Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“This Season of Hope” (Romans 15:13)
December 4, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

During the season of Advent we not only look forward to celebrating anew Jesus’ first coming at his Incarnation, we also look forward to his Second Coming.  Advent is a season of hope.  With this in mind today I am preaching on the final verse of today’s passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans in which the Apostle emphasizes the hope God gives us in Jesus Christ: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

Advent is a season of hope, a season in which the “God of hope” enables us to “abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”  This hope is rooted in Jesus Christ, “the root of Jesse” to whom the Old Testament prophet Isaiah refers in today’s passage:

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord…On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious (Isaiah 11:1-2, 10, italics added).

Moreover, Isaiah describes a future eternity of peace in which even animals who are fierce predators on earth will reside together peacefully, especially lions:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox (Isaiah 11:6-7, italics added).

The brilliant Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn links this hope for a peaceful eternity with the idea of peaceful lions in his song “Wondering Where the Lions Are”:

Sun’s up, looks okay
The world survives into another day
And I’m thinking about eternity
Some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me
I had another dream about lions at the door
They weren’t half as frightening as they were before
I’m thinking about eternity…
Some kind of ecstasy got a hold on me
And I’m wondering where the lions are
I’m wondering where the lions are
(from his 1979 album Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws)

This is also the case in C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia in which the central character throughout the series is a lion named Aslan.  C. S. Lewis dedicated The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first Chronicles volume he wrote, to his goddaughter, Lucy Barfield: “Dear Lucy, I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books…But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”

Apparently I am old enough to be reading fairy tales again because I have been rereading The Chronicles of Narnia for the first time in many years.  In Narnia the children—Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy are fleeing from the evil White Witch and have taken refuge with Mr. Beaver.  Mr. Beaver is the first one to tell the children about Aslan, as he leans close to them and whispers, “They say Aslan is on the move—perhaps has already landed.”  Lewis continues:

And now a very curious thing happened.  None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different….At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside…Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer (74-75).

Later Susan asks Mr. Beaver, “Who is Aslan?”  “Aslan?” Mr. Beaver replies, “He’s the King.  He’s the Lord of the whole wood…the word has reached us that he has come back…He’ll put all to rights as it says in an old rhyme in these parts:

Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death,
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again” (85).

These words gave the children hope in the midst of their dangerous trials, a hope based on the return of Aslan—and this mirrors the hope we have in the return of Jesus, the “root of Jesse.”  In fact, this is the context of Paul’s words about “the God of hope” enabling us to “abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit,” for in the preceding verse Paul points back to the prophet Isaiah: “Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope’” (Romans 15:12).

Scripture tells us, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12).  As Detroit native Bob Seger put it:

Deep in my soul I’ve been so lonely
All of my hopes fading away
I’ve longed for love like everyone else does
I know I’ll keep searching even after today
(from his song “We’ve Got Tonight” on his 1978 album Stranger in Town)

Yes, “hope deferred makes the heart sick” but “a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”  A desire fulfilled can cause hopes that are fading away to begin to come back into focus.  A moving example of this occurs in the 2001 film I Am Sam.  Sean Penn plays Sam Dawson, a developmentally disabled father of seven year old daughter Lucy.  Sam has lost custody of his daughter due to his disability, but he moves into a house near where Lucy lives with her foster parents.  Lucy often sneaks out at night and wanders over to her dad’s apartment because she wants to be near him, but her dad always dutifully brings her back to her foster parents’ home.  This happens again and again.  Sam is doing the best he can to cope with the situation, but he has lost hope of ever having custody of Lucy, and it has made his heart sick.

But on the night before the final custody appeal hearing, as Sam lies sleeping, already wearing his suit and tie to make a good impression for the judge, there is an unexpected knock on the door of his apartment.  Sam opens the door to find Lucy’s foster mom, Randy, holding his sleeping daughter in her arms.

“Hi,” Randy whispers, “She’s okay.  She fell asleep in the car and I was gonna turn back and tuck her in her room, in her room that I made for her because I tried to make a really nice room for her, but I was afraid she’d wake up at our house and want to come home.”  And to Sam’s surprise Randy gently places Lucy in his arms, kissing her as she does so.  As her eyes begin to glisten Randy continues, “I have to apologize to you, Sam, because I was gonna tell the judge that I could give Lucy the kind of love she never had, but I can’t say that because I’d be lying.”

Sam closes his eyes, trying to take all this in, “I hope you’re saying what I think you’re saying,” he says, “I hope you’re saying what I think you’re saying.”  Randy smiles and nods, “I am.”  A huge grin fills Sam’s face, “Yeah!  Okay!”  “I’ll see you in court tomorrow,” Randy says, “Save me a seat, Sam, on your side, okay?”  “Yeah,” Sam smiles, “I’ll save you a seat on my side.”  Sam’s hope has come back into focus; his fulfilled desire has blossomed into a tree of life.

We all need the “God of hope” to fill us “with joy and peace in believing” so that we can “abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit,” especially when it comes to death.  We have had a lot of funerals here at Christ Church over the past couple months, and perhaps like some of you, I have had many moments in which as Bruce Cockburn wrote, “I’m thinking about eternity.”  And yet the anthem in “The Commendation” of the funeral service in The Book of Common Prayer reminds us that even at the grave we can “abound in hope”:

Give rest, O Christ, to your servant with your saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.  You only are immortal, the creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return.  For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia (499).

The reason we sing “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia” even at the grave is because of the hope God has given us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In response to Jesus’ words, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11:25), our hearts echo Sam Dawson, “I hope you’re saying what I think you’re saying,” and like Randy, Jesus responds, “I am.”

Back to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe…One of the children, Edmund, falls under the spell of the evil White Witch and becomes a traitor to his siblings, and a traitor to all of Narnia.  And in order to save Edmund from death at the hands of the White Witch, Aslan takes Edmund’s place.  Aslan gives himself over to the hands of the evil hordes serving the White Witch, and allows them to tie him down to the Stone Table, humiliate him by shaving off his mane, and then kill him.  Susan and Lucy watch all this from a distance, all except Aslan’s death, which they could not bear to watch.

But the next morning a loud sound explodes across Narnia.  When Susan and Lucy turned toward the Stone Table, they saw that it had cracked in two, and that Aslan was not there.  They turn around to see Aslan with them in all his glory, even his mane grown back.  Susan asks, “But what does it all mean?”  Lewis writes:

“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know.  Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time.  But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation.  She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward” (178-179).

You know where this is going…Jesus, “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Revelation 5:5), gave himself over to the hands of sinners, allowed them to nail him to a cross, humiliate him with a crown of thorns, and kill him.  When Isaiah wrote about “that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples” he was writing about Good Friday, when Jesus’ death on the cross signaled new hope for the world.  God planned all this “before Time dawned” or as scripture puts it, “from the foundation of the world” (Revelations 13:8).

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but the cross, the tree of life, assures us that death itself will start working backward, that we no longer need to wonder where the lions are.  So in this season of hope called Advent may the God of hope enable you to abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.