For centuries, the church has held to the peculiar notion that the new year begins today, on the first Sunday of Advent, four Sundays before Christmas. Today something new begins. And it’s not just new for those of us who know about it and name it and sing hymns about it and celebrate it with candles and the color purple. It’s new for the world, for human history. "In this season we are at the brink of something utterly new, long yearned for, but beyond our capacity to enact" (See Texts for Preaching, Year A).
Advent is about hope, rooted in something new God did in human history two thousand years ago in Bethlehem and, at the same time, looking ahead to the future in which God will continue to act lovingly, creatively, redemptively. The world, by the way, is impatient to get on with Christmas, to recall the story briefly, and then to be immersed in the year-end festivities. But the church, in its liturgies and hymnody and scripture, invites us to pause; to sit in the darkness for a while before the light is here in all its beauty and brightness; to look both backward into our communal and personal histories and forward to the future and to prepare for the newness of God’s gift of love.
Advent is about hope, and it comes at a moment when the world desperately needs a reason to be hopeful. There is emerging in American culture something of a crisis of hope. Andrew Delbanco, Columbia University professor, wrote a highly acclaimed book, The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, in which he argued that, "our hopes are a measure of our greatness. When they shrink, we ourselves are diminished." Professor Delbanco thinks that our hopes have diminished a lot in recent years. He says that in the early days, the New England Puritans set their hope in God. In the nineteenth century, America placed hope in the nation—"the last best hope of mankind," Abraham Lincoln put it. But in the late twentieth century, America’s hope began to be focused on the self. He writes, "The story of American hope over the past two centuries is one of increasing narrowing." The late twentieth century, he says, "conspired to install instant gratification as the hallmark of hope of the good life. By that time the horizon of hope had shrunk to the scale of self-pampering." Theologian Douglas John Hall, one of the most thoughtful analysts of contemporary North American culture, thinks that a pervasive loss of hope—what he calls a covert despair—is the spiritual hallmark of our time.
Both Delbanco and Hall agree that the evidence of our condition is consistent with what psychology knows about hopelessness and how people without hope behave: namely either destructively or selfishly. We know more about the violent destructiveness that comes from hopelessness then we want to. We know how desperate and hopeless poverty breeds mindless violence. The other manifestation of hopelessness is the desperate search to fulfill the spiritual empty place, where hope used to be, with acquisitions, material goods, stuff.
And against that backdrop, comes the Christian church with its peculiar hopefulness. It is a persistent and resilient hope. And it is very old. All over the Christian world today, congregations are reading and hearing the ancient vision of the prophet Isaiah—about a time when there will be peace in Jerusalem. When nations will stream to the mountain of God. When justice will reign and swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and nations shall not lift up sword against nation. As a matter of fact, when those words were written, Jerusalem was a relatively insignificant operation. And future prospects for Israel were anything but peaceful. But the vision of the prophet is for peace and justice.
Nothing is more essential to the spiritual well-being of a people than the articulation of that hope. The resiliency of our ancient hope is precisely that God continues to break into human history to bring about God’s kingdom and that God’s alternative vision of weapons turned into agricultural implements, of battlefields transformed into fertile wheat fields, is absolutely necessary for our survival.
So yes, Advent hope is real hope, serious hope. And yes, sometime it is remote, so remote that it feels unreal, almost silly. But down across the centuries, God’s people have held tightly to that hope, and it has given them resiliency and courage and life itself, even in the darkest and most hopeless situations.
We need the hopeful vision of Advent as never before. Be ready, Jesus said. Stay awake and alert because you don’t know when God will show up. No one, after all, expected God to come in a humble birth in the out-of-the-way little town of Bethlehem. Nobody much recognized God’s presence in Jesus later, as he taught and healed and confronted and challenged. And even fewer recognized God incarnate as he was betrayed, arrested, tried, convicted, and crucified. Be ready and awake and alert because no one knows how and when God will appear. What we believe and trust is that God will come and is always coming, that God is an active participant in human history and our personal histories. We don’t know how or when—but we trust that God will come again into our lives with love and forgiveness and reconciliation and healing. That’s what hope is. That’s what Advent is about.
One of my favorite movies is The Shawshank Redemption. Red, played by Morgan Freeman, reflects about his friend who has recently dug a tunnel out of the prison where they are incarcerated and is heading for Mexico, “Some birds aren’t meant to be caged. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope I can see my friend and shake his hand. Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good things ever dies.”
Emily Dickinson said,
”Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without words and never stops at all.”
This is our hope, the hope we share in Jesus Christ.
May our Advent be filled with this hope, and may it make all the difference in our preparation to celebrate the coming of our Lord.