In Greensboro, we give you a week, but then the endless rush of seasonal traditions begins. Just this weekend there was the Candle Tea, the Festival of Lights, Parades, Concerts, countless Breakfasts with the Big Guy, and the list continues.
On the list for some is a visit to one of those living nativity scenes that some churches stage this time of year. It was a few years back that we found ourselves at one. It was a small church, but very serious about this annual pageant. We parked and found ourselves in the middle of a church-lawn made to look like 1st-century Palestine. We wound our way through the marketplace of craft stands, food vendors, merchants and a synagogue, finally reaching an Inn where the sign said “No Room.” So we were led out behind the inn, through a live petting zoo and actors playing shepherds, an angel with a halo, Joseph, a kneeling Mother Mary, and baby Jesus at the center of it all.
Now it was very cold that night, so the baby Jesus was portrayed by a Fisher Price plastic baby doll. The whole scene was lit by a blueish light for effect and there was the plastic baby, just soaking up the light with his blinking baby doll eyes and tattered swaddling clothes. And I don’t know if I was feeling frisky in the cold, but I couldn’t help myself and said to my party, a little too loudly, “Goodness, the baby Jesus is frozen solid.”
Which caused a woman in front of me to shoosh me, “Do you mind, sir?” she said.
“Oh of course, ma’am,” I said, “I should know better. After all, I’m a minister.”
“You’re a minister?” she shot back. “Well I’d like to know what church!”
And I bowed my back and said, “Well, the name of that church is First Baptist Church of Greensboro, ma’am… And I’m the youth minister, Steve Cothran.”
All paths lead to the baby again this Advent. We wind our way through countless stops along the way, so much pageantry and so many potential detours. But at the end – at the center of it all – the baby is there once more. And when we arrive, we want to know it’s the real thing. Not the plastic version. We want to find the one who can tell us about God, can inspire us to believe what we have not seen yet, can teach us once more to hope.
In her poem, “The Gates of Hope,” the Reverend Victoria Stafford says, “Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope, not the prudent gates of optimism.”
Hope is more than optimism. Optimism is perhaps more sensible. More practical. It’s certainly more attainable. But it’s ultimately a blue-lit, blinking baby doll version of the hope we come to know in Christ.
It’s a term – hope – sometimes reduced to slogans or marketing. Wishful thinking. Pie-eyed positive thinking. A Christmas wish list. A letter to the North Pole. Looking on the bright side. Clinging tenaciously to silver linings in dark clouds. Sometimes when we speak of “hope,” we are settling for optimism. For the theologian Reinhold Neihbuhr, this plastic version of “hope” for which we sometimes settle was a greater threat to faith than despair. Because our highest ideals, our most positive thinking, they have not saved us. They will not save us.
Instead of stories of optimism, we need narratives of hope. Optimism is about feeling good, denying suffering or the horrors of our history and sometimes looking past the effect on real lives – for it’s too disruptive to our idyllic understanding of the world. Deep Christian hope, however, is wide-eyed to the past, open to the present, but holds the promise that the realities we have known do not have to dictate the future. We are not captive to our past. Our present does not hold us.
This is what we hear in the prophet Isaiah. He is open-eyed to the real, lived suffering and loss of his people. The prophet is crying out amidst people living in Exile – those who have watched their city burn behind them, and now feel very far from home in a strange land of exile. Our prophet of Advent was a person who knew so intimately well both the light of God’s presence and the fiercesomeness of God’s absence. And Isaiah means so much to us in our own Advent because we know those things too.
Isaiah is trying to see what he has not seen yet. In chapter 1 Isaiah graphically laid out what he had seen: violence, bribery, unfaithfulness, desolation, trampling on the poor. There are brief interruptions as God calls for repentance and offers glimpses of hope, but they are drowned out by these pictures of violence and rebellion. You can hear the prophet’s mounting frustration: “Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned…Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them.”
