Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; Luke 21:25-36
Well, don’t you feel cheery now? I always find the first Sunday in Advent to be a bit of a slap in the face. A harsh hit of reality at a time when I’d rather be thinking about Christmas and presents and lights and chocolate. It’s already depressing out there, with the sun not coming up until 8:00 and going down already by 4:00. The world out there is doing its best to fight off the mid-winter blues with Christmas carols in the stores, and glitter, and lights in the the yards, and here we are, just beginning the season of Advent with “distress among nations,” people fainting “from fear and foreboding,” and warnings to “be on guard” for the unexpected shaking of the world. We’ve got quite the dissonance going on.
Except that I’m not so sure there is dissonance. That is, I’m not so sure that Advent is out of sync with the rest of the world. Because, honestly, the world is not in a good place right now. Listen to any young person these days, from those in junior high up to those who’ve graduated from university, and you will hear about the desperate situation that the world is in. Sure, this desperation is masked with a bravado, covered over in conversations about Instagram, and Fortnite, and the latest Youtube videos, but underneath it is a deep concern, a hopelessness bordering on helplessness, about climate change, gun violence, sexism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia. Our young people feel hopeless, and they have reason to feel that way. It’s easy to dismiss their concerns as naive, or idealistic, or dramatic, but their feelings are legitimate. We promised them that world would be better, we told them that the world was a better place than it used to be, but in many ways, it isn’t. Jesus was right, there is “distress among nations,” and the powers of the heavens are being shaken.
Of course, Jesus wasn’t actually talking about now, the year 2018. He was talking about his own time, or rather, the writer of the Gospel of Luke was talking about his time. (I assume it was a man who wrote the Gospel.) Our best guess is that the Gospel of Luke was written after the destruction of the Second Temple, which means after the year 70, when the Roman Empire crushed the entire people of Israel, after a small group of them rose up to fight the Empire. A few verses before our reading for today, the Gospel says, “you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends,” and Jerusalem will be “surrounded by armies ... [and] there will be great distress on the earth [and] Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles.” [21:16-24] This is what happened before the Gospel was written down. There was fighting between Jews about whether to rise up against Rome, and Rome, the Gentile Empire, responded by devastating the entire country. For the Jewish people, it was a time of incredible hopelessness. The entire people faced extinction and they were helpless to do anything about it. They felt the same way our young people, and some of us older folks, do today.
Now we might say, well, look, it turned out alright for them, and things will turn out alright for us, too. God saved them, and God will save us, too. Christmas is coming, the return of Christ is coming, so we just need to hang in there until things get better. Don’t despair, don’t lose hope, God will make everything okay.
If this proclamation, that Christ is coming, gives you hope, and makes you feel better, I envy you. I am glad for you, but I envy you. It doesn’t really make me feel better. I’ve seen too many times in history where these proclamations of hope led people to disengage with the world, to sit back and do nothing, to settle in for a nap, as it were, and wait for God to act, while in the meantime things got worse and worse. I’ve seen these proclamations of hope lead to a kind of learned helplessness, which in the end, made the situations worse, not better. While we’re waiting for things to get better, I see refugee children tear-gassed at the border, I see climate change wiping out coastal villages in India and the Pacific and the Arctic, I see mass shooting after mass shooting, and I see people––Christians––doing nothing. I wonder what difference the proclamation that the kingdom of God is near makes to people whose lives are hell here.
Martin Luther is famously quoted as saying, “Even if I knew tomorrow that the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Luther did, in fact, believe that his world was going to pieces. He lived through plagues, through civil uprising, through religious persecution (both of him and by him). He really thought his world was ending. And my point in saying this is not so to say, “oh, look how wrong he was, and so therefore look how wrong we are.” I don’t think our scientists and our social theorists and our young people are wrong. The human species is in jeopardy. Our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren are going to experience devastation on a scale we cannot imagine. My point is to say that Christians are called to act when faced with hopelessness. To accept the reality of the signs of “the sun, the moon, and the stars,” and then to act.
Jesus himself says this to us, “now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads. ... Be alert at all times.” In other words, don’t curl up into a ball, don’t give up, don’t lie down and pull the cover over your heads. Neither are we to carry on as usual, partying in “dissipation and drunkenness,” being reckless with our resources, being silent in the face of hatred, passively hoping that God will be fix everything in the end. Instead, we are to stand up and pay attention. We are to act, to engage in behaviours that bring about justice and righteousness. We are to prepare ourselves for the coming of the kingdom by preparing the world. We are to plant apples trees, we are to work for equity, we are to protest unfair conditions, we are to hold our governments to account, we are to get up every single day, get out of bed, and act as if the world is going to be a better place because God is with us and working through us. We are to act in hope, even while we feel hopeless.
We act, not because we don’t trust God’s promises, but because we do. The season of Advent is not a season where we focus on the birth of Emmanuel, God-with-us, to the exclusion of all else. We focus on the birth of Emmanuel, Jesus Christ, and on the reality of the world into which Christ comes because it is into this reality that Christ comes. Both Advent and Christmas are the central times of the year in which we affirm that God does not abandon us in this reality, but actually comes into this reality. Christ comes into the world to be at the border being tear-gassed. Christ comes into the world to be at the mercy of climate change. Christ comes into the world to be among those who have been shot. Christ comes into the world to be with the hopeless in our world. And where Christ is, we go to be also. We go to be with the refugees being turned away. We go to be with the victims of climate change. We go to be with the victims of gun violence and sexism and racism and transphobia and religious intolerance. And we stand up and raise our heads and then we act in hope. We live in hope.
Living in hope means acting as if things are going to get better. Not because they will eventually get better on their own, or because God will swoop down and fix things, but because in our acting, we are shaping the world to come. Our actions determine the future that is going to become the present. We act because we live in the hope that what we do actually matters.
Living in hope means acting so that our day-to-day actions reflect that God in Christ is with us now, here. It means acting with kindness towards those who need it because God is acting with kindness towards us. Living in hope means acting with compassion to those who are all out because Christ is showing compassion to us. Living in hope means acting with generosity towards those who have less than we do because God is strengthening us to live with less. Living in hope means standing up against abuse and bullying and injustice because God is standing up with us.
Living in hope means acting as though, in the midst of our hopelessness about the future, God in Christ is with us now. God who takes on the human condition empowers us to act so that life is “worth living in the present,”* not just for us, but for everyone. It means acting as if the kingdom is not just drawing near, it is not just coming soon, but it is here now.
In this season of Advent, with the realities of the world as they are, you may feel hopeless, but you are not helpless. God is with you. God is with all of us, and does indeed strengthen us to act. Christ is coming, Christ is here, Christ is raising us up to live in hope. The world is ending, the world is beginning. Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen.
*I am indebted to the work of Miguel A. de la Torre, in Embracing Hopelessness (Fortress Press, 2017) for this new perspective on hopelessness and hope.