Hope is a Candle Lit by the Prophets
Preached on December 2nd 2018
at Wollaston Congregational Church
Scripture: Jeremiah 33:14-16
It is always appropriate that the first candle of Advent is for hope. So often, by the time we reach this season hope is all we have left. And this year, more than ever, I think that Advent is going to be that kind of season. Today, we are finding our message of hope in the Old Testament scripture passage we heard today from the book of Jeremiah.
It is astonishing that Jeremiah, writing from a prison cell, can preach a message of hope. And yet he does. The reason for his imprisonment is that he is too committed to speaking the truth. He has warned the delusional King Zedekiah that the enormous power of Babylonian Chaldeans cannot be pushed back. Jerusalem is still standing, but its fall is imminent. Many members of the elite class have already been taken into exile in Babylon. Soon there will be just a handful left in Jerusalem, a remnant. And the city will be destroyed.
It is at this moment, writing to those exiles far off in Babylon, that Jeremiah reminds them of God’s promises. God’s promises. What kind of sense does that make, when all seems lost? What does God even promise?
A few years ago, I was writing a special paper to present to the United Church of Christ Committee on Ministry. It was a statement of my theology and beliefs, that would – hopefully – qualify me for ordination in the UCC. I put this paper together by writing a few paragraphs on each section of the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith.
The section that challenged me the most was this one:
“God promises to all who trust in the gospel forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, the presence of the Holy Spirit in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in that kingdom which has no end.”
“All the promises named in the statement of faith are intangibles: Forgiveness , fullness of grace, courage, God’s presence in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in the kingdom.”
How are these intangibles supposed to help – to quote our final hymn – when the storms of life are raging? How are they supposed to help when we hear the very worst news, that a young man – full of promise, yes promise – has been killed in a tragic car accident. And that his buddy beside him landed in the ICU.
Parents whose children have died in car accidents, or due to drug overdoses, or by gang warfare, or by being shot in the shopping mall, may be forgiven for thinking that God has abandoned them. When tragedy strikes, we often hear the lament “how could God allow this?” God’s promises seem futile and far away in the face of such a loss.
William Sloane Coffin, a renowned protestant minister and chaplain of Yale University, experienced this kind of loss first hand. At the age of 23, his son, Alexander, was returning a tennis game with a friend when his car plunged into a South Boston channel shortly after midnight. Coffin was pronounced dead at New England Medical Center at 2:25 a.m. He had been recovered from the channel by fire department divers. 
People tried to comfort Rev. Sloane Coffin by telling him that Alex’s death was somehow the will of God. This did not go down well with him. Ten days after Alex’s death, Rev. Coffin preached a eulogy for Alex at Riverside Church in New York. He said:
“For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths … The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.” 
The people of Judah, taken off into exile while their home is being destroyed, may also be led to believe that God has abandoned them. They may think that this is the act of a mean and vindictive God. They may think that this is God’s will and God’s punishment for them. But God speaks through Jeremiah, words of comfort and hope, to remind them of God’s promise to them.
This message recalls the covenant God made with Moses at Mount Sinai when the commandments were given. The people’s side of the covenant was to remain faithful to the YHWH by following the commandments. YHWH’s side of the promise was quite simple: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” God had brought the people out of slavery in Egypt and now had promised presence and relationship, through their trials and their rejoicing.
“I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Sometimes this doesn’t sound like much of a promise … until I recall my friends, Bill and Jo, who adopted a son about 10 years ago. Brendon came into his new family with complex problems from his family of origin. But, my friends were determined to go ahead with the adoption. They simply wanted to be a family.
And so, following a period of fostering, the family stood before the judge and declared to Brendon “I will be your mom” and “I will be your dad” and “you will be our son.”
The years since that time have been full of trials, but also rejoicing. The nurturing that Brendon missed in his early years is not easily reclaimed. Right and wrong, cause and effect mean little to him. And now that he has entered the teenaged years, there are the regular trials of issues at school and visits from the police. And there are times of rejoicing, when Brendon makes a new friend, or shows an act of kindness.
This is not a journey for the fainthearted. And yet Jo and Bill kept their promise, “I will be your mom, I will be your dad, and you will be our son” through it all.
Another example of this powerful promise of presence comes from the book “Tattoos on the Heart” by Father Gregory Boyle. I had heard Father Boyle speak some years ago, at a conference on prison ministries at Boston College. He had recently published the book and had obviously traveled to many speaking engagements. He sounded weary. “I’m looking forward to going home to be with my family,” he said. For a moment I pictured a cozy scene of a wife and maybe 3 or 4 children welcoming home the Father. But, err … he’s a Catholic Priest. No, Father G, as he’s known, was talking about the “home boys” and “home girls” he had worked with for a couple of decades in the slums of Los Angeles. They were his family.
The book tells of the love of this man for his frustrating and heart-breaking family. Father Boyle rescues teenaged boys and girls from a life of gang violence by loving them. In many cases he saves their lives.
“Gang violence is about a lethal absence of hope,” Father Boyle has said. “Nobody has ever met a hopeful kid who joined a gang.” 
He created a business “Home Boy Industries” to make silkscreen printed T shirts. He employs the least employable. Kids who’ve had no parenting and no schooling, who don’t know how to get up on time for work or how to speak without using obscenities. He loves them by letting them know that they matter: to him and to God.
In this way he instills hope in many young men and women who would have been lost to gang violence and drug addiction. This work comes at an enormous price. As often as he baptizes and marries the young ones he serves, he also buries them. When a “homie” turns his life around he is most vulnerable to being shot and killed by a rival gang. The young man who’d escaped the neighborhood and gone to college, was taken down when he was back on a visit for the holidays. And there was another one who was home on leave from the military, having survived his tour of duty. The gangs did not care.
And yet, with the many trials, there are triumphs worth rejoicing. G. had visited a homie named “Grumpy” in prison and offered free removal of his gang insignia tattoos when he was released. Grumpy had rudely refused and resisted. And yet, months later, they met by chance, Grumpy had had a change of heart – “I’ll meet you on Wednesday when I get out, I want my [gang related] tattoos off” he said. These are the kinds of things that caused God and Father G. to rejoice.
Boyle quotes Emily Dickinson, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, that sings the song without the words and never stops at all.” 
Jeremiah writes to the people of Judah, to tell them that the days are surely coming when a righteous branch will spring up for David, the former King. This branch will reaffirm the promise of God: “I will be your God and you will be my people.”
For Christians, this promise is the coming of Jesus: God with us, Emmanuel.
Through it all, the heart break, the frustrations and the triumphs that cause us to rejoice. God with us.
That is the promise and that is the hope of the one candle.
Let all God’s people say, Amen.
 Boyle, Gregory. Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion (p. 127). Free Press. Kindle Edition