FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Prayer of the Day: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection alert us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and redeem us for your life of justice, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21:28.
“Signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,” “nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves,” “fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” “powers of the heavens….shaken.” Under these circumstances, I would be inclined to keep my head low. Jesus, however, exhorts his disciples to raise their heads. Despite all indications to the contrary, Jesus assures them that their redemption is near.
This all has a grimly familiar ring to it. I have not seen any signs in the sun, moon and stars lately. But I have been following the assembly of national leaders in Glasgow “confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves,” expressing a good deal of “fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” and seemingly unable to do much about it. It helps to recall that the words of our gospel lesson come to us from two millennia past, long before climate change was a twinkle in anybody’s eye. The attention of the New Testament Church was focused on the impending collision between the people of Israel and their Roman occupiers-a conflict that ended badly for the former. When Jerusalem was taken by Roman forces in 70 C.E. after a failed rebellion, the temple was utterly destroyed. The Romans slaughtered thousands of people in the city. According to the historian, Josephus, who witnessed the event, most of those slain were peaceful, unarmed citizens. These hapless folk were butchered where they were caught. A pile of corpses tossed into the remains of the temple mounted high in front of the altar. Blood streamed down the temple steps. Of those sparred, thousands were enslaved and sent to toil in the mines of Egypt. Others were dispersed to arenas throughout the Empire to be butchered for the amusement of the public. From this vantage point, it is hard to image how the Jews of Jerusalem-among whom were the disciples of Jesus-could find any ground for hope.
But they did. After all, they had survived a prior conquest of their land and destruction of their temple by the Babylonians centuries before-to say nothing of four hundred years of slavery in Egypt, attempted genocide there and generations later under the Persians. When the heavens seem to be falling and the world is on the brink of coming apart, we, like our ancestors in the faith, need to be reminded that we have been here before. This is not untraveled territory. Generations of matriarchs, patriarchs, prophets, kings and apostles have traveled this road before. They have left in their narratives, prayers and preaching all the resources we need to weather the storms in our day. So, when it seems that there is no way forward and everyone else is running for cover, disciples of Jesus raise their heads. They know that salvation is never closer than when it is needed most and that God is never nearer than when there is no other help in sight. That is the sole ground of hope.
Hope must be distinguished from optimism-that blithe assertion that everything comes out right in the end. We know well enough that it does not-at least as far as human observation can take us. As I have often said, I am not a progressive. I do not believe in progress. I believe in Jesus. That is not to say that progress is never made or that the progress we make is insignificant. The Civil Rights Movement and the legislation following in its wake represented a significant step forward for American society. But it does not represent a permanent gain in the ever forward march toward inevitable improvement. As we have seen over the last decade, gains such as legislative protection for access to the polls can be erased with the stroke of a pen. The campaign and presidency of Donald Trump have made painfully clear how deeply imbedded racism is in our nation and how close to the surface it lies. Words and behavior once deemed so reprehensible that they were exhibited only in the darkest corners of locker rooms, sleezy bars and off track chat rooms are now a regular feature of public discourse. Nothing we accomplish for good is safe from reversal. It is far easier to destroy than it is to build. It takes the engineering genius, mechanical skill and hard work of scores of people to produce an automobile. It takes just one drunken fool to wreck it. Years of parental training, medical care and education go into raising a child. It takes just one idiot with a gun to erase it all in a split second. The odds are clearly on the side of violence and destruction.
Hope does not ignore the odds. Hope recognizes, however, that there are factors other than those we can measure statistically involved in every transaction. Hope affirms that in everything there is a “God factor” at work favoring the fragile fruits of doing justice, peacemaking and pursuing reconciliation. Consequently, events sometimes turn in ways we could never have foreseen. Hope knows that some of God’s best work is done in the darkness, like the darkness reigning over the chaotic waters before there was light. Or during the dark night of the first Passover. Or in the darkness of the tomb. We have seen this darkness before, lived in it before and come through it before. It is perhaps more than a coincidence that our church year begins as we (at least those of us in the norhtern hemisphere) approach the longest night. Jesus’ disciples are tasked with showing the world how to walk in the dark.
The darkness we see around us today might be around for a good long time. It might outlive us. But the darkness will not outlive the one who commands light to shine out of darkness and speaks that light into flesh and blood. As real as the darkness of slavery, so real is the Exodus. As real as the cross, so real is the resurrected Christ. Jesus promises us that, though “heaven and earth will pass away…my words will not pass away.” Luke 21:33. Hope clings to these words, holds its head high and walks boldly through the darkness.
Here is a poem about hope by Emily Dickinson about hope.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers
“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.
Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, (c. 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; edited by Ralph W. Franklin, ed., Cambridge, Mass.) Emily Dickinson (1830-1866) is indisputably one of America’s greatest and most original poets. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, she attended a one-room primary school in that town and went on to Amherst Academy, the school out of which Amherst College grew. In the fall of 1847 Dickinson entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary where students were divided into three categories: those who were “established Christians,” those who “expressed hope,” and those who were “without hope.” Emily, along with thirty other classmates, found herself in the latter category. Though often characterized a “recluse,” Dickinson kept up with numerous correspondents, family members and teachers throughout her lifetime. You can find out more about Emily Dickinson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.