Hope is in the holler

November 24th, 2020

Isaiah 40:1-11

During the funeral service of the civil rights icon Mrs. Evelyn Lowery, Bishop Woodie White preached a brilliant sermon on the topic “Leaving or Going.” Bishop White talked about leaving in terms of departing. He illustrated the pain of leaving with the sadness parents might feel as they prepare for a child leaving home to go to college, the anxiety one might experience in leaving one job to take on a new endeavor, or the pain of losing someone dearly loved with the throat tightening words — “she has left us.” Leaving focuses us on the person or the place that will no longer be with us. Leaving evokes a sadness or sense of loss.

Bishop White then juxtaposed leaving with the theological implications of going. Going, he said, points to a destination. Going is a word of hope. When a parent’s language changes from “my child is leaving home” to “my son is going to Morehouse,” or “my daughter is going to Spelman,” there is a change in the tenor of the voice to one of expectation and promise, even though the pain of leaving is still present. Likewise, the pain and hopelessness of the death of a loved one is softened by the knowledge that, yes, my dearest has left us, but my loved one is going to be with the Lord. The sense of destination elicits hope and comfort. His point, and the theme of our text, is that God’s Word offers us hope, even in the midst of difficult situations. The grass withers, and flowers fade, but the hope and strength of God’s Word stands forever.

In my book Hope in the Holler: A Womanist Theology of Hope, I discuss the resilient hope of African-American slave women to persist in the midst of abuse and oppression. Their holler was a primal cry to God to come see about them. The holler was an appeal to God to comfort them and to provide solace in the darkness of spiritual and physical exiles. The hope deposited in the narratives of these slave women was a hope based on their trust in a faithful God who would see them through. It was a radical incarnational hope given by God. Their hope was a bridge between liberation and oppression. The hope of Isaiah functions similarly. It begins in the midst of Israel’s holler as indicated in verse one. There is no need to cry “comfort, comfort my people!” if Jerusalem was not upset or in distress and in need of comforting. So it is imperative that we remember the context of this word of hope. The people of Jerusalem have been in exile and have experienced Babylonian captivity, economic devastation, and upheaval of life as they knew it. The prophet is challenging them to cease their focus on what they have left and to rejoice about where God has promised to take them. They are to imagine cities rebuilt, restoration of the nation, thriving economic life, and their restored relationship with God. God offers them a word of hope not based on their current condition, but based on their future, directed with promise and abundant life. It is not based on leaving, but rather, based on where they are going.

It is so easy to get stuck in the holler of life — the pain, the struggles, what we don’t have or can’t afford to do — rather than to focus on the hope provided to us in the birth of Christ Jesus. Our Advent hope is based on the knowledge that our joy comes from God leaving heaven, giving up the crown of glory to come to earth. When God asked, “Who will go for us,” God decided to take on flesh, come in person, and dwell among humanity to light the way for us. God’s destination was not just to come as a babe in a stable. Even in leaving glory, God had a final destination in mind — the cross and Resurrection. So on this side of Calvary, we can celebrate the light of Christ preparing the way for us. We understand that the birth of the Christ Child points to a destination for our salvation.

God does not say that we will not have valleys, mountains, and crooked places in life. Adversity, pain, and trial are a part of life’s journey. Yet even in the midst of traversing life’s difficulties, God cries “comfort, comfort my people!” Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, is the light that makes the crooked paths straight and lifts the valleys of oppression from our lives. Jesus is the light sent from God to illumine our paths back to right relationships with God. He destroys the mountains of depression, anxiety, and stress from our lives — in God’s time and in God’s way. Advent is a reminder that Jesus Christ is our hope in the midst of the hollers of life.

What do you need to leave behind this Advent season? What holler can you renounce, and what hope do you hold on to? 

This is an excerpt from Elaine Crawford's Advent study, The Lord Is Our Light, and was previously published at Ministry Matters.

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