Hopes and Fears
St. Philip Lutheran Church
24 December 2022 + Nativity of Our Lord
Rev. Josh Evans
This is now my third Christmas at St. Philip.
In 2020, our sanctuary had been transformed into a film studio, as we recorded our Christmas Eve service, piece-by-piece, on December 22, with only the liturgical “actors” and our production team for a worshiping assembly.
In 2021, with eager anticipation, we looked forward to being together in-person for Christmas Eve again … and we were … though only under the fearful reality of a holiday COVID resurgence.
But now, in 2022, what could go wrong? The National Weather Service laughed … and I nearly cried reading the words “Winter Storm Warning” at the beginning of this week. And apart from the weather, congregational challenges of what it means to be the church in our present reality loom before us.
Christmas hasn’t exactly been the most hopeful time of the year lately. If anything, it’s been one of the most stressful, perhaps even fearful.
There is a lot to be afraid of these days: war around the world; violence on our city streets, in our neighborhoods, and in our schools; the grief of our own personal losses; separation from loved ones; uncertainty about what the future holds.
Surely, fear preceded and surrounded the birth of Jesus that holy night: an unplanned teen pregnancy, and out of wedlock, no less; a difficult journey required by the order of an oppressive foreign empire; the pain of labor and delivery with no comfortable place to rest; the separation from home and from their community.
O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie…
The hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.
Hope, the old familiar carol says, exists right alongside fear.
The Advent season preceding Christmas is one of hope, and on the First Sunday of Advent, many churches light the first candle on the Advent wreath to remember the promised hope of Christmas.
We throw that word around a lot, don’t we? “I hope it snows!” (I hope it doesn’t!) “I hope we have pizza for dinner!” “I hope the Bears win!”
That kind of hope, while indeed expressing a real desire for something, feels more like a magic wish though – like something that may or may not actually happen, and at the end of the day, while we might be a little sad if we don’t get our way, it doesn’t really matter.
That kind of hope is wishful thinking. But I’m more interested in another kind of hope.
“How often does what we desperately wish for come true?” one blogger begins, as she recounts the experience of visiting Peru with her friend … and losing their very expensive camera with all the footage from their trip in the back of a taxi.
Over the course of the next several days, in a desperate attempt to recover their camera, she recounts how “Peruvians from all walks of life … came together to help us.” And over and over again, during the ultimately successful search, one word kept being repeated, almost like a mantra, or even a prayer: “Ojalá.”
I first learned ojalá in a high school Spanish classroom during a lesson on the subjunctive mood: “Ojalá que (fill in the blank).”
In contemporary usage, ojalá most often expresses a kind of inconsequential “wishful thinking” hope, as in the case of tracking down a missing camera: “I hope you find it!” “I hope you can track down the taxi driver!” “I hope he’s honest enough to return it!”
Interestingly, though, the linguistic origins of ojalá come from an Arabic phrase meaning “if God wills it.” While it might not track with the contemporary Spanish usage of the word, this sense of ojalá evokes a different, deeper kind of hope.
It’s like the kind of hope Martin Luther expresses in his hymn paraphrase of Psalm 130, which isn’t exactly an Advent or Christmas carol, but maybe it should be:
Out of the depths I cry to you;
O Lord God, hear me calling.
Incline your ear to my distress…
I wonder if Mary prayed this psalm when the angel told her that she was pregnant: “How can this be?!”
I wonder if Joseph prayed this psalm when the angel shared the same startling news and left him wondering what on earth he was going to do, with the very life of his fiancé threatened and possibly his own reputation on the line.
I wonder if the young couple prayed this psalm together on the 90-mile trek to Bethlehem, wondering if (ojalá) they would even make it – and when they did, again wondering if they’d have to spend the night wandering the streets.
There is a kind of hope borne out of fear and distress that is deeper than any wishful thinking.
Luther’s hymn and the psalmist’s prayer come from the depths of their distress, but they do not end there:
In you alone, O God, we hope…
…hope as Israel in the Lord,
who sends redemption through the Word.
That kind of hope trusts in something greater than ourselves, and a future beyond our present circumstances.
Mary and Joseph and even the shepherds had their fears, to be sure … but they also had hope.
Hope that things could be different. Hope that this child would be the one to redeem God’s people. Hope that trusted in the dawn of God’s reign of justice and peace.
Hope draws the shepherds away from their flocks by night and to seek out with haste this Savior, the Messiah, the Lord, born to them this day.
Hope draws Mary to treasure the words of this promise and to ponder them deeply in her very being.
Hope, as Luther believed, draws us more closely to the presence of God, more closely to the promise lying in the manger of Bethlehem.
The hopes and fears of all the years are met here tonight.
Yes, there is much in our lives and in our world to evoke fear. And no, the circumstances of even my third Christmas Eve at St. Philip might not be exactly ideal.
Thank God the promise doesn’t depend on any of that.
Thank God the promise doesn’t depend on the absence of fear or uncertainty, and thank God the promise doesn’t depend on the “perfect” circumstances either.
Thank God the promise is born anyway.
Madeleine L’Engle puts it this way in her poem, “The Risk of Birth”:
This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn –
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn –
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.
Against all odds, defying all risks, in spite of all fears, hope is born again this night.
And amid everything that seeks to rob us of joy, this hope tells a different story.
Because this hope stubbornly and irrefutably insists on good news of great joy.
Merry Christmas, dear church. Amen.