Advent I, November 30, 2014

Isaiah 64:1-9

I want to speak about hope today, the theme of our first Advent candle.  Call it a follow-up to last week’s too depressing sermon.

It seems to me that hope is underrated.  Of the big three, hope, faith, and love, we spend a lot of time thinking about the other two, not so much about hope.  But it may be the key spiritual question of our time.

One way of looking at church history, of understanding the changing perspectives on Christian faith in the changing conditions of history, is to consider what is the one central question that dominated people’s spiritual life.  In the early church, the theme may have been: how can I be set free from the grasp of death, in an Empire that colluded with death to control the population – think of the martyrs. At various times in the Middle Ages, it may have had to do with sin: how can I become worthy of God? For the Reformation, the key question was how do I find a gracious God?  In modern times, it has been how do I find God at all, how do we believe in God with integrity in the face of science and atheism?  For many of us, this is still a key question.  But there is another question that is emerging, and may be even more urgent: how can we find hope for the future?

Think about it: we have made ourselves masters of the world. We have developed a brilliant technological civilization with a kind of can-do attitude.  Whatever the problems, from feeding the hungry to curing cancer, we seek a technological solution. It has brought us great things.  But it has also brought us to a point where the problems facing humanity are so big – environmental, economic, social, political – and our collective ability and will to cope with them seems so inadequate.  Our usual coping strategy – more and better technology – seems to have found its limits here. It will doubtless have to be part of the solution, but alone it seems unable to haul us out of our mess.  Like no generation before us, we are conscious of the crucial need to act to save the world – and the responsibility is crushing us.  The result is a prevailing helplessness and hopelessness that leaves people burnt out, or cynical, or indifferent.

This is a world that needs the season of Advent, needs to hear those powerful texts we come back to at this time of year.  Take the words of today’s first reading:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence

What a powerful, haunting, violent image that is: God ripping open the fabric of the sky to come down to earth. The violence reflects the intensity of the longing; the injustice on earth has become so great that we long for God’s sudden, mighty appearance to put an end to it.

Τhis reminds me of the beginning of the 12 step program: healing can begin only with the recognition that we are powerless, that our lives have become unmanageable, and that only the intervention of a higher power can restore us.

These haunting verses from Isaiah are the basis of a beloved German Advent carol, O Heiland reiss den Himmel auf – O Saviour, rip open the heavens. The author, Friedrich Spee, was a Jesuit who lived in the early 1600s.  It was a dark time in German history, as his homeland was being ravaged by the Thirty Years War.  And there was another injustice abroad, which became the central concern of his life.  He served as the confessor for women imprisoned for witchcraft.  On the basis of that experience he wrote a strong and passionate attack on the current practice of witch trials, and a critique of torture as an interrogation technique.  Now it is no coincidence that a man so concerned with, so sickened by the cruelty and injustice of his own day, should look to this passage as the basis of a hymn.  It is a cry from the heart of a man tormented by the violence and injustice of the world he lived in.

Now we need to be careful.  Talk of this hope that God will come and set things right can feel like an easy way out, like a cheap optimism that is no more than denial.  As though we didn’t have to worry about the state of the world, because it’s not really that bad – or even, because Jesus will come back and bail us out of the mess we’ve made.  This kind of optimism just leaves us in our complacency and inaction, and we ought to distrust it.

But hope is not the same as easy optimism.  In the Biblical understanding, hope is not a thoughtless, don’t-worry-be-happy conviction that everything is going to be fine. It is something grounded on firmer ground than that: it is grounded on the reality of God. Hope is the insight that when all our calculations are done about what we can do to make the world a better place, there is still one huge reality that has not shown up in our calculations: God. Hope is, quite simply, the insight that there is more future than we can see.  We reckon up the factors in any situation – in the state of the world, or of our own lives – and often, the chances don’t look good.  Hope reminds us that there are always new possibilities to come, possibilities we cannot yet see.  If we believe that God is alive and engaged and at work in the world, then we have to move beyond the closed circle of our calculations, and reckon with something more.

This kind of hope does not let us off the hook, as though we could leave it all to God.  Friedrich Spee’s example reminds us of that.  Longing for God’s redemption is not an excuse to do nothing, but the basis to engage more boldly in the work of seeking justice today. We are still on the spot to work and think and care and speak out with all our energy. It is hope that first releases our energy, as it frees us from the paralysis of thinking we have to have all the solutions ourselves.  It stirs us to a holy restless, a conviction that there is more to life than what the powers of this world offer us.

The tradition holds out that promise – a promise we celebrate in Advent – that in the end God will come and set all things right.  In our present time, however, we would do well to look for God at work in less spectacular, but still powerful ways: as new possibilities being born in our midst.  God’s Spirit is at work in the world in millions of men and women who stand up to the darkness by acts of compassion and defiance.  God’s Spirit is at work in our lives in strangers and friends who may open new doors.  The call of Advent is to wake up, open our eyes, see and share hope – and know that we are not alone.