Called to Grow: A Hopeful Surrender

December 18, 2016; 4th Sunday in Advent
Brian R. Keepers
Luke 1:19-56

There’s a scene in the movie adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s best-selling novel The Hunger Games that, while it isn’t in the book, is so memorable. The Hunger Games is part of a trilogy that paints a dystopian future where North America is now divided into twelve districts and under the tyranny of a dictator named President Snow.

Snow uses fear to keep the districts in line, and one way he does this is by putting on an annual Hunger Games—a barbaric contest where two tributes—a boy and a girl—are selected by lottery to represent their district. It is a fight to the death, and only one tribute can stand victorious by the end.

Here’s the scene: President Snow is sitting with his chief Games-maker—the one charged with designing the Hunger Games each year—and he says to the Game-maker, “Do you know why the games must have a winner?”

 The answer: hope.

If there is a winner, then it gives the tributes a sliver of hope that the odds will be in their favor and they may win the Hunger Games and escape their life of servitude. “Hope,” Snow explains, “is the only thing more powerful than fear.” But for that very reason, it is as perilous to a dictator as it is useful. “A little hope,” Snow says, “is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous.”[1]

A little hope is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous.

As human beings, we need hope. Not only is hope “effective”; it is necessary for survival. Survivors of Nazi death camps talked about how the key to their survival was not getting enough food or avoiding being killed; it was refusing to lose hope. Once a person lost hope of getting out of the death camps, they lost their will to live. “You can live longer without bread and water than you can live without hope,” wrote Victor Frankl.

Yes, a little hope is essential. President Snow got that right. But he got the next part right too. A lot of hope is dangerous. Especially to those in power who seek to maintain the status quo. Too much hope is a recipe for revolution.

By the 1st century, the Israelites, God’s people, were on the verge of losing hope. Many of them already had. They, too, were living under oppression and servitude. They were struggling beneath the shadow of the Roman Empire, still waiting for the day when the Messiah would come and overthrow their oppressors and make Israel great again. In dark times, there were those who still had a little hope. Enough to survive but not enough to be dangerous. Until…

An angel appears to an ordinary peasant girl. A virgin named Mary, who was engaged to Joseph from the small town of Nazareth. The angel says to Mary: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

Luke tells us that Mary was “much perplexed” by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this must be. I love it. It’s not just the angel’s appearance that startles her; even more so, it’s his words…what he says!

“What? Did you just call me—a peasant girl, a nobody—favored one? Did I hear you right? The Lord, Yaweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob… is with me?

This greeting must not only have puzzled Mary but even scared her. How could it not? So the angel replies, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

The angel goes on and announces what this will mean: she will be pregnant with a child. Not just any child…the God of the Universe, the Savior of the Word, the Messiah will grow in her womb. And he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; of his kingdom there will be no end.

A little hope is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous.

Last Sunday Pastor Lindsay helped us see the key difference between two words: “should” and “shall.” The Bible never uses the word “should,” she said. But it does use the word “shall” and we’re called to live into “the shall.”

Let me highlight another key verb this morning—one that plays right into the shall. And that’s the word “will.” Did you notice how many times this word shows up in the angel’s announcement?

The angel says to Mary, “The Lord is with you.” Present tense. God is with you right now. And God has plans, God has a future, God is about to do something new and beautiful and impossible and revolutionary and hopeful. Listen to it:

-          You will conceive in your womb and bear a son
-          You will name him Jesus
-          He will be great
-          He will be called the Son of the Most High
-          The LORD God will give him the throne of his ancestor David
-          He will reign over the house of Jacob forever
-          And of his kingdom there will be no end
-          The Holy Spirit will come upon you
-          And the power of the Holy Spirit will overshadow you
-          Therefore the child to be born will be holy
-          He will be called Son of God

What do you notice? It’s all future tense! It’s all a PROMISE of what will happen, of what God has yet to do.

