Welcome back everyone!
A word on hope to begin (i.e. Why this matters, part two!)
We cannot hope for something of which we have no memory. If a memory is lost from a person, a community or a culture then it cannot serve as a source of hope. This is a critical fact for us as disciples of Jesus; the hopes we have are determined by the extent to which we retain our memories of God’s acts throughout history and through Christ. Advent is an ideal time therefore to remember the “big story” (what we’ll be starting on today!) that serves as the foundation for all our hopes.
The Hope of Israel
To understand the Christmas story (and the hope we should have today) we need to understand the hope of the people God first called to his service, Israel. And if we’re going to understand the hope of Israel we’re going to have to understand the hopeless (at least by appearances) situation of the world in the days of the Kingdom of Israel. Hope, after all, is not a neutral value. Hope is an implicit critique of the present state of affairs. To have hope is to not be entirely satisfied with the world as it is, and the deeper the hope is the deeper the dissatisfaction is. Perhaps we could even go so far as to say Israel was an expression of God’s hope, indicating his dissatisfaction with state of the world he created.
Why do I say that? Well, the story of Israel starts with God calling Abram in Genesis 12 (more on this below) to leave his homeland and start the family that would become Israel. The key thing to note up front is that this Abram story is the first story to come after the world that God created essentially went to pieces in Genesis 4-11. Whether you are a Genesis literalist or “figuralist” (like I am) the point of Gen. 4-11is clear: life on the earth was not pretty! Some highlights from these chapters include:
Injustice, bloodshed and wanton destruction of life
God turning the elements and created order to chaos (ie. the flood) to punish the chaos that humans created
Communities striving to dominate the earth and impose their will upon others
A humanity characterized by fear, want and disunity.
The Abram story is placed where it is to indicate that it is God’s answer to the list above. Abram launched the family of Israel, and Israel was supposed to be different than the nations who followed the Gen. 4-11 pattern. Israel was to be a people and a land of hope; hope was at the heart of Israel’s vocation. The Israelites were to demonstrate to the world that there was hope that all the aforementioned issues could be dealt with by God, and that justice, peace and righteousness could flourish on the earth. They were to hope in God to protect and provide for them as they served him, and the nations were to learn this hope from them.
Today we will consider three passages which outline the most fundamental hopes that ancient Israel possessed Each of these passages is attached to a covenant that God made with them, and we’ll briefly discuss the hope outlined in each.
Hope #1: A People of Blessing
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
The most fundamental hope of Israel was to be a people who lived in relationship with God. As they journeyed (“Go”) as individuals and as a nation they were to live under God’s protection and with his blessing. In their context, blessing meant, above all, land, children, abundance and peace. This hope was connected to their ultimate mission: to extend that blessing to all the nations of the earth. Note that this promise is made without prior conditions or future stipulations. If Abram goes with God, then God will make it happen.
Hope #2: Liberated to Serve God
Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: 4 You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.
The second core hope of Israel was to live free of all masters outside of God, and in their freedom to serve him in every aspect of their lives. The Exodus story climaxes in the Israelites meeting God at Mount Sinai and receiving the Torah, which instructed them on how they are to serve him as a “priestly kingdom.” As his priests, they were to worship him correctly (i.e. with lives of justice and righteousness and free from idols, who are the other “masters”) and as a people they were mediate between God and the nations, thus fulfilling the hope of extending blessing to the nations. The Israelites depended on God to protect them from the other kingdoms of their world, who time and time again tried to capture Israel and force them to serve a different master. Note here that there is a condition to this hope: Israel must obey God.
Hope #3: Faithful Leadership to Shepherd Israel
2 Kings 7:8-13
Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; 9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. 15 But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
The third core hope of Israel was to live under a just and loving king (descended from David), who would ensure that God’s commands were followed and that Israel was protected from their enemies. Thus the final core hope of Israel was to live in peace (peace with God, each other, and the nations). And note that God here makes this promise in perpetuity; while God can punish a future king, he promises to ultimately maintain this promised hope.
Blessing, liberation, and peace, all to be given by God, and all with an eye on sharing these gifts with the nations. That was the hope of Israel, and tomorrow we will see where these hopes led.
A Question for you:
Each of the above hopes is connected to a story (Abraham’s calling, the Exodus, and David’s rise to kingship, respectively), and as we said at the outset, our stories (memories) shape our hopes. What stories from your life have shaped your hopes? In other words, what are the experiences that you draw upon to have hope in God and in his work in our world? What about the stories of people who are near to you or perhaps the stories treasured by your communities; how have their stories impacted your hopes?