Opening the Gift of Christmas, Pt. 1: Open Hope
The First Sunday of Advent

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
December 1, 2013

Matthew 24:36-44 [link]


Coca-Cola has had some great advertising slogans through the years, and you can almost tell which generation you’re from by which one you remember the best. So how many of you remember this one: “The great national temperance beverage?” From 1906. I didn’t think so. How about this one? “The pause that refreshes.” From 1929. How about,“Where there’s Coke, there’s hospitality,” from 1948. Anyone? Or, “It’s the real thing,” from 1971, where all those flower children were sitting on a hillside singing about how much they would like to buy the world a Coke? Do you remember this one, from the summer of 1989: “The official soft drink of summer?” Anyone? Well, they’ve got a new one, and it’s been released so quietly, I hadn’t heard about it until recently; maybe because I don’t drink as much Coke as I used to. But it’s this: “Open happiness.” As if by opening a bottle of carbonated caffeinated caramel colored sugar water, you could make yourself happy. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Our advent slogan for this year is, “Unwrapping the Gift of Christmas.” And we’re going to do it by opening those words we have traditionally associated with this season: hope, peace, joy, and love, one Sunday at a time. Today we will open hope, and I was thinking how nice it would be if hope came in bottles, and if we had cases of the stuff right here on the communion table, so that I could ask the deacons to start popping off the tops and handing them out until everybody in the room had a bottle of hope, and then on the count of 3, we would all drink, some of us taking little sips, others taking great gulps, depending on how much hope you needed. I was also thinking that the amount of hope you could squeeze into a soda bottle would probably not be enough for most of us. Now, it might be enough for our children. Their hopes tend to be a little smaller.

Do you remember that movie they always seem to be showing during the month of December these years, the one called, A Christmas Story? Where the little boy, Ralphie, 9 years old, all he wants for Christmas, I mean all he wants, is an official Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and a little thing which tells time, which must have been a sun dial. That’s all he wants for Christmas. And when his mother asks him, "What do you want?" he blurts it out. He can’t help himself. "I want an official Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle." And she says, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” But when his teacher gives that assignment, “What I want for Christmas this year,” he writes the most passionate essay that has ever been written in fourth grade. He hands it in, thinking she will give him an A-plus-plus-plus. But when it comes back, C-plus, and at the bottom, this note: “You’ll shoot your eye out.” Ralphie doesn’t know what to do. He goes to visit the Santa Claus at the big department store downtown. He tells him what he wants most in all the world, an official Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle. And Santa says, “You’ll shoot your eye out.” Ralphie doesn’t stop hoping. In fact, you can almost see him opening up a big bottle of hope between each of these episodes, giving him the strength and courage to try again. In the end, he gets what he hopes for. And it’s his father who gives it to him. And his mother is glaring at his father, who is chuckling the whole time and saying, “Well, I had one when I was a kid. What harm could it do?” She’s thinking, “He’ll shoot his eye out.” Because here’s the thing, all Ralphie was hoping for was a BB gun. What was his mother hoping for? A healthy son. One who could live the promises God gives. In one of those quiet moments she tells him, BB guns are dangerous, and you can almost feel her fear. I’m afraid that something could happen to my precious, perfect boy. And that’s the kind of hope that most of us can identify with.

I know a family, not in this church, but a family whose little daughter has Stage Four cancer. What do you think those people hope for? What do you think they pray for day after day, night after night? I know another family, not in this church, whose son woke up this morning in rehab, trying to break a drug addiction that keeps him from becoming the person he has it in him to be. What do you think those parents are praying for? I know a man who lost his job, and he’s been afraid to tell anybody about it, it’s so embarrassing, so shameful. Doesn’t know how he will provide for himself or for his family. What do you think he hopes for? This is where I spend much of my time as a pastor, praying with these people, trying to reassure them, reminding them that there is reason to hope. And sometimes in the worst situations, it comes down to this. I say, “You have to remember, God raised Jesus from the dead. And if God can do that, then there is nothing, no situation, that is completely hopeless.”

Now, that is a particularly Christian hope, and it’s not something that can be squeezed into any soda bottle in the world. Paul once said, "If it is for this life only that we have hoped, then we, of all people, are most to be pitied," suggesting that there is a level of hope as far above our own earthly human hopes as ours are above our children’s.

There is God’s hope, and it’s huge. You get a hint of it in that Christmas carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” where Phillips Brooks says, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight.” Not only the hopes and fears of a single human family, or the hopes and fears of a single generation, not even the hopes and fears about any one, single fragile life, ours or our children’s, but the hopes and fears of all the years, as if God had been working quietly backstage for centuries, something bigger than making sick people well, or keeping everybody alive on this earth forever. God gave the gift of hope on that night, the hope of a different and better kind of reality, as far above most of our human hopes as ours are above our children’s.

