December 2, 2012
Rev. John Watts
STUCK ON HOPE
It seems each year as our thoughts turn toBethlehemand we read passages like the one we read today that speak of peace, the news out of the land where Jesus was born is anything but peaceful.
It seems especially bad this year, with very troubling developments in
Israel,Gaza,Syria,Egypt, andIran. But I remind myself that it seems especially bad every year. Nothing ever seems to change in theMiddle East. The only change seem to be change for the worse. Sometimes it almost feels silly to hold on to the hope that maybe this year will be different. We’ve said that enough years now it’s easy to get cynical. We don’t want to be like Charlie Brown who every year decides against his better judgment that this will be the year Lucy will let him kick the football. And every year she pulls it away and he kicks air and falls flat on his back. Maybe if we don’t hope this year, we won’t look so silly next year.
And yet Christians are people of hope. That’s who we are. That’s what gives us our identity. The day we stop hoping that the future can be better than the past will the day we cease to be Christians. Then we can just be one of the many who worry and fret and say things like, “What’s going to happen to us?” “What will become of us?” They despair because they don’t know what is going to happen in the future. But Christians are different. Christian take hope because we don’t know what is going to happen in the future. So why can’t it be good? Especially since we believe that God is in charge of the future. Since we believe that, we look forward to something good happening. Like we sing at our praise service, “The Holy Spirit is here and his power is real. Anything can happen and it probably will. Something very good, something good is going on around here.” That’s hope. That’s what makes us Christian.
It’s part of our heritage. Jesus was expected long before he was born and passages like this one from Isaiah announce that something good is going to happen. I’m sure the cynics and the naysayers got a hold of prophecies like this and ridiculed them. “We’ve heard this before. We may have been born at night, but we weren’t born last night. We’ve seen enough to know that hope is just something that eventually gets dashed.”
Then Jesus was born. The prophecy was fulfilled. And here’s the thing: Those who were expecting it saw it and rejoiced in it. Those who weren’t expecting it missed it entirely. It happened and they didn’t even know it.
There’s a great truth in that. The future you expect is probably the future you are going to get. If you expect that you’re going to get nothing but the same old same old, that is very likely all you will get.
You’ve probably heard of placebos. Placebos are drugs that really are nothing at all. But patients who think they are taking something that is powerful medicine to make them well tend to get well. At least they improve at a dramatically greater rate than those who took nothing and therefore expected nothing.
Well, there’s something new called the nocebo effect. Nocebo is the negative of placebo. With placebos, patients expect to get better. With nocebos, patients expect to get worse. For example, one patient was taking anti-depressants which were really placebos. He took 26 of them one night, wanting to end his life. The pills he took were harmless, but still his blood pressure dropped to dangerous levels and he nearly died. In another case, back pain sufferers were given a test. One group was told the test might result in a slight increase in pain. The other group was told the test would have no impact on pain. The group expecting pain got it, the group not expecting pain didn’t. Another nocebo effect has long been recognized. When the druggist warns you of possible side effects, you are much more likely to experience those side effects than you are when the druggist neglects to give you that warning. Our expectations, positive or negative are powerful!
I know that as a pastor. I have seen people decide, “I’m not going to get well.” And they don’t. I’ve seen people say, “Now is the time for me to die.” And they do. I’ve seen children with parents who expect great things from them, thrive. I’ve seen children with parents see them as underachievers, underachieve. I’ve seen people with great talent and great potential and yet for whatever reason they don’t really believe they are worthy of success. They set themselves up for failure. They do something stupid to sabotage their own plans, because they believe their own plans are too good to be true. I’ve seen it with my own eyes time and time again. So have you. The future you expect is probably the future you are going to get.
This nocebo effect can actually spread like an epidemic to whole groups of people. I wonder if that’s part of the negativity in our world today. We have another end of the world day coming up this month. We’re about to the end of the Mayan calendar, so obviously that means the world is about to end. A lot of people have given up on things getter better. We have a national economy that never has really gotten going for a number of years and now is about to fall off a “cliff”. That creates negativity, too. And what can happen is we create the future we fear. Fear has a way of paralyzing us. We react rather than act. We are defensive rather than positive. We don’t do anything about a problem except to hide from it, pretend it isn’t there. That just gives more power to whatever it is we fear and makes us feel more hopeless and helpless.
If it’s true that we get the future we expect, then people who expect the future to be worse than the present are part of the problem! People who are always throwing up their hands in despair, tossing in the towel, concluding that it’s hopeless so why bother — they are not just neutral bystanders, they are indeed by their very attitudes making things worse.
God is in charge. God’s will will be accomplished. in spite of negativity on the part of his children. But I think it might work something like this. God opens doors and creates opportunities that people who are consumed with doom and gloom never see. Those who say “It’s never happened and it never will happen” will miss it when it does happen. But those who are expecting a brighter tomorrow, those who trust that God is at work, those who are looking for ways to be part of this work will not be disappointed.
