I was watching CNN last Monday night, and as the pictures showed the continuing war in Afghanistan, the ticker underneath scrolled the other headlines of the day. As I read that other news, I saw one of the most depressing headlines I have ever seen. It said, "Today, at 1:41 pm, the sun set for the winter in Barrow, Alaska." The sun set for the winter! Ouch. All the news of war and terror and death seemed suddenly to pale in comparison to living in a place where the sun would set for the entire winter. I have heard that Alaska in winter has the highest suicide rate in the US.
As I thought about that, I thought about how powerful the season of Advent could be in Alaska, where on the first Sunday after the day that the sun sets for the winter, someone would stand up and light the first candle on the Advent wreath, the candle of hope. Doing that could get you through because hope can get you through just about anything.
In the southern climate of New Hampshire, we are fortunate to have the sun in wintertime, even if it does shine less than we might want. But there are still times in our lives where it seems like our personal sun has set for a deep winter of grief and pain, even when the sun outside continues to shine. So I wanted to spend some time this morning talking about hope...how we can light a candle when life is dark to see us through to sunrise.
I hope you know by now that when I hear the question "What's It All About?" my answer is "love." At the root of every virtue, the seed from which all goodness springs is love, because love is the nature of God. So when I look at the great good of hope, I look for the way that hope is related to love. As I thought about that this week, I decided that hope could be defined as trusting in love. And that is true, no matter how you punctuate the sentence. Hope is both "Trusting, in love"–that is having an attitude of trust with love in your heart and "Trusting in love"–that is putting your trust in the Spirit of Love...which is God.
To talk about this, we have to realize that in our language we don't always use the word "hope" to mean the spiritual virtue. Often we use the word "hope" when we mean "wish," like I hope I win the lottery, or I hope the Red Sox win the Series. When we hope to have spaghetti for dinner, we are not having a deep spiritual experience. We are simply wishing that a situation will turn out in a certain way.
Hope is not the same as wishing and it is not the same as optimism. To hope, in the spiritual sense, does not mean always thinking that a situation will turn out to our liking or even that it will turn out well. Mixing up hope and optimism or hope and wishing has caused us a lot of grief over time and has actually deprived us of much of our ability to hope. Biblical hope is to trust in God, not in an outcome, and Christian hope defines trusting in God more clearly as trusting in Love.
If we just think of hope as wishing or optimism, we lose a comfort we could have when the stakes get high. If I have a terminal illness, how can I have hope? I have seen people, who think that hope means optimism, try to deny their illness. I have seen others who rattle their Bibles everywhere they go, insisting that God will heal them according to promises made in Scripture. Those people are all very anxious. But for those who realize that to hope is to lovingly place their trust in a God who is the embodiment of love, the end of life becomes as beautiful as the beginning. Their hope is not in recovery but in the person who will walk with them, even when they walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
To hope in God is different from wishing to be well. I can still wish to be well while I hope in God. I can still pray for God's healing while I hope in God. But if I can manage to keep the two ideas separate, I don't have to lose my hope just because my wish is not granted. Our hope is in God, not in results. We trust that God, and therefore love, will be with us no matter what the circumstances are like. It is not wrong to wish or to pray for certain results, but to anchor our hope in the results is to sink the ship. The presence of a loving God, who will be there no matter what, is our true hope.
That is why Christians so often turn to the end of the eighth chapter of Romans when we want a word of hope. "Who will separate us from the love of Christ?" asks Paul. "Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?" Paul has been through all those things and has discovered that the answer is "No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us." Paul's hope is not in a life free from difficulty. Paul's hope is in the erson who goes with him through the storm. "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." That is the content of our hope.
We need to get this, because there are times when the sun sets for the winter. Just this week two more of you have lost jobs. I have had at least one if not two phone calls every day this week with new concerns going on the prayer chain. Some of you have had friends die this week, others are in the hospital, some are worried about friends and family in the military, still others are dealing with emotional trauma. All of us are anxious about war and anthrax and suicide bombings. In many corners, the sun has set for the winter.
In that darkness, it is my job to gather us together and to light the candle of hope. And in the light of that candle we can see an altar covered with the symbol of God's love for us...the broken body and shed blood of Jesus. Remember that even Jesus wished for something different than the cross. In Gethsemane he prayed that the cup of pain and sorrow be taken from him. If God could come up with a more comfortable plan, Jesus was quite willing to listen. But God could not grant that wish and had to answer Jesus' prayer with a firm, but loving "no." Jesus' wish was denied, but his hope in God stood fast. Easter proved the wisdom of his choice.
In whatever way your sun might be setting this morning, I invite you to light a candle. Don't hope in results...hope in the God who loves you...in the God who is love. Pray for the desires of your heart, yes, but trust that love will be there with you even if what you want is denied. M. Louise Haskins was quoted in a radio speech by King George VI at the beginning of WWII. She wrote: "And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.' And he replied: ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way."
That is what the Christian life is like. It is not "safe" in the usual sense. Holding onto the hand of God has not kept some pretty terrible things from happening to me, and it won't offer a guarantee of a hardship-free life to you either. But as we gather at the Lord's table and take God's brokenness into ourselves, we proclaim our hope that our winter is not the last word. Even if our winter is our actual death, we are still more than conquerors through the one who loved us enough to go there first. We trust that love will prevail, and that even the worst that life can throw at us cannot separate us from the love of God.
Even when Jerusalem was about to be sacked and all the people taken into captivity, Jeremiah bought a field. Even when the sun sets for the winter, we light a candle. The flame of love never dies, and our hope is in the God of the flame, the God of love. Love will hold our hand through the winter...and in Barrow, Alaska, on May 10 at 2:02 am, the sun will rise for the summer.
©2001 Anne Robertson
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