Jesus’ birth. Unlike Matthew, he will make us wait until chapter 2 before Jesus is even born.
Letting the yeast in his story rise, Luke is crafting a warm, narrative loaf of spiritual bread we can sink our teeth into.
But before he leads us into the light, Luke starts his story in darkness.
He introduces us to a couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth. Both of them are righteous Jews, both of them come from the line of Aaron.
Both of them also live with the disgrace and emptiness of not having a child, and both are getting on in years where having a child seems hopeless.
We have heard this story many times before, but I wonder how many have actually heard this story.
Because what it’s really telling us is about a hopeless situation. Culturally, women of Elizabeth’s position had one duty and one duty only: to provide an heir.
Unable to do that, Elizabeth would have been looked down upon. People would say it was her fault, they would assume she had done something wrong and was being punished by God.
There’s another layer of hopelessness here. Zechariah and Elizabeth had reached the end of their family line. With no children to carry on the name, they were as good as dead.
Without a child, who would fill their home with laughter and song? Without a child there would be no barmitvah and wedding to celebrate.
Without a child there can be no grandchildren to call them Memar and Papi.
We might as well place Zechariah and Elizabeth in a grave, because for all intents and purposes, their story has already ended before it began.
Their reality is shrouded in barren darkness …but as Dante once wrote “A mighty flame follows a tiny spark.”
And God is the one who creates that spark.
In Luke, that tiny spark comes in the most unexpected, fantastical, way: an angel who proclaims that Elizabeth will have a child and that child will not only bring joy and gladness, but he will turn people to the Lord.
Into heartbroken reality comes the spark: that God is going to find a way to bring hope into their world.
Think about what the news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy could have done for her and Zechariah; how the hope of a child would bring new life into their home.
What would you imagine a newly pregnant Elizabeth to do at this time? Could you see her preparing a space for the child? Can you imagine the toys she would make?
Do you think she spent days on end sewing together clothes for herself as her belly grew bigger and for her son when he was born?
Can you hear the songs she would sing as she is doing these things? Can you see the colors of fabric and paint she would use?
Can you smell the aromas of the foods she would prepare so she could give birth to the healthiest baby possible?
Do you believe that the news about what God was doing gave her the hope and the ability to believe in a future?
Can you imagine how this would transform every aspect of her home and her life?
It’s like Luke is telling us that even before Jesus’ birth, he was making a difference.
So I ask: how can we apply the hope that Zechariah and Elizabeth may have felt into our lives this Advent Season?
How can hope reshape and transform our lives?
What are the dark moments and dark places in which we need the spark of hope to burn bright?
How can hope spark us to create, to build, to plan?
How can hope spark us to clean out, let go, mend and to forgive?
How can hope spark us to anticipate, dream and blossom?
How can hope in what can be lead us to stop focusing on the what has happened?
How can hope move us from the ways of death into the ways of life: to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with our Lord?
If Jesus can bring hope into a family before his very birth, how much more so can Jesus bring hope into our own lives right now?
In conclusion, both “The Life of Pi” and the Gospel of Luke teach us about hope, that tiny spark that starts a great flame.
Hope surprises us, flying in the face of everything we thought we knew. It makes us see higher, further and differently.
Hope is robust, active, lush and productive.
Hope means believing in the possibility of making it through any situation, no matter how dark it may seem.
Hope allows us to conceive of beating the odds, of surviving miraculously, and to see the miraculous in the every day.
Hope is knowing that as long as God is with us, we still have a reason to believe, and with that a reason to live. (Above 3 paragraphs are based on Martel’s words in “Pi”, page 148)
For that, we can say amen and amen.