We Need a Little Hope Right Now (Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37)
Today we start a year full of readings that are centred on the oldest of the Gospels, the Gospel of Mark. On the first Sunday of that cycle of readings — the First Sunday of Advent — our theme, year by year, is hope. It is easy enough to use the word “hope” in the midst of our happiness of the Thanksgiving season, and our general affluence, and say things like: “I hope that we get a white Christmas,” or “I hope that this sermon isn’t too long,” so I get to the restaurant before the Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans eat all the food, or “I hope that I get an iPhone X for Christmas.” That’s not quite hope in the biblical sense, which is stubborn faith or trust in God’s future with us all.
One of my two favourite American poets is Emily Dickenson, who wrote this about hope:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of Me.
For her, hope – although a feathery thing, like a bird, that seems slight and weak – sings its melody without words, and keeps on singing that sweet song of hope in the storms, the cold, and the tossing sea.
Perhaps, if we really want the texts of the morning to play their music that sings on about hope this Advent, we need to begin in a radically different place than warmth, wishfulness, thankfulness, and affluence. We need to hear the word of the Prophet entreating God simply to show up and stop the turmoil and destruction of our lives, even if have deserved at least some of it. We need to hear the word of Paul that God has done so in Jesus, and the word of Mark’s Gospel that, one day, God will do so, once and for all, and put an end to the injustice and death, poverty, pain, degradation, and even anger in the world. We need to let go of the words of these texts as mere descriptions of what has been or must be, and let them draw us into an experience of God in Jesus who is with us now and until and beyond the end. For none of these texts are written in descriptive prose. We have two prayers (one of petition and one of thanksgiving) and one narrative that is at least deeply influenced by Jewish literature before, during, and after the time of Jesus, called apocalyptic literature, which uses metaphor and poetic imagination to draw readers into an experience of God.
You have heard me declaim from this pulpit the darkness that has enveloped our country, as we seem set against one another in a way that is not business as usual. We have suffered well over 300 mass shootings in the US (defined as more than 4 dead) this year alone. If I knew stronger polite words than appalling, hellish evil I would use them now. The acts of sexual harassment, abuse, and violence show our incredible thirst for to control others. Rather than making me angry, this breaks my heart. In my view, we are dealing with what are very complex and serious problems with who we are with a limp, dull, one-size-fits all political correctness on one side and a hidebound, violent repression on the other that is an insult to both the intellect and the spirit. I could go on, but I won’t. None of this seems like a good start to a sermon about hope, but it does show that we do, indeed, need a little hope right now. Let’s look at the scriptures to see if we can do better.
I can only imagine that some of the words of our Isaiah text might be something that victims of abuse might say, or the families and loved ones of those slain in mass killings might say or others who suffer violence and lack of respect might say, as they asked for God to show up, breaking the heavens and shattering the earth in the process. We need to read this Advent text from Isaiah out of the pit of that kind of hunger and that kind of deprivation that gnaws at life to create a kind of raw expectation. “Don’t be too angry with us, O God, Don’t keep a permanent account of wrongdoing. Keep in mind, please, we are your people – all of us.” Hope, true hope, is planted in the soil of despair. And it was this hope that the prophets planted and nurtured in God’s people out of the soil of their despair and deprivation. Christians have believed and taught that the first movement in such an irruption of God into the world is seen in the coming of Jesus to earth. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Prophets’ angular hope. It is for just such a disruptive coming of Jesus to meet our need that that Advent prods us to hope. His coming, then, was in the human pain of human birth.
The Gospel Lesson today is Mark’s telling of Jesus’ words about God’s final coming to bring an end to wrong, and an everlasting reign of justice and righteousness into the world. The language is difficult for us because, as I said a moment or two ago, it is clothed in the most obscure metaphors of Old Testament apocalyptic about a figure called the Son of Man, who by Jesus’ day, was understood to be one who was going to be God’s own agent in this final coming to end wrongs and bring God’s everlasting reign to the earth. This would be the time when all the world would be made right. Jesus said that no one knew when all this would happen, but that there would be a good deal of confusion swirling around it, and his disciples needed to be watchful and clever about seeing what is there to be seen. Jesus’ disciples understood him to be this Son of Man, so that the beginning of the end was already upon them. As Eugene Peterson paraphrased Jesus:
Don’t take this lightly, I’m not saying this for some future generation, but this one, too — these things will happen.
