Looking in Hope

       After a long, looong, looooooooong year, it was really nice to have a little time off between Christmas and New Years to refresh.  I did some small projects around the house, but mostly, the kids and I just hung out.  Once we got the internet back, we watched TV.  We played on our devices.  We vegged.  In a year of constant flux and adaptation, it was nice to just relax for a while.  One of the things I did this last week that I don’t normally do, was change the channel from SportsCenter to Good Morning America where I happened to catch an interview with Ryan Seacrest about his annual gig as the host of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.  The GMA crew was talking with him about how different it was to celebrate the new year this time around, and asked, “How do you find that balance?  Some people just want to put 2020 behind [them] and just have a party, but also… you still have to recognize what we’ve been through.”  While acknowledging that the crowd would be very thin this year and comprised only of first responders, front-line medical workers, and essential employees, Seacrest reflected on the goal of not just the celebration of the end of 2020, but really, the reason we make a big deal out of the new year at all.  “We do want to have a celebration,” he said, “We all look forward to celebrating this new year and what hope this new year can bring…”

       Isn’t that the truth?  “We all look forward to… what hope this new year can bring.”  Of course, even with the particular hardships that defined 2020, looking forward in hope is nothing new in the human condition.  In fact, you could say that the overarching story of scripture is humanity looking forward in hope to the restoration of all people to unity with God and each other.  This morning, even though it is a few days before the Epiphany, we hear a unique version of that story of hope as God uses foreign astrologers to further the work of restoration, but before we get there, we have to go back, all the way back, to the very beginning.  In the opening chapters of Genesis, we hear the story of how God’s overwhelming love resulted in the creation of world, of plants and animals, and ultimately, of human beings, with whom, God desired to have a special relationship.  In the Garden, Adam and Eve walked and talked with God just as they walked and talked with one another, until one day, the serpent tricked them, they disobeyed the commandment of God, and their once perfect relationship was broken. Ultimately, they were expelled from the Garden to live East of Eden.

       For millennia, human beings looked toward the West, in the hope of seeing the sign of God’s forgiveness and the possibility of returning to Shalom, the perfect peace of the Garden.  So begins the well-known story of the Magi, astrologers from the East, who studied the skies, looking for signs of hope among the heavens.  Just as so many of us looked to the skies on December 21st to watch the Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, these Wise Men set their sights on the skies in the hope of seeing a sign from above.  When a new star appeared, they interpreted it as the sign of a new King of the Jews, and so they packed their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh and headed west to pay homage to the newborn king.  What they found on their arrival in Bethlehem was a child who we believe to be more than the King of the Jews, but the King of kings, the savior of the world, and the hope of all people.  Jesus, the Christ, the one who came to bring us all back from our exile East of Eden into perfect relationship with God and with one another.

Whether Jew or Greek or Zoroastrian like our Magi, it seems that there was an instinctual desire to look hopefully to the west and a return to the shalom of the Garden.  Of course, the reigning King of the Jews, Herod the Great, wasn’t so keen on the Magi associating this new star with the birth of his replacement.  His power was derived not from the Shalom of God, but from the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome, that was seated not in perfect relationship, but in terror and violence.  As is always the case with empire, the authority of Herod was based in the sinful mess that is life East of Eden, and like all who buy into that system of power, Herod was hellbent on maintaining control.  He used all the political, military, and religious influence he had to try to subvert the Shalom of God, even to the grotesque point of killing all children under the age of two in and around Bethlehem, but the relentless march West to the Garden had already begun.  In the birth of Jesus, the final restoration was underway.

Two thousand years later, Christians no longer look to the West in hope.  It isn’t that we no longer have hope, though in 2020, it might have felt that way more than a few times.  Instead, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we believe that the return to the Shalom of Garden has already started, even as we await the culmination of God’s plan for salvation in the Second Coming of Christ.  As we wait, we work, with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit, to rebuild the Shalom of God here on earth, and we keep our eyes now fixed to the East, to rising sun, waiting in hope for the coming of the Son of God to bring about the final restoration of all things and all people in the Peace of God.  Like Ryan Seacrest, we strive to strike that balance between acknowledging that right now, things are not as we wish they would be, even as we look forward with hope for better days ahead.

On this Second Sunday after Christmas, as we hear again the familiar story of the Magi, we would do well to learn from their example.  We should live our lives with our eyes wide open, looking constantly for signs of hope and the places where God’s peace is already at work in the world around us.  We celebrate the vaccine selfies of front-line medical workers.  We give thanks for the work of street medicine teams keeping our unhoused neighbors healthy.  We applaud the generosity of so many who have kept small businesses and churches afloat.  Like the Magi, however, we don’t just stop at seeing and celebrating, but as we scan the horizon in hope, we also roll up our sleeves and get ready to work.  Whether it is making sure the women and children at BRASS have a healthy meal or cash-strapped families keep their lights on and heaters running or simply not having in-person worship to keep everyone safe, you and I aren’t just called on to hope, but to work toward the Shalom of Garden, the perfect peace that God intended for all creation.  Keep your eyes open, dear friends, for hope and peace are always on the horizon.  Amen.

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