Sunday, 11 December 2016

Hopeless

This sermon was given at the evening service on 11th December 2016, Advent III. It was born out of contemplation about the meaning of Advent, and personal thoughts about the world we find ourselves living in today.

I wonder if you, like me, have not been feeling too festive yet so far this year?

Perhaps it is just me. I know the busy-ness of my day-job has not helped – I’m used to things at work starting to wind down for Christmas some time near the end of November, as projects tie up their lose ends for the year, and people start to finally use their holiday hours that they’ve not had chance to take yet. Not so this year – things at work are still in full-swing, and there seems no wind-down in sight! 

If I think about it, that’s actually pretty consistent with world-events this year too. The whole year has been a barrage of Very Important News bashing on our doors, hollering for our attention. Normally in the summer, we get a few weeks of respite – known as the Silly Season – where things all seem a bit calmer and more frivolous, and we hear about the face of Christ being found in someone’s toast, or perhaps the face of Victor Meldrew being seen in the heavens. Not so this year. No – with countless celebrity deaths, with Brexit, and then the run-up to the US elections, there has been no space left for whimsy, and no respite from the tumult of despair and doom, of hate and fear clamouring for us to take notice. It’s been so tiring.

And so, here we are, three weeks into the season, and I’ve not had time for Advent yet. I’ve been too weary, too busy, too worried by news of a resurgence of the far right and racism across the UK, Europe and the US to think about Advent. It can all seem so hopeless.

Hopeless, by Roy Lichtenstein
Advent, as we know, is a time of waiting. And we can get caught up in a Christmas-card-like view of what the world was like back then, 2000 years ago, the world patiently waiting for Christ to be born, with baited breath and a sense of hush and awe. We hear it in our Christmas carols, too:

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!”

“The world in solemn stillness lay, to hear the angels sing”

Silent night, holy night; all is calm, all is bright”

I love all those carols, but whilst those lines may speak of something spiritual, of angels and Heaven hushed in anticipation, I don’t believe that they’re describing a physical reality of the world into which Christ was born. Christ was not born into a world of peace; he was born into a world of change, amidst the chaos of an international census. He was born as an oppressed minority of a militaristic conquering regime. I can’t believe the circumstances of his birth were peaceful either – a teenage refugee girl giving birth on the floor of a barn, with no midwife around to assist is never going to be a peaceful occasion, no matter how you dress it up.

No, the world was not waiting in hushed tones. It was weary, busy and fearful. It was a world deep in the tumult of despair and doom, of hate and fear.

Perhaps, then, I am feeling seasonal, if not festive as such. I’m certainly feeling some of those similar concerns about the future that those inhabitants of 1st Century Palestine must have felt. And it feels like the world now has similar worries about our world rulers and their attitude to justice and mercy as they did back then.

Then, just as now, for many, many people things seemed hopeless.

But, Advent is not just about waiting. The word means ‘coming’, and that concept has more to it than just waiting – there is also a sense of hope. Advent is a season of hope. And God knows, reflecting back on 2016, and looking towards next year, the world needs hope.

Hope is an interesting word. You might have used it quite a lot recently when writing your Christmas cards – ‘hope you have a lovely Christmas’. We use it to mean a wish, a desire. Very often, we use it against expectation. I very much hope 2017 will be a better year for the world than 2016 has been. You may not be surprised to learn that, with Trump about to enter the White House, and the full impact of the ugly rhetoric of the presidential debate, and the Brexit fight yet to be realised, I fear my hope is unfounded.

The world doesn’t need that kind of hope. That kind of hope is empty.

The hope we hold onto, and bring back to mind in Advent is different. Its meaning is almost the opposite of that the world gives it. You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘a sure and certain hope’, used in the funeral service. It’s an odd phrase – certain hope. The writer of the book of Hebrews talks about the ‘full assurance of hope’. This spiritual hope is not wishful thinking; it has a certainty, a strong foundation. It is built on solid ground.

Our hope is not in the innate goodness of humanity. Or that common sense will prevail. Our hope is in the Lord, maker of Heaven and Earth. It is built on the foundation of his birth as one of us, and on the full assurance that he will return.

This is the hope that we find in Advent – that God is amongst us, born as one of us, alongside of us. We remember a time when the world waited for that – not patiently, but crying out in psalms of lament. We assuredly hope for Christ’s return – his promised return. And we renew our prayer for his advent in our hearts. This is the hope the world needs. A world so very much like it was, 2000 years ago, despite all our technological and scientific advances. The hope of a God who came down, who will come back, and who is born anew in his people each and every day.

I quoted O Little Town of Bethlehem earlier. I hope you’ll allow me to do so again – as a prayer for us this Advent season:

O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today.

Amen

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