Hope is first
By Rev. Jeff Lackie On Dec 01 2019
Keep awake – says Matthew’s gospel: (chapter 24, verses 36-44) – Keep awake, be vigilant, on your guard, for no one knows when the Son of man is coming…
…and those of you who are tuned to the Scriptures will nod and smile. Awake and ready - that’s what you are. For the ‘Son of man’ is code for Jesus, and his is the ‘return’ we wait for, right?
But remember, Jesus said this while standing in the midst of folks who were ready and waiting – people who thought they were awake to the arrival of the promised kingdom of God – and couldn’t see the proverbial forest for the trees. The timing is God’s timing, Jesus says, and God’s timing is mysterious.
And this is the text that leads us into the season of anticipation that the church calls ADVENT, and the business world calls THE FOUR WEEKS AFTER BLACK FRIDAY.
Advent is the liturgical season that reminds the church that we’re not there yet, and Jesus word’s from Matthew’s gospel this morning underline the mystery that is God’s immanent, emerging and ever present kingdom. It is always a challenge for the faithful to live with that mystery, but these are impossible words to hear beyond the church. For ours is a culture that imagines that the economic stability of giant retailers is the reason for the season, and the ‘season’ is really just a collection of frantic and frenzied activity designed to get us over the finish line to Dec 26, when some will happily start the countdown all over again.
Keep awake, be vigilant and on your guard for the signs of grace among the chaos; signs of peace amidst the propaganda.
But we’re so tired, you say – and the chaos seems to offer us purpose; the propaganda is so appealing…it would be so much easier just to go along. Trust me, I understand. I too am dragged in several directions every December.
Contrary to some long-held opinions, I don’t hate Christmas. I am childishly delighted by the giving and receiving of gifts (though as I get older, more and more it’s the giving that makes me happiest). Which means I scan the malls and haunt the shops and listen closely to the obviously stated (and sometimes softly spoken) desires of the people I love - all so I can be part of the system of consumer habits that is slowly but surely consuming us. My vocation, however, pulls me towards the place of patient waiting; prayerful wonderment; and peaceful joy. The gift I give myself as the season commences is the chance to be reminded of the hope that comes from God - hope that breathes life into even the most desperate of circumstances.
Keep awake, be vigilant, on your guard, says Jesus - for there is more going on than you realize. The promise is immanent. Your God is with you - among you - just as was promised.
This is the season of promise. We promise one another social connection and much merriment. We promise our children a “good Christmas”. We promise ourselves the same (even though those two promises may look very different) We are promised joy in the singing and satisfaction in the eating and bargains in the shopping. Yet this is the season of promise (with a capital P) - and that promise is harder to hear and nearly impossible to visualize. Such is the state of our attentiveness. Yet I’m reminded of the hope of that promise as it was once expressed through the prophet Isaiah.
In a time of both a crisis of government and a crisis if faith (for the two pillars of society have often been closely connected) the prophet dares to share this vision of redemption: “The mountain of the Lord’s house will be established as the highest of the mountains…” There was nothing in the news of the day, nor on the political, social, or religious landscape that suggested this would be possible. The prophet’s job is not to state the obvious, but to suggest that present circumstances won’t (or can’t) get in the way of divine determination. The prophet doesn’t ‘predict’ so much as remind us that the world’s settled state already exists in the will of God - we just need to wait. Chaos is our doing. Peace is God’s desire.
Two thousand years on, that promised peace seems no closer, but hope is always first, and our hope in God does not disappoint us. That hope has given the church courage in and out of season. Hope moves us to do good against the odds - when it seems a pointless gesture. Hope urges and coaxes and sometimes drags us through desperate times into fresh beginnings. Hope keeps us working, praying, loving, voting, giving, sharing, planning and dreaming.
“Don’t be surprised…Keep awake…be ready…” says Jesus this divine reality is woven into the very fabric of Creation, and you will see it if you are willing to look.
So Jesus, on the verge of the most challenging period of his life (in this morning’s gospel) challenges us to keep our eyes open for the promise - to keep our lives tuned for hope. Even as the world conspires to arrest and crucify him, he preaches the immanence of God’s peace, and offers us hope that is grounded in the unshakable reality of God’s majesty. And on this first Sunday of the Advent season, it would serve us well to listen.