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"Hoping Against Hope"


The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. 4He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; 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. 5O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD! (Isaiah 2:1-5, NRSV)

O come, desire of nations bind

All peoples in one heart and mind;

Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;

Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

These words from the final verse of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” capture the hope of Advent better than any other hymn I know. The lyrics speak to the world as it is and to the hope of a new world to come. “Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.”

Is such a thing even possible? How unrealistic is it to pray and work for an end to violence and war? How unrealistic is it to think we can create a world free of “envy, strife and quarrels” when many do not experience peace in their own homes? This is precisely why we need Advent. We need reminding that while our yearnings for peace and love may seem naïve and overly idealistic, they are not.

If it was all left up to us, the prospects would be bleak—but it’s not on our shoulders, it is on God’s shoulders. Resting on God’s shoulders, Advent stands face to face with all of the pain and suffering and heartbreak that the world can throw at us, and nevertheless repeats one word over and over …hope… hope…hope. Advent whispers that, despite evidence to the contrary, all is not lost.

Advent reminds us to hang on because God is about to do something huge, something mind-blowing, something so miraculous that the reverberations continue for over 2,000 years and counting. Advent gives us the hope that some way, some how, all of our deepest and most holy longings for peace and love and grace will come to fruition. But, Advent doesn’t tell us how God plans to accomplish such things—that is a mystery yet to be revealed. So we will have to wait until Christmas Eve to catch a glimpse of how God plans to make such seemingly impossible things possible, of how God intends to accomplish the dreams in today’s scripture lesson when at last humans beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.

In the meantime we get intimations, divine teasers that keep us guessing, keep us on our toes, keep us in touch with the divine hunch deep down in our souls that against all the odds, some day all will be well, some day life will be transformed into the Eden God intended from the beginning. If we pay attention and keep our eyes open, we just might catch a fleeting glimpse of the quiet holiness found in seemingly mundane events. It is in response to these divine previews that we utter a one word prayer saying, “Wow.”

In her book Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, author Anne Lamott writes about such moments saying, “Wow…is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty…Wow is about having one’s mind blown by the mesmerizing or the miraculous: the veins in a leaf, birdsong, volcanoes…Wow is the child seeing the ocean for the first time” (pp. 71-72).

Lamott says there are lowercase and uppercase wows. Of lower case wows she writes, “These are the times when we sink into something modest that delivers above and beyond. When you crawl between clean sheets after a hard day…A lowercase wow might be coming upon a blanket of poppies in the field that was destroyed by a grass fire last summer” (p. 74).

And what of uppercase Wows? Lamott cites, “Yosemite. Fireworks. Watching puppies being born” (p. 74). Clearly moved by the beauty of nature Lamott writes, “When all is said and done, spring is the main reason for Wow. Spring is crazy, being all hope and beauty and glory. She is the resurrection…Buds opening and releasing…bright green grass and blue skies, nests full of baby birds. All of these are deserving of Wow…and everywhere you look, couples are falling in love, and the air is saturated with the scent of giddiness” (p. 79).

But spring isn’t the only season of wow, the others play their parts too. She says, “And autumn… [isn’t] so shabby for Wow, either. The colors are…flame and fox fur. The scent is apples and…wood smoke…In spring, we expand and stretch in all directions. It’s green exuberance…the rebirth of the tender growing soul. In fall we hunker down, pull the purse strings of ourselves tighter, because it’s getting darker and storms are coming…Nature explodes in winter. …We try to do our best, and then a whole snowy hillside buries a thousand people. Life is eruptions, spasms, just as in our families. If you keep your heart open, these traumas beat you down. But against all odds, something emerges from the wreckage in our hearts, so we can bear witness: collect donations for the families or the town where the fire broke out…Love falls to earth, rises from the ground, pools around the afflicted. Love pulls people back to their feet. Bodies and souls are fed. Bones and lives heal. New blades of grass grow from charred soil. The sun rises” (pp. 80-81).

This is the very hope to which Advent points. We don’t, however, get the whole nine yards of hope at once. It is parceled out as we journey through Advent. Hope grows bit by bit, little by little leaning toward a faint glow on the horizon that just might be a star. And wow bubbles over when we open our hearts and experience such moments. Lamott writes, “Gorgeous, amazing things come into our lives when we are paying attention: mangoes, [babies], Bach, ponds…Astonishing material and revelation appear in our lives all the time. …Unto us, so much is given. We just have to be open for business. But God is not…a bean counter. God gives us even more, which is so subversive. God just gives, to us, to you and me…God keeps giving, forgiving, and inviting us back” (p. 85).

How subversive of God to send us hope in the unlikely form of a newborn babe, so fragile, and so beautiful. How can we resist being caretakers of the hopes and dreams of this child? How can we ignore the light in his eyes and the neediness in his tears? At our best we can’t of course, but we are not always at our best. We can be absentee caregivers, running away from the responsibilities revealed in his cries and in his coos. But this is not the path of Advent. In our heart of hearts do we really want to abandon ship? Not now. Not on this First Sunday of Advent which is all about Holy Hope. Instead we seek the path to a higher calling, a nobler direction where swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, where nation will not rise up against nation, nor neighbor against neighbor.

If this is the path we seek, then Advent comes just in time. It comes to save us from the crazed commercialism of the season. It comes to save us from the stress of searching for the perfect gift for everyone on our Christmas list. It comes to save us from the despair of shorter days and longer nights. It comes to save us from the bone chilling winds of winter. It comes to do all of this and more if we will only listen for the hope of Advent. Let us listen in words such as these:

O come, desire of nations bind

All peoples in one heart and mind;

Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;

Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel! AMEN.

Written by Rev. Jimmy Only

First Sunday of Advent

December 1, 2019

The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)


Loving God, we long to feel your presence in this holy season. We long to bring peace and love and hope to a world sore in need of these gifts. We trust your promise that goodness and grace are drawing near in the person of Jesus. We see hope in the compassion which can overturn injustice, in the forgiveness which can heal a broken heart, in the wonder which can illuminate our deepest longings. As we journey through Advent together, draw us closer to you and closer to one another.

Through Jesus the Prince of Peace we pray. AMEN.

This prayer was adapted from a prayer by Thom Shuman found at

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