In 1999, hundreds of thousands of Kosovo Albanians were driven from their homes to camps in Macedonia by the Serbian military. It came in the midst of a brutal conflict, the scars of which are still not healed today. Chris Hondros, a famed war photographer, captured an image in May of that year that has been etched into my memory forever. It shows a group of refugees waiting in a dirty and graffitied train station waiting to be moved from one camp to another. At the back of the image, just out of focus, you can see a group of adults waiting – looking despondent, fearful, unsure. But at the front of the image, in full focus, there is a little boy, no more than three years old. Likely, his entire life up to that point was one steeped in war and terror. I imagine he didn’t know anything else. But, in this photo it shows that he has found an empty plastic water bottle. And he has turned it into a toy. The photo shows him completely engrossed in play, his little body using the empty bottle as a soccer ball.
Children do that. They can take just about anything you give them, no matter how mundane and ordinary, and turn it into a toy. A toy to give them joy and to help them learn. The little boy photographed during a brutal war, waiting to be moved from one decrepit camp to another, had found joy in an empty plastic water bottle. He had found a toy – likely the only one he had. While the adults in the background are unable to see beyond the present conflict, their worries and fears, that little boy knows nothing but fun – if just for that moment. His imagination had given him hope.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. The season of waiting. The season to slowly watch the light grow. The season of preparing ourselves for the greatest of God’s miracles, God becoming flesh, Emmanuel. And today, we light the candle of Hope. It’s interesting, I think that we so often start this season with a reminder to have hope. We are in the midst of what is, for many, the busiest time of year. Our calendars filling up, our tasks multiplying as we try to make room for all of the extras of the holidays. And yet, we start this season with hope. And in today’s world, I wonder if hope can seem completely out of our reach.
It must have seemed that way for Isaiah. To have hope would have seemed like a ridiculous thing. Isaiah, a poet and visionary, wrote the scripture we read today in a time of war. In a time when the city of Jerusalem, the holy city for his people, was profoundly vulnerable. The city, and therefore all of its inhabitants, were at the mercy of great powers. Of warlords and invading armies. Historians believe today’s scripture was written in the midst of a terrible and long war. Hope, it would have seemed, was very far away.
But hope is all we hear in today’s scripture. Isaiah was imaging a future when wars would cease. When the weapons of war would be turned into tools for farming and cultivating the land. When the Light of the Lord would be the star which lit the path for all people, the light which focused their attention. When people would stream to the mountain of the Lord’s House – not to conquer and destroy – but to worship and praise as one human family. It is an extraordinary passage of hope in the most difficult of circumstances. But, how did he do it? How did he have hope when all around him he saw destruction?
I think it was the same way that little refugee boy in the train station made a toy out of someone else’s trash. It was imagination. A dear friend, someone much wiser than I, was once asked to define hope. She was taking a class on the apartheid and was asked to reflect on how the black South Africans maintained enough hope to survive a time of brutal division. What she said, just like that image of a little boy in a train station, will be forever etched into my memory. She said hope is imagination. Hope is the ability to imagine a different world. Hope is the ability to look at the world as it is and imagine what it can be. Hope is imagination.
That little boy who used his imagination to turn an empty water bottle into a toy was able to experience hope, when he likely had only ever lived conflict. Isaiah, using an imagination given to him by God through visions, was able to describe a hoped-for time when wars would cease and God would reign. Walter Brueggemann, a world-renowned Old Testament scholar, describes today’s scripture lesson like this: “It is a vision, an act of imagination that looks beyond present dismay through the eyes of God, to see what will be that is not yet. That is the function of promise, and therefore Advent, in the life of faith. Under promise, in Advent, faith sees what will be that is not yet.”
The season of Advent is a promise. A promise which has been fulfilled and will be again. That God, who so loves this world, will become flesh, live amongst us, die amongst us, and rise again. That God, who so loves this world, will send become flesh, Emmanuel, and preach a message of hope in the most difficult of circumstances. The season of Advent is a promise that has already been fulfilled and we can trust that it will be fulfilled again. That the hope-filled imagination of Isaiah will become reality – that people “shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; that nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
It takes tremendous imagination. It takes the imagination that so many of us have forgotten, but we knew so well as children. It takes the eyes of a child to look at this world and not see it for just as it is, but for what it can be. That the present brokenness of our world will be one day healed. That our hurts will cease. That our fears will be relieved. That our prejudices will be knocked down and we will see each and every person as a divine image of God. That the Light of the Lord will shine and all will see it and be comforted. It will take tremendous, childlike imagination for us to have this much needed hope. But, I have hope, real, unbreakable hope, that we can and will be able to do this together. That is why we gather each week. To worship God, in today’s world, is an act of hope and an act of imagination. We come together, we light candles, and pray and sing and rejoice. We make plans together and we pick ourselves up off the ground when we fail. And we never stop dancing because we have hope.
My beloved community, hope can’t wait. We don’t have time, we don’t have time to wait to have hope. The world, you and me, our neighbors and our strangers, need hope now. Yes, in Advent we are waiting. But we will not wait to hope. We will not wait to use our imaginations to see what this world can be and make it real. Rev. Victoria Safford puts it like this in her extraordinary essay entitled “The Small Work in the Great Work.” She says, “Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges; nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of ‘Everything is gonna be all right.’ But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing.”
This is the ground on which we can stand and see the world not only as it is in all of its grim reality, but also as it can and will be. This ground, here, is holy. This is the ground on which we sing, and pray, and light candles, and share in Christ’s meal – each and every one of us just as we are – and see what the world can be. We will not forget how it is, because we must see it and understand it, but we have the extraordinary power of imagination that allows us to see how it can be and then make it real for ourselves and all of our neighbors. We will practice, in just a few minutes, using our imaginations and living into hope by sharing in a meal which welcomes all. By sharing in a meal that was passed down to us by Jesus Christ, God in flesh, who came to live amongst us and to show us what hope looks like.
Advent is a time of waiting, and wait we must for so many things. But, hope – we will not wait for that. We will hope, we will imagine, and we will make real the Kingdom of God. Amen.