Toorak Uniting Church

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Isaiah 11: 1 – 10   Matthew 3: 1 – 12   Romans 15: 4 – 6
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
10:15 am, 9 December 2007

In Greek mythology Pandora is the first woman. She is created by the gods, in retaliation for Prometheus having stolen fire and then giving it to humans for their use. All the gods contribute something to Pandora to make her a real menace to humanity and especially men.

One of her attributes is a box containing all the world’s evils which she opens before she quite realises what she is doing. Quickly she tries to close the box again but unfortunately all the world’s evils have escaped, bar one: Hope.

Because life becomes really unbearable men pleads with Pandora to open her box once again and let hope loose as well, hoping this will improve their situation. They argue that without hope they have no chance of beating the evils she has released upon them. She opens the jar and hope limps out, weak and looking not very impressive at all. It proves however much stronger and more resilient than any of the other things that escaped Pandora’s box.

The underlying, deeper question in the story is where hope belongs: Is hope one of the evils and perhaps the worst of all the evils Pandora released? Or is hope the only force that will be able to conquer evil, and will she, in the end defeat all the evils it was locked up with?

Is hope, according to some philosophers, with no small names like Friedrich Nietzsches among them, an evil that only prolongs our suffering, or is it a force for good that will, in the end, help us to carry on with faith and love until all evil and death has been overcome? Is hope a wisp of nothingness that makes us aim for something which is unattainable anyway and are we to be regarded as the sorriest of men for letting ourselves be beguiled by it? Or is hope that one power that makes the impossible possible and gives us the strength we need to exceed our limitations and surpass our abilities and make things happen no body would deem possible?

On the second Sunday of Advent this is very much the question on Isaiah’s mind.

In the 6th century BC Israel is in exile and the mighty tree of Jesse, the bloodline of David has come to a rather sad end. There is no hope, there is no future. The country ravaged, the successors to the throne taken away or killed, the people scattered, there really is very little positive prospect for any of God’s people. The tree of Jesse has become a stump, chopped down by the mighty Assyrians and their mighty gods. Exit Israel, you may as well resign to the fact that you, as a nation, are no more!

No, says Isaiah, a shoot shall grow out of this stump, I refuse to believe this is the end for us or for our God. Our God is stronger than that, his spirit far more resilient than a couple of Assyrians trying to do us in. Something will happen, something new, I feel it in my bones!

O come on Isaiah, and what exactly do you think could happen? Hey? The mighty win, the poor and the weak get the worst of it. You better get used to it. To nurse hope in this situation is refusing to face reality and will only prolong everybody’s agony. You’d better start giving pastoral care and bereavement counselling to your people! We’ve lost, we are lost, there is nothing we can do about that now.

But God can! insists Isaiah stubbornly. And it will be better than what we had before: Something, somebody, will grow out of that stump and will not be swayed by what people tell him or try to delude him with, he will be righteous, even to the poor who has nothing to gain from, he will not be biased towards the strong and the powerful, like the rulers we had before, he will be faithful and good.

O come Isaiah! Do you really believe that? Do you really believe that is possible? It is in the very nature of power to be tainted, of the powerful to abuse their power, of the wealthy to stick together and look after themselves first, of those who get the opportunity, to bend the rules just slightly to suit their needs. There is no hope of integrity, of true righteousness, of something new growing that will really be endowed with all those things you are talking about: wisdom and understanding, counsel, knowledge and fear of the Lord, righteousness a belt around his waist, faithfulness a belt around his loins. Come on Isaiah! Give up, this hope will only prolong our torment and increase the agony.

There is no hope, you believe us. We know!

Hope it says in the dictionary, implies a certain amount of perseverance, of not being prepared to give up, of holding on against evidence to the contrary. Hope some of the old Greeks and some more modern philosophers maintain is the most dangerous of all evils because she will only extend your torment and wear us out slowly, cruelly and inexorably. We are thrown in this life to endure its evils as well as we can, but hope that something will change there is none.

No says Isaiah. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

They will not hurt and destroy for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord.

It is to nature Isaiah connects his hope. Look he says, if there is a force out there powerful enough to create the world in all its beauty, the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, this force is strong enough to bring change to that creation as well. If God can make a stump grow a new shoot, God can make us grow a new way of existence. If God can make a new tree grow from old roots, God can let a new leader come up from a place as desolate as our country is now.

Obstinate, this Isaiah, and full of stubbornness. Refuses to be sucked into the spiral of depression most of his contemporaries had ended up in. The foundation of that hope? God alone and his power to renew.

600 years later there is another obstinate and stubborn voice to be heard, deep in the wilderness of Judea. Maintaining that the kingdom is near, that something is about to change, calling for repentance, hope and judgement, warning and invitation once more difficult to separate as they were with Isaiah. Another prophet, another person refusing to give up on God, to give up on hope, holding on to faith.

Offering steadfastness and encouragement like Isaiah, so that our hope may be resilient and persevering and not dependent on what our eyes see or our ears hear but on our faith that God can bring about what he has promised.

Two thousand years ago a baby was born. A baby like little Alex who with a winning smile and a deeply moving vulnerability entrusted himself to the world. In him God himself came to birth among us. Showing just how strong the resilience of God’s grace, of God’s love is, even where violence and hatred seeks to kill it.

Faith, love, hope, it proved indestructible. New life shot up where only a stump was left, a new tree took root where the violence of hatred and destruction seemed to have put an end to everything. The brutal force of death did not have the last word and a movement sprung up that has lived out love and peace up until the present day. It has not always succeeded in that, it has not always been true to its calling, but up to the present day the message of hope, of faith in God’s love has not been silenced with the life of Jesus Christ still an example and inspiring guide for many, many millions across the world making a difference. With God’s power renewing it and helping it to persevere, to go on, to not give up and stubbornly and obstinately keep faith that there is hope, not as an evil to prolong our suffering, but as a gift that fills us with strength to give shape to that hope in expectation of the realisation of God’s dream. Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2007

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