Hope (Advent 1)
Dec 2nd “Hope” Jeremiah 33:14-16 * Psalm 25:1-10 * 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 * Luke 21:25-36
In preparation for today, I have been searching my memory for Advent memories from my childhood, but don’t really have any. What has mainly stayed with me are memories from Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Advent is the season before Christmas, the time we are now in, which we tend to blend with Christmas into one season. I have vague memories of church decorations and lighting the Advent wreath, but that is about all I remember from church as a kid. I have a couple of memories of practicing for our Christmas musical back when such things still happened in school, but not much. At the risk of extending the sermon time to a painful extent, does anybody have a memory of how differently Advent, not Christmas, when you were a kid? I vaguely remember the one time we took our ’68 Chevy Impala to cut down our own Christmas tree, getting stuck in the snow and sliding around on icy roads, an adventure never to be undertaken again. From then on, our trees came from sellers in town. Another good memory is visiting my grandmother’s house in North Plains, the kitchen table covered with all sorts of homemade candies and cookies, long before she could no longer do such things due to arthritis. But my main memories prior to Christmas Day involve the hard task of waiting for the time to open presents. From the time that first present magically appeared under the tree, even if it wasn’t for me, time just seemed to stop. Waiting for Christmas Day was more excruciating than waiting for the last day of school in Spring. Christmas Day is a day of celebration, but the Advent Season is all about waiting. Maybe if we skipped all the presents and food, we could concentrate more on the greatest gift of the Season: the giving of Jesus to us in that manger long ago. Is that a plan anyone would go for?
The usual them for the first week of Advent is Hope. Hope for renewal, hope for new beginnings, hope that certain things will be concluded, hope that God will keep his promises. All these things and many others we wait for, pray for, and hope that we will see the results of the efforts we have put into them. All these things we look for fulfilment in the coming of Jesus. We wait in hope for God’s will to be done but must accept the fact that what we hope for may not be completed within our lifetime. And so, we hope in something for which we must wait, working towards it, making sacrifices, putting in our time and money. The United Methodist Book of Worship, states the following:
The season (of Advent) proclaims the comings of the Christ—whose birth we prepare to celebrate once again, who comes continually in Word and Spirit, and whose return in final victory we anticipate.
Sure, but who wants to wait? Who wants to wait to open those presents that are just sitting there gathering dust? Who wants to wait for that party tomorrow, so we can try that new recipe that is sitting there on the kitchen counter freshly made? Even in church, we often start singing the Christmas hymns proclaiming the birth of Jesus, but we are not quit there yet. We must wait. We must hope. If we can’t wait for the things we know are coming soon, on a set day, how can we wait for those things that only God knows when will take place?
For now, we wait in this time of “already-but-not-yet”. Jesus has already come once, we have been reconciled to God and our salvation is assured, and yet we must wait until Jesus comes again and makes all things new. And so we take a moment now during Advent to wait, rest when able, and meditate on what this season means, and what the coming of Jesus into our lives means, both now and at the end. Not just when it is time to leave this world, but every day, as we go out and seek to share God’s love and grace with our neighbors, the love and grace that we are freely given through Jesus. Perhaps we can then consider how that love and grace can be leveraged to make our country better, and our entire world better. And we think about this especially today, when we celebrate our Lord’s Supper, remembering his sacrifice for us, but also as we partake of this ancient feast as a people, remembering that we are not alone, but Christ is with us, and that we are one people in the Holy Spirit. Christmas should be a time that brings people together, although for some it doesn’t.
