Sermon - Advent 1 Year C - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
Looking forward in hope and fear
We hope for renewal in church and society. It is close to being an eternal condition of humanity that we look forward in hope, even if sometimes our hope is mixed with fear. Then there are special times when hope seems quite natural, even expected. As we look forward to the celebration of Christmas in this new season of Advent we naturally adopt a hopeful attitude. It has even became a part of the common culture of our society: people expect to be happy, especially in this season. Although they might fear that the reality could be different, they make a special effort at cheerfulness in the time before Christmas. That is interesting because traditionally Advent was like Lent, a time of prayer and fasting to prepare for the great festival when there would there would be good cheer as the restrictions were lifted in the celebrations of the feast day, and "Merry Christmas" could be meant quite literally.
The lessons today are about that understanding of God which developed first in ancient Israel, that God is one who comes to meet his people. You do not have to climb up to heaven by your own efforts. Towers of Babel don't work. He will gladly come to meet you as Jesus taught in the parable of the Prodigal Son whose father ran down the road to meet him when he came trudging home in fear and shame. Jesus taught that God comes in love and power, and being the Word made flesh, he showed in his own life how God reached out to people. But the lessons today from Jesus' teaching and from Paul are mainly about that other coming in power which is sometimes called the second coming; it is about how in the end God will come in power and judgement, when Jesus the Messiah is revealed as the Lord who will be our judge. Because he must by his own nature come in love as well as power he is both our judge and our redeemer. Luke's report brings in both fear related to that power and also confident love in response to the promise of deliverance:
If we are to understand God as one who comes to us, we need to have in mind both his coming at Bethlehem and the promise of fulfilment in the coming of his Kingdom when all is completed. When Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God he was bringing a message of hope. So his first coming looks forward to the completion of his work in the end when the hope is fulfilled. The Gospel is indeed good news. We can look forward to better things. But that is very different from secular ideas of progress which are popular today, because with those secular humanist ideas people put their trust in themselves or in those they follow or in the capacity of humankind in general to achieve fulfilment by our own efforts. The contrast between trust in humanity and trust in God to fulfil his promises in "the end" is clear and dramatic. The difference between humanist hopes and the Christian hope is most clear in light of promises about "the end". He who sent Jesus Christ into the world, because he loved the world, not only welcomes repentant sinners, but he comes to meet them. That was shown in his coming at Bethlehem, but its meaning is to be fully revealed when all things are summed up in "the end". If we take up the Advent theme prepare the way of the Lord, it is not because he will follow us along a path that we prepare, but that he comes to meet us. He welcomes us into his future. That is the ground of our hope. Our hope is grounded on faith on God who came to us in the man born two thousand years ago, Jesus, the Christ, and still comes to welcome us when we look to him, just as he will surely welcome the faithful in the end.
The Christian hope is founded on faith in God. Knowing that he will be seen clearly in the end to be in charge, we can hold up our heads in confidence because we also know that he loves us and will bring to completion the purpose of his creation, which is that we should be in fellowship with him and with one another. But because of our sinfulness it can be a fearful thing to fall into the hands of God. Jesus taught that the coming of the Lord, the coming of the Kingdom, the reign of God, will be a time of fear and foreboding; but we should have confidence that our redemption in near. Judgement and redemption come together, but the judge is our saviour.
Fear and hope in the present day
There is a struggle going on in popular culture between the prophets of doom and the believers in progress. Some point to an ecological crisis, to unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, and to exploitation of the poor and weak by the rich and powerful; we might also see the effects of unemployment, the breakdown of families and the struggles of people living with a deep sense of alienation from society and perhaps from God. Others, indeed the majority of people most the time, really believe that things are getting better, that each successive generation must expect to enjoy more of the world's riches and have greater control of their lives than others had before them, they see virtue in strength and despise those who stand in the way of "progress". [See Do Christians believe in progress.]
Are these contemporary sentiments relevant? Was Jesus talking of something that was going to happen in ordinary human life, within human history, or was he speaking of another world altogether, and a different kind of time beyond history? Will the fulfilment of our hopes and fears be found in the world that we know or in the world beyond? The short answer is that Jesus was teaching about the nature of God who is the same yesterday, today and forever, in his work in this world and the next. Visions of the end tell of things beyond our grasp, but what we learn of God on those visions tells us also of how God relates to us here and now. The fulfilment of the promises of God is in both our time and God's time, and the fulfilment of his purpose for creation will be found by us both in this earth and in heaven, because we are both creatures of the earth and spiritual beings whose true citizenship is in heaven.
People in our society today are very confused about these things, but they are aware of their spiritual nature. There has been an increasing awareness of there being more to life than physical satisfaction and material possessions. People have been speaking of their own `spirituality' a good deal in recent years, and there is much seeking of alternatives, sometimes sadly in old superstitions long since abandoned by Christians. Paganism is increasing as people in the West have lost connection of their Christian roots. The arts and sometimes politics or ideology, take on religious significance and the environmental movement has much of the character of an alternative pagan religion. In this context, for the first time for a generation people began a few years ago in increasing numbers to ask what the Church has to offer, as if there might just possibly be something there, although the popular places to seek spiritual enrichment were still quite different. Unfortunately, the mainstream churches largely missed the opportunity while they were more concerned with social implications of the gospel and with striving for "relevance", not realizing that the most "relevant" message is the plain truth about Jesus Christ, and the public attitude to the church, in our part of the world at least, has turned sour again. All the talk of relevance and mission strategies is pointless when the pearl of great price and the treasure of heaven are left behind, hidden beneath anxious human striving to approach the world on its own terms.
