Christmas Hope For The Hopeless
Years ago, when I was in seminary, I worked as an intern in a church where the church custodian was not blessed with an abundance of hope. In fact when I would greet him each day I would say something like “Well, good morning. Beautiful day isn’t it.” In a woeful voice he would respond, “Yeah, I guess, of course it’s just another day closer to my funeral.” Some folks are like that. For them the end of the world is just one spin away.
I think that’s the way it was for the people in Isaiah’s day. The setting of this Old Testament passage dates to about 700 years before the birth of the Christ. It was a time when hope was in short supply. The two major political and military powers of the day where Assyria and Egypt. And sandwiched right between the two of them was the little nation of Israel. Wars were fought constantly between the two powers in order to gain control of that tiny sliver of land between them and as a result, the people of Israel suffered terribly. It was a time of great darkness, a time devoid of hope, a time when each day just brought them one day closer to their funeral. Yet in the midst of that dark time, the prophet Isaiah would deliver these hopeful, hope-filled words from the Lord: “The people who walked in darkness had seen a great light Those who dwelled in the land of deep darkness, on them has the light shined.” Of course what we now know is that promise of God was ultimately fulfilled by the light of Jesus Christ shining in the darkness of the world.
Now admittedly it is tough today to maintain hope. One cannot read the newspapers without flinching. Nor can one watch the news on TV without being jolted by the reality that these are times of deep darkness in our land and in our world. Listen to the way Samuel Miller describes it.
It is both a tremendous and a terrible time in which to live;
It is stupendous world, but very stupid;
It is a creative world, but it can be cruel;
It is a daring world, but extremely desperate;
It is a prosperous world, but quite pathetic;
It is on the march but unsure of it’s goal;
It is full of energy, but empty of faith;
It is excited with innumerable dreams, but harried by unending nightmares.
Yes, the time in which we live may be one of darkness, but the message of Christmas is that there is hope for the hopeless. The light of Jesus Christ still shines in that darkness. Put the prophecy of Isaiah and the story of Christmas together and you begin to realize that hope arises at unexpected times and in unexpected ways.
Hope arises at unexpected times.
Some of you may have been to Galena, Illinois the hometown of Ulysses S. Grant. I’ve never been there, so what you’re about to hear came to me through an article which served as a powerful lesson on the meaning of hope. It was the title of the article that really grabbed my attention. More about that in a moment. But first let me tell you some facts about Galena. Galena is located in the low hills that line the Mississippi River up in Illinois. There was a time in the last century when the future of Galena seemed bright. There were large deposits of lead in the nearby hills and with river transportation so available; a large mining industry grew up. The town prospered. Lovely homes and stately buildings reflected a strong economy and a growing population. But then in the early part of this century the lead deposits gave out and the town had nothing else to sustain it. People moved away leaving those magnificent homes and those stately buildings were abandoned and left to decay. It soon became a virtual ghost town.
But then in recent years an amazing thing has happened. A new generation of Americans seeking a less pressurized style of life has taken to moving to smaller communities. Galena, Illinois suddenly became a desirable place. Because it was an architectural treasure trove with all of those abandoned homes and buildings, younger people have jumped at the challenge of restoring those wonderful structures. Today the old town of Galena is humming again. The old buildings have been turned into hotels and B&Bs and antique shops and other small businesses.
It was the title of that article that caught my attention: “Poverty Saved Galena!” Fascinating thought. Saved by poverty. Who would ever have thought that hope could come alive in that dying town, but you know come to think of it, exactly the same thing could be said of Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born. You have to wonder what God had in mind. Of all the exotic and exciting places God could have chosen, why Bethlehem?
Certainly there wasn’t much to Bethlehem when Jesus was born nor is there that much to it today. A few narrow streets lined with souvenir shops. Streets filled with hawkers peddling olive wooden necklaces. Surrounding the town, barren rocky hills where goats and sheep scramble to extract what nutrients they can from the soil. Bethlehem was and still is a place of poverty. A rather grubby little place overrun with travelers and filled with inhabitants who looked upon their neighbors with suspicion and upon strangers with hatred. Not to mention innkeepers who charged exorbitant rates. Bethlehem, such an unlikely place for the fight of hope to shine. But for reasons that defy our sense of economics and real estate, God chose Bethlehem as the birthplace for Jesus. Why? Well maybe Bethlehem was chosen because God wanted us to know that he will go to any lengths to save us. He saves us even from our poverty.
