(The weekly GPS Small Group Guide can be downloaded in .PDF format from the individual sermon page, found at http://www.cor.org/worship in Sermon Archives)
A Grow-Pray-Study guide for small groups
This guide uses the Scripture readings from the daily “GPS” study guide. Group members may read the daily readings before the group meeting, or read the verses aloud when the group meets. The group may subdivide into two or three smaller groups, each discussing a set of the daily readings and the matching questions on page 2, or the entire group may discuss those questions together. We pray that, whatever pattern of study you choose, the Holy Spirit will weave God’s Word into the life and heart of each group member.
We lit the candle of hope on the first Sunday of Advent. Elizabeth’s song from Luke 1 drew on the power of hope, a central theme in her spiritual heritage. In Psalm 130, for instance, we find that, crying “out of the depths,” the psalmist wrote, “I hope, Lord….I wait for God’s promise. My whole being waits for my Lord” (verses 5-6). This resilient, undefeatable hope is one of God’s good gifts to God’s people.
Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
In Genesis, barren women like Elizabeth could find the story of Sarah, childless until very late in life. She laughed at God’s promise that she’d have a son. Yet a year later she named her miracle boy “Isaac” (the Hebrew word for “laughter”). Her story showed that, in God’s world, hope can always stay alive, even in a culture where many people thought childlessness was a curse from God.
We might think that, as the years rolled on, Zechariah and Elizabeth would just give up their hopes for a child. The angel messenger’s words in verse 13 (“Your prayers have been heard”) suggest otherwise. Echoing Abraham and Sarah’s story, the divine messenger announced that Elizabeth was going to bear the child they’d hoped and prayed for. What’s more, he promised that their child would be “great in the Lord’s eyes” (verse 15)!
Zechariah returned from his brief service in the Temple mute. Not long afterward, Elizabeth found that, amazingly, she was pregnant. Imagine the elderly couple’s astonishment and wonder, seeing their lifelong wish for a child come true by God’s power! Marveling, Elizabeth said, “This is the Lord’s doing. He has shown his favor to me by removing my disgrace” (verse 25).
Elizabeth’s young, unmarried relative, Mary, came to her home unexpectedly. Elizabeth’s baby “leaped in her womb,” and she welcomed Mary with God-given insight, blessing her with words of affirmation and encouragement. She knew God was at work, and that Mary’s child was uniquely wonderful. Elizabeth was, it seems, the first person to call Jesus “Lord”: “Why do I have this honor, that the mother of MY LORD should come to me?”
Isaiah 40 spoke to Hebrews returning from exile in Babylon about hope (this week’s Advent theme). God had never abandoned them—they could always keep hoping. Zechariah and Elizabeth kept hoping and praying, and Elizabeth conceived against all odds. Even more: God’s Spirit said their young relative Mary would give birth to the Messiah! Elizabeth’s song, like Isaiah 40, invited us all to live in God’s gift of resilient, undefeatable hope.
To access the Family Activity suggested in this week’s GPS, download the printable GPS from http://www.cor.org/guide.
Heavenly Father, at times we may feel that you are blind to our troubles. Help us to know better, and give us the strength to keep going. Thank you for keeping your promises to us and for working with us as ordinary people, even if our faith shrinks in the midst of trouble. Give us the patience to wait for your timing and your way of responding to our prayerful pleas. Fill us with the serenity that can come from faith in you. In Christ’s name, Amen.
Do most people seem to live in hope or do most seem to focus on their troubles? Are most people glass half empty or half full people? Why do some people like to talk so much about their troubles? Are you patient with them or impatient? Do you offer something to them to pick them up or try to stay at arm’s length?
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND STUDY
Read Psalm 130:1-8. How would you characterize this Psalm—a song of desperation, or a song of hope? Why? Does this hope for Israel apply only to the Hebrew people? Why would it apply to Christians? How is this hope realized? When did God’s redemption arrive? Verse 5 says to put our hope in God’s word. What is this word? How can we help others learn about it? Do you think the Christmas season helps even non-believers catch at least a glimmer of God’s light?
Read Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7. Once again, we read a story of hope. In Sarah’s mind, however, apparently not much hope—she laughed at the possibility of a long dreamed-of child. Why did she laugh? Did she have to wait for things to happen before she believed in God’s promises? Is that also the case with most of us? Are little miracles (or big ones) necessary for faith? Sarah suffered for years because she was without children. Is suffering necessary for faith? Abraham had to wait for years for God’s promise to make him a great nation. Finally, he had a son through which God’s promise could be fulfilled. Why are we often unwilling to wait for God’s timing and God’s methods in our own lives?
