Sermon Matthew 4:12-23; 3rd Sunday after Epiphany – January 26th, 2020: ‘Hope is our mandate’


It was in August 2018. A 15 year old student from Stockholm in Sweden decided to speak up against climate change. She had studied the issue for a few years and wrote a prize winning essay on the matter in May 2018. The student, Greta Thunberg, started a school strike. From August 20th through September 9th, the day of Sweden’s general elections, she sat in front of the Swedish parliament in protest, holding a sign that said ‘School Strike for the Climate’.

Her demand at that time: that the Swedish government reduce carbon emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement. After the elections, she continued to strike on Fridays.

Thunberg started out all by herself. But then she posted pictures of herself on social media, and within a few weeks, the world took notice. That tells you something about the power of social media!

She inspired school students across the globe to take part in student strikes. As of December 2018, more than 20,000 students had held strikes in at least 270 cities. This movement became known as ‘Fridays for Future’.

Greta Thunberg rose to unprecedented fame in less than a year. In 2019, she spoke at many climate events all over Europe and North America and even addressed the UN during their climate action summit. Although she is not the only climate activist, she has become the face of this movement of young people over the world who are concerned about the future. Time Magazine chose her as the person of the year. This past week, she addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Thunberg’s message in a nutshell is: we ought to panic about the state of the environment. We are in a crisis situation and should act accordingly; cut back carbon emissions, consume much less, stop exploiting human beings and animals. Otherwise, life on this planet as we know it is doomed. She likes to summarize her message in one sentence, ‘Our house in on fire.’

I think we all know that Thunberg’s message is controversial. Many don’t agree with her assessment, which, by the way, is the assessment of the majority of climate scientists, namely that the climate on this planet has been changing at warp speed – and continues to do so. And that human beings have played a major role in all that. The participants of the World Economic Forum in Davos couldn’t agree on what to do about climate change. Some countries acknowledge that something needs to be done. Others just shrug off the threat.

Christians are divided about her message as well. There some who criticize Thunberg for her bleak prognosis for the future and what they perceive as ‘doomsday’ attitude. In their minds, it just doesn’t fit in with the Christian message of hope. Where’s the hope? And then of course there are those Christians who believe that, since we are all going to heaven anyway, we don’t need this planet – even though it is God’s good creation.

But back to hope. What is hope? Is it simply the vague feeling that everything will be alright somehow? That God will take care of things, no matter, how much we as human beings mess up?

Maybe. Although I’d say that this understanding of hope involves a lot of denial and plain wishful thinking.

There are images in today’s Bible lessons about hope that go a little deeper than that. ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.’ These are words we heard in today’s lesson from the Book of Isaiah. Beautiful words, words that give hope.

But most of the prophecies in the Book of Isaiah sound more like what Greta Thunberg and other climate scientists and activists sound like today. I’d say about 95% of Isaiah, if not more, are about gloom and doom, God’s judgment for the people of Israel because of their disobedience against God. And the Kingdom of Israel is in a precarious situation: The Assyrian Empire to the northeast seeks to colonize its territory. Assyria invades and sacks the Kingdom of Israel and leads many of the people into exile in the year 722 B.C. The northern kingdom of Israel – the area where, according to biblical tradition, the tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali lived, that area that a few hundred years later will be known as Galilee – ceases to exist – and it’s traumatic for the people.

Yes, this is a people who walks and lives in deep darkness, there is gloom and doom – but on them, the light of hope shines. God is at work. Turn around, says Isaiah, and God will turn to you. Isaiah doesn’t pretend that everything is a-o-kay. He sees the darkness, he experiences the darkness, he prophecies gloom and doom – but at the same time sees a path for the future. It is God’s path – but human beings need to be willing to walk it.

The ancient hopeful prophecy from Isaiah is repeated in today’s gospel according to Matthew. According to Matthew, Jesus is who and what the ancient prophecy is all about. He moves from Nazareth to Capernaum at the Sea of Galilee, the ancient territory of Zebulon and Naphtali – and he is the light that shines on the people that still walks in darkness. In the times of Jesus, it’s not the Assyrians, but the Romans who exert their – often brutal – power over the people who live there.

Times are dark. John has just been arrested by Herod, and we know how his story ends. But in this dark hour, Jesus begins his ministry of hope. The kingdom of God has come near, he proclaims. God is at work. So: Repent.

It’s fascinating that both Isaiah and Jesus talk about a turn-around of the people. Hope is an empty shell without this change of direction. And Jesus demonstrates very clearly what this repentance, this turn-around looks like – in fact, he models it: it means going to the people, proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom, curing diseases and sickness among the people. Repentance means turning to God, and turning to God means turning to the neighbor who walks in darkness and who is in need of good news and healing.

There is a reason why Jesus calls his first disciples right at the beginning of his mission. It’s a daunting task. The disciples Jesus witness what Jesus is doing – and learn to take part in and carry on Jesus’ work. This is how the light keeps shining, this is how hope is spread.

I once attended a workshop that was titled, ‘Hope is a verb’ – it involves doing something, and, indeed, Christian hope as modeled by Jesus Christ and the disciples and countless Christians ever since, including us here today, involves being active, turning to the neighbor in need and doing something about the darkness we experience in this world. Hope is a verb.

Going back to Greta Thunberg for a moment: maybe you don’t agree with her, but you can’t accuse her of not having hope. If she wasn’t hopeful that a turn-around somehow is possible, she would have given up and wouldn’t bother speaking up. In the gloom and doom of her message about climate change, there is this light shining. Thunberg has been called a prophet, and, yes, to a certain degree she stands in the tradition of prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and John the Baptist, who don’t mince their words and call things what they are, but never lose hope out of sight. And Thunberg is doing something to make her hope become flesh. Hope is a verb.

New Testament scholar Willie James Jennings says about hope: Christian hope is not a feeling. Christian hope is our mandate. We can’t and we shouldn’t give up turning to God and our neighbor. We mustn’t give up, no matter, how dark the times.

Christian writer Anne Lamott, in my opinion, has a perfect description for that. She writes: “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”

The people who walk in darkness see a great light. Jesus is the light of the world. However, as his followers and the body of Christ today, we are the light of the world. And Jesus calls us such. And Christ still calls us today to let our lights so shine before others that they may see our good works – good works – and give glory to our father in heaven.

This is what hope – Christian hope – is about.










This post is also available in: German