The Candle of Hope

Sermon for December 2, 2012
The First Sunday of Advent

The season of Advent is a season of waiting. The word “advent” comes from the Latin word that means “arrival” or “coming to”. During the season of Advent we remember the arrival or the coming of the Christ child into the world. The season of Advent is the four weeks before Christmas that we spend thinking about what God has done for us in the past, what God is doing for us right now in our lives, and what God will continue to do for us in the future. Advent marks the beginning of a new church year; Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and then Pentecost. During Advent we are reminded of the people of Israel who waited for the coming of the Messiah and we are reminded of our own wait for the second coming of Christ in the world. Although Christ has come into the world God has not completed his promise to his people. Christ will come a second time and as the bible tells us, the wolf will lie down with the lamb, death will be swallowed up, and every tear will be wiped away. Advent was originally the four weeks leading up to Epiphany on January 6, the day the church recognizes the arrival of the wise men that came to see the Christ child. Advent was originally a time to prepare for baptism. Advent was later changed to the four weeks leading up to Christmas.

As with many church celebrations, Advent has its roots in ancient pagan rituals. The Celtic pagan’s of Germany and the Scandinavian countries would light candles at this time of year and pray for the sun’s return as darkness came earlier each day. A wreath of fresh evergreens was made or the wheel of a cart would be woven with green and candles and hung from the ceiling of the house like a chandelier to bring light into the home.

As Christianity began to grown in the Roman Empire, the celebration of Christmas began to replace the pagan Festival of the Unconquered Sun which marked the beginning of the winter solstice, the start of winter. In the 4th century the pope in Rome decided that December 25 would be celebrated as the birth date of Jesus. However, some believe that Jesus was probably born in the spring since that is when shepherds would have been in the fields. But December seemed a more appropriate time since we don’t know the actual day of Jesus’ birth, because December is the darkest time of year as the days become shorter and shorter. Christmas celebrates the coming of new light into the world, Jesus the Light of the World-Jesus, the promise of new hope in our lives.

The Christian descendants of the pagan Celts were some of the first people to use a wreath of greens and candles as part of their Christian celebration. It is believed that the first official use of an Advent wreath was in 1800 by a German Protestant pastor named John Hinrich Wichern. He worked among the poor, and is attributed to the creation of the first Advent wreath. During Advent the children at the pastor’s mission would ask every day if Christmas had arrived. This was a time before calendars were available. The pastor decided to build a wooden ring with 19 small red candles and 4 large white candles. A small red candle was lit every day during Advent marking the days that had past. On each Sunday a large white candle was lit. The custom was eventually changed to just 4 or 5 candles. The Roman Catholic Church in Germany began to adopt the custom in the 1920’s and in the 1930’s the tradition of Advent spread to the United States.

Purple is the color most often used for Advent candles because purple is the color of royalty and Jesus is considered royalty, the Prince of Peace, a descendent of King David. Purple was the color of kings in ancient times because the ingredients to make the color purple were too expensive for the average person. The color blue is also used today. Our altar cloth and pulpit cloth are blue. Blue represents the night sky on the night of Jesus’ birth. Blue can also represent the waters of creation. During Advent there is the anticipation of a new Creation.

The pink candle of the Advent wreath is known as the rose candle and is lit on the 3rd Sunday of Advent. The color pink comes from the time when Advent was the time leading up to Epiphany when Christians were called to fast and spend time repenting before their baptism on January 6. After three weeks the people ended their fast and the Pope would present them with a pink rose signifying their new closeness to God. The pink candle can also represent the color of the early dawn sky. The white center candle represents Christ. It is the Christ candle we light on Christmas Eve.

The first candle we light represents either hope or the prophets who foretold the coming of the Christ. The second candle represents either faith or the town where Jesus was born and is sometimes called the Bethlehem candle. The third candle represents either joy or the shepherds in the fields during Jesus’ birth. The fourth candle represents either love or the angels who proclaimed Jesus’ birth. Each of the four Sunday’s in Advent we will light another candle until all are lit. Today we have lit the first candle of Advent, the candle of Hope.

