Hope in the Time of Fear


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown, NJ

December 1, 2019

Texts: Isaiah 2:1-17; Matthew 24:36-44

       There’s a guy on my street with a bumper sticker on his car that says: “In the event of rapture, this car will be unoccupied.”  I’m astounded at his self-righteousness, not to mention a lack of understanding of biblical texts. What’s even more amazing is that a lot of people believe in the rapture and a lot more. In fact, a recent survey showed that almost 45 percent of Amer-icans who call themselves Christian believe in what’s called the rapture. And then they manage to combine a popularized ver-sion of Christ’s Second Coming full of hellfire and condemnation with a mush of saccharine Christmas, not to mention ornaments made with Chinese slave labor. Oops! Forgot to mention the inflatable Santa Claus and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the manger scene. Am I crazy or what’s this got to do with Christmas?

      The season we’re in, of course, is not Christmas but Advent. The word comes from the Latin, meaning “to come.” Our Western churches celebrate four Sundays of Advent, but the in the East, the season starts September 1. In some of the pre-dominantly Christian towns in Eastern Indonesia, you can hear Christmas music as early as October––although I have to admit, it was a bit disconcerting to listen to Jingle Bells while you’re sweltering in 95-degree heat. What is it that we expect Christmas or Advent to be about? Certainly not visions of the end times and judgment that seem to be in Matthew’s text.

       No question that we live in fearful times. Newark Penn Station has a strong military presence. And when you get into New York, the military presence is even more visible. Several of the soldiers have dogs trained as bomb sniffers; even in the midst of the morning rush hour, every so often someone with a backpack is pulled aside for a security check. Last week as I stood with the hordes waiting to cross over to West Broadway for a meeting, I overheard one officer talk about the plans to beef up the security during this coming holiday season. 

       Holiday season. What a phrase to describe the season of Advent we enter today. Today's Gospel reading is from Matthew, but it's not a reading about a cute little baby. Rather, it is one of Apocalypse and doom. Some of my fundamentalist friends tell me this is about the Rapture, and a few have warned me that I could find myself left behind because of what they consider to be my heretical beliefs. 

        I imagine you are wondering why the Lectionary Committee chose this passage for the first Sunday in Advent or any of the other apocalyptic passages from Mark or Luke for the other two years of the three-year cycle of readings. I mean, didn't we just finish with the Sturm und Drang approach last week? What has this got to do with our theme of hope?

        At first impression, the reading from Isaiah seems to be more up our alley. It conjures a vision of going up to the mountain of the Lord so that we may learn the ways of peace, beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. But if we look at the historical context of the Isaiah usually considered the author of chapters 1-39, we find a time of enormous conflict and turmoil in some ways not so different from our own.

       During the 740s, Israel had been conquered and almost totally destroyed by the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III, and Judah was invaded some twenty years later. These two small countries spent the next several hundred years being buffeted about by the great powers of the region: Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia. 

        Every time another army came through, enormous numbers of people were displaced and shuttled about. In the midst of this, however, Isaiah offers a vision of hope, one that will see swords beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Gandhi once said that we must be the change that we want to have in our world. So then it is our task to be hopeful for peace even in a time of fear. The stones we throw into the water create a ripple effect.

        How do we accomplish hopefulness? First, we need to realize that the word “hope” does not mean just sitting down and having a nice wish. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word as cherishing with desire and anticipation; an archaic definition of the word means to trust. So hoping is wanting something and anticipating it; it is an active verb, not a passive one. We use conjunctions with the word: we hope for; we hope to . . . . You fill in the blanks. We anticipate that something will happen and we trust that it will happen. But, again, trusting is not just a passive word. We trust in something––we trust in God. We accomplish hopefulness by anticipating and working for good.

       True, the world is not a safe place, but it has never been a safe place. It has always been a place where our most cher-ished dreams can be crushed. That's where the trust comes in. Hoping, trusting in God can give us the strength to do what has to be done. Hoping is tied to caring and loving. We cannot hope for what we do not care for or do not love. They really are bound together. 

        Today is World AIDS Day. Some of you will remember that more than 35 years ago, AIDS was a feared disease. People did not understand its etiology, but there was a small group of people who worked on discovering its causes and becoming activists for persons with AIDS, living hopefulness in a time of fear. 

        In the early 1980s I was privileged to know one of the more notable activists, Dr. Alan Novick, a biologist at Yale, whose partner of many years, Larry Sabella, had died from complications of AIDS. We sought a better understanding of not just the disease but of the fear it caused in society and worked for changing societal attitudes toward AIDS and its underlying cause. It was in living that hopefulness that we overcame our fears and the fear within society by learning to care for and love those afflicted.

        At that time I was organizing programs for women re-turning to the workplace at a small Roman Catholic women’s college. One of the students was a nurse who worked at the pediatric AIDS unit at Yale New Haven Hospital. Many nurses were afraid to hold the babies because they did not know whether AIDS was “contagious” in the same sense as tuber-culosis or—think of Ebola today.

        It took some time before even the medical establishment understood how the HIV virus was transmitted. She held sick babies without gloves and cuddled them and taught me to go beyond my own fear in holding them. I had two boys at home at that time. Everyone feared AIDS.

        It was an awful time. Babies and children were dying. School systems did not want to educate those that survived into childhood old enough to go to school. The closest thing we had to the AIDS panic was the polio epidemics of the 1950s when families were afraid that their children would catch the dreaded disease. Remember the photos of children in iron lungs? I do.

        Hope and fear. Several years ago I heard the theologian Chung Hyung Kyung. Although some traditional theologians may not necessarily agree with her theological perspectives––she writes from a feminist and post-colonialist point of view, her testimony of hopefulness was compelling. Born in South Korea, she had been a student activist and was arrested by the gov-ernment. She was brutally tortured. She was fortunate. She survived; many of her compatriots died. 

        During those tortures she found hope and strength in the presence of God. She had a realistic hope, not a fantasy that God would come in and wipe out the dictatorships with one fell swoop. Following her release, she went back to work with the student movement. Eventually, they were able to secure a more democratic South Korea. Her hope, her trust were active. Our active hope and trust will enable us not to just survive but to overcome our fears to live fuller lives in the knowledge that God's presence is with us throughout our days.

         Note the words and images Isaiah uses when he talks about peacemaking: beating swords into plowshares. Beating, hammering, reshaping––it all takes effort, lots of patient effort. It doesn’t happen in an instant, but is a process that may take years to yield a result. Any student of history can tell you that. 

        The process of hope is not a smooth one. That night when Jesus gathered his friends to share in what became their final meal, fear was mixed with hope. The disciples panicked and fled as we sometimes do when confronted with events that cause fear. It is part of being human. As one Christian activist said when asked by a government attorney, “If you really believe, why were you afraid when they came after you?” she respond-ed, “Even Jesus was afraid.”

        It’s all too easy to wipe away what must have been sheer terror as Jesus was taken into custody with a belief that Jesus knew what was going to happen in the end. Our hopes are often mixed with our fears. But we do not pull back. Instead, as Christians we continue to bring our hope for peacemaking into a fearful and turbulent world. As we gather about the Lord’s Table this morning, let us resolve to center ourselves in hope and to continue working for peace in this world. 

       Let us pray: Ever embracing God, be with us as we live in active hope and trust enabling us to overcome our fears and to create communities of love and peace. In the name of him who gives us hope, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.