Hope Revisited

I preached through Advent last year, and I titled each sermon with the name of the candle lit that day on our Advent wreath–Hope, Promise, Joy, Peace, and Love.  I found myself preaching on Advent 1 again this year, and the text was Mark’s version of what Matthew shared with us on Advent 1 last year–and since I’m not great with titles, I decided to call this year’s sermon “Hope Revisited.” 

(Spoiler alert: it borrows heavily from my last post, also on Hope)

Hope Revisited

A sermon based on Mark 13:32-37

I.

This morning we light the candle of hope—the first candle on our Advent wreath,marking the first day of this liturgical season of expectant waiting and preparation for God to break into the world once again at the birth of Jesus.

 One of my favorite poems is by Emily Dickinson—maybe you are familiar with it as well.  It’s the one that begins with:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all…

This version of hope is like a bird—we can see it in our mind’s eye, flitting about, able to fly above and away….  It is a light, sweet, yet resilient little bird—one that is able to sing the tune of better times and brighter futures without missing a beat.

Over the summer I was introduced to a very different image of hope—the image of hope symbolized by an anchor.

 It caught me off-guard, primarily because the heaviness of the anchor was the opposite of this light and sweet little bird of hope.

II.

This morning’s reading is a heavy way to start our Advent preparations, and yet in spite of (and maybe even because of) its weight, it carries with it a message of hope.

We are meeting Jesus in this morning’s text as he is giving his last lecture to the disciples.

We have skipped ahead in the narrative—past the prophets’ predictions, past the angels’ visits, past the manger—all the way to adult Jesus, who knows that he is on the road to Calvary.

And this adult Jesus is looking even further ahead, telling the disciples what to expect in the future, after he has gone.

His words are apocalyptic in nature as he warns of destruction and persecution, and eventually of the coming of the Son of Man.

And after all of this comes his clear instruction: Beware, keep alert.  Stay awake, and be ready.

These words are hard for us to hear as they were originally intended, because this apocalyptic genre has been co-opted and capitalized upon by the likes of the Left Behind book series, and Hollywood, and a certain brand of Christianity that many of us shy away from.

And after each doomsday prediction fails, for better or worse, we become increasingly wary of the whole thing.

But for his original audience—both the disciples who are his audience in the text, as well as the first generations of followers who would have heard Mark’s text read aloud as they gathered together—these words would have carried with them comfort, and even hope

 A heavy hope, like the hope symbolized by an anchor.

 Imagine it for a moment, if you will.

 A heavy hope doesn’t flit above, like that sweet little bird, but rather offers just enough weighted security to keep one from floating adrift.

 A heavy hope doesn’t offer us escape from the storms of life—in fact, it even keeps us in the midst of them, connecting us with the pain and struggle and grief that is part of our shared human experience.

 For a people who had been sent into exile and dominated by the Empire, this promise of the coming of the Son of Man affirmed that God had not abandoned the people to live lives marked by only pain and struggle and grief, but rather, that God was still up to something in the world, that God still had the upper hand even when it felt that hope had been lost.

 And so Jesus urged the people to pay attention for the coming of this day, to prepare for it, because no one except God knew when it would be coming.

Keep alert, keep awake, keep holding on to hope.

III.

And while it still feels strange to begin our Advent season in this way, the lectionary starts us in this place to keep us rooted in “the reason for the season”, if you will.

 Because our hope as Christians is always an Advent hope—the hope of God breaking into the world and into our lives once again.

With our ancestors of the faith, we hold on to the hope that God has not given up on us—that God will never give up on us—that God has a plan yet.

 And this is why the hope to which we cling must be a heavy hope, because there are days and maybe even seasons when God seems aloof, seems absent, seems to be an idea of the past that doesn’t translate into our present, let alone our future.

For many, the world is ending—figuratively, at least—in the here and now.

In her poem, “Blessing When the World is Ending,” Jan Richardson expresses this sentiment this way:

Look, the world/is always ending/somewhere.

Somewhere /the sun has come /crashing down.

Somewhere/it has gone/completely dark.

Somewhere/it has ended/with the gun/the knife/the fist.

Somewhere/it has ended/with the slammed door/the shattered hope.

 Somewhere/it has ended/with the utter quiet/that follows the news

 from the phone/the television/the hospital room.[1]

 Somewhere it may have ended—and in our own lives, we silently know where.

Some relationship, some unforeseen and unfortunate circumstance, some grim dose of “the reality of the world.”

 As studies show, and as we all know, either from our own experience or from the experience of those people we love, this can be a particularly hard time of year.

It can be a particularly hard time of year because we are told to be joyous.

That’s what the lights in town tell us, and the holiday songs played on the radio, and the sounds of bells in every direction.

We are told to be joyous, thankful, cheerful, overwhelmed by the goodness of the season…but that’s not the honest feeling.

That’s light hope, with no heaviness to give it any depth or meaning, and that is often inauthentic to where we really are in our struggles.  It’s inauthentic to where we really are in our lives.

IV.

So there is a tension at this time of year—a tension between the light, sweet hope that comes with our cultural celebration of Christmas, and the heavier hope that our Advent preparations cling to, and on varying levels, that our lives crave.

 There is tension between what we are told constitutes a “good” holiday season—lots of parties, lots of shopping, lots of gifts, lots of food, lots of activities, lots of stuff—and the core of what this good holiday is meant to be.

 There is tension, but there doesn’t have to be dichotomy.

 Because in these Advent weeks of hope, promise, joy, peace, and love, we have the opportunity to model a different way of preparing for, and celebrating, Christmas.

 What might this look like?

 As we are buying gifts, may we do so not out of a place of obligation, but out of gratitude for our relationships with our friends and loved ones.  And as we celebrate, may we celebrate those relationships in their entirety—the peaks and the valleys alike.

As we are busy cleaning and cooking and entertaining, may we remember that we are creating spaces for hospitality, for opening up our homes and our lives to those in our midst.  And may we also open up ourselves—inviting others into our vulnerability and asking them to be with us as we wait.

As we are generous in this season, may this generosity extend to those we will never meet, both in acts of charity and in acts of justice.  What a gift to be able to provide food and clothing for those without this holiday season—what an even greater gift to work for the day when no one will ever go without these basic needs.

V.

Our Advent waiting isn’t a passive waiting—it’s an active one.

 It isn’t a passive waiting for our hurt to disappear, and it isn’t a passive waiting for the problems of the world to work themselves out.

 It is an active waiting to bring healing to ourselves and others.

 It’s a waiting marked by Jesus’ reminder to stay awake and alert, a waiting marked by our own preparations to make way for God breaking into our lives and into the world once again.

 In this waiting, maybe the most authentic and the most compassionate witness that we can offer is a heavy hope, substantial enough to remain in the depths for as long as necessary.

 And yet, in its own way, this heavy hope beckons us to seek out the possibility and wonder of the kingdom that lies just over the horizon, just waiting to be discovered and explored.

 May it be so—Amen.

[1] Jan Richardson, http://adventdoor.com/2014/11/23/advent-1-blessing-when-the-world-is-ending/#sthash.Ptw3vt8X.dpuf

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