Advent 1: Hope vs Despair

“What Does it Mean to Be a People of Hope? Hope vs. Despair,” Susan Ryder

Jeremiah 33:14-16
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.

Luke 21:25-28
There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

Both of the lectionary passages for this first Sunday of Advent reflect a time when people were in crisis. The passage from Jeremiah begins with his making claims about the redemption of Judah and Israel, even as Nebuchadnezzar’s armies approach. He does this from the courtyard of King Zedekiah, where he had been arrested and imprisoned by the King for all of the dark “doom and gloom” prophesies he’d been going on and on about. The King got sick of all the bad news coming from Jeremiah, so he locked him up hoping to shut him up. Ironically his arrest perked Jeremiah right up, and he began making promises for a hopeful future, all in the face of inevitable collapse. Before his arrest, God instructed Jeremiah to buy a field as a symbol of future hope. His purchase came at a time when all the real estate in Israel was at rock-bottom prices due to the fact that the whole land would soon be over-run by Babylonians. Jeremiah bought a field as a way of showing that he had hope they’d be back some day. Holding property in the Promised Land would make sense again, one day. And now, with the enemy at the gate, Jeremiah shared God’s promises and the hope on the horizon – encouraging his people not to despair.

Katie Munnik writes that Jeremiah’s hope isn’t “that things can return to normal again for Jerusalem. The threat is too great. Jerusalem will fall and the surrounding towns and villages will be razed. Jeremiah’s hope, instead, is for complete renewal; of new life from a dead stump. So, not rose-colored glasses hope, but gutsy the-doors-are-crashing-in-and-I’m-going-to-sing hope. It’s a real hope for renewal and righteousness. And none of this is Jeremiah’s idea – this restoration is the fulfillment of promises God has already made to the people. That’s why the prophet is singing. It is as if in this moment of threat he can finally see clearly. The restoring righteousness he sings of is a glimpse of the upside-down kingdom that will come. It is because God will renew Jerusalem that Jeremiah can sing in the moment of her destruction. The coming future shapes his present completely.”

In the Luke passage we hear a similar voice of hope and promise reaching out to a persecuted people living in despair at the mercy of their conquerors. And what is Luke saying? We naturally hear this text about signs of sun and moon and stars as physical signs and events. But the text is also about emotional and psychological signs in our interior lives as much as it speaks about what may happen in the physical world. The “roaring of sea and waves” is a symbol of the “primordial chaos” resurging. People who are “faint from fear and foreboding” references the breath of life. Thus for Luke the apocalypse is not some future event, but a present one. Everyone lives in a situation of impending doom — apocalypse. At one time or another, for every person on earth, everything that used to feel solid and sure will start to come apart. Paul Tillich called this “the shaking of the foundations.” And it is during those times in particular we are called to hold our heads up, not bury them in the sand and hide. It is during those darkest times that we are called to sing a hopeful song. Even now.

This is how Advent begins – with hope. The people for whom these words from Jeremiah and Luke were intended, though centuries apart, were living in dire, difficult situations, and the intent of both passages was to give them hope, something to hang onto in the midst of their despair. They were struggling, but there was hope within their struggle. So these passages fit well with the first Sunday of Advent, not to mention the entire season, the heart of which is about waiting with hopeful anticipation. And they fit well in our current times, as we embrace the apocalyptic language as the poetic speech of those who, like us, are straining toward hope during very dark times. “Jesus declares that signs will be visible in the sun, moon, and stars. The nations will be distressed and confused by roaring seas and mighty waves. Something — no, someone — is coming, and the heavens will be shaken. Look up. Raise your heads. Your redemption is coming. Be on guard, be alert, pray. This earthshaking, heaven-rattling advent of the Human One will bring the justice and beauty that we and the entire created order crave.” (William H. Lamar IV)

Frank Carlson says, “This is no mushy, sentimental hope. It is hard-won hope, born in exile, when there was no evidence that things were going to get better. It’s the hope of the prisoner, longing for release. The hope of the parent, that their child will come home. It is living in expectation of what is not yet able to be seen. In these days, when it would be easy to fall into despair, the invitation is to keep turning toward hope. To trust that we are not alone; that Love does abide. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary. And if holding on to hope right now seems impossible to you, seems too big a task to bear; if putting one foot in front of the other is all you can do right now, then keep on doing that, and don’t feel bad about what you aren’t able to do. Trust that there are others here holding the hope for you, we will watch with you until you are ready to take up hope again.”

Around the world, and for thousands of years, members of our human family have found ways to say: “You are not alone. Others have journeyed the place where you find yourself, and we journey with you now.” There are many ways for us to give one another strength, courage, love, and hope in the midst of despair. In this congregation, we make one another brave; we give one another peace; we hold hope for one another. As theologian Paul Wadell says, “Hope has to be seen to be believed. It has to be made visible. It has to be something we can feel and touch. We are called to be persons who embody hope for one another. We have to be each other’s partners in hope.” The slip of paper we filled out earlier is how we’ll be partners in hope today. They will be the plot of land we buy with Jeremiah, the growth that comes from a seemingly dead stump. Bob is going to bring the basket around with the slips of paper you wrote on. Please only take one of the slips IF you put one in the basket earlier. If you happen to get your own, put it back in the basket and select another one.

You are holding someone’s struggle, and their hope. Take a moment to read those words. You don’t know who wrote them. This struggle and hope could belong to the person you most admire in our community; they could belong to the person sitting next to you, or someone you hardly know. Take those words in and offer up loving kindness to the unknown person who made him or herself vulnerable. Let us now be each other’s partners in hope. As we pass the microphone around, please read out loud ONLY the hope written on your paper you selected. After you read it, all of us will respond “We hold the hope for you.”We’ll repeat that after each hope is read.

Please take that piece of paper home with you, and put it somewhere so you’ll encounter it often during this season of Advent. When you do, imagine the person who wrote those words of struggle and hope, hold them in the light; send them your loving kindness. Keep holding the hope for them. Let us move forward, our lives and hearts interconnected in life-giving ways, grateful for this community of vulnerability, truth, and hope. For hope opens us to the future but releases us into the present. Advent draws our eyes toward the horizon as we watch and wait for the Christ who comes to us. When we are in despair, looking toward the horizon with hope and anticipation is no small feat. Instead of luring us away from the present, however, Advent invites us more deeply into it, where the kingdom of God is at work even now. This is the nature of the hope that Advent cultivates in us. Rich with memory and infused with expectation, hope calls and enables us to work here and now, in company with the Sacred who is already about the work of the kingdom in our midst.

Blessed are you
who bear the light
in unbearable times,
who testify
to its endurance
amid the unendurable,
who bear witness
to its persistence
when everything seems
in shadow and grief.

Blessed are you
in whom the light lives,
in whom
the brightness blazes—
your heart
a chapel,
an altar where
in the deepest night
can be seen
the fire that
shines forth in you
in unaccountable faith
in stubborn hope
in love that illumines
every broken thing
it finds (Jan Richardson)