There’s a moment in the Gospel of Luke that illustrates this almost perfectly. You may remember: two disciples are walking down the road to Emmaus, when the risen Christ comes and walks along with them. They don’t know who it is, and they stand there looking sad. Jesus himself says, “What are you so sad about?” And they say, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard what’s happened these last days?” “Concerning what?” he says. “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet, mighty in word and deed, and not only that, we had hoped. We had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.” But they’re saying it to the risen Christ, the one who has recently conquered death and the grave, making it clear that God’s plans are so much bigger than the redemption of a small, single Middle Eastern nation. God wants to redeem the whole world. God wants to redeem the whole universe. That’s what God hopes for. And do you remember that when these disciples finally figured out who it was, who had been with them on the road, they said that their hearts burned within them. “Didn’t our hearts burn within us?” as he opened up the scripture on the road, explaining to us God’s purposes for humanity, that destination toward which we are headed? They got so excited that they ran all the way back to Jerusalem, their arms and legs flying, their hearts burning within. They burst into that upper room and announced to the other disciples, “We have seen the Lord! We have seen the Lord!” They called this new thing resurrection. It wasn’t the same as resuscitation, breathing life back into an old body. It was a new thing, new life, on a different level altogether, which leads us to the idea of hope on a different level altogether. And brings us back to today’s Gospel reading.

I’m always depressed when I look at the Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent. It seems like the least hopeful thing we could talk about. It’s always Jesus saying that the world is going to come to an end. Think about the poor preacher who has to stand before a congregation on the first Sunday in December and say, “Sorry, folks, it’s all coming to an end. Merry Christmas.” This is how it feels. Jesus tells us, in the entirety of Matthew 24, that there will be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines in various places. His own disciples will be tortured and put to death, and the people who do it will think they are doing God a favor. The sun will fail to give its light, he says. The moon will no longer shine in the sky. All of this is going to happen, but then, he says, like someone who has actually experienced resurrection, “When you see these things beginning to take place, lift up your heads. Your redemption is drawing near.”

How do you think things were just before the resurrection? What lack do you think you might have seen on the faces of those disciples? In the hours when they were locked in that upper room, afraid for their own lives, Jesus had told them that he would rise from the dead. But they didn’t believe it, or couldn’t remember. All they knew in that moment was that Jesus had died; he was dead, dead, dead. They didn’t know that within a matter of hours, he was going to walk into that locked room and breathe his warm breath on their faces, and say to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. As the father has sent me, I am sending you.” They didn’t know. What do you think the world looks like just before its redemption takes place? What do you think it sounds like? Is it possible that it sounds just like this? With sirens blaring, and with the news reporting every night one more miserable thing going on in the world? Is it possible that when you look around, you see that nothing, nothing, nothing seems to be going the way God would want it to go? Is this what the world looks like? Is this what the world sounds like in those hours before its redemption?

This morning, I was remembering an old car that I had, an old car that I loved. It was a Volkswagen Rabbit diesel, which means that when I started it up, it sounded like a tractor. And even an hour later, it still sounded like a tractor. The only way I could get onto the interstate was to make sure the onramp was downhill and there was a tailwind. But I remember the day that car died. I was leaving my inlaws’, heading back toward my home in Wingate, North Carolina. I drove down that old familiar street I always drove down. I took a left turn, and it was right then that the car made a sound that no car should make. And I knew something bad was about to happen. It did. The car died right there by the side of the road. I had to roll off onto the shoulder and get out and inspect the damage. But even then, I knew there was nothing that could be done, no resurrection in that car’s future. I was able to get a ride home and I told the deacons at my church about it. I didn’t know how much they hated my old car. And I didn’t know that they were going to get together in a secret meeting and decide to lease a brand new Chevrolet automobile for the use of their pastor. It was only a few days later when I was driving down the interstate in that new car, the smell of new car filling my nostrils, that I thought, “I never could have imagined this!”

I didn’t know when my old car died that this was what came next. We don’t know. We don’t know when the last hours before our redemption will be. Or even what will come next. But we know who is behind it, and who has been working behind the scenes now for centuries getting ready for what comes next.

I don’t have bottles of hope up here on the table. I do have these elements that represent the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. When Paul talked about communion, the Lord’s Supper, he often said, “As often as you eat this bread and drink from this cup, remember the Lord’s death until he comes.” Did you hear that? “Remember the Lord’s death until he comes.” There is that hopeful note in every communion meal that we share, even as we look down at the broken body and spilled blood of Christ. We remember his death until he comes, which means we may be living in the most hopeful days of all. We are surely closer now than we have ever been before to the redemption of the world, the redemption of all creation. It may be just around the corner! And Paul says, when you’re holding communion in your hands, remember that. Remember the Lord’s death until he comes. Because he’s coming, friends. He is. This is good news. This is the hope of Advent, which we hold in our hearts, and cherish, believing that God is still able to do more than we can ask or imagine.

Jim Somervillei> 2013
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