Read Luke 1:5-17. Another childless, older couple, without much hope. Imagine: now God’s messenger appears and tells them that, not only will they have a child, but the child will be great in the eyes of God. How would you react to news like this? The messenger also said God had heard their prayers. What does this tell us? Are you certain that God hears your prayers? Why are some people so uncertain? How would you react if an angel appeared to you? Did John the Baptist live up to the greatness the angel prophesied?
Read Luke 1:18-25. Does this story seem to you to be about two super-faithful people who God blessed with a miracle, or is it about ordinary folks with more of a half-faith? Does it give you hope that God comes even to those whose faith is incomplete? Is anyone’s faith “complete”? Do you think you would be ready if God decided to do something really special through you? What if it was something bigger than you ever imagined yourself involved in?
Read Luke 1:39-45. Elizabeth was encouraged when she saw that God was working through someone else (Mary), and Elizabeth encouraged Mary, too. Has your faith ever been strengthened when you saw God working through someone else? Has God’s work through you ever encouraged someone else? Is it possible that some things in your life that you perceive as problems might really be “blessings” from God? When you are “in the spotlight,” as Elizabeth was, do you sometimes find it hard to put others in the spotlight as Elizabeth did with Mary?
Read Isaiah 40:27-31. The first verse can be paraphrased as “Why would you ever complain, O Jacob, or whine, Israel, saying, ‘God has lost track of me. He doesn’t care what happens to me’?” Is this a question for us all? Haven’t we all read, “Be thankful in all things”? When things are going badly, where is your hope? Why shouldn’t we lose hope when things are going badly? Have you ever lived through a time when things were going badly, and God seemed to step in and renew your hope, even before outer circumstances changed?
From last week: Did you focus on your local church and do your level best to encourage those you interact with? Did you find ways to listen effectively and hear what they were saying about areas of their lives in which encouragement is particularly needed? Were you careful not to intrude where you’re not wanted, but offer solace, helpful ideas, pats on the back, additional points of view or a shoulder to cry on? Share with the group whatever you discovered or experienced.
FOR ADDITIONAL INSIGHT
From Pastor Adam Hamilton’s sermon of December 2, 2012:
Let’s turn to the second half of the Ave Maria: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” After Gabriel announced she would have a child, Mary “went with haste” to visit her much older cousin, Elizabeth. Tradition says that Elizabeth lived in Ein Karem, just outside of Jersualem. We’ve learned that this is a nine to ten day walk.
When Mary arrives she is greeted by the words of Elizabeth, who instantly knows that Mary is pregnant, though Mary is only a few days along. Elizabeth herself is six months along in her pregnancy. She was thought to be too old to have a child, but she had conceived, six months earlier, the child who would become John the Baptist.
Listen to how Luke describes what happens next: “She entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’”
I want you simply to remember that at this point Mary has discovered that she is pregnant, though not married. She is facing the likelihood of her fiancé terminating the marriage, or worse, calling for her to be stoned to death if he did not believe her story of the miraculous conception. The hopes and dreams she had for her life have been set aside. She is likely frightened and confused. But Elizabeth calls her blessed—three times in one line, she refers to her as blessed.
I love how William Barclay speaks of this passage. He refers to the “paradox of blessedness.” He notes, “The piercing truth is that God does not choose a person for ease and comfort and selfish joy but for a task that will take all that head and heart and hand can bring to it.” (The Gospel of Luke, The Daily Study Bible Series, Westminster, 1977, p. 14)
This is why I’ve taught you before that to say “God bless you” to someone is dangerous. Blessings have power. If blessings come, they come with expectations. The blessings are seldom just to make us comfortable. They are so that we may be a part of God’s plans, that God may use us for a powerful purpose. Elizabeth three times in just a few verses pronounces Mary blessed—God has favored her, chosen her, filled her, honored her. She would nurture a child who would be the Savior of the world. She would raise him, love him, and risk everything for him, only to watch as he was arrested, persecuted, tortured and crucified….
This week the Hill family from Dearborn, Missouri, about 35 minutes north of Kansas City, won half of the $587 million dollar lottery. Of course the family will celebrate, have some fun, but at some point they will have to ask, “What will we do that is meaningful with these blessings? How will we live not only for ourselves but for others?”
I was thinking of Rosa Parks. 57 years ago this weekend, forty-two year old Rosa Parks got on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, after work sitting in the section marked by the sign “colored section.” When more white folks got on the bus than there were seats in their section, the sign was moved back, and those who had been seated were expected to get up. The bus driver moved the sign and told the seated African Americans to get up and move back. Three did. Rosa refused to give up her seat.
