What does ‘hope’ look like in 2017?
December 3, 2017
Scripture: Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37
Today we have arrived at the first Sunday of Advent, the four week period immediately preceding Christmas and traditionally viewed as a time of both preparation and anticipation. And unfortunately at least in our lifetimes, that time set aside to begin the hurry and the busy-ness required to satisfy the demands of a culture that has somehow pretty much co-opted the Christmas celebration entirely, making it into a crazed-consumer dash to fill up the underneath of every Christmas tree with more and bigger gifts most don’t need and some don’t even want.
And in that rush, which every year seems to find a way to officially begin days, weeks, or even months earlier it is not so hard to lose sight of the real meaning of Christmas and to even more easily forget about Advent altogether. In fact, if we are not careful Advent can be reduced to a set of short readings at the start of the church service such as we read this morning…quickly said, quickly set aside and forgotten in the drive to be ready for the big day in four weeks…‘wait is it only four weeks until Christmas?’ Actually it is now only 22 days until that magical morning when the rush pauses momentarily to open gifts, have a family day of celebration and then get ready to go back into the fray to exchange or return gifts, or to take advantage of all of the ‘After Christmas Sales’!
In truth, Advent is meant to be a time of preparation, but of a different sort. It is meant to be a time for us to begin to adjust our focus, to look at our faith life and the life of our church family as all together we try to prepare our hearts and minds for the real miracle of Christmas…that most amazing truth that our God chose to send Jesus to show us the way of love and open the pathway for us to be fully reunited in grace and love with a child Savior born in a stable and laid down in a manger some two thousand years ago.
Advent is also a time when we pull out the time-worn carols and Christmas hymns as well as the old, old stories of shepherds and angels and of King Herod and the Wise Men of the East…a time of comfort and familiarity as we hear again memories played over from our past and are reminded that even as our world dances on the edge of seeming chaos, there is something at least that has remained the same…stable, and quietly comforting.
However for a pastor, Advent and Christmas both present their own challenge as one seeks to find a way to share that which is so familiar in a way that sheds new light or new insight on scriptures and stories we all have practically memorized. Each year the challenge returns to find a way to tell the story in a new way that both meets and finds us in the present moment and speaks to the concerns of our hearts in a way that enables the Christmas story to make us feel good all over again.
And so as we begin the season of Advent once again I thought it might be interesting this year to focus in on the candles we light at the start of each service and in particular to consider the themes they are supposed to represent. In all there are four themes including Hope, Joy, Peace, and Love which are each represented by a candle in the outer ring of our advent wreath, all surrounding the Christ candle in the center which is meant to be lit on Christmas Eve. Depending on the particular tradition the four themes are sometimes in a different order, however Hope is usually the first one in line. And so, I would like to look at this word today, to consider what it is that ‘Hope’ looks like in 2017, and to see if we might somehow find a new doorway into Advent and the Christmas season by addressing each of these four themes over the next several weeks.
I don’t know what your routine is or if you even take the time each day to check in on the course of world and national events by tuning into one of the news outlets either on television or the radio. I have gotten into the habit of listening in with morning coffee and, if I am still awake to tune in to the 11 o’clock news at night…which is admittedly not all that often! And anyone who is honest with themselves can’t take much comfort with all that is being reported for quite some time now. Much has taken place and continues to unfold that is disturbing and unfamiliar as we are asked to consider all of the hot-button issues and potential flash-points which are somehow old and uncomfortably new and present all at the same time. In fact, there is so much in the way of ‘bad news’ each day, no matter what your orientation is, that actual ‘good news’ seems unthinkable and unattainable. No matter what, just when you think it can’t get any worse or more complicated, just when you think you have heard it all…something else rises up to raise the level of worry and tension within each one of us.
It truly seems like a time of worry and fear, a time of deepest concern for safety overall and a time of longing for days-past that felt less complicated and less unnerving in their seeming ‘innocence’. Days past when we more easily dreamed of bright futures and better outcomes, days when ‘hope’ was not just a meaningless word but a real emotion that could and quite possibly would be fulfilled at some point in the future.
But now I am not so sure that ‘hope’, at least in this sense, still retains that air of possible fulfillment. It is as if the only things we let ourselves really hope for are things we are already pretty sure will take place. For the larger, real dreams we may have are now so heavily weighted down with all of the struggles of life and the dire predictions of harder times to come from those previously mentioned sources of news and information.
In truth, ‘hope’ in 2017 seems less accessible than in times recently past. It seems to have been replaced instead with a sense that we just need to wait and see what each new day brings, we just need to keep our eyes and ears open and to see how we may need to respond each day to the news or conditions of that moment. ‘Hope’ in this sense of wishing for something to be different or changed, or new or perhaps ‘better’, has moved dangerously close to wishful thinking as the drumbeat of inevitable future trial and struggle continues to beat out its mournful litany across the land and across our hearts and dreams. ‘Hope’ in 2017 is being replaced by either independent decisions to take matters into one’s own hands or by resignation to the belief that there is nothing anyone can do to change the course of the train we all are on so we should probably all just pray for the conductors and the engineer.
And yet, as people of faith, all of that sort of thinking born of fear or hopelessness, all of the resignation and sense that our fate is out of our hands is fully contrary to the truth we claim to believe in and the One born in a manger so long ago we claim is still our Savior. Our problem with ‘Hope’ is that we do not understand what hope is supposed to be about. Hope is not just wishful thinking that certain things might or might not happen. True Godly hope is not based in uncertainty or at all governed by an element of chance but rather is based on promises and understandings that in God’s time, and with God’s help all things are possible for those who love God and are called according to his purposes.
Hope for us as Christians is not so much about wishing and worrying as it is about anticipation and longing…about waiting for the promise that God’s will will in fact be done and that the Kingdom of peace and joy which Jesus spoke so often of will in fact come to pass, perhaps even in our own time if we are willing to put in the hard work of believing and acting as the builders of community we were all called to be.
“Hope’ in 2017…Christian hope in 2017 looks exactly the same as it did yesterday, the day before, and as it always has…for the promises still remain, the miracle of Christ’s birth still occurred, and the life and death of our Lord Jesus still opened the doorway for each one of us to know the Lord of love and the peace of his abiding presence.
While the world’s sense of hope may be at an all-time low and as more and earlier attempts are made to distract us from what seems to be certain chaos through bigger and better toys or simply must-haves being offered at innumerable sales, the true hope we have in Jesus remains as a bright and shining star, still lighting the way as we traverse this weary and wounded way. Hope remains for those who know who it is, in whom they have believed. Hope remains for those who know that God cannot be thwarted by those who deny goodness and love, or the power of mercy and grace. Hope remains for those who know that our God gave his all in sacrifice to show us the truth that there is in fact something worth hoping in…that tho’ we succeeded in putting hope to death on a cross on a lonely hill, that same hope rose again in triumph and now calls us to share all that we know and all that we are as we begin once again to unravel and to dwell in the wondrous stories of our faith.
Come, let us share our hope one with another…amen