Once again we are engaged with a text that is not pleasant: signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, distress among nations, roaring of the sea and the waves. People fainting from fear and foreboding, powers of the heavens shaken; you need to stay light on your feet – women who are pregnant and nursing are not going to have an easy time of it – and that was just at the Mall yesterday as folks struggled to get an early jump on their Christmas shopping! We were in the D.C. area at Tyson’s Corner and it was a madhouse.
Seriously though, this is a bummer of a passage. Be on guard, stay alert, don’t get weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life (what else is life all about?) because the day, apparently when the Son of Man comes on a cloud with power and great glory, is near – and it is like a trap.
But Jesus, all we want is to begin to celebrate Christmas. I am looking for a little joy, a little peace, a little fun, a little holiday cheer. I thought we were preparing for your first coming, not your last.
And today’s lesson is not even about Advent or Christmas. Well it is about an advent – an expectation of the . . . the what, the second coming of Jesus? Consider that the text is from the 21st chapter of Luke. Think about that – what is the end of Luke about? Yes, passion week. The context of this passage is Holy Week – a day or two after Palm Sunday. Jesus is a man facing his death…not a fetus about to be born. We are not looking to Christmas in this passage, but rather Good Friday. I think the great poet William Butler Yeats was writing about this in his poem, “The Second Coming.” Listen to this verse: “And what rough beast, its hour comes round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.” Peculiar. This cognitive dissonance where we get what we DON’T expect and receive what we DON’T want.
But I guess that the Spirit of God and the scripture have other plans for you and for me this morning. And in a funny kind of way, I believe, that this hard news, this peculiar news, is actually very good news.
For here we are in the season of Advent. Here we are on the First Sunday of Advent – we have lit the first candle of Advent and it was the candle of what? Hope. And the passage seems to make us look at our time in history and deal with the fact that there is much distress in the world, and much terror in the world, and much agitation in the world. And frankly, if we were honest, there is much distress, terror and agitation in our lives. Of course, there is great happiness and even wonderful joy, and great fellowship, and triumphs and homecomings and all this marvelous beauty – but we can’t turn a blind eye to either reality – the pain and the promise; they are both there in equal measure.
As people of faith, as people of hope, we are right in the middle of all of it. And the question is: “How are we going to live in the midst? What are we going to witness to?”
I was thinking last week about hope, Christian hope, and how it compares or relates to optimism. It is good to be optimistic, to see the glass half-full. The “Eeyores” (named after the pessimistic donkey in the Winnie the Pooh series) who always have a gray cloud hanging over their heads and can always find the negative twist to any good time? They drive me nuts.
We need more optimists. My father is one of those people and I love him for it. No matter how bad it gets sometimes, he is always spinning things towards the positive and leaning towards the potential. That is a marvelous quality. I wish I had more of it.
Certainly hope and optimism are related and I doubt you can have one without the other. Being a hopeful pessimist or a optimistic Eeyore just doesn’t make sense – these are oxymorons, kind of like the Cleveland Browns and winning.
But there is a distinction between the word “optimism” and the Christian concept of “Hope.” Optimism comes from the same root word as optics – which has to do with the eye, and what you can see. And often times what I see is confusing or hard. Sometimes I can’t see outside of the particular short term context I am in, it all seems overwhelming, and I begin to give more power to my fear than my faith, and more power to my doubts then my trusts and I can begin to disbelieve that I have gifts to give and any worth at all. We can all get into these cycles, even the most optimistic of us. What we can see in the world today might lead us to believe that what Jesus was talking about in our passage is really happening – after all, what is global warming and Afghanistan and bodies of dead women under porches and a Muslim Army doctor gone mad other than massive distress?
Think about it. If we are left only with what we see and what we can observe, it can come down to a flip of the coin as to how we view our world and where we will find God in it.
We see the world half-fed and half-famished. We see blocks of empty houses literally falling down upon their foundations in parts of East Cleveland, and in Cleveland Heights. We see falling test scores of our children in the public schools. We see the results of physician’s tests, and the outcome is not what we were praying for. We see the bills pile up and no income to cover them. We see more and more people coming into the church asking for food. And at some point just an optimistic attitude and a happy face doesn’t do it.