So there have been many disappointments when again too much hope, even in the church, has been placed in what people in general, humanity, and we ourselves in particular can do. One of the things we should all have had thoroughly reinforced out of our experience in recent years, in so far as our hopes have been disappointed, is that it is very easy to say that our hope is founded on trust in God and not in humanity, but we are always inclined to imagine it is all our responsibility. We are recalled again and again to trust in God alone. When we do, blessings come in the most unexpected ways. It was the unexpected character of the coming of the Lord that Jesus spoke about in those parts of the gospel about the coming of the Kingdom such as we read this morning. We might say here it is, or there it is, or now is the time, but the Lord comes into our lives and into our world in ways that we do not expect. Especially when things look threatening, fearful, even overwhelming and hopeless, that is the very time when we can have hope. It was the Danish founder of existentialism, Kierkegaard who said, "We hope only when we cease to hope". It is only when we see that all our human hopes have been built on false foundations that we can begin truly to trust in God. The visionaries of old knew that when the foundations are shaken it is time to expect great things. Jesus said,
But what about signs in the sky?
Is this visionary language of fear and hope helpful to you? How do you react to such imagery:
It was common in the ancient world to look to the sky. It was to "heaven" after all that people would naturally look for signs of things to come. Hence astrology. How many people today study the stars? A modern scientific person might look with disdain on this primitive striving for an understanding of the powers beyond our ordinary world, powers which were believed to shape our lives. But does not that looking to the sky, to heaven as they understood it, at least signify an appreciation of mystery and of the fact that we are dependent beings? It is a very limited but nevertheless genuine striving after the things of God. It could lead on to a greater understanding, if the Gospel is heard, though it can become elaborated into a false religion. Today it is amazing how far that elaboration of astrology and all sorts of associated superstitions can be taken, among people who believe that anything goes as long as it not Christian. It is easy to condemn, but let us not dismiss too quickly the importance of such strivings after truth, however strange and misdirected they might appear. We need to see how it fits in with the message that Jesus gave about God who comes to us. It has ancient roots.
When the Gospel writers, remembering what Jesus had taught, expressed the Christian hope in terms of signs in the sky they were recalling also what had been seen by the ancient prophets. The same imagery is found in abundance in the book of the Revelation. It shows that something of cosmic significance was happening.
[Incidently it is thought that there was an eclipse of the moon, when the moon looks red, at the time of the crucifixion.]
And in the Old Testament:
As we have had reason to recall on other occasions, the idea that `The Son of Man' (the title Jesus took for himself) would come in similar dramatic fashion was well known at the time when Luke recorded similar teaching to that in the prophecy of Daniel:
If we are to put these dramatic symbols into ordinary language in a scientific age we would have to say something like the message from heaven is that the coming of God in Christ is something of cosmic significance, not limited to the human sphere of action or to human perceptions - but perhaps poetic or visionary forms of expression are better after all.
There was a sense of awe, even of dread at such prospect
There is plenty of reason for fear in those ancient images of God coming in power. Yet, the gospel in good news: Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. You might expect good news to be surrounded with talk of love, but when Jesus proclaimed the good news of the coming Kingdom of God, he also gave warnings that people should be ready and that they were in danger. It was not all words of comfort, especially for those who were caught unawares with their mind on other things: worldly concerns that could blind them the things of God.
They had reason to fear as they were distracted and careless, so Paul reminded them of how Jesus taught them to keep away and be ready:
There was fear as well as hope. It can be a terrible thing to fall into the hands of God; he demands justice, as the people of God have always been reminded whenever they fall into distracting ways of comfortable living. Hear the prophet Amos:
The time of Amos was not unlike our time in the West. A rich merchant class had developed, sharing the nation's wealth with the nobility and building themselves elaborate homes. But the common people had no share in this new wealth. Earlier wars had weighed heavily upon them, and now they found themselves helpless before the rapacity of power- and land-hungry upper classes. Small farmers were dispossessed to make possible the development of large estates. Israel, whose strength had been in the mass of its solid independent citizens, was quickly becoming divided into two classes -- the dissolute rich and the embittered poor.
Remember how Jesus spoke of doing things for the least of his children in his parables of the end in Matthew 25 and how Paul prayed for holiness in the hearts of believers as they waited for the coming of the Lord.
Later in the next century after Amos another prophet arose and warned of judgement on the city of Jerusalem which was indeed destroyed soon after, but Jeremiah also looked forward to hope of deliverance and the coming of a messiah, as in the lesson read today. When the Messiah did come people looked back to that promise and remembered it, just as they also remembered the prophecy of comfort from the later Isaiah:
We take up this theme next week when we focus on John the Baptist, who used these same words to warn and encourage. In the end hope triumphs over fear for those who love God, because God triumphs over evil. Be alert then, be ready to greet the Lord, wherever and however he may come to you, and be sure that he will come. That, for the people of God is cause for hope and of rejoicing. So the visionary and an many ways fearful Book of Revelation repeats in conclusion a word of hope with the most primitive prayer of Christians: "Amen. Come Lord Jesus."
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