A few months ago I took some time in one of my sermons to talk about time. I talked about chronos time. That’s time as we usually understand it. Time as seconds and minutes and hours, days and weeks and years. Some of you are aware of chronos time when we worship. If our worship service is lasting longer than an hour, you get restless. When that happens, it’s really the choir’s fault, but you blame me.
Then there’s the Old Testament understanding of time. The Hebrew word is “ait”. Whenever something happens in the Old Testament, it happens because God “appointed” this to happen. In other words, God is in control and God has a plan for what happens when.
Finally, we have the New Testament understanding of time. The Greek word is “kairos”. It means “a special time.” When kairos comes, time stands still. I’ll bet you’ve had that happen. You are with good friends. You have a lot of catching up to do. And pretty soon someone looks at the clock and says, “Look what time it is! Where did the time go?” Or maybe you’re working on something and it’s not the kind of work that you check your watch every five minutes because this is so tedious or so difficult. Just the opposite. You lose yourself in your work. It’s something you love and you are totally invested and totally involved and you lose all track of time. You even forget to eat and forget to sleep. Or another example: You share a special moment with someone you love. It’s a time stands still moment. You might not remember anything else you did that day, or even that month, but you will never forget that moment. It was a kairos moment
This is the first Sunday in the season of Advent. It’s the season of preparing for Christmas. The theme of Advent is “waiting”. But it isn’t chronos waiting. You know what chronos waiting is? Chronos waiting is a prisoner sitting in a cell, serving a sentence, marking the days on the wall of the prison cell.
Kairos is a child waiting for Christmas, expectantly, joyfully, waiting for wonderful things to happen. A child looks forward to Christmas with the expectation that anything can happen. Anything. Miracles can happen at Christmas. Christmas is kairos.
So Advent is something those of us who are slaves to chronos really need. These days are not just ordinary days filled with ordinary events. These days are filled with possibilities. We prepare for Christmas by opening ourselves to these possibilities. We move through Advent expecting that something good is going to happen in our lives and in our world.
And all this is a pretty good definition of hope. Hope is expecting that something good is going to happen in the future. Hope is not wishful thinking. Hope is not holding onto a good thought. Hope is not even positive thinking. Hope is making ready, moving out, trusting God, praying constantly, getting to work, all in anticipation that something good is going to happen.
If enough people would do that, and I really believe this, it would change the world. I believe we are living right now in a kairos moment. If I’m right, if this is God’s time, and we are just sitting around, moping, feeling sorry for ourselves, saying, “The times have never been as bad as they are right now” or “My life has never been so terrible as it is now”, then the time will come and it will go. But if this is God’s time and we are ready, that’s when exciting things happen. It is called hope. Hope means I believe in God so I am going to live my life accordingly. I am going to expect God to do something good.
Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote a book with the title A Great Time to Be Alive. He wrote that book in 1944, after three horrible years of World War, when the outcome was still very much in doubt, at a time few would have considered “a great time to be alive”. It was a book about what it means to have hope in such a time.
He said that war gave us possibilities for greatness. He said it is a time when we can believe in love when the world has turned to hate. It is a time when we can hope in the future when the world has given up on the future. It is a time when we can believe that love and gentleness and forgiveness are enduring human qualities when the world is trying to prove that violence and revenge and hatred are all that count. It’s a great time to be alive, he said, because it’s a time when we can stand for something. We can work for something. We can hope for something to make this world a better place.
It is called hope. It is the most powerful force on earth. If the time is right and if you are ready, you and God can change the world.
A contemporary of Harry Emerson Fosdick was Oscar Hammerstein II. His name is usually heard with the name of Richard Rodgers with whom he collaborated to create many enduring musicals. Oscar Hammerstein said, “I cannot write anything without hope in it.” People would point out that there is a lot in this world that is ugly and evil. Why not write about that? He said, “I know all about those things, but I choose to align myself with what is true and good and beautiful.”
So in 1943, in the middle of that terrible war, he wrote the lyrics to “Oklahoma”. “O what a beautiful morning, O what a beautiful day. I have this wonderful feeling, everything’s going my way.”
Then in 1945, after the extent of the war’s carnage was becoming known, he wrote these words to “Carousel”: “When you walk through a storm, hold your head up high, and don’t be afraid of the dark.”
Finally in 1949, after the war had ended and the bomb had been used, and the world faced a future filled with uncertainty and fear, he wrote “South Pacific” with the song, “I’m stuck like a dope on a thing called hope and I can’t get it out of my heart.”
I think that’s a good description of what it means to be a Christian. We are people of hope. And we are stuck on hope and we can’t get it out of our hearts, because we know that someday, at the right time, in God’s time, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Dear God, breathe your hope into our troubled and anxious hearts. We confess to you that we often live our lives and view our world as if you did not exist, as if you were not in charge. And expecting things to go from bad to worse, they often do. As we enter this sacred season of Advent, may we expect the best, not the worst. May we trust you and enter into your good plans for our lives and for our world. In Jesus’ name, Amen.