Harrowing Of Hell
December 24, 2014

Christian Hope

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn

Tonight’s sermon is on hope.

It is a core Christian concept that gets a lot of airtime this time of year. It is a word I often use when talking to children about Santa Claus. I ask: “So what do you hope Santa Claus will bring you this year?” This type of Santa Claus hope has shades of uncertainty associated with a desired outcome, which it turns out is the conventional definition of hope.

But the hope I want to talk about tonight is a different kind of hope. It is Christian hope brought to life through the person of Jesus. It is a solid hope, not an uncertain hope. Not a conventional hope, but an eternal hope, sturdy and sure. It is hope achieved when planted like a seed. It is grounded, if you will, in the abilities of God and the realities of God made known by Jesus.

Christian hope is defined by two ways that work together simultaneously. There is the hope produced by endurance through suffering. At the very same time there is hope as fuel for endurance toward a better vision of the future in the midst of suffering. Christian hope has these two things going on. There is hope created by endurance through suffering, and there is hope as the fuel that inspires endurance during times of suffering.

So Christian hope is a by-product and Christian hope is a fuel. These two hopes working together result in equanimity, joy, and peace, even in the midst of suffering as a hoped for better future is brought into the present moment. That is what Christian hope does. It brings a better future into the present moment in a way that mingles joy, peace, and suffering. Which brings us back to Christmas because it is a time of year when joy, peace and suffering seem to often get rolled together and wrapped in a single package. There is something about Christmas that can bring to the surface the complexities of life.

My son is in a play about Dylan Thomas, by Dylan Thomas, where he plays Dylan Thomas, who was a Welsh poet who lived 100 years ago. It is called A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Basically it tells the universal story of family gatherings at Christmas time. What happened back then continues to happen today. People got gifts they didn’t want, from people who thought they were giving the coolest gifts in the world. Idiosyncratic relatives showed up. Political discussions were assiduously avoided, and took place anyway. Some folks drank too much and others fell asleep at church (that didn’t actually happen in the play I just thought I’d add it). There was even a fire in the kitchen! All of this stuff still happens, at least to the Conn family. We just had a fire in my sister’s kitchen on Sunday. It was nothing baking powder and a fire extinguisher couldn’t handle. Christmas can be a complicated time.

When I think of Christmas and fires, and things that cause complexity, I think of TS Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land. (I know it sounds depressing, but stick with me). There is a line about half way through that reads:

“To Carthage then I came
Burning, burning, burning, burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest

I came across this poem last summer as I was browsing through a used bookstore in Cambridge, England. It must have belonged to a student, because in the margin of the poem was written, “broken syntax.” And I’ve wondered about that note…“broken syntax.” I guess that means that the words weren’t able to capture the meaning the author was trying to convey. Maybe the point was too big, too complex, or he just didn’t know what he was saying. But for whatever reason Eliot wrote it this way:

“Burning, burning, burning, burning
O Lord Thou pluckest me out
O Lord Thou pluckest

And some unknown editor identified it as broken syntax.

I suppose I understand what that means. Sometime thing happens to me that words can’t line up to adequately convey. Paul the Apostle, it seems, had the same problem. He calls broken syntax, “momentary affliction.” We all have it. It is this momentary affliction that provokes the endurance that produces hope. It is the hope that inspires us to turn our sights toward a better future, but also to hold a better future in the present moment, as hope makes space for joy and peace right now.

And I think that is what I love about Christmas. That whether we are loving being with our families and bummed out that they are leaving too soon; or sad that they aren’t leaving sooner; or disappointed that there are some people we love that we can’t be with. Whatever it is, Christmas can bring to the surface the complexity of momentary affliction, just as it did in the days of Dylan Thomas. I suppose we could say that is just what happens when families get together. Maybe that is the case, but if it were then we’d probably be home right now having another eggnog.

I’d like to suggest that instead we have been “plucked up” and set here tonight. You’re thinking: “Preach! I’ve been plucked up all right, but it wasn’t by the Lord.” But however you were “plucked up”, you have landed here. So, “Do not lose heart,” as Paul might say, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond measure.” Even as we sit present in this world of complexity we are fully aware of the reality of the future weight of glory. That is the vision. It is a solid, certain, and well-grounded hope.

I am sure all of us have experienced hope played out. Who has had a momentary affliction that grew into something better than you could have ever expected? Who has had a door closed, only to have a window opened? Who has had a logjam turned into a torrent of opportunity? I think we know something of hope.

So I return to the Dylan Thomas play, not the play itself, but the theatre outside. We got to the box office right as a couple was being turned away. The show was sold out. As they moved aside we approached the box office, my wife and I. We were told that they had four seats reserved for us (for the two of us). So I immediately turned to that couple and said: “It’s your lucky day. Not only are there two seat for you, but they are free.” While this is good fortune and maybe even a wonderful reflection of the cool things God does, it isn’t the stuff of Christian hope that I have been talking about.

What happened next, however, might be. It turned out they were Episcopalian. They became Episcopalian thirty-five years ago, when they heard a sermon at a friend’s church from none other than Peter Snow. Peter, you will note if you got here early enough to have memorized the staff line up on the back of the bulletin, is our Assisting Priest. That gives me hope as I preach tonight that someday thirty five years from now you may recall this sermon, and remember that you were plucked up, beyond any momentary affliction, beyond the complexity of life, and set here this Christmas Eve to consider hope as made known through Jesus.

What does that hope made know by Jesus look like? Well, it has three parts.

1. Jesus’ birth, as a symbol of hope.
2. Jesus’ life, as a teaching about hope.
3. Jesus’ resurrection, as a vision of our eternal hope.

But tonight is Christmas Eve, so I am just going to touch upon Jesus birth as a symbol of hope.

The birth of a child is the ultimate symbol of hope. It is a time of suffering endured, particularly during labor, as hope is literally produced in the presence of the child. The child itself then becomes the inspiration that is born through the begetting of the child in the first place. Jesus’ birth is hope born through momentary affliction, while simultaneously being the inspiration that make the suffering bearable. You see both hopes are working together here, hope as a by-produce of suffering endured, and hope as the inspiration that allows the suffering to be endured. Jesus’ birth is a solid symbol of Christian hope.

I sometime imagine hope as a seed planted by a farmer pushing up through the dirt of momentary affliction, broken syntax, and complexity drawn out of the darkness to the light by the light. And every year this time of year I look at the seed and I consider hope, my hope, as inspired by the symbol of Jesus. I imagine at some level you were plucked up and set here to consider the same things,

This season of Christmas draws to the surface complexity of life, so we can remember year in and year out, generation upon generation that hope lives in a jumble of joy and suffering made know through conversations spoken with broken syntax.

Lived… weight of glory
As hope
As the hope
As my hope
As our hope

For the hope of the world, forever and ever, started with the birth of a child named Jesus.