Harrowing Of Hell
December 24, 2016


Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Good evening, and Merry Christmas.

For two thousand years a good chunk of humanity has been celebrating the birth of Jesus, and this evening you and I step into that continuum. Between whenever that first Christmas was and now, trials and tribulations have tested every age and every people; yet along with that testing, just below the surface, underneath the crisis, treasured in one heart after another, after another, hope endures, hope remains, hope secure. That is what I want to call our attention to this evening, the endurance of hope; the permanence of hope when it is placed upon God.

Hope is a familiar word. Rogue One; A Star Wars Story the other day, and hope was the word that hung in the air as the final scene faded, and the music came up, given as an invitation to a better future; if not a sequel. Hope is a word that drives action. It is used effectively in political campaigns, and non-profit fund-raisers. Hope is a watchword for new drug treatments, and peace treaties, and, of course, imbued in the life of every newborn child. Hope is confident expectation. It is cherished anticipation. It is an optimistic attitude about the future. That is hope.

And yet, hope it seems is also a temporary resident. It lands here on this leader,
or there on that policy, or protocol, or promise, or institution, or law, or discovery.
And then it moves. Just when we think it has landed and is secure, it moves. Hope is dashed, or hope is spurn, or hope never really took hold, and then it wanders off again, like a refugee, homeless and unmoored. We see this movement of hope in the birth story of Jesus. The world was ruled by Cesar Augustus in Rome. It was a time of peace, at least for him. His agents in the field made sure of that. King Herod, a cruel, paranoid despot was the Emperors agent in Judea.

One means of control was to divide and manage people by tribal association. This happened through a census, where each man was required to go to his ancestral homeland and be registered. Which is why we find Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary arriving in Bethlehem, where she gives birth to a son, Jesus.

Now near Bethlehem there were shepherd’s abiding in a field keeping watch over their flocks at night. This is a scene we probably register as normal, given our familiarity with Christmas Carols, but the reality is that these shepherds in the field at night were anything but normal. You see, the usual protocol for shepherds was to round up the sheep and lock them in a paddock at night. Because darkness was dangerous. That is when the wolves and the mountain lions and the bandits came out. And yet there were certain sheep, chosen from birth, that never saw a paddock. They lived free day and night. That was the protocol for the sacrificial lambs used at the Temple in Jerusalem So the shepherd’s keeping watch over these sheep at night were unique, they were the best of the best, sort of the Delta force of shepherds chosen to guard these sacred sheep.

Then, one dark night, angel’s appeared in the sky saying: Go. See the child born in a manger in Bethlehem. Go. He is the Messiah. Go. He is the hope of our people, the hope of our nation, the hope of the world. Go. And so they went, transferring their hope from Temple worship and sacred sheep, to a newborn child said to be the Messiah. And as they came careening into Bethlehem, these Delta Force shepherd’s without their sheep, looking for a newborn baby in a manger in the middle of the night… Well, I imagine that caused quite a ruckus.

Pretty soon everyone was awake, and everyone was standing outside the manger
seeking to catch a glimpse of this newest hope, in their midst, as predicted in the Bible, the Messiah born in Bethlehem. The hope that had been wandering through the occupied land of Israel, now landed on Jesus… for a moment. But only for a moment because when word that the Messiah was born in Bethlehem reached Herod, with blistering speed he sent troops to eradicate that hope. All of the boys in Bethlehem under the age of two where put to death. It was a horror story, like so many horror stories we hear even to this day, and hope was homeless again, a refugee like Mary and Joseph and Jesus as they fled to Egypt.

But even as hope fled Bethlehem, it did not leave Mary, for she pondered it in her heart. You may recall her prayer: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” Or as St. Augustine wrote: “My soul is restless, until it rests in God.” Hope travels. Hope moves. Hope is a refugee, until it finds refuge in God. There is no hope in the whimsy of leaders, or the fine print of policy, or the preponderance of law or a political party. Hope is a beloved hand reaching out to gently grab our soul, pulling us forward and upward, toward something beautiful, true, graceful and permanent. Hope is not directional, or anticipatorial; those hopes only disappoint.

Those hopes eventually become homeless, because the places we set them are too small and fragile and weak to hold them. The only place large enough to hold hope is that permanent place we give God inside us, we call it the heart, and this is where hope can reside permanently to be pondered and treasured. Hope traveled with Mary, the refugee as she fled war, terror and brutality.

To the mind of Herod, and the shepherds, and the people of Bethlehem hope had been eradicated; dislodged; dismantled, but Mary knew better. Hope remained in her heart, pregnant with the possibility of something better than her mind could imagine. All she could do was ponder it; like holding a million sided crystal up to the light and wondering at each turn where the light would go… and, unbeknownst to her, hope crystalized in the life of the person, Jesus, who lived, taught, loved, then died on a cross, only to permanently return to all people, through the incomprehensible act of resurrection.

That is the continuum we step into this evening. A deeper, more permanent hope that sustains all other hopes. That is what we celebrate tonight in the birth of Jesus… hope born in the darkness of history, on a dark night, during the darkest time of year, in a very dark and complicated world. God’s hope came in and outshines the darkness. God’s hope is an empowering victory, not because of where it lands at any given moment, but because this hope has a deeper power that allows us to walk in the light no matter how dark it is outside. The hope of God is what empowers us to be an inexhaustible force of grace and beauty and truth in the world.

That is the enduring hope; that is the hope that Mary pondered in her heart; that is the hope that has been passed down from one heart, to another, to another, to another through the ages. That is the continuum of hope we step into tonight. My prayer is that tonight inspires you to ponder all these things in your heart.