Mary asks a good question, “How can this be?” It’s a practical question. She’s a virgin, never been with a man. How can she possibly get pregnant? But I think beneath the surface it’s a deeper question: “How can it be that me—an ordinary, peasant girl—could be called by God and pulled into his extraordinary purposes like this? Who am I to be the mother of the Savior?”

And then the lynch pin; the promise that sums up it all, the same promise God made to Abraham and Sarah beneath the star lit sky: “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Here we have God’s promise, what God says he will do, God pointing to a future that is different than what currently is, beyond our capacity to even imagine.

So how do you live between the promise and the fulfillment? How do you embrace the “will be” amid the “what is?” This is where hope comes in.

Faith is trusting God in the present. Hope is faith’s older sibling. Hope is trusting God with the future. Hope is trusting that the “will be” will really come to be. The “will be” will eventually become “what is now so.”

But how do we lean into hope? Not just a little, but lots of it? God knows, we need lots of hope right now. Our world needs lots of hope right now.

Look again at Mary. Look at what she does. Amazing. Then Mary said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Have there ever been more beautiful words, a more courageous response, in all of Scripture?

Mary chooses hope by practicing surrender. And it is in this posture of surrender that a little hope grows into a lot of hope. She may not fully understand. She may not even fully believe. But she surrenders. She opens her mind, her heart, her hands, her life…and she says, “I let go and surrender myself to you. Let it be as you have promised.”

The late Henri Nouwen tells a story about a conversation he had with the famous Flying Rodleighs— German trapeze artists—who became some of his close friends. One day he was sitting with Rodleigh, the leader of the troupe, talking about the art of trapeze. “As a flyer [that’s the one who let’s go of the trapeze bar and does the spectacular stunts), I must have complete trust in my catcher,” he explained. “The public might think that I am the great star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump.”

“How does it work?” Nouwen asked.

“The secret,” said Rodleigh, “is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything. When I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely over the apron behind the catchbar.” Then he said this: “The worst thing the flyer can do is to try to catch the catcher. I’m not supposed to catch Joe. It’s Joe’s task to catch me. If I grabbed Joe’s wrists, I might break them, or he might break mine, and that would be the end for both of us. A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.”

This, my friends, is hope. Letting go… of shame from the past, fear in the present, anxiety about the future…and surrendering with outstretched arms to the One who promises to catch us. The One who promises to bring about his purposes for our lives, his purposes for the world. The One who holds the future in his hands, and calls us to trust that these are good hands. The “will be” shall be. And all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be made well (Julian of Norwich).

Hope grows from a little to a lot in the flying—the courageous act of letting go and stretching out towards a God who promises to catch us and do the impossible. And Mary let go and stretched out her hands, and she said, “Here I am; your servant; let it be with me according to your Word.”

Yes, as President Snow said, the only thing more powerful than fear is hope. And God has not given us a spirit of fear. In the baby born in Bethlehem, the true King who has ushered in God’s kingdom, a kingdom that will come in its completion…we have been given a spirit of hope. Not just a little hope. But lots of it. So much hope, in fact, that there’s enough for the whole world.

And make no mistake: that much hope is a dangerous thing. Especially to all who would strive to stay on top, push others down, keep the world as it is. This much hope is recipe for revolution.

Mary will sing about it. As hope would grow in her womb, it would burst out in a song of hope for the world:

 “My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior/ for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…/for the Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is his name/ …He has shown strength with his arm;/ he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts / He has brought down the powerful from their thrones / and lifted up the lowly / he has filled the hungry with good things, / and sent the rich away empty./ He has helped his servant Israel, / in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, / to Abraham and to his descendents forever.”

On this fourth Sunday in Advent, as we turn our hearts towards Christmas, let us find the courage to hope—to let go of our fears and misgivings—and stretch out our hands in trust of the One who is waiting to catch us. The One who promises a bright future, a different world. Let us be a people of hope; and through our witness, point a dark and broken world to a Savior who has come and is coming to set the world right and make all things new!

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Taken from David Lose’s book Preaching at a Crossroads (Fortress Press, 2013), p.64.

Renee Krueger