Original MP4 File
Dr Paula Gooder
22 October 20
The 2020 Christmas Sermon by Dr Paula Gooder.
Love Builds Hope
Christian Aid Sermon, 2020
It can feel as though hope is in short supply at the moment. We roll from one crisis to the next, barely catching our breath between each one. The simple task of keeping going is so exhausting that our chances of being able to discover any significant sources of hope feel slim and often beyond our grasp.
The season of Advent and the approach of Christmas, however, are a powerful reminder that, contrary to appearances, hope does glimmer around us. It just doesn’t look like we expect it to look. On one level this shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus, hope for all the world, certainly didn’t look like the people of his day expected him to look. The Jews of the first century had all their hopes pinned on a powerful, majestic king – what they got instead was a baby; they expected him to be in a palace -- instead he was found where animals eat. The light that shone so vividly in the darkness was certainly nothing like anyone had thought he would be.
At this time of year, and especially this year as we trudge onwards through what feels like never-ending Covid uncertainty, fear and grief, it is worth reminding ourselves again and again that hope has always appeared among us at an unexpected time and in unexpected form. The Jesus whose birth we prepare to celebrate brings the kind of hope we can neither imagine nor anticipate.
One of my favourite strands of the Advent wait, as we approach Christmas, is that in this season our waiting coincides with that of Mary’s, waiting for the birth of her baby. It is almost impossible for us to comprehend quite how much Gabriel’s announcement of Jesus’ birth turned Mary’s life on its head. One moment she was a normal young woman waiting for the all the future would hold, the next she was staring at the likelihood of a life of shame and exclusion, shunned by everyone she knew possibly even her future husband.
One of the striking features of Luke’s account of Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary is that we hear so little from Mary – a question (‘How can this be?’) and an acquiescence (let it be with me according to your word’) is all we are told that she said. She seems subdued, barely uttering a word. The beautifully eloquent, heart-stirring poem of praise – which we call the Magnificat – came later, much later when she went to visit her cousin, Elizabeth.
As with so much else in this story we know little the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary. We know that they were related and that one of them was very old while the other was, probably, quite young, beyond that we are given no further details. What is crystal clear, however, is the affection between the two women. Luke tells us that when Mary greeted Elizabeth the child – later named John – leapt in Elizabeth’s womb. There is so much we might want to know. What did Mary say? How well did they know each other? Had they both been lonely and afraid until now? We are left with the scantiest of details and the need to fill in the gaps as best we can but what we can tell is that the greeting formed a connection, a deep abiding bond between the two of them, a bond founded in love and that it was the love between these two women that changed everything so that Mary was able – possibly for the first time - to sing out her praise and joy and confidence in God. As far as we can tell from what Luke tells us, love was what turned Mary’s fear to hope. Love changed how she felt, love washed away her fears; love built hope.
At first glance this recognition seems odd. Surely hope is to be found in external things? In a change of circumstances maybe? Or a reassurance that all is not as it seems? Perhaps hope is found in a hint of something new, that something better is round the corner? But on reflection it makes perfect sense that love builds hope. It is in relationship that our feelings change, circumstances maybe no different but how we feel about them shifts. When we reach out in love, our ability to make sense of the world improves and our sense of hope ignites. It is when we are grounded in love and compassion that our horizon shifts and our view of the world changes.
It is so easy to imagine that we need to go looking for hope, that we need to generate it, somehow; that if we try hard enough we’ll be able to conjure hope by our own efforts. The story of Mary and Elizabeth reminds us that we don’t find hope – hope find us. Hope creeps up on us when we least expect it; hope can spring up in even the darkest and most despairing of times and one of the factors that causes it to happen is love. When we can forget ourselves sufficiently to care deeply for those around us, when we reach with compassion beyond our own needs, anxieties and concerns, then hope can stir. This hope, however, is not a thin, inward looking hope for ourselves but a hope for the whole world, the world that God created and loved so much that he sent his only Son – the unexpected, unimagined embodiment of hope.
Christian Aid’s theme this Advent and Christmas is precisely this - that love builds hope, when we reach out beyond ourselves to care for God’s world, then hope grows and grows. Love and hope are profoundly intertwined. Jesus, hope of the world, in whom we have faith impels us to love, and as we love, hope is built. Or as the apostle Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 13 – ‘faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love’.