That’s a word we need to hear. Corporations will downsize causing painful job layoffs. Rebels will rise up and disturb the peace. Hatefulness, homelessness, and hunger will continue to hold sway but I want you to hear again the message of Christmas- Hope Comes at unexpected times. The light of Jesus Christ still shines in the darkness.
And hope comes in unexpected ways.
Think of Mary, an ordinary young woman with no particular distinction other than being unmarried and being with child by the work of the Holy Spirit. Yet Mary’s whole experience was a difficult ordeal. The long, exhausting trip to Bethlehem; the onset of labor pains while searching fruitlessly for some place to stay; the prospect of delivering her firstborn without the security of a kinswoman to assist her; the shock of hearing the now familiar but then horrifying “no room in the inn” speech. The whole thing was pretty dismal.
I do not know where you mothers spent the last days before the birth of your child, but it probably was not on the back of a donkey. I do not know where you delivered your baby. Probably in a hospital. Perhaps in your home. Maybe even in a taxi. It happens, you know. I read of one mother who didn’t quite make it to the hospital in time and she delivered her baby in the hospital elevator. The medical team attending her told her not to worry, that last year a woman delivered her baby out on the lawn of the hospital. The woman said: “Yes, I know. That was me, too.” Well, wherever you delivered your baby, it probably was not in a stable filled with the odors of sheep, cattle and donkeys. So Mary’s story reminds us that God brings hope to us in unexpected ways.
A story carried in the Denver Post confirms this Biblical fact. The article was about a minister who announced to his congregation a week before Christmas that it had come to his attention that a family in the church was experiencing a difficult time financially and he wondered if someone would volunteer to help the family have a merry Christmas. After the service a young father asked the minister what he could do. The minister asked if he could get the family a Christmas tree. The next day this young father and his little boy drove up into the mountains in the family pick-up truck to cut down a fresh evergreen tree. However, on the way up the mountain, they hit a patch of ice on the road. The truck slid off the road and crashed into a boulder, shattering the windshield. The father was not hurt, but his son’s face was cut by flying glass, causing severe bleeding. The young father carried his bleeding son back out onto the highway, hoping to flag down a passing motorist for help. Several cars passed but refused to stop. The father was getting desperate. Finally, a car did stop. The couple in the car rushed the father and his son to the hospital in Denver in time to get medical attention. The father, in his state of panic, never got the names of those two ministering angels. Well, on Christmas Eve, the minister, knowing that because of the accident hadn’t been able to fulfill his promise to get a tree, asked if he would like instead to deliver a basket of food and toys which had been gathered for this financially strapped family. He was glad to do this, so he drove to the address he was given. Can you imagine his surprise when the couple who answered the door were the same two people who stopped to help him on the highway just a few days before?
Such is the way God often operates, using unusual, unlikely, unexpected people and places and times and ways to bring us hope when hope seems to be in short supply. That’s the message of Christmas.
By the way…
Do you have any idea why we put tinsel on our Christmas tree? It all goes back to a beautiful legend, a story for children of all ages. According to the story, Joseph and Mary and their new baby Jesus were on their way to Egypt trying to escape from Herod’s soldiers. Evening came and they were tired. They were afraid to stop for fear of being found, but they were too exhausted to keep going. They felt that they were running out of time, and they knew they were running out of hope. They spotted a cave and decided to spend the night there, knowing full well that they might be discovered. It was very cold, so cold that the ground was white with frost. It seems that a friendly little spider in the cave saw the Christ child and wished that he might do something to help Him keep warm in the cold night. So he did the only thing he could do. He spun a web across the entrance of the cave; weaving the tiny filaments so tightly and so intricately that they formed a kind of curtain. The spider hoped that the web might keep some of the cold night air out of the cave.
Later that night a squad of Herod’s soldiers pursuing the Holy Family came to that place. They were about to search the cave when the captain noticed the spider’s web, covered now with frost, stretching across the entrance to the cave. He said: “Look at this spider’s web. It’s quite unbroken. No one’s entered this cave recently. No use to search here.” So the soldiers passed on by and left the Holy Family in peace—all because a little spider had spun his web of love across the entrance to the cave. And that, so they say, is why we put tinsel on our Christmas trees. The glittering streamers stand for the strands of the spider’s web, white with frost, stretched across the entrance to the cave on the way to Egypt, giving hope when all hope seems gone.
Remember that this Christmas when you put tinsel on your Christmas tree. Remember that God uses unexpected times and ways to bring us hope when everything seems hopeless. Yes, the light of Jesus Christ still shines in the darkness of our lives, the darkness of our land, and the darkness of our world. He is our hope—our only hope! Amen