As I have said, when we misread this literature, which clothes what we call Jesus’ Second Coming in standard ancient Hebrew apocalyptic metaphors, as sober description of what must be, in an instant we are asked to believe that his coming will transform the present digital age and cyber warfare and put everybody in ancient garb and get out the chariots, spears, and swords. As I say this misreads this literature, designed to tell us simply that “God wins,” into a roadmap of the future, and one more thing Christians fight about.
Reading the Old Testament and the Gospel on this First Sunday of Advent – Hope Sunday – we may allow them to draw us to the fervent longing (a hope) for a day of God’s justice and righteousness, when people won’t have to live with such disrespect, deprivation, violence and inhumanity as we see all around, and have been commonplace for centuries and millennia. But, if we listen, we may also hear that heavenly music of hope that floats o’er all the weary world, promising that, one day, this will surely be. God is in control and will cause justice and righteousness to triumph ultimately.
In the Epistle we have the greeting and a prayer from the Apostle Paul to the congregation in Corinth. The passage is very much like what occurs also in Paul’s other Epistles. First, Paul wishes these people grace (the unmerited favour of God) and peace (fullness of life, shalom). The source of the fullness is the unfathomable grace of God in Christ. In one way or another Paul says this in every one of his New Testament letters.
The apostle then offers a prayer of thanksgiving for the Corinthians based on the gift of God’s grace in Jesus, and issuing in the strength that will be needed until the day when God does finally make things right. Paul’s letter places the church folk in Corinth where church folk ever since have been, in the crack between the prophets’ hope, fulfilled in the first coming of Jesus, and the final victory of God spoken of so pictorially and metaphorically in Mark 13. One writer has said that Christian existence is “between the times.” Between the times is just another name for “down in the crack,” and it’s in that difficult place where hope “sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.” We could use a little hope like that now.
John Shepherd, the former Dean of St. George’s Anglican Cathedral in Perth, Australia, recently summarized what all this metaphor and poetry and prayer in our scripture lessons has to say to us in the real world today. He said three things. If I may paraphrase. 1.There’s a great deal in the world, when measured by the Gospel of Jesus, that isn’t right. It’s unjust, it’s disrespectful, it’s dishonouring of others. 2. It is the business of communities of faith to do what we can to make it right (I’ll say a little about this at the end). 3. If we fail at this task (and we do), that, in the end, God will not.
In the Church Calendar (which we follow here at First Baptist, but with which most of us aren’t overly familiar) we have been celebrating Pentecost – the coming of the Spirit and life in the Holy Spirit of God – since May 15th. Week by week we learn the lessons of what it means to live life breathing the atmosphere of the Spirit. Last week was actually the 25th Sunday after Pentecost. After a while I don’t put this in the bulletin anymore because people get bored with it all. The other name the Church Calendar gives to the time after Pentecost is Ordinary Time. And that it is, also. It is an important lesson to learn that life in the Spirit consists in putting one foot in front of the other day by day – as an ordinary matter.
Now, we’re at a new church year, and we look forward to a new Advent. We look forward, we tingle with hope coming to our own hearts in Jesus, now and finally when God’s Kingdom shall come and God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. As Advent begins we realize that just putting one foot in front of another isn’t enough. We need hope, we need to have faith that God will come to us. And we need to show that we are convinced that this is so by living that way. So, how shall we live? Let me tell you a little story that happened last Monday night at Monday’s Meal. After everyone had been served and was sitting, eating and talking a little boy came up to me and said “You treated me like a king.” We sometime think that, as Americans without a monarchy, we don’t know what a king is all about. But evidently that boy knew (or thought so) that it meant, being met with a smile, being fed a warm meal of roast beef, vegetables and some good desserts in the company of other folks. Perhaps, that’s how we should live. I think that gave him hope and it gave me hope, too.
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.