Our Scripture readings during Advent remind us that God has told us in advance that all things will be made new, that one day his justice will prevail, and this all will take place through the coming of Jesus into our world. We are also reminded that God is faithful and will keep his promises. As God promises in the book of Jeremiah:
The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David's line, who will do what is just and right in the land. (Jer 33:14-15 CEB)
That promise has of course been kept, yet perhaps not yet completed. We await the further unrolling of God’s plan for us. Along the way, God promises to provide what we need and guide our steps. As the Psalmist writes:
God guides the weak to justice, teaching them his way. All the LORD's paths are loving and faithful for those who keep his covenant and laws…Where are the ones who honor the LORD? God will teach them which path to take. They will live a good life, and their descendants will possess the land. (Psa 25:9-13 CEB)
Perhaps you too can remember times when the path you were on seemed to be going nowhere or was even hidden and you felt like you were stumbling in the dark. Perhaps that is where you are now. But even during those dark times, God is with us and guiding us into a better place. God not only guides us, but he joins us together on this path, so we don’t have to go it alone. As Paul writes:
How can we thank God enough for you, given all the joy we have because of you before our God? Night and day, we pray more than ever to see all of you in person and to complete whatever you still need for your faith. Now may our God and Father himself guide us on our way back to you (1Th 3:9-11 CEB)
As we celebrate the Advent and Christmas Seasons, we look forward to the times we spend together, and remember those who made our celebrations in the past special. Sure, the presents are and were nice, but the real treasures are the memories of those no longer with us. They may be gone to us now, but as Jesus came once and we now look forward to the day when he will come again, we also wait for the day when we get to see our departed loved ones again.
Our Gospel lesson reminds us that even though we may anxiously await Jesus’ return, when it comes, that day will bring terror and destruction. Even those who may be headed into glory will experience great tribulation and suffering before all things are completed. But we also wait with a sense of hope, knowing that Jesus will bring in a new age of peace and glory, where righteousness prevails and justice reigns. And so we are not to just sit around waiting, we actively hope for the completion of God’s plan, doing what he has instructed us to do, and trying to save the lost with a greater sense of urgency, for we do not know when that time will come, although we are to watch for the signs. In a world of war, hunger and cruelty, we seek to be bearers of good news, of compassionate acts and words of hope. Our Lord warns us again and again to be prepared, and not get caught unaware. Only God knows when that day will come, so we must act like it could be coming at any moment. As we await that day, we must stay alert and be ready for Christ’s return. Jesus says:
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away. Take care that your hearts aren't dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life. Don't let that day fall upon you unexpectedly, like a trap. It will come upon everyone who lives on the face of the whole earth. Stay alert at all times, praying that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen and to stand before the Human One." (Luk 21:33-36 CEB)
The longer we wait, the more likely we are to become lazy, forgetful, or doubtful. Being ready for what is to come takes discipline and effort. As we head into a new year, this is a good time to recommit ourselves to daily Bible study and prayer. This is a good time to review why we are here as church and plan out what we want to do in Christ’s name in the near future. We work towards making ourselves more holy and in alignment with God’s plan for us, while we also look outward, seeking to be a blessing to our neighbors as we seek to show the world what faith in Jesus truly means, as we try to transform our world with love and grace. And so we ask ourselves:
How can we adequately communicate a message of hope to people in our congregation and community who are facing all sorts of discouraging circumstances?
At a time when the political climate of the nation is one of division, what seems to be the mission these Scriptures call us to fulfill?
Where do we see signs of the coming kingdom?
The season of Advent calls us to live in joyful expectation of a new thing God promises to do through the coming Savior. What are some possibilities for new initiatives that will make a difference in our surrounding community?
Are we ready for Jesus to return in judgement?
During the Advent and Christmas Seasons, we sing the ancient hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” “El” is one the many names of God, a very old and somewhat generic name. “Emmanuel” means “God with us”, whose coming is prophesized in the book of Isaiah. Jesus is our Emmanuel, the one from God who is always with us. While we wait for his return, while we live through the good and bad that life brings, Jesus is with us. As we celebrate the Lord’s Supper this morning, we remember that he is always with us. As we await the day when he returns in final victory, his presence fills out lives with love and hope.
If you are like me, you have seen enough Christmases that the thrill is not as great as when we were kids. I now mainly look forward to the time off from work. As we get older, the fun isn’t so much in the receiving, but in the giving. Our joy comes from creating good memories for those we love. During this Advent Season, may we celebrate Jesus coming to us, but may we also share that greatest of gifts with those who need him, also.