Sunday, December 03, 2023

Advent 1: What is Hope?

 Sermon preached on the First Sunday of Advent at the Church of the Redeemer, Addison, NY:  Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80, Mark 13:24-37

          When we think of Advent, we think of the candles of Advent, marking the four Sundays before Christmas Day.

           The origin of the Advent candles is murky. It’s not ancient, probably no earlier than the 16th century, and really not popularized until a hundred or so years ago.

           Part of the popularization of the Advent wreathe was giving names to the four candles.  Hope, Peace, Joy, Love.  This made many Protestants feel better about the practice, making it seem less Pagan or Papist.

           It’s lost in the mist of Episcopal Church history that burning candles—any candles—in church was very controversial.  When the rector of old St. Luke’s Church in Rochester put candles on the altar for the first time it resulted in a split in the congregation resulting in the founding of what was once Trinity Church in Rochester. The rector of St. Luke’s was accused of being a papist because of those candles that we now take for granted.

           That’s a bit of trivia, but it gets us to the possible helpfulness of the naming of the candles. We have an opportunity to get down to basics.

           So let’s start with hope. What is hope for the Christian?

           First let’s quickly be clear about what hope is not.  It is not two things.  First, it is not fortune telling; it is not prophecy in terms of telling the future. Jesus warns against this—about that day or hour no one knows . . . not even me.

           Second, hope is not optimism, which one writer calls a “cheap, over-the-counter drug for maintaining denial.”  Hope is not “always look on the bright side of life.”

           So what is hope?

           Hope is first of all grounded in reality. This means that hope always begins with a fearless grasp of the truth, even when the truth reveals the ugliness of life.

           Hope isn’t afraid to ask hard questions. In this morning’s psalm the writer asks,

 O Lord, how long will you be angered despite the prayers of your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have given them bowls of tears to drink. You have made us the derision of our neighbors, and our enemies laugh us to scorn.

           Hope is not only unafraid of the truth of what is really going on. It is also unafraid to lay this state of affairs on God, to question God, to shake a fist at heaven.

           And a step further:  Hope is not only unafraid to confront God with the reality of human existence, but to remind God of God’s promises and to insist on action.

           So we began Advent with one of the great cries from Isaiah:

 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.

 Isaiah dares to ask God why he is absent. He speculates that it may be that God cannot stand the mess we have made, and we, the prophet says, have indeed made a mess.  But he ends with the simple plea:

 Now consider, we are all your people.

 Or, as another translation puts it:

 Look, please, we are all your people.

           Now there’s a paradox here.  At the same time we are ruthlessly honest about ourselves and our world and the hiddenness of God, we also hold on to God’s promises to be with us, God’s promise that we are his people and he will never let us go.

           And so, the refrain of Psalm 80:

 Restore us, O God of hosts, show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

           So hope gives us language to make sense of our lives:  We are in a mess, we are a mess.  That mess is real, but so are God’s promises.  We are not forever the mess that we are. God has promised more than that, and shown us the possibility that our lives will be more than that in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

           Hope is courage, really.  Courage to live in the messy present and to face the uncertain future, claiming that neither the messiness nor the uncertainty is what defines my life.

           Having that courage is precisely what Jesus means when he says, “Keep awake.” You don’t know when God is going to clear everything up, and it will try your patience that he seems so often not to be paying attention.

           But there is a time.  Not your time, but God’s time. Just don’t fall asleep. Just don’t give up. Keep awake. That is what hope is.

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