December 3, 2017
Reverend David Melville

On the night Jesus was born – although we have to come to imagine it as beautifully star-lit and saturated with the sounds of nature which our modern electric and gasoline-powered gadgets obscure — we also know that was a lot of hopelessness hovering around. There was little hope from ever escaping one’s class and one’s conditions. What you were born into, you usually remained. You had to accept your lot in life. “Mr. Sunshine,” Ecclesiastes, advised us to “Enjoy life all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun – all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life, and in your toilsome labor under the sun.” [Ecclesiastes 9:9] I bet he was the life of the party!

On the night Jesus was born there was not only social stagnation; Bethlehem’s residents faced a lot of fears. They feared tyrants; they feared disease; they feared financial hardship. Surely many feared death. Phillips Brooks, composer of the hymn we’ve sung twice this morning to usher in Advent (O little Town of Bethlehem), was an amazing poet: He writes about “deep and dreamless sleep.” There’s no need to dream when you have no hope. But then the baby Jesus surprises everyone from the shepherds to the inn keeper: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Now even the hopeless had hope.

I pray that regardless of any feelings of hopelessness you may be experiencing this morning, you will allow the baby Jesus to surprise you with hope. Bethlehem was surprised; Baton Rouge can be too.

The street on which George Stuart lived until this past Monday had at least one other person in hospice care. Her name was Veronica Shepherd (what a timely name for Christmas!), and the church has sent her at least one “get well” card. But Veronica was not going to get well, and she died Friday. Chances are that on your street there is at least one person living … well, actually dying … in hospice care.

When I visited with Veronica last Sunday, she was confined to bed and playing a waiting game. All the potential signs of giving up were there. But several times in our visit she said she still had hope. As long as she drank enough water she was hopeful. She was saying that water — rather than all the medicines and treatments which had been stopped – was going to make a difference. And it could have; stranger things have happened. And far be it from me – a person who drinks too little water, and probably one day will pay a price for my thirstlessness – far be it from me to dash Veronica’s hopes.

But hope is always wrapped in context. And here was Veronica’s context: what she was really whispering as the sun was setting on another day and in her life, was that her hope rested in her Savior. Veronica had a faith that puts mine to shame. Her hope was found in the living water of Jesus Christ, whereas sometimes my hope has been found in college degrees, appointments, accomplishments and milestones. The problem with hope being based upon things and deeds and health and blessings and rewards is that if they never appear, or if they appear but are taken away, so goes our hope as well. Just as Jesus gave us a new love – inclusive and unconditional–; and just as Jesus gave us a new faith – faith even in that which we cannot see –; Jesus also gave us a new hope – a hope that will surprise us and meet our every need. In Jesus we always have hope.

With you I read about another tragedy in deep ocean waters, which left horrified family members waiting on shore for any signs of life … any hope … that their loved one’s submarine could still be operational. With each announcement from Argentina’s military, there were more fears than hope. Some of the family members were quoted as having given up hope; some were still holding on to a slimmer of hope. Jesus came to Bethlehem for those Argentines as well as for you and me … to surprise us with hope when we think there is none. Praise be to God, because we all need a little hope.

We all know Polly Anna’s; we all know eternal optimists. Sometimes they inspire us; sometimes they annoy us. All of us would have been thrilled if our daughter or granddaughter would have been chosen to play Little Orphan Annie and sing with gusto, “The sun’ll come out tomorrow; when I’m stuck in a day that’s gray, and lonely, I just stick out my chin and grin, and say, Oh, the sun’ll come out tomorrow; Tomorrow! Tomorrow! I love ya tomorrow! You’re always a day away!” Those lyrics are almost as good as O Little Town of Bethlehem. And even if our daughter or granddaughter didn’t land the role of Annie, we’d settle for her having that same optimism and positive, hopeful spunk and spirit in life.

But the message of Advent and Christmas is that the hope Jesus brought is more amazing, and more fulfilling, and more surprising than any coping mechanisms that we call hope and can sing about. The hope of Christ is not denial; the hope of Christ is not a pep talk or merely “feel good” therapy. It is not “pie in the sky;” it is not a morale, confidence or self-esteem boost. It is not letting “a smile be your umbrella on a rainy, rainy day,” and hoping for the best. No, the hope of Jesus surprises us and kicks in when these other human responses let us down and no longer help. The hope of Jesus never promises to lift us above difficulties, but it does promise to help us deal with them. The hope of Jesus is internal as much as external. The hope of Jesus never ends because it leads us to new beginnings. Finally, the hope of Jesus is earthly and eternal.

1 Peter 3:15 admonishes us to “Always be prepared to give the reason for the hope that you have.” If someone asks you why you are so bullish about the future … why you whistle a happy tune … and you give reasons such as “Oh, I just received a great doctor’s report following my annual physical;” or “my stock portfolio ended this quarter on the plus side;” or “I’m married to a ’10,’ and my kids are the kind you brag about on bumper stickers,” you’re not witnessing to the world the whole reason for the hope you have. You are not witnessing about the hope found in the child born two thousand years ago, and still living today: the hope represented by the baby Jesus.

I hope that this Christmas we are a church of hope. Only a church that is hopeful about itself and its future can offer a word of hope to outsiders. This time last year we were literally surprised by hope, weren’t we? Don’t you recall the meeting in this very room when we basically agreed that in our hearts we wanted to continue, but in our heads we knew the responsible thing to do was to close the doors. You gave me permission to prepare the church for a dignified death. Not a merger, not a reboot, not a new name or style of worship, but a death.

Melanie and I went home with nervous laughter as we recalled that I had closed the first church I served, and now I was closing perhaps my final church appointment! My first appointment after seminary was a two-point charge, consisting of Keithville United Methodist and Trinity United Methodist. Keithville still had all the normal signs of church life – had a pulse — but the District Superintendent didn’t tell me that Trinity was on life support. Well, the first week of being there the Trinity members told me they were on life support, and they wanted off. “No offense, pastor.” They had just been holding on for several years to not hurt the former pastor’s feelings. So I honored their wishes: I withdrew life support; I closed that sucker!

But here at Francis Asbury God had the last laugh, and it wasn’t nervous. Instead of a dreamless night, God gave us a dream of new wineskins. He surprised us with hope. We’re still not where we want to be, but as long as we have hope through Christ and through serving others, we can go anywhere. And just as God gave Francis Asbury United Methodist renewed hope, God can give you renewed hope when you feel all hope is gone. You can’t be much lower than we were in this room last December. But then we were surprised by hope, and you will be too if you stay close to God, seeking His guidance.

Sometimes when I see no hope, I turn to the sacrament of Holy Communion, and I urge you to do the same. Sometimes the sacrament is what God has given, and continues to give us, for hope. It is the gift that keeps on giving. I hope that today, this Advent and Christmas season, and just when you need hope the most in 2018, you are surprised by hope at Christ’s table. You are now invited once again to a surprise party!