Advent 1 (01-12-2019)

Because God Does Not Give Up on Us, We Can Have Hope

Read Isaiah 2:1-4; Psalm 122 & 123 & Matthew 24: 36-44

Today is the first Sunday in Advent: the season of waiting, the season of anticipation, the season for recognising the presentness of God in the one called Jesus of Nazareth, the human face of G-O-D.

Unlike the northern hemisphere of our world, where the church liturgical calendar was first shaped, today is at the beginning of summer. We miss the impact of days growing shorter and cooler, waiting for the winter solstice to reverse the dimming of the days, and thus we also miss out on the experience of rejoicing as the light breaks into the darkest time of the year.  This is the reason the Church chose December 25th to celebrate Jesus’ birth, so we in the southern hemisphere have to find a different symbol for Christmas.

Of course, summer in Australia is a natural time for celebration anyway. Even in times of drought or flood or bush fire; even in the face of these, there is new life and new growth to be seen, ripeness and richness, as plant and bush and tree display their many colours against the brown of this great south land. Nature is a gift in early Summer in Australia. And we anticipate its arrival eagerly, but Christmas is presented in quite a different context.

Yes, today is the first Sunday in Advent and also the first Sunday in the new church liturgical year, but the readings set down in the Common Lectionary for today seem to have little to do with our perceptions of either Advent or the coming Christmas season or the start of a new year. For instance, if we look at Matthew, today’s reading comes about 9/10ths of the way through the book; closer to the end of the story than to the beginning, so it comes to us totally out of context. These readings paint diverse pictures of a world quite different from ours today. And not only that, these readings are not directed to a time thousands of years later, into our time, as seems to be assumed by those who shaped the Lectionary, so what are we to glean from them for today?

Theologian John Cobb suggests that those who have selected these passages “understand Advent to be the season of anticipation, of expectancy, and hope generally… (And) in all the texts the hope is grounded in faith in God.” As hope is the theme for the first Sunday in Advent, I think we have our answer.

The hope which keeps us going is far deeper and more fundamental to our faith than we realise. “Hope has survived repeated disappointments in the past.  It will survive many more in the future.  It will do so as long as we believe in the biblical God,” says Cobb.

But hope is a slippery concept, as I found when I was studying for the ministry and made it my year-long thesis topic in my final year.  Many of the things that typically would be categorised as hopes are not really.  St. Paul said, “hopes that are seen are not hopes,” which tends to eliminate almost every one of our ‘hopes’.  We usually follow the words, “I hope” with an object; e.g. I hope I get a new bicycle for Christmas or I hope my wife’s sore shoulder improves or I hope peace comes to the world one day. True hope, in St. Paul’s mind, has no object; one simply hopes, and leaves the nature of the outcome to God.  In other words, one simply has faith, and hope follows.

It would also be a mistake, however, to assume that hope depends on God acting independently of human beings. In my experience, God does not act in history except through human beings. This realisation can be a bit of a shock to those who believe God is all-powerful or could ‘do something’ in various situations.  How does this work? It is quite simple really. If, in faith, I hope, I will then act according accordingly.  In other words, despite all signs to the contrary, I will pursue life in the way of Jesus.  I will live as if I lived in the kingdom of God, despite the absence of any signs of its presence.  If I actively live in hope, there is the chance the world will change, but if I don’t, the chances for a better words become that much slimmer.

John Cobb explains his comment a bit more: “God works in (people’s) hope for peace and justice, but the world turns to violence and oppression. Still God’s work is not futile. Here and there it succeeds, encouraging the hope for wider and more inclusive success.  That success depends on our response to God’s invitation to share in the achievement of God’s purposes. And our hope depends on the assurance that God does not give up on us.”  

Despite frustration and disappointment, we are still called to be a people of hope. Hope is what is handed down from parent to child to grandchild, etc, not merely as a package passed from one generation to another, but as hope which is alive in parent, child and which is now alive in the child of the third generation.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent; a time of waiting… a time of change… a time of hope.

Indeed, as I have already suggested, in none of the Three Year Lectionary stories set for the first Sunday of Advent are three stories of babies or shepherds or stars or lullabies. Rather, today’s readings are saying that the world, as we know it, is about to change. Their message is ‘wake up, pay attention, get ready’; strange words, but maybe we need something jarring to lift us out of our complacency and wake up to something new.

So, in the face of waiting, of change, yet in the continuation of hope itself, listen to a couple of ‘continuing hope’ stories.

In Dresden, the German city that was devastated by the fire bombing at the end of the World War 2, there was a wonderful discovery. Found in the ruins was a musical score that had survived the fire and devastation.  It was the score to Albinoni’s ‘Adagio for Strings and Orchestra in G Minor’.

In the midst of this devastation of war – the very worst that we do to each other – there survived something of the most beautiful that we create for each other. So the Albinoni piece became a sign of hope.  And it has been used that way.

During the siege of Sarajevo during the Balkans War, the city was shelled month after month, every single night. On one of those nights a group of people standing in line in front of a bakery were waiting to buy bread. A mortar shell fell right in the middle of them. Twenty-two people were killed. Innocent people. Hungry people.  Wanting to buy bread.

“It’s good to hope; it’s the waiting that spoils it.” (Yiddish Proverb)

A few days later, at the same spot, in front of the burned out bakery, a man named Vedran Smailovic placed a chair, and began to play his cello. For 22 days he played his cello, one day in memory for each one of the people who had been killed at that spot.

Now the gesture itself was wonderful, playing music. But what gave it deeper significance is  the music he played each day was the ‘Adagio for Strings and Orchestra in G Minor’.

It is told that when God finished with Creation, God had a desire to leave something behind, just a small piece of divinity and wholeness so humans could experience this delight. But God was a bit of a trickster too, so God didn’t want this to be too easy for human beings.

God wasn’t sure, at first, where to put this special something, so God consulted the other living things in creation.  Someone suggested in the stars and God replied, “No, I have this feeling that one day humankind will explore space and they will find it.”

Someone else suggested hiding it in the depths of the ocean. God thought about it for a moment and answered, “No, I sense that some day humankind will explore the deepest places in the seas.”  Again, it was too easy.

Then suddenly, God had it! “I know where I’ll put this special something, a place where they will never look!  I’ll hide it in the human heart; they will never look there.” And so it was. And so it has been ever since.

Hope.  We have it.  Without it, we can not live. Advent hope calls to us to breathe, to pause, and to shake off the doldrums and fear.  For this Advent hope, first announced by angels to shepherds, means that despite appearances, men of violence are no longer in control of history; that those who would seek to determine history’s outcome through violence will never succeed. When the angels announced the coming of the Christ to the shepherds their first words are ‘fear not’.

Fear not.  And step into the mystery of life, the whole of life.

(Click here to listen to Albinoni’s Adagio as you reflect upon the nature of hope.)

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