Romans 15: 1-13
Rev. Barrett Ingram
November 29, 2020
Today is the first Sunday in the season of Advent. The English word Advent comes from the Latin word Adventus, or the Greek word parousia, both of which mean “to come” or “to be present with.” In this season we celebrate Christ’s first Advent, his first coming. But we also take time to prepare our hearts for his Second Coming, his Second Advent. This year, I am going to be using the meanings assigned to the four candles of the Advent Wreath as the theme for the sermons: hope, love, joy and peace.
The Advent Wreath itself is of dubious origins. I was hoping to find a simple explanation when I looked it up, but alas there are as many theories as there are historians offering them! We do know that it comes to us by way of the Lutherans, probably from northern Germany or Scandinavia. People in this part of the world would bring evergreens into their homes. The winters are cold and dark there, and since evergreens stay green, they looked to them as a sign of hope that winter would not last forever. The snow would eventually melt, the ice thaw, and they would once again have more than just a brief glimpse of the sun. The candles were light in darkness, and with each candle we have more light. So that with all the candles lit, we have the fullness of light. John 1:4 – “In him was life; and the life was the light of all people.”
As we make our annual journey to Bethlehem, we are reminded that the people in the story were looking for something – for someone. “And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” What is found in the Christ of Christmas? What are we looking for and what are we finding? Today, we’re going to think about finding hope.
The late former president Ronald Reagan used to tell a story that he claimed was true. If it was, then it was probably from the days when he was governor of California. It was the story about a newspaper photographer out of Los Angeles who was called in by his editor. He was told that there was a fire raging out in Palos Verdes, which is the hilly area south of Los Angeles. His assignment was to rush down to a small airport, board a waiting plane, get some pictures of the fire, and be back in time for the afternoon edition. Breathlessly, the photographer raced to the airport and drove his car to the end of the runway. Sure enough, there was a small airplane waiting with the engine going. He got aboard and said to the pilot, “I finally made it; let’s go.” At about five thousand feet, he began getting his camera out of the bag. He told the fellow flying the plane to get him over the fire so he could take his pictures and get back to the newspaper. From the other side of the cockpit there was a deafening silence. Then he heard these unsettling words: “Aren’t you the instructor?”
We’ve probably all found ourselves in a similar situation in life. Things are going along smoothly. We’re in control of our lives; we’ve got it figured out. And then we hear words that unsettle our expectations: “Aren’t you the instructor?”
Today we are thinking about hope, and our guide is the Apostle Paul. Paul is writing to a community of believers in Rome made up of both Jews and Gentiles. These two groups are together because Paul and others have been preaching a gospel whose message is that the promises that God made long ago to God’s people Israel are now open to all because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And the theme of hope almost serves as bookends to verse 4 and 15, which form a unit of thought. Let’s begin with verse 4: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.”
Hope, according to Emily Dickinson, “Is a thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” Paul Tillich said, “nobody can live without hope, even if it were only for the smallest things… We would end in despair, a word that originally meant ‘without hope,’ or in deadly indifference.” That’s why we light the candle of hope first during Advent. We need to be reminded over and over again, because sometimes hope can seem so illusive.
One writer put it this way: Even in the midst of holiday cheer—hopelessness threatens. After Thanksgiving dinner—it’s there. In moments of quiet—it’s there. Lying in bed at night—it’s there. Those who struggle with depression or who are grieving know this feeling intimately. Hopelessness claws at the door.
Some of you might be familiar with the musical Show Boat. It is set in the late 1800s on the Mississippi River. One of the characters in the story is an African American man named Joe. He has had a hard life trying to make a living as a dockworker. At one point in the musical, Joe sings one of the more famous songs from the musical: “Ol’ Man River.” It’s a song about the endless, uncaring flow of the river that it just keeps rolling along. Joe sings: “I get weary, and sick of trying. I’m tired of living but scared of dying.”
Maybe you can relate to Joe’s words. Maybe you are weary and sick of trying. Maybe are you tired of living but scared of dying. Maybe hopelessness is clawing at your door, even during this “most wonderful time of the year.”
Many people in the Bible experienced the same sense of hopelessness or despair. In the book of Numbers (11:14-15), Moses says to the Lord: “I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me—if I have found favor in your eyes—do not let me face my own ruin.” Job said, “May the day of my birth perish, and the night that said, ‘A boy is conceived!’” After a difficult chapter in King David’s life, he prayed, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” Solomon said, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” In the opening chapter of 2nd Corinthians, the Apostle Paul writes, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.”
If Advent is all about hope, where, then, does it come from? Hope isn’t something we can manufacture and sell. We don’t find it in the stores or online amid the post-Thanksgiving sales. We can’t just make ourselves more hopeful. Where do we find it? Paul refers us to Scripture, what we know as the Old Testament: “Such things were written in the Scriptures long ago to teach us. They give us hope and encouragement as we wait patiently for God’s promises.” When we think about biblical characters like Moses, Job, David, Solomon, and the Apostle Paul (among others) – when we think about the hardships, the adversity they faced and what they overcame – we can be reassured that God will see us through. That’s the “endurance and encouragement” Paul is referring to. “Hope” for Paul is
essentially the same thing as “trust,” or even faith. And as believers, we trust the promises of God.
Verse 8 mentions “the promises made to the patriarchs.” These promises were fulfilled in the first Advent, with the coming of Christ. You might remember that in Genesis 12, God made a promise to Abraham and his descendants (Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). God would bless him and “all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.” That is the promise, and Paul is saying that it has been fulfilled. If you look at verses 9 through 12, you will see that Paul offers a series of quotations (Psalm 18:49; Deuteronomy 32:43; Psalm 117:1; Isaiah 11:10). If you look, you’ll see that each one mentions Gentiles or nations. Those two words are the same. Gentiles means nations; it refers to the nations other than Israel. So, we are living examples of the fulfillments of the promise. We aren’t Jews; we aren’t part of Israel. But because of Jesus Christ, here we are – another people in another land – praising the Lord. And the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been proclaimed on every continent, and there are more Christians now than there ever were. Through Jesus Christ, the promise of God to Abraham has been fulfilled. And so our hope, our trust, our confidence is in a God who is faithful to His promises. And His promises are just as sure to us who live and move and have our being between his first and second Advent.
The Christian hope, expressed most vividly at Advent, is grounded in the reality that the Jesus who came once in weakness and in meekness will come again in great glory, in judgment, justice, and power, to redeem the world, to save it from itself.
So, Christian hope is confidence in God’s future. Note that it is not confidence in our future, but God’s future.
Biblical hope, as theologian Craig Barns has noted, comes only as an interruption from God. Old people like Zechariah and Elizabeth discover they will have a son. Shepherds see the most amazing things in the skies. Angels show up at Christmas telling us there is more to life than we had imagined. Mary and Joseph find that the life they were planning for was really not good enough after all because God was about to conceive salvation in their family.
The poet Ann Weems writes:
Some of us walk into Advent/ tethered to our unresolved yesterdays/ the pain still stabbing/ the hurt still throbbing. It’s not that we don’t know better;/ it’s just that we can’t stand up anymore by ourselves./ On the way to Bethlehem, will you give us a hand?
And the Good News – the Gospel – is that He does. God reached out to us in Jesus, who is Emmanuel: God with us. Surely in that Good News we can find hope.
 Rev. Courtney Ellis, for the quote and Show Boat reference, as posted on her blog with the title “Got Hope?”
 Peter Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What's So Good About the Good News? (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2008), Kindle Edition
 Ann Weems, “Yesterday’s Pain” in Kneeling in Bethlehem. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1987), p. 14. With thanks to Julie Cox!