And we have seen all of that before ourselves. But then Chapter 2 opens as though Isaiah is starting all over again – or maybe God is starting all over again. Isaiah is seeing something new – a new advent of hope as Isaiah sees not only what is taking place now or what has happened in his past, but also looks toward what will yet be “in the days to come” or “in the later days.” People of every nation will stream to Mt. Zion, including those who were enemies of Israel and Judah. God’s instruction will go forth from Jerusalem; God will judge between the nations. The people will be transformed.
The message of Isaiah sounds a lot like the message of Jesus, who comes into Galilee preaching and ultimately to Jerusalem giving his life to tell people not to take their experience lying down. Not to take what is lived and experienced as given or inevitable. Not to take the sword as the only way, but to look for something more. Not to accept what is in front of our face, but to dare to say, “What we see now and what we’ve seen before are not enough. Not good enough. Not true enough. What we want – what we hope for and pledge our lives to – is something that far exceeds this.”
Advent Hope teaches us that we can be aware of the reality around us, and still anticipate and receive the gift of God that is born into our midst.
To use the language of our gospel passage, we can be wakeful and watchful – the way a baby in a manger might find his eyes adjusting to the light, finally seeing what was once formless and just flashes of light, eyes darting until we can finally see it.
To use the language of the prophet, in verse 2, we can start walking, the way a child grows and finds balance, tentative at first, then steady, resolved. In verse 2, the prophet depicts all the nations streaming toward the holy mountain, all the nations and all the peoples of the earth walking together toward peace and justice and God’s vision of what we were all meant to be. Advent Hope is active. And we have to start walking in it. We have to start following the light of the Lord.
Advent Hope invites us to recognize the realities of our world, and yet become not discouraged but determined, not paralyzed but active, reminded that our world is not separated from God’s eternity. What we do is already part of it. How we prepare matters. In our own individual lives we can turn swords into ploughshares. We can turn spears into pruning hooks. We can practice love where there is hate. We can foster faith amidst our fear. Instruments of warfare and division can be transformed into tools of peacemaking and growth, preparing the ground to become what we still long for it to be in the redemption of God, when what we have been working for and looking for and hoping for is finally born.
Our oldest child was here with his choir on the steps today – having been wrestled somehow into a cardigan sweater. Before he was born, we did a lot of work. We anticipated, we prepared the room, we bought the supplies, we labored over monumental decisions like what color car seat to buy.
Jack was born via a scheduled C-Section, so I had lots of time to prepare leading up to the date. I planned my first words to him. I planned what I would say to Jenny amidst the surgery. I practiced photography. I did all I could to be ready. Only when he finally came, in the surgery room there were two sneaky anesthesiologists making small talk. I thought they were being friendly but know now they were trying to distract me with talk of family and baby names. I kept waiting for the moment they would say “Okay, we’re ready to begin the surgery” so I could begin all my prepared moves and motions. “Are they ready to begin?” I finally asked. And then they said, “Oh, they’ve been at it the whole time. In fact, here he comes.” And then there he was.
It all leads to a baby. Our preparation and work matter. Our hope prepares the way. But in the end, we realize it’s been happening all along and then, there he is, born as a gift from our God.
New Testament scholar, Marcus Borg, tells of a family he knew who was welcoming a new baby home. It was a hopeful moment, especially for the baby’s 3-yr-old sister. She couldn’t wait to have a brother! Within a few hours of the parents bringing the new baby home from the hospital, the girl made a request: she wanted to be alone with her new brother in his room with the door shut. This request made her parents a bit uneasy, but then they remembered that they had installed an intercom system in anticipation of the baby’s arrival, so they realized they could let their daughter do this. They let her go into the baby’s room, shut the door, then raced to listen to the intercom. They heard their daughter’s steps moving across the baby’s room, imagined her standing over the baby’s crib, and then they heard her say to her three-day-old brother, “Tell me about God…I’ve almost forgotten.”
So much causes us to forget. We forget how to hope, how to believe. There’s so much that causes us to accept what is plastic and forget what is real. But at the center of it all, still, there he is. The path winds by. And we gather around the baby once more this year with the chance to say, “Tell us about God.”