December 2, 2018
Luke 21:25-36, Jeremiah 33:14-16
“Hope is a Verb”
I am not a fan of winter. I don’t like that it is dark when I get up and when I come home from work. I don’t like being cold. In the spirit of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” one of the things I have done in recent years is make an attempt to just go with it. Winter is the season animals hibernate. So, I decided to try a little hibernation and find things to help me be more inward focused in this season. On dark evenings, I can read and do other things that I enjoy without resenting the lack of light. Rather than rail against the winter season, I begin to find the gifts in it and before I know it, the next season will appear. Soon bulbs will begin to push up through the ground and trees will have green shoots on them. The days will be longer, and signs of spring will eclipse winter.
I know some of you love winter and I don’t want to disparage your favorite season. As winter approaches, we begin the season of Advent each year. And each year, the texts at the beginning of Advent are dire. They are apocalyptic. The word apocalyptic comes from the Greek word apokalupsis which means “uncovering” or “revealing”. The Bible has many examples of this. When we read them, they make us uncomfortable with descriptions of destruction and suffering. In the reading today, Luke says that people will faint from fear and foreboding.
We could easily make a case that we are living in an apocalyptic time now. Evidence of climate change is hard to ignore. Gun violence incidents are so frequent that we are becoming numb to them. Many no longer make headlines. People are starving right under our noses. Addiction is claiming more people than we know. Women and children are being teargassed at our border. War and violent conflicts continue in more than twenty-five countries.
So, what do we do when we are living in days full of despair with little hopeful news? Jesus tells us to “stand up and raise your heads”. He says, “be on guard” and “be alert” at all times. But don’t we need to know what we are looking for? Shouldn’t we have a detailed description so we don’t miss it? I think the opposite is true. Maybe we need to wipe the expectation slate clean to allow God to show up in a form we would never expect.
“Scientists have come up with a little game that demonstrates how difficult it is for us to notice something when we are expecting something else. Here's how it works. You sit down at a table in front of an ordinary deck of cards. They flash six of the cards at you very quickly, and then ask you to identify them as best you can - "Let's see, nine of diamonds, three of hearts, jack of clubs - oops, what was the next one?" Then they repeat the exercise, slowing it down a little so you can get some of the ones you missed the first time.
The third time they go through it so slowly that you begin to wonder if you are in the early stages of dementia because there is one card you still cannot identify. It is not until the cards are all laid face up on the table that you can see what the problem is. The mystery card is a six of spades, only it is red, not black. The deck has been rigged. Someone has changed the rules, rules that prevented you from seeing what was really there. You could not see a red spade because spades are supposed to be black. Sometimes our expectations prevent us from seeing what is right in front of us.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Apocalyptic Figs” p. 157, Bread of Angels)
This season of Advent is a time to enter into the shadows of despair and wait with eyes wide open for the surprising ways Jesus will show up. Each year, we decorate and bake and shop and assume that on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning there will be a sweet infant in our midst. But it may be that Jesus is coming on December 7th or February 23rd or June 19th. It could be that he shows up as a Muslim man who is about to be deported after helping our military prepare to go into Iraq. He could be a drug addict who is taking his first steps to being clean. What if he is a foster child who has been bounced from home to home?
A baby certainly wasn’t the messiah the early religious leaders expected. As an adult, Jesus walked among them and they missed him because he didn’t act the way they thought a messiah should act. I am guessing he is walking among us now. Do we see him?
That is why we light candles in this season. We need a little more light to see the unexpected ways God will appear in our lives.
Bernard of Clairvaux, the twelfth-century abbot and theologian, wrote eloquently of “three Advents”: first of all, the Incarnation, the Advent at Christmas; and last of all, the Parousia, the Advent at the end of the age (Luke’s subject in this week’s passage). And the second or “middle” Advent, the one in between these other two, is the everyday arrival of Jesus: the knock at the door, the still small voice, the lonely prisoner, the hungry mother, the weary refugee, the migrant worker, the asylum seeker. In other words, Jesus is coming again and again, like a thousand spring buds on a fig tree long thought dead. So be alert - lamps lit and dressed for action. Hope is a verb! (http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/advent-week-one-lectionary-commentary)
Jesus is telling his followers that the kingdom is near, and their job is to stay awake so they don’t miss it. I heard that the end of the world is supposed to be June 2019. What difference would it make to live our days with the end in mind? We laugh about these end of the world predictions, but the end of our lives is a reality for all of us. We don’t know when it will be. It will be sooner for some of us than others, but every day can be lived with the end in mind. We can live knowing that God is coming among us but probably not wearing a flowing white robe and sandals. It is also not likely to happen when our calendar says it should.
And so we light a candle of hope today. We open our eyes and look for signs of despair knowing that those also are signs that God is breaking into our world where hope is needed most.
This week, my friend said a shelter volunteer accompanied a migrant woman and child to the airport. A man ahead of them in the security line was watching them and the volunteer dreaded a negative encounter. The man continued through the line while the volunteer and woman and child waited for security clearance from Phoenix. Suddenly the man reappeared and pressed a hundred dollar bill into her hand, asking that she give it to the woman traveling with her child. There are so many good people waiting and watching to do something good.
Could that be us? We don’t have to press hundred dollar bills into the hands of people we see. But we can be alert and watch for signs of God around us. We can be present to the many ways God shows up. Today, we come to a table remembering the way Jesus spent his final night. He gathered a table and told stories and blessed his followers. We leave this table and go into the Fellowship Hall to sit around tables and tell stories. While we are there, we can bless one another. Then we step out into the streets where we are called to be on guard for the unexpected ways God will appear. Hope is found when we keep our hearts open and we are surprised by God yet again. Hope isn’t just something we feel. It is something we do. It is a way of living. Welcome to Advent – the season of hope! Be alert!