This Sermon was preached by the Rev. Nancy Vogele on December 3, 2017, the First Sunday of Advent. The gospel reading was Mark 13:24-37
Jesus said, “In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:24-37)
Welcome to Advent – the beginning of a new church year. Each church has its own traditions around Advent. I grew up in the Congregational Church and each week in Advent, there was a different theme: the first week was Hope, the second week Faith, then Joy, and finally Peace. So today, in the church I grew up in, they are lighting an Advent candle for Hope.
Hope is a key concept in the Christian faith. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the church in Rome wrote a lot about hope.
“For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:24-25)
At the end of his letter, he closes with this blessing, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)
He even mentions Abraham as a great example of faith who “Hoping against hope, … believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations’, according to what was said, ‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’ (Romans 4:18)
In 1st Peter, we are admonished to “Always be ready to give an account for the hope that is within you.” (1 Peter 3:15)
But hope is a tricky thing, isn’t it?
In today’s lesson, Jesus talks about when the Son of Man will come with great power and glory. As mentioned previously, the early Christians believed that Jesus would return very soon and so, they were eagerly awaiting him. They were expectant – hopeful. As time went on and Jesus didn’t return, however, they grew anxious and wondered, “Is he coming or not?” Perhaps some grew cynical. Perhaps some started doubting their faith in him.
And think of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus that first Sunday night after Jesus’ crucifixion. They were “talking with each other about all these things that had happened.” Scripture says that “While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’ They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied, ‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24:14-21)
But we had hoped…
Maybe it’s better not to get your hopes up. After all, it would save us from a lot of heartache and disappointment.
In fact, a key phrase in Buddhism is, “Abandon hope.” This is something Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron talks about a lot. She says that “we are all addicted to hope.” According to her and other Buddhist teachers, hope keeps us from relaxing with ourselves as we are. Hope, with its futuristic vision – that things will be better – causes us to cling to an image of things being different. This understanding of hope robs us of the present moment.
If we’re always holding out hope for some future, we’re not really living our lives, are we? For life is only lived in the present moment.
I really struggle with this concept of hope because I see the truth in what these Buddhist teachers are saying and yet, at the same time, our Christian faith encourages us to hope. Here is how I am resolving this seeming contradiction:
Somehow, hope cannot be divorced from the present moment. If it is, it’s just wishful thinking – a fantasy to keep us distracted.
I want to posit that hope – Christian hope – is connected to the reality of the present but isn’t limited to it. Hope acknowledges what is and then expands our view of it.
Let me give you an example of this. My partner Lynn is a pediatric pulmonary nurse specialist. As such she works with children with any kind of breathing and lung issue, including Cystic Fibrosis (CF). When Lynn meets with parents who have just learned that they baby has CF, she says that her main goal is to always give them hope.
Now, Lynn doesn’t go in to a family and try to be all cheery or say this diagnosis is no big deal. She’s not at all “Polly Anna” in her approach. No, she acknowledges the pain and grief that a diagnosis like CF can cause a family AND she puts their present pain and grief in a bigger picture based on her experience and expertise and based on all the advances in treating CF. In this way, even in the midst of a difficult diagnosis, she gives them hope – real hope.
“For in hope we were saved.” Paul writes. “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:24-25)
Given Lynn’s expertise and experience, she can already “see” the bigger picture beyond that painful moment and so offers hope to those that cannot yet “see” or feel it.
She is able to give an account for the hope that is within her and thus can reassure families in the midst of pain and grief.
Years later, many families recount that moment as having been crucial for them – sacred even.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews calls us to “look to Jesus” to “fix our eyes on him” and “to consider him” so that we will “not grow weary or lose heart” (Hebrews 12:1-3).
Those of us who have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, are called to give an account for the hope that is within us – not in a “Polly Anna” kind of way but real and from the heart. We are called to reassure others when they are in the midst of difficulties and despair.
I know that most of us, myself included, were full of hope for a new pastor being called to Our Savior soon. We had a candidate. But that candidate withdrew from the process and so now, we may be sad or disappointed or angry – perhaps worried.
But I know, based on my experience as a priest and my experience of you, that you will get a pastor and a really good one. So do not lose heart and do not settle for just anyone.
Right now, God is good. Right now, God loves us. Right now, Jesus comes and walks with us – even if, like the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, we don’t realize it…at least not yet.