It was during Advent of 1955 that Rosa Parks, a life-long Methodist, decided, not only for herself, but for others who would come after her, that African Americans should no longer be treated as worthless. You know the story. The police were called. She was arrested and taken to jail. Rosa Parks said, “I only knew that, as I was being arrested, that it was the very last time that I would ever ride in humiliation of this kind…” The bus boycott was organized just after this, which eventually overturned the law and ended the practice she had protested. Through her work, along with the young pastor of Dexter Road Baptist Church in Montgomery, the Civil Rights movement to a huge leap forward. She spent the rest of her life representing this cause. Rosa Parks died at the age of 92 in 2005. Her casket was transported by bus, a similar bus to the one she was arrested in 50 years earlier, to Washington D.C. where she became the first woman ever to lie in state in the Rotunda of the Capital. God had blessed Rosa Parks.
Listen carefully: God looks for and uses those who are full of grace, who routinely grant mercy, love, kindness and compassion that is completely unmerited. And God’s blessings are dangerous—they are not meant only for our use and satisfaction. His blessings come that we might live dangerously, take risks, and become instruments of his blessing in the world. Which is why my prayer for you today is simply this: “May God richly bless you!”
What Is Hope?
Hope [Old English hopian (to hope)]. Anticipating something good to come in the future. (One does not hope for what one already has, though one can hope it continues.)
The Bible describes what hope means, and says what it is there for. God’s followers hope for God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. Or, said another way, the Christian hopes for the fruition of what has already begun, the full arrival of God’s Kingdom. We pin our hopes on the God of that Kingdom.
The New Testament word for hope is various forms of Greek elpis. The closest Hebrew words are the verb forms of yachal. Paul wrote in several places about what hope leads to or makes: patience, courage, and joy. Hope makes us stable, and we are saved in hope. It is one of the three things which last: faith, hope, and love.
Christians hope in God’s promises, and especially hope in the God who delivers on His promises. The promises of God to us are found all over Scripture….Hope can seem like a trick, and indeed, misplaced hope can be the cruelest of tricks, like a lying lover. Hope drives our actions and goals—if we didn’t have hope of succeeding, why bother to strive, for what good would it do? If anything gets accomplished, it is through hope. When we support freedom and justice, we send out ripples of hope. Hope is very hard to kill, and even when it dies, like Christ it has a way of coming back to life.
It is often said that we all need hope to survive, that hope is what dreams feed on, that hope is what gets us past the tough times when life is at its worst. So some people make puffy statements about hope, or create false hope or even deceptive hopes, just to keep going. Lurking behind the manufacturing of hope is…the belief that if we just hope hard enough, or if large enough numbers of us hope together, that it will act as pixie-dust on our lives, and hope will somehow just ‘become’ real. But…such hoping is a shell game and a spiritual charade….Hoping in hope itself is …a circle that goes nowhere and ultimately does nothing.
“But”, someone might say, “don’t you make up hope too?…Didn’t we humans create ‘God’ to manufacture for ourselves a hope beyond ourselves?”….I can’t prove God to you, not through logical deduction or quantum physics. I can’t take you back 2500 years ago to meet Jeremiah, nor 3000 years ago for David, and show you what God did (or didn’t do). I can’t transport you to Galilee of 2000 years ago, and have you speak to Jesus of Nazareth, nor even to Paul of Tarsus….
I can, however, testify to my own experiences, about how my life draws its strength from what is beyond me and very much other than me. I can testify that life pretty well matches what the Bible says life is like. I can share with you how Jesus’ kind of God is the only kind that makes sense. I can say that what I believe is not something I made up, but is rather something that has sustained the hearts of millions over the course of two millenia, in spite of the evil work of those who abused this in God’s name. I can even speak of a loving relationship with this God, an intimate back-and-forth exchange of an admittedly strange sort, which guides my life. I didn’t ‘manufacture’ any part of this; it is a response to the reality that I live in. This gives me cause for a very strong hope, for myself and for the species I belong to, and even the planet I live on. I believe that it is a much firmer basis for hope than most people base their lives on. I hope, of course, that you too can discover Who I hope in.
This will be a week for planning. As we approach Christmas, look for ideas on how to bring hope into the lives of those who have little or no hope. Make a list of opportunities you discover. Prioritize that list, based on the gifts God has given to you. Plan now on how you can begin to make your little dent in the prison of despair. Next week, share with the group the opportunities you discovered. Perhaps other members of the group would like to join you in your holiday efforts.