Today as we begin the season of Advent - the four weeks of spiritual preparation before Christmas - I am reminded of a pastor colleague I once knew who shared the story of reviewing the themes of the Advent candles to his church’s children. He asked, “Who can tell me what the four candles in the Advent wreath represent?” A 7-year old quickly piped up, ‘There’s love, joy, peace… and… and…” At this point another child excitedly broke in, “I know! Peace and quiet!”
Advent is anything but quiet! Hope, the great theme lifted up for reflection this first week, is also anything but quiet.
Our Advent gospel reading from Mark opens with images of a darkened sun, stars falling from heaven, the heavens being shaken, with the Son of Man descending with the clouds with great glory and power, sending out his angels to gather the elect from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. It seems strange that in the first week of Advent we are called to reflect on a passage that describe the end of times. We are reminded that Jesus’ second return echoes the chaos of the time when Jesus first came to earth. A time composed of nearly five centuries of foreign oppression, corruption in the Temple leadership, topped off with the evil deeds of a King Herod.
This passage from Mark today is positively tame compared to what comes right before it: which warns of: “wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, and kingdom against kingdom… earthquakes in various places; famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” Mark 14: 7-8
What does hope have to do with such terrifying images? Where do we find hope in our present times – which appears similar to the oppressive actions our brothers and sisters in the faith encountered in the first century?
We enter Advent with the weight of the unfinished business of centuries and we called to find hope. Hope is the feeling of expectation or desire for something to happen. It is to yearn for something. A hope for healing and restoration. A Hope for better times. A hope for the gospel values to triumph. We are told there are no hopeless situations, said author Clare Booth Luce. Just people who have lost hope. Advent is our time to recover hope.
To nurture hope-- our advent task for this week-- Jesus says – Be Alert! See the signs of difficulty around you as a call to hope. As people of faith in Jesus, we see the blossoming of the fig tree as a portent that spring is near, so the signs of the time call us not to despair but to action. It’s an opportunity to persevere in faith. Hope, grounded in the present, orients us toward the future – it motivates us to positive action. Hope sees the invisible, feels the intangible and achieves the impossible.
Advent challenges us not to withdraw from the world in some commercial frenzy, but to share in the yearning of those who are struggling and suffering, for that in breaking of God’s love and justice into our hurting world. Thus, the first tool we are to grasp in this journey is hope. Hope in something more than what money can buy. For all the beauty of the season, we are to first adorn ourselves with hope.
Many people see signs of the end times in the world today, as the early Christians saw in their hurting world. There are wars and rumors of wars. Earthquakes and famines. Neighbor turning against neighbor. Violence and sickness and sadness. Death and despair. Financial ruin and marital strife. Some would even passively sit back and let the apocalyptic drama unfold. This is not hope. For centuries people have felt they were living through the end times, because humankind has never been able to eradicate injustice. Advent seeks to call us out of passivity and apathy with the experience of hope.
Each of us is called to practice hope. To not let the world’s woes crush us. We struggle with hope because, just in looking back of this year 2017, with one month left to go, listen to what we have lived through:
-The destruction caused by Hurricane Maria, Irma and Harvey
-And powerful earthquakes in Mexico, Iran and Iraq
-Monsoon flooding in Bangladesh, flooding in Sierra Leone, China, Zimbabwe, Peru, South Asia and Sri Lanka,
-Mudslides and landslides in Colombia in the Congo
-Avalanches in Afghanistan & Pakistan
-Deadly wildfires on the West Coast
-Terrorist attacks in Damascus, Aleppo, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Egypt, Syria, Manhattan. --- Domestic mass shootings in Las Vegas, and Texas
Wait there’s more:
Grave Humanitarian crisis:
-of human trafficking,
- the starvation and drought in east Africa (the worst since WWII)
-increase in the number of refuge and migrant deaths,
-ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims,
-our own crisis on the Homefront against immigrants, the resurfacing of white supremacists, battle for healthcare, and now unfair tax legislation that favors and pits the rich against the poor.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, isn’t it? We can be here all day naming terrible things that have haunted us.
So here we are. Living in our own form of apocalypse – where suffering has gone on too long and nothing changes. Where we face compassion fatigue. Yet the hope of Jesus inspires us, in the midst of the evil and chaos, not to give up. To be that single candle in the darkness. That change is possible. That God has forever and always will actively intervenes in our world – in our hearts -- to bring forth divine justice. Be alert, Jesus says. Raise your heads. I’ll show you how it’s done, he tells us. Hope is ignited, Hope is proved, in the absence of what we long for. Listen to what some great men who have fought the good fight have told us about hope:
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said in the midst of a lifetime of oppression, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
Rev. Desmond Tutu, said in the midst of fighting apartheid, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”
Former President Barak Obama said, in the face of economic turmoil and national troubles, “I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting." Let us be certain that hope is not a passive experience. It is not quiet! Hope is proactive, subversive and stubborn.
So, Advent hope points us to Bethlehem. Hope reminds us that Jesus was not born in happy times but in the midst of centuries of foreign occupation. He was born in a stable because there was not enough hospitality, because there was no room in the inn. Jesus and his family had to flee and become refugees in Egypt, because of King Herod’s murderous threats. Jesus embodied hope, not just in the manger, but nailed to the cross – yet hope endured. Jesus brings the gift of hope for our weary souls, and helps us to stand and be alert with hope, in face of all that lies before us.
Hope today reminds that like Jesus, we are not to settle for peace and quiet. In Advent, we are called to rediscover hope – we are anointed to be hope bearers. With our hearts alert to hope, we lift up our heads and see all that is there, despite of the darkness. So let infinite hope to give us courage to keep on moving forward share the saving love of God in our yearning world. Thanks be to God!