Harrowing Of Hell
December 24, 2023

Christmas Eve: Courage and Hope

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To watch the sermon click here.

Good evening. Merry Christmas. I’m glad to see you tonight. I was hoping you would be here. And now that I’ve seen you and we are together, my hope has moved, relocated from this space to out there, somewhere in front of me, in front of us…which is where hope mostly lives, in the future. Hope is like some magnetic force tugging us toward life as it can be, as it should be, as God designed it to be.

But sometimes hope out there can land in the present moment. I have such vivid memories of sitting in a rocking chair 24 years ago, in the middle of the night in our bungalow in Cleveland Heights OH patiently rocking our newborn daughter, Margaret. Of course, it started with her crying, and me feeding her, but at some point, she would drift off, inevitably, into the stillness of a sleeping child. 

For those of you who have experienced what I’m talking about you know, there in your arms, is hope realized. Hope for the future collapsed into the presence of an infant. It’s no accident that the Christian narrative begins with the birth of a child.

I suspect hope resides in infants so wonderfully because they have done nothing and can do nothing, and so everything is possible. Their life is a straight highway into the future, only becoming twisted and curvy as they grow up, and revealing who they are, and what they’re capable of doing, and what the world has put upon them in the way of hills and valleys, rivers to forge and mountains to climb on this spiritual journey, that is their life.

As they grow, hope moves into the future, becoming for them, as it is for us now, aspirational for life as it can be, as it should be, as God designed it to be.

Tonight, I want us to talk about hope, and consider how it works upon us, individually and collectively. I start with the assumption that we are not here accidentally. We are not a random swirl of stardust that just happened to configure into conscious beings. That is magical thinking. You are not an accident. You were created with intent, for purpose, providentially as a vessel into which hope is poured from the cauldron of courage.

Let me tie those two things together, hope and courage. They are made for one another, to dance together; hope is the inspiration, courage is the action. 

Let’s see what this looks like by reflecting upon the birth of Jesus. We begin with Mary, pregnant with her first child. She and Joseph are living in Nazareth.  The way I understand the story is that this pregnancy wasn’t secret, it was celebrated. You can hear my full rendition of this on the Epiphany YouTube channel (Christmas Story Parts 1 & 2, under Talks & Teachings).

Now when Joseph is summoned to pay a tax in Bethlehem the safe and reasonable thing for Mary to do is stay in Nazareth; to give birth with the help of all the aunties in the community who know the ropes. Instead, the 9 month pregnant Mary climbs onto a donkey for the 5 day, 95 mile journey to Bethlehem.

That took courage; courage kindled in the cauldron of providence and insight. Mary had a visitation; she had inspiration. Joseph had a dream; he was supportive. And Mary was a scholar who understood the prophecy of Micah (Mic  5:2) that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. So she climbed upon the donkey.

Imagine the courage to tell the aunties that she was going to Bethlehem. I can only imagine their protest. But Mary was in touch, in tune, with the tug of hope upon her heart. 

It is interesting to note the Latin word for heart (cor), shares a common etymology with the word courage…when our heart is tugged by hope the response requires courage. They are made to be allies: hope the inspiration and courage the action.

When hope becomes fuzzy, courage is required, needed to confront the bad thing, the tough thing, the painful thing; to do the hard thing to help bring hope back into focus.

What Mary sensed that gave her the courage to go to Bethlehem, is what has become central to the Christian faith: that we are made to be people of persistent hope because we know with certainty that the bad thing is never the last thing.

Hope came alive in the person of Jesus, not because of his significant life, though it was significant indeed, but because of his Resurrection from the dead. Resurrection is the inextinguishable hope that the bad thing is never the last thing. 

Resurrection illuminates the insight thatGod never leaves us no matter the twists and turns, the hills and valleys; God is there even after our final breath. And so we are people of courage, undaunted, fearless even in the face of humanity’s worst ideas. Humanity built the cross. God responded with Resurrection. We are people of hope called to actions of courage.

Let me give you an example. It is a story about a young man who was captured in Italy during World War II. The Allies were deep in battle with the Axis powers, and it was uncertain which way the war would go. This young man was captured by Mussolini’s troops and marched through a small town on his way to a POW camp. It was a monochromatic scene, as people jeered at him and spat upon him. Hopelessness swallowed him up. 

Then out of nowhere a young girl appeared with a peach. Round, beautiful, bright, luminous. He hadn’t seen a peach for a long time. That was back in the day when fruit was only eaten in season, and certainly not in a war zone. 

The young girl reached up and handed it to him, a radiant orb in a dark world, at a dark moment in time. Then she disappeared into the crowd. When he took that peach everything changed, not because his stomach was filled, but because he could feel hope for a better future tugging upon his heart. Courage flooded through him and he knew he would be all right…that the bad thing is never the last thing. 

For the rest of his life he told this story, and cited it as the hope he conjured up every time he came to a moment of division, a fork in the road, a time of uncertainty, or pain, or suffering, he remembered that peach. Hope entered the present moment, because of the courage of that little girl. With a peach, she confronted Mussolini’s bad idea.

That is what we are all capable of as well.  Courage to live into a better option by little moments of defiance, where love illuminates the darkness, where something as precious as a peach changes the course of another person’s life, not because that was the intention, but because of the courage it required to push back against someone else’ bad plan.  

That is what we are made for – hope. We know this because we all started out as little beacons of hope rocked in someone’s arms. Since then, if you’re like me there have been hills and valleys, curves and sharp corners, precipices and dark forests through which we walk. 

But take heart. Have courage. Push back against a bad plan. Be a person who knows for certain that the bad thing is never the last thing. Live the Resurrection reality, God is with you. Be a person of courage. Empty your pockets into the hands of a homeless person. Protest injustice. Say hello to someone walking toward you at night. Vote. Help someone else vote. Be wildly generous. Do so anonymously. Give someone your peach, especially if a war is raging around you.

Feel the tug of hope upon your heart, that’s what the world needs from us, to be people of hope who act with courage who see life as it can be,as it should be,

as God designed it to be. That is your destiny because God has hope in you, revealed at your birth.

Let that hope be illuminated by the Resurrection of Jesus whose birth we celebrate this evening.

Merry Christmas.