Jeremiah 33:14-16; Matthew 24, 1-2, 36-44
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Hope is the first theme. Next week we get to peace, then love, then joy. But we start with hope.
…We start with hope.
Perhaps if we remember only that one little sentence, it is enough. We start with hope. There is no other place to begin – whether you have decided to run a marathon, climb Mt. Everest, or something simple like, drive to church. We start with hope.
I have been kind to you in abbreviating the readings for today. Well, I’ll be honest. I have been kind to myself. The full readings are about wars, and the sun turning to blood, earthquakes, running for cover to the mountains, praying that it does not happen when you are pregnant. It seems like too much to take in. This doom and gloom distracts me from the final hope in the warnings – that Jesus is coming to us.
So, as the Christmas lights go up, as the Christmas trees come inside, as the poinsettias bloom, why all this disaster talk? Because we do all of this out of hope. We start with hope. Lights, flowers, bright colors and delicious smells, all born of hope.
Yesterday I noticed a couple of yard signs at a home in our neighborhood: “Don’t give up!” and “You are not alone.” I have no idea the story behind these posters staked into the ground. But I wondered if these are the signs of Advent. How could it be said better? Don’t give up, you are not alone. Like the message from God for today!
The birth of Jesus has been assigned by history to the darkest days of the year. Throughout Advent, the northern hemisphere has more and more darkness – literally – the fewest hours of sunlight. Until we reach December 21, and things begin to change. On that day, we have daylight from 7:48 am to 4:30 pm. But the change at first is imperceptible. The next day’s light will be only 2 seconds longer. Sunrise continues to be later each day until January. In my childhood, January was always the darkest month of the year because we were socked into impenetrable fog, sometimes for weeks on end, when the orb of the sun never broke through all day! The light doesn’t seem to come until February or so.
The celebration of Christmas is always focused on light. So is Advent. The first Sunday of Advent, before the days begin to lengthen, we light one candle. One candle is nice, but it makes us want more. Just as it should.
At Night Prayer one night, a man came up and lit all the candles on the table during prayer time. He commented that they all called to be lit. It just doesn’t do to have candles left unlit! It was so beautiful to sit in all that glow! We had to agree that they all wanted to be lit. That is how we are meant to feel when we light just one candle of five. We yearn for the others to be lit. They are supposed to be lit. It is what they were made for!
I love the timing of Advent. The year is getting darker. We even have our car headlights come on in the middle of the afternoon, when we have dense cloud cover like we did this week. In Advent we start lighting the lights. The long days of summer are not here yet, but in the one light of the candle of hope, we can sense its presence. We are ready. The rule of darkness is not ended, but we start lighting candles anyway, as an act of hope, and act of confidence in light.
When Jesus walked out of the Temple that day, he walked out into darkness. Not Advent darkness, but darkness of soul. He seemed broken hearted with deep grief over the blindness of his people. They saw everything from the outside. Sketches. Thinking they could measure and control all things. Thinking that power and perfection were the way to freedom. But power will never get you to true freedom. Power is irrelevant to one who is truly free. And perfection is never possible.
Instead, this is the light – Forgiveness. Get over it! Live! There is always enough love, because God is love itself, and God is always there, always enough. But instead, they blindly manipulate power to their supposed advantage. This will be a disaster! Jesus knows it. In his humanness and in his divinity. He knows this is disaster. They will destroy themselves and the very earth created for them. “Just you wait and see,” he tells his disciples, “pretty soon not one stone of this temple will stand upon another. It will be all gone. Unrecognizable.” This may have been anger speaking. But I hear more sadness. ‘They do not know what they are doing! They will destroy even the little they have.’
God promised Abram, and repeated it to Jacob, David, and Jeremiah: There will be righteousness, justice and safety. All people on earth will come to be blessed by the way I am blessing you. Make room for them.
Do you ever wonder why so many people want to come to the United States? Because it is a place of hope, for new beginnings, for the “Advent” (coming) of a new life. Maybe freedom, maybe safety. And the “Maybe” is the hope. Hope drives people to leave their homes and go to a place God is showing them, just like Abram. We all want that. But we do not always welcome the strangers with blessing.
Honestly, we are still like the people of Jesus time, perhaps of every time, We are dazzled by power. We want to control with the ways of power. And our souls are not open to the ways of peace. Of course, in a world of power brokers, the ways of peace look foolish. The ways of forgiveness seem impossible and foolish.
But this kingdom, this way of being for which we yearn, is among us. We lit one candle, in hope and confidence that love is here and that love is enough. Next week there will be two candles, then three and four, and on Christmas Eve, we will fill the house with candles. It doesn’t make sense, but this is the only way to righteousness, justice and safety. One candle at a time.
William Martin puts it this way:
Trying to make a perfect life
is a path of great sorrow.
The perfect life cannot be built
by seeking to fulfill desires
no matter how many years are spent
or how much effort is applied.
Desires are insatiable and endless.
If instead we see
the imperfect events,
and the ordinary people,
as the movement of the Way,
life becomes perfect as it is. [William Martin, The Sage’s Tao Te Ching, p. 70.]
And so, we start with hope.
Pastor Jill Duffield tells a story of an overheard encounter on election night just last month. She was having dinner in an airport waiting for a connecting flight home, trying to ignore the blaring headlines. Here we pick up her telling: “I sat alone eating my dinner, watching pundits predict outcomes,… I looked forward to being obliviously in the air when definitive numbers were announced. I wondered if my hope for a less politically divided life together bordered on delusional. Behind me sat a woman working on her laptop. A young man in a janitor’s uniform came to empty the trash can adjacent to the woman’s table. She struck up a conversation with him. Her accent revealed her home before she told him she was from Minnesota. She asked him if he was in school. No. He had to work. He had a son on the way. “How exciting,” she exclaimed. “You have no idea how much your heart will expand.” She had an 18-month-old at home, she said. They chatted and eventually she got the young man’s name and address so that she could send him baby clothes her son had outgrown. “Nothing fancy,” she said. “But good for every day.” He thanked her, told her to have a safe flight. She wished him well. They went back to their respective work. I got up to go to my gate but not before stopping to thank the lady with the thick Minnesota accent. I told her I was moved by her kindness. She said, “We need to be kind to each other.” …. Neither earth nor heaven shook, nothing went dark, but that small exchange brought about a seismic shift in my attitude. Their shared humanity over impending new life bolstered my faith, and gave a glimpse of love and unity that is too often unseen. It gave me hope that redemption isn’t as far away.” [Jill Duffield, in Presbyterian Outlook, “Looking Into the Lectionary,” 11-26-18, pres-outlook.org.]
Another sign of hope. Yesterday I parked outside the sanctuary on 55th street. I don’t usually park there. As I started my car I looked out and in the waning dusk light something red caught my eye. The Christmas camellia is in full bloom. Its flowers are stunning red with yellow centers and stamens like the rays of the sun. And they bloom in darkest time of the year.
They remind us that we start with hope.
That redemption draws near. That new life is coming. That righteous branch is growing. Don’t give up, you are not alone. Light a candle of hope in your heart so that you to not get lost in distractions, do not go numb to the signs of grace. All that God created and called good will not be abandoned. Welcome to Advent.