But the gospel of Jesus Christ calls us beyond optimism to hope. We are a people yearning to keep hope alive, to see beyond what we see, to perceive something higher, and deeper and richer then what we can merely observe. It is the only thing that keeps us alive sometimes. We are called as beloved children of God to push beyond just what we can see, into what we can hope for. Saint Paul reminds us, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we have hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:24-25)
And in an earlier passage Paul tells his readers: “Therefore since we are justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. And we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:1-5)
The hope that we are to have as Christians pushes us into wonderful absurdities – like God becoming one of us. Like God becoming a baby. Like God taking on our stuff and suffering (going through life) and like God dying and like God rising. Really, when you think of it, our hope, our determining characteristic as Christians, is based on precisely what we cannot see, what we cannot describe fully, what we cannot prove – but at some level, at the deepest part of our DNA and spiritual bone we recognize and say, “Yes, that’s it.”
For Christians our identity is, as the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote: “grounded on the historic Christ event which is understood as a definitive breach in the deterministic chain of human trial and error and as a dramatic affirmation that there is light on the other side of darkness.” (The Irony of American History)
Christians who look at Jesus in the manger and say “Yup, that is what God looks like,” or gaze at Jesus hanging on the cross and declare, “There is God too,” are frankly absurd, but at least our faith encompasses birth and death, life and suffering and declares that none of it is outside of God. We realize that we are not dealing with the usual – that we have to begin to interpret what we see by a larger narrative; that there is something larger than us and something longer than our history. And “that nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime.”
And as Gabriel Marcel defines it, “Hope is the act which the temptation to despair is actively overcome.”
This is another thing about Christian hope – it is an action word, a verb not a noun. Hope is not passive, and Christian waiting is NOT passive. Advent is not passive. As Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourner’s magazine reminds us, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.”
As Father Daniel Berrigan said, “Hope is where your rear end is.” And he is right – as people of hope we need to be in those places where hope needs to be incarnated, where faith needs to be actualized. Hopeful people are not isolated individuals but part of a powerful collective, a powerful community of faith – like this one. Hopeful people are not lazy, they are in the midst, precisely where God is in the midst – and that is in the heart of the suffering and the disenfranchised, welcoming the outcast and the lonely, showing hospitality – like you all do.
Hopeful people are not fearful people. Hope and fear are opposites. Hopeful people will trust that “nothing is good or bad, until God gets through with it.”
It was interesting to discover that for the Jew in the pre-Christian era hope in the coming of the Messiah – the one who was to restore the fortunes of Israel – was not up to God alone. God required, demanded, human agency. The Jew was not to wait passively for God to bring justice to the widow and the orphan, the Jew was to make sure that the widow and the orphan were taken care of in real time. And I have heard it said that some rabbis taught that the “Messiah will only come when he is no longer needed.” Now that is a very hopeful statement.
And you consider the story of the Incarnation, Jesus’ birth and here God has this plan to reveal himself fully, give the FULL MONTY to creation – to become needy as a little baby is needy – and so God needed Mary. It is part of Christian hope that you and I are on the front lines of compassion, the front lines of justice, the front lines of hospitality, the front lines of joy – even if we cannot see the results, or even if we DO see that our compassion, justice, hospitality and joy don’t seem to be making their mark, or people don’t say thank you, or we are taken advantage of – we do it anyway. Results are always good, but hopeful pursuits are better.
God requires, needs, desperately need you and me to move on our hope, to make hope an action word.
And so this Advent, this first Sunday in Advent I encourage you to think about – where is your deepest hope, what do you hope for, long for, yearn for – and are you willing to work for it, take that next move towards hope, pull yourself along by that which you hope for.
You hope for your marriage – are you willing to work for it and incarnate trust?
You hope for a renewed community – are you willing to work for it and incarnate joy?
You hope for a life of meaning – are you willing to work for it and incarnate truth?
You hope for a good grade on a math test (I’m talking to the children over here….) – are you willing to work for it and incarnate confidence?
You see, Christian hope is standing right in the middle of life, the middle of the signs of the end of the times, and raising your head because even in the middle of it all you get a sense that your redemption is drawing near. That is a powerful image – in the midst of the chaos, standing on your tiptoes to catch a glimpse of what is promised beyond what you can see. In the midst of the madness leaning towards redemption, moving toward hope like the sun flower moves towards the sun as it travels across the sky.
Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher, was absolutely correct when he said, “The conditions of hope seem to coincide with the conditions of despair.” This is exactly what our lesson for today means and the question Jesus asks you is this: Are you going to give more power to your hope than to your despair and will you work for what you hope for and incarnate the very presence of God on earth?
So be it and God bless you.