The Starting Point of Hope
As a church, our summer months are focused upon the virtue of Hope. In our conversations, in our teachings, and in our actions, we want to embody Christian Hope to the world. Sounds easy enough, right?
But hope is rarely so simple. It requires that we become invested and involved. For there to be hope, there must first be reason to hope. There must be something wrong, incomplete, or out of place for which we must desire an end or a change in how the world works. For hope to begin, there must first be heartbreak, loss, or a lack of shalom.
And so hope quickly becomes complicated. To hope means that either we are experiencing the result of sin in the world–that things are not as they ought to be–or that someone else is and that we are seeking to join them in their pain or grief. This is the way of the incarnation–God’s joining with humanity in the midst of her pain and grief in order to bring hope and healing. But we’ll come back to the incarnation in moment.
First, I think we must consider several stories of women giving birth within the biblical story, all of which build upon the one that comes before (perhaps this is especially important since we have also just celebrated Mother’s Day). First, the story of Sarah. In Genesis 17 and 18, God reveals that Sarah will give birth to a son, and in subsequent chapters, both Abraham and Sarah laugh out loud at God’s plan. It’s not that giving birth is a laughing matter. Sarah is 90 years old when God declares this plan with Abraham and Sarah. They have moved beyond hope. It is impossible for Sarah to give birth at her age. And yet, at the start of Genesis 21, she gives birth to a son and they name him Isaac.
Several books later, we meet another woman who is unable to conceive, Hannah. In 1 Samuel 1-2, we read about Hannah and Elkanah’s difficulty in conceiving. That is, until God does again what God had done for Sarah. God opens Hannah’s womb, and she gives birth to a son whom they name Samuel. And one of the striking details to me of this story is a oft-overlooked line in 1 Samuel 1:6: “Her [Hannah’s] rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb.” Hannah must deal with the difficulty, the heartbreak, the loss of being unable to bear a child, and all the while she has someone taunting her about it. I imagine that hope was simultaneously necessary for Hannah, but also heart-wrenching to allow herself even the smallest glimmer of possibility.
As we reach the New Testament, we read in Luke 1 about Elizabeth and Zechariah. Elizabeth and Zechariah are the continuation of both Sarah and Hannah’s stories. Elizabeth has been unable to bear children, and they closely mirror the story of Abraham and Sarah. God promises Zechariah that Elizabeth will give birth and when she does, they name him John.
And on the heels of Elizabeth’s story, and intertwined with it, we read about Mary. Mary is unique in these stories because she is still a young woman who is betrothed to Joseph. She has not had difficulty in conceiving, and is in fact still a virgin when she conceives through the Holy Spirit. And yet, her story is a culmination of the hopes of these women who Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth represent. The incarnation is quite literally the birth or beginning of Christian Hope. Mary gives birth to Jesus, and the hopes of the world are finally begun. (They are finally begun not because this hope had not existed prior to the moment, but they are finally begun in the sense that this is the final time that hope will need to begin.)
So, where does hope begin? It begins in the midst of our grief and pain. It begins in the incarnation of Jesus, who is the culmination of the story of Israel– the culmination of the story of Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, and all people who like them yearned for the world to be set right and for the shalom of God. It begins in the consistent presence of God with us, for after all, this is the God who loves so much that he grieves our brokenness and loss. This is the God who dares to hope alongside us.
Hope begins in God.