Sermon - Sunday, 6 October 2019

The following sermon was delivered by Revd Stanley Okeke on Sunday, 8 December 2019 

Scripture: Isaiah 11 : 1 - 10 / Matthew 3 : 1 - 12


 God of hope be with us in our Advent journey to the stable and beyond, as we wait on you, open our ears to your message of hope and fill our hearts with joy and peace. Amen!


Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Very shortly we will be celebrating Christmas – the festival which bears our Saviour’s name. Advent is a season of hope, a season of waiting, waiting with eager expectation.

I remember growing up with my grandmother in Nigeria. She often tells the story of how they lived in affluence before the civil war but after the war, a tin of evaporated milk that was sold for a penny was sold at N500. With governments coming and going, promising a robust economy, building hope in people’s lives but leaving them in despair. Then I asked, will the world ever be better again?   

Notwithstanding, in Advent we see the contrast between the world order and God’s promises to us. We who worship the Christ-child, born in Bethlehem's stable, are blessed with a wealth of expectations, surprises that are worth waiting for, hoping for, joys that linger long after Christmas.

In a situation of hopelessness and despair, it was just this word of hope the people of Israel in Isaiah’s time desperately needed to hear. The words Isaiah wrote spoke to those feelings of despair and proclaimed that the door that opened to future hope was not completely closed.

In a time when over 3,000 citizens of Jerusalem – including King Jehoichin, the queen mother, and the city’s leading officials – had been deported as captives to Babylon, turmoil continued and eleven years later the land of Judah took the final blow. Jerusalem was captured and destroyed after suffering unspeakable hardship at the ruthless hands of the Babylonian army.

During this time, late in the life and ministry of the aged prophet, Isaiah searched the horizon for some sign of the coming Messiah. Patiently, and sometimes not so patiently, the prophet waited for a divine occurrence that would change the world and change his life. He watched with deep longing for hints of future hope. Isaiah continued to watch and wait, all the time proclaiming – more eloquently than any other prophet – the Messianic hope. In lavish poetry, Isaiah wrote of the time when hope would be restored, when wars would be no more, when the unblemished age would begin. He spoke of a world of righteousness. He declared that the people must never give up hope.

Today we see how many people live in utter hopelessness. For multitudes of people, including people we see begging on the streets of Edinburgh, it would seem hope is lost! And when one is left without any hope at all, that person is left standing helplessly in a pile of dead dreams. To such people no angels promising any miracle happening, no brilliant star in the night sky lighting a path to a place of promise, no divine new birth that wondrously shatters the natural order of things, no fresh renewal of hope in hearts that have endured a year’s worth of disappointment!

Sometimes there is much more disappointment in our hearts than hope! You have probably not seen a single angel this Advent season. Nor have you noticed any sort of unusually bright star in the darkness. But this is Advent! This is the season when hope can rise within us as fresh as the dawn. This is the season for shouting "Don’t give up hope yet!

If we seek anything from Advent - anything other than crowded malls and full parking lots and harried shoppers . . . If we are searching through Advent for anything at all, we are counting on the fact that hope really can flood our spirits and fill our hearts and drench our souls and even rush through our energy pathways creating an astounding surge of life.

Think for a moment about what attacks your hope. Is it illness, or family turmoil, or grief, or rejection? Holy and divine hope labours and moves and strives within us! Holy and divine hope comes as a gift from God, and it enters our despairing places and weaves together the broken pieces of our lives in new and unexpected ways. Hope "sees" what we cannot readily see. Most of all, hope learns and discerns every despairing moment of our past and unyieldingly refuses to let us view that past as a complete loss.

For many people – and perhaps for you – this time of year can be dark, bleak and very difficult. Right in the middle of the hype that touts Christmas as the "happiest time of the year," millions of people dwell in their own reality that contrasts Christmas feasting with poverty and hunger, or lavish Christmas gifts with not enough money to buy any gifts at all. How stark a contrast between a family feast filled with love, and scenes that are so opposite: a family table with an empty chair that screams of a painful absence, a family celebration sparked with family strife. This season can be NOT at all the happiest time of the year to some people!

Perhaps that’s why Isaiah is such a credible and expressive prophet of Advent’s hope . . . because he never saw that hope in his own lifetime. He knew the anguish of unfulfilled expectations. He knew, like we know, the agony of waiting in hopelessness and helplessness. Just as John the Baptiser knew (the man who preached repentance for the kingdom of God and announced the coming of the Messiah). When we hear John’s impassioned words during Advent, we hear the cries of another prophet with unfulfilled expectations. Because John died without knowing whether Jesus would bring his prophesies to fulfilment. He died not knowing if his hopes were realised.

No, you and I probably cannot shout exuberant words of hope from the rooftops and promise everyone that hears us that their fondest hopes will be fulfilled. This Advent season will still find people homeless, shivering in the cold, and children struggling to survive family violence, and people coping with profound loss. In this world, it is difficult to shout words of hope.

But perhaps we have been chosen and anointed to proclaim God’s astounding hope to a humanity in despair. Perhaps you and I have been chosen to pray and to never lose hope. Perhaps we have been anointed to proclaim God’s astounding hope to a world bowed down in sadness, to every person who says, "I feel hopeless. I have given up hope."

When hope is lost, the spirit within a person dies and the picture of a lifeless stump describes the human soul and the human heart. But Isaiah just cannot let it go at that! Isaiah uses an unusual Hebrew word for "the stump of Jesse." The prophet does not describe a dead and rotting tree stump. Isaiah prophesies of a stump that remains (and survives) after a tree has been cut down – a stump injured by the axe, yet not utterly destroyed. The roots are not lifeless. The stump that looks dry and barren above the ground holds a secret that is hidden under the ground. The dead-looking stump only seems dead. In due time, all would see the miracle of a sprout.

And so I proclaim to us all that we may be injured, but we are not utterly destroyed. The life that seems barren and without hope may hold an underground miracle of roots alive! I declare in this Advent season of hope that, just when our hope seems all used up, there is a wonder and a mystery within that promises a renewed sense of life in our despairing spirits.

Isaiah had a clear vision of that kind of miraculous, but hidden, hope. Isaiah had a clear vision of the hope that Israel so desperately needed. Isaiah had a clear vision of the Messiah that would bring promise to their desolation . . .and he wrote with a trumpet-peal of faith and hope, that a shoot would emerge from the stump of Jesse, and a righteous branch would grow from its roots.

As we continue to wait in hope, let me remind us that through Christ’s coming into the world everything is changed for ever. Through the simple glory of his life, Jesus showed us the potential for good that exists in all of us. He demonstrated human life at its ultimate. He showed us life as God intended us to live it – a life of service to others. Jesus lived in such a way that all those who met him, however briefly, were changed by the experience.

Jesus once came to Bethlehem all those years ago but this Christmas he comes to you. The Word is made flesh wherever WE are: wherever we love, trust, laugh, cry, and take a stand, wherever we tell the truth, forgive, or just wait on GOD to teach us what to do. We are the new Bethlehem! That is God’s gift to us. ... and in this we find our hope.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus today we are reminded that you are coming to the Bethlehem of our lives. Come, Lord Jesus come. Make our lives your dwelling place and build your throne in our hearts. Amen.