This Advent, we’re doing a series called “All Earth is Hopeful.” The first Sunday’s sermon topic was: The Source of Hope. Even though I’m the one who picked this series, I had to shake my head a little bit. “The source of hope?” Don’t they know that Advent 1 is filled with apocalyptic texts? But perhaps that is in fact where we find the source of our hope.
Readings can be found here: Advent 1 lectionary texts
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Christmas seems to come a little bit earlier every year. You know what I mean. I didn’t even manage to scoop up any cheap leftover Halloween candy this year, because by the time I got to the store—the very next day—Christmas displays were out instead. There were wreaths up at the King of Prussia mall before Halloween even!
Something, I’m not sure exactly what, is pushing us to start the Christmas spirit earlier and earlier every year. Except, at church, it’s not Christmas yet, but Advent. I’m reminded of a quote from the British show Call the Midwife, the true story of a young woman goes to work as a midwife in 1950s London. She lives at Nonnatus House, a convent of nuns who are also nurses.
She remembers back, saying: “My first Christmas in Poplar was unlike any other I had known. The streets, like all streets, were strung with colored lights, and children drew up lists, like children everywhere. As the days ticked down, it seemed as though the district was fizzing with delight. But at Nonnatus House, a different magic was at work. The sisters spent Advent in prayer and meditation, and the atmosphere was not one of excitement, but of expectant, joyous calm. I wasn’t entirely sure what I should make of it.”
A lot of us aren’t entirely sure what to make of Advent. All around us, the party spirit is in full swing already, but the season of Advent asks us to wait. Advent is focused, not on celebration, but on expectation. On longing. On hope—which is our theme for this Advent’s sermon series: All Earth is Hopeful.
But what exactly are we hoping for? As a child, I always thought that Advent was about waiting and hoping for baby Jesus to be born—that’s what happened at Christmas, after all. Is that what we are hoping for? Not really. We don’t have to hope and wait for Jesus to be born, because that already happened.
The word “Advent” means coming, or arrival. The first arrival of Jesus, as a baby in a manger, is certainly part of that, as we explore what it means for our lives. But so is the future arrival of Jesus, in what is often called the Second Coming. The Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent is always an apocalyptic reading, always Jesus describing what the end of the world will be like.
Some years he talks in grand visions, with stars falling from the sky, but this year we read of two people working in the field, and one will be taken, and one will be left. Two people will be together grinding grain, and one will be taken, and one will be left. So stay awake! Because you don’t know when it’s going to happen.
So, is this what we’re hoping for? I think many, if not most of us, would say that we are in fact not hoping for the end of the world. Hope is found not in hoping for the end of the world to come right now, but in knowing God’s promised future which gives us hope for the present. What does that promised future, that consummation of God’s kingdom look like?
Isaiah offers us this vision, this promise of what God has in store for God’s people and the world. This vision comes from the second chapter of Isaiah. When things are terrible, when the people are about to destroyed as a nation and go into exile. And in the middle of this, Isaiah proclaims the impossible possibility. Destroyed and despairing, Jerusalem shall become a place of pilgrimage and hope, of those seeking to create and not destroy. Strangers will find a home in the holy city. Refugees will experience safety once more. War will be abolished, and nations will no longer plan on destroying one another. Laughter and joy will fill the city streets. The days of mourning will be a thing of the past as God’s future beckons us forward.
We can look forward to our future—to God’s future—in hope, because we look back at what God has done for us and what God has promised us. We look to Isaiah to see God’s vision of the future and it gives us hope for our present time. Hope because we get to flip to the last chapter of the book and know the end of the story. We know the future God has promised, so we look forward, not with anxiety or apathy, but with hopeful expectation.
Advent is not just about the future arrival of Christ and the consummation of God’s kingdom, just as it is not just about the past arrival of Christ in Bethlehem. I somewhere heard it described as the “Three Advents of Christ”: in history, in mystery, and in majesty. The history is the baby in the manger, the physical incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Majesty is what I’ve been talking about, that final triumphant arrival to usher in God’s reign of peace and justice.
But mystery is what we have right now. Because God has not abandoned this world to its own devices, but continues to come to us, even now. In the meal of Holy Communion, Christ comes to us in bread and wine, and we get to take God’s promise into ourselves. To let it feed us and sustain us. The promise of the future, the promise of God’s grace and forgiveness and love, the promise of communion—of community—with each other, becomes embodied within us as we share in this meal.
And it opens our eyes to the ways that God is at work in the world. Stay awake! Jesus tells his followers. Because you do not know when the Son of Man is coming. Stay awake! Or you might miss it. Stay awake to the ways that God is active in our world, right now. Holy moments may catch you by surprise, so pay attention. Pay attention to what God is doing, to the people God is putting in your path, to the glimpses of God’s promised future breaking through into the present.
Jesus’ words challenge us to live faithfully, to live in expectant hope, right now. To live in God’s kingdom, right now. To be awake and attentive to God’s presence among us. So even as we cry out, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, come, Lord Jesus to this world in need of healing and peace and renewal, we live as people of hope. So come, Lord Jesus. Come to your people this Advent. Awaken us to your presence in the world. Give us your hope, we pray. Amen.