by Ellen Sims
texts: Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 15:4,5, 13; Matthew 24:36-44
Advent prepares us for the “coming of God,” a figurative way to describe the inbreaking of sacred hope, peace, joy, and love into this world. Christians think of God’s coming to us decisively in human form long ago in the birth of Jesus but also as an ongoing process happening again and again when we long for and work for the kin*dom Jesus proclaimed. The Church measures Time in two ways: as a linear process that we calculate by addition–at the end of year 2019 we’ll add a year to get to 2020–and as a more ancient circular process that repeats seasonally and was somewhat based on the agricultural cycle. We prepare to receive the Christ Child each year by retelling and re-entering the story of Jesus. Today’s lections suggest other ways we can prepare for the inbreaking of God into this world:
(Matthew 24) We can stay alert and expect the unexpected in order to remain hopeful.
(Romans 15) We can let scriptures encourage and instruct us in hope.
(Isaiah 2) We can join a great multitude of hopeful people from all nations seeking instruction in God’s hopeful way of peace.
Advent teaches us to engage this world as citizens of Christ’s kin*dom. But first we wait. And watch. In hope.
Hopeful waiting is harder that it may seem. Children seem better equipped to do hopeful waiting as they wait expectantly for Santa Claus, for instance. Adults often wait anxiously. Even when expectant parents await the birth of a longed-for child, there is at least a bit of worry along with eager anticipation. Adults wait tensely, or impatiently, or even fearfully for a diagnosis or for a reply to a sensitive text. Especially at this time in human history when all but the most willfully ignorant acknowledge the consequences of climate change, we are ALL facing into some deeply disturbing predictions that are as sobering as any biblical prophecy. So it’s not easy to wait with a spirit of hope. This very church, which should be a beacon of hope, a source of the good news in Christ, a light to dispel the darkness . . . even this sacred place and time do not protect us from discouraging and even anxiety-producing news. It’s possible that some of us found the book study of Climate Change, Climate World dispiriting and may not be attending our current DVD-series, Pro-Future Faith, because the topic of climate change makes us anxious. We, as a church, are searching for spiritual resources that will support us as we face into hard truths and serve on the frontlines of eco-spirituality and activism.
Yet God has always tasked prophets with pronouncing truths people did not want to hear. You and I now are charged with sharing “inconvenient truths,” as Al Gore put it years ago, and with making difficult choices to stem the harmful progress of climate change. What we are learning now about environmental degradation is grim. But only truth, not anesthetizing lies, can offer real hope rather than shallow optimism. We can’t simply sing “Always Look on the Bright Side,” that incongruously upbeat ditty from Monty Python’s Life of Bryan , sung cheerily by a Jesus-y figure and dozens of others being crucified by the Romans.
That’s insane. Real hope is honest, steely, steady, and courageous.
And only real hope about climate change offers us the chance both to reduce our anxiety as well as “slow climate breakdown.” Reporting for the BBC Future, Christine Ro cites a report by psychologists that “the ability to process information and make decisions without being disabled by extreme emotional responses is threatened by climate change.” There’s such a thing now as “climate psychologists” who help people deal with “climate depression” or “climate rage,” which are considered “reasonable responses” to climate change.(https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20191010-how-to-beat-anxiety-about-climate-change-and-eco-awareness.)
What we are learning now about climate change does not seem hopeful. In fact, a quick search of recent articles include some writers asking questions like this: “Is there any hope on climate change, or are we just screwed?”
Yet many think hope WILL emerge. That’s because hope is not inherent in the events of the day. Hope is a potential response to those events.
But if there isn’t much hope in our newsfeeds, where do we find hope? What is your ultimate source of hope?
For me it is Love Divine. I am banking on Love. I’m trusting LOVE will have the final say. And I suspect that’s why Love, the “greatest of these,” as Paul said, is the last candle we light in Advent and the gift to which all else builds. As the Advent days grow shorter, the nights longer, and the news perhaps grimmer, the enduring pattern of Advent tells us that light will return, and a child will be born, and the hope we hang onto by a thread right now will (eventually if not immediately) reward us with the blazing Christlight.
The paradox of Advent, of course, is that we wait for what we already have. Jesus has already come. So in this season we actually rediscover and reclaim what never left us. That which we long for is standing right in front of us. God-made-flesh. Immanuel: the baby, the lover, the challenge, the meaning, the hope of the world.
The kind of deep hope the Spirit offers is not cheap hope, nor is it a fretful: “Oh, I hope we can get our carbon emissions down. I hope we keep the wolves can be kept at bay.” It’s not: “I hope we’ll have enough . . . food, friends, fame” or “I hope everything turns out right in the end”–as if there will ever be an End.
We don’t draw upon deep hope by deciding what we want for Christmas, as if a Thing is ever what we really want. Nor is God’s hope expressed as: “Oh, I hope I’ll survive the coming challenge, test, or tumult. Oh, I hope, I hope, I hope my children will be protected” — as if my child’s hopes are not bound up with yours.
Some will say, “I hope” with ferocity and vindictiveness; some will speak “hope” greedily while clutching a fist of money, or suspiciously, with a loaded gun for protection against a future threat. “I hope,” when pronounced angrily or plaintively or fearfully, is not deep hope, nor is a whispered mantra of “I hope, I hope, I hope” while quivering before so many dire possibilities. That is not hope. That is petty selfishness and despair and fretfulness.
“I hope, hope, hope that only good will touch MY life and really really hope harm and loss and diminished opportunities and resources won’t touch ME.” That is cowardice and selfishness and abandonment of community.
Regardless of our prayers this Advent, we are not living in hope if what we hope for and anticipate is not what we are working for. True prayers lead to actions-—like an act of sacrificial care for creation.
What does Advent teach us to hope for?
What are you hoping for?
After Hope, the Advent liturgy teaches us to hope next for . . .
Peace for all, and then . . .
Joy for all, and ultimately . . .
LOVE for all.
What we hope for is not just what we wait for expectantly. What we hope for is what we WORK for. What you hope for is what you are helping to midwife into this world, and (negatively put) what you are fighting against.
This week what will you work for? That is where your hope lies. You are counting on kindness, for instance, if you bring kindness into a relationship. You are betting on joy if you bring laughter to a situation or find delight for yourself in some simple experience. You were trusting in Love if this past you week acted out of love and gave it away rather than just snuggled up in it like a blanket. But if the highlight for you this past week was the Black Friday sales, your hope might, sadly, be bound up in materialism. How you spent your money and time and emotional energy is where your hopes lie. Are your hopes being placed in what really matters and has eternal significance?
Finally, are you waiting and hoping in the company of others? Even before you actively travel up Isaiah’s challenging mountain, are you alone in your hopes or are you gathering with the throng that has likewise responded to the prophet’s challenge: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that God may teach us God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.”
While we wait . . . in this quiet room . . . and when we act . . . in the larger sphere . . . we are strengthened by companions. Knowing we’re not alone in times of great challenge can mean the difference between despair and hope.
The world can seem so dark, O Jesus. Thank you for traveling companions who’ll walk with us up that highest of mountains. Help us see your light to guide us onward.