Hope is an important part of most all religions especially Christianity. The hope that most religions share is the hope for eventually reaching a better place, heaven. When we have hope we are certain of receiving a future reward. When we have hope we are patient, steadfast, unshaken, we are set on something. Joy, faith, perseverance and endurance go along with hope. But the most important aspect of hope is that it is about something in the future, something we expect to have but do not have yet. Hope is a fervent desire and confident expectation.

Hope is mentioned 150 times in the bible. Hope when used in the bible means a strong confident expectation. The bible says that “For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope, for why does one also hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what do not see with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.” Hope is a trustful expectation of the fulfillment of God’s promise. Hope is the favorable anticipation of a favorable outcome under God’s guidance. It is the confidence that what God has done for us in the past guarantees our participation in what God will do for us in the future. Hope is an essential and fundamental element of the Christian life. But even Christians are often in short supply of hope today. We more often worry about the future and are caught up in the hopelessness of the world we live in today despite our faith.

If we truly have hope then we believe that everything is in God’s hands and we are assured that everything will turn out the way it is supposed to. Hope should always be a belief in a positive outcome in life. Hope as the world sees it is different than the hope of people of faith. The world sees hope as a physical emotion, whereas people of faith should see hope as God’s grace. People who see hope as a spiritual grace believe that God will see that all is well because everything is in God’s hands. It is important for us to have spiritual hope to have a sense of wellbeing. People who are low on hope are more likely to be anxious and depressed. Hope is more than faith. Real hope, that is God based, includes faith, patience and the desire for that which we are waiting. The Apostles Paul said that if we wait patiently for something that is out of our reach, real hope is more than just waiting. It is waiting and confidently anticipating.

Christian hope does not mean that we filter out all that is negative. We are both realistic and optimistic at the same time. As Christians who are hopeful, we take in that which is negative and we look at it differently than the rest of the world. Our confidence that a positive change will occur is based on our belief in Christ’s resurrection. If God could bring Jesus back from the dead, then is there anything God cannot do? Nothing is too big for God to handle. That single event for Christians is what our hope is based upon. When we look at the negative aspects of life through Christ’ resurrection and believe that God will make all things new, we are more successful and happier people. Our hope as Christians is not based on our thinking we are invincible, it is not based on the strength of our will. Our hope is based on the strength that comes from knowing that Jesus rose from the dead and will return again someday. Out of those events we believe that all things are possible.

My hope rests firm in Jesus Christ, he is my only plea,
Though all the world should point and scorn, his ransom leaves me free,
His ransom leaves me free.

The bible tells us that hope is a door. Author Catherine Marshall said that “God is the only one who can make the valley of trouble the door of hope.” There is an expression “hope against hope”. It refers to those times in our lives when there is no sign of hope in sight. Yet we still keep hoping during those times. There is something in us that sees hope beyond every situation no matter how impossible it seems. That something within us as Christians is the presence of Christ within us, the one who is the author of hope and the perfector of hope. Our hope of heaven is by grace through our faith in the good news of Jesus Christ. Where there is life, where there is eternal life, there is hope. We as followers of Christ are to spread seeds of hope in the world. Mathew Elliot said that if we as Christians hope for less than we should, it is because our idea of God is too small.

My hope sustains me as I strive and strain towards the goal,
Though still I stumble into sin, his death paid for it all, his death paid for it all.

On this Sunday on which we light the candle of hope, let each one of us look at our own hope. Is our hope for the future based on the pessimistic hand wringing worrisome world we live in, a hope that has no foundation and sees no future. Or is our hope based on the belief that with God all things are possible. Is our hope filled with anticipation for better things to come? Is our hope built on the foundation of our belief in two of the most extraordinary events in the history of mankind; the birth of Jesus Christ the son of God and his resurrection from the dead? If you are short on hope look at your life from the beginning to today and recall what God has done for you throughout your life. If you have no hope for the future ask yourself has God not been with you and delivered you to a better place more than one time in your life? If you can still find no reason to be hopeful than ask God to help you find the hope you cannot find on your own. May this season of hope restore your faith in a God who has never abandoned us and has always kept his promises.

My hope provides me with a spur, to help me run this race,
I know my tears will turn to joy, the day I see his face,
My hope is to be with my Lord, to know him as I am known,
To serve him gladly all my days, in praise before his throne,
In praise before his throne.