This past week I ran across an article from the Church of Scotland that began: “The Fourth Sunday in Advent is challenging.”
This Sunday is challenging for all of us because Christmas is drawing near and the deadlines that we have set for ourselves are rapidly approaching. Presents must be bought and wrapped, food prepared, homes readied, or suitcases packed.
Our Christmas expectations place a heavy burden on many. So this Sunday and the nearness of Christmas also have a tendency to highlight the illness, brokenness, loss, and uncertainty in our world and in our individual lives.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent is challenging.
And if I can speak personally, it is challenging for me or for anyone who would dare to step into a pulpit on this day. Too much “Advent” and it seems as though I’m forgetting where these weeks have been leading us. Too much “Christmas” and I might be jumping the gun.
As you know, balance is difficult to achieve, and even harder to maintain—in our lives, in our world, and even in our worship.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent is challenging.
A year ago, when I asked members of our congregation what they wanted and needed on this final Sunday of Advent, they said they were weary, adding, “Give us Christmas! Give us carols!” Christmas Eve was on a Monday and that made lots of sense. Jumping ahead was fine.
This year, in response to the same question, I received a different answer: “Give us hope!”
Our divided nation is in the midst of impeaching our president.
We have learned that the war in Afghanistan has been guided primarily by lies and misinformation.
People are still dying on our borders and in the streets of our cities.
Give us hope.
John Polkinghorne, the physicist and Anglican priest reminds us that hope, of course, is not the same as optimism or wishful thinking. Optimism, he says, “springs from a calculation of how things may be expected to turn out, with the belief that in the end it will all prove not to be too bad.” Wishful thinking doesn’t weigh the possibilities and probabilities, but “simply sails off into the blue of ungrounded longings.”
In contrast to both calculated optimism and flighty wishful thinking, “Christian hope is open to the unexpected character of what lies ahead precisely because it is open to the faithfulness of a God who is always doing new things.”[i]
The “unexpected character of what lies ahead” is readily apparent in the words from Isaiah that we heard this morning—traditional words for Advent that tell of the new thing God is doing: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
On our own we would never have seen that coming.
Two pictures come to mind when I hear those words.
One that painting of William Penn and other Quakers founding Pennsylvania. You’ve probably seen it. Penn and the others are visible in the background. Near the front of the picture, however, a lion lies down with a lamb. All sorts of animals are gathered together and a child leads them in the “Peaceable Kingdom”—a vision of Pennsylvania drawn from the book of Isaiah.
The other is a drawing from a nature book of my childhood. It was published by Life and was called something like The World We Live In. The picture shows a mountain lion attacking a bull. This is a violent scene. The eyes of the bull reflect its terror as it is caught in the lion’s jaw. The lesson, I guess, is that the “world we live in” can be a dangerous place.
Two pictures. Two images.
One might be filled with hope, although we suspect that it is simply wishful thinking.
The other we would regard as realistic, if terrifying.
Hope is the deep-seated human sense that all will be well, not because it is human nature to make all things well but because that is God’s desire and God’s intent for us and for all creation.
Even in the face of so much that is wrong—including the horrible national and international news that we hear each day—hope rises in you and in me out of what has been called “an almost unconscious perception of the steadfast faithfulness of God.”
Even in the worst of times, God is bringing about new possibility—the reconciliation of God and humankind. This creative work can be long and difficult.
In Luke’s gospel, Mary catches a glimpse of this new possibility and we hear her tell of the world as it might be, the new creation which God is bringing about. Her song speaks of the deep human hope—and perhaps of deep human fear:
God has shown strength…[and] scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
God has brought down the powerful…and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
Perhaps you are beginning to see once more that Advent and Christmas are not for children alone. They are gifts to the often weary and jaded adults that we have become. We hear the good news that God is still at work in the world, so that the world that is more and more becomes the world as it might be.
The temptation is to give up—to conclude that there is nothing worth waiting for, to decide that no arrival will end our waiting.
The temptation is to give in to the present—to accept that what is is all that can be, all that will be.
God’s time is not our time, however. So the hope of Advent gives us the strength and courage that we need as we learn to actively wait.
With courage we learn to wait—to keep awake, to stay alert as we participate in God’s new creation.
Some time ago I found myself, as I often do, in a hospital waiting room, sitting with members of a family while someone was in the operating room. In this case, it was a child having surgery. At one point his father turned to me and said: “You must do a lot of waiting.”
It was a unique way to describe my work, but I smiled with recognition. Another person had seen that much of my job is being present, waiting: biding my time with others while we move through major events of living and dying. I wait with the strong conviction that God is to be found just at such times.
I want to call this “holy waiting,” but not because is it something done only by clergy. We all do this kind of waiting and it is holy because it is a waiting that is filled with power. It is active and immersed in the reality of this world.
This is something other than waiting, as the song says, waiting for the world to turn.
Waiting changes us. Think of waiting for test results to come back, waiting for healing, waiting to receive news of a loved one far away. As we wait, we learn again just how much we need each other.
In actively waiting, we are involved fully in this present world with the conviction that God is at work where we are. We will not flinch from the unpleasant realities of the present, but neither will we take them as the final word.
Yes, sometimes we grow weary.
Sometimes we would cry out to in longing that the Creator would simply join with this creation that longs for peace and fulfillment and life and light. Sometimes we will speak of our longing knowing that such laments are themselves expressions of hope.
Crying out: “God, we have had enough violence and hunger and lies and injustice and death in this world!” is part of our Advent preparation. Our waiting is active. Our waiting suffers and hopes. Even as we announce the coming of the light of Christ, we cry out from the black holes of our own existence and listen for God’s faithful reply.
This is a time of defiance and courage and hope—as, really, all of life is. Advent just reminds us of what we are about in all our days.
In the days ahead, then, we draw closer to the heart of the meaning of this season. God moves toward humankind in Jesus Christ, reconciling a waiting world, redeeming all creation.
Nothing stays the same. The weak become strong; the hungry are filled with good things. What seems absolutely impossible is presented to the world as a sign of God's love.
Madeleine L’Engle wrote: “We are all asked to do more than we can do.[ii]” Over and over we discover this in the stories of scripture. Over and over we discover it in our own lives. At some point we come to the limit of our abilities. Just at that point, something—life or circumstances, desire or God—something calls us beyond those limits. Our inability becomes an opportunity for greater achievement. Our worry and fear become channels for hope.
Friends, this is the good news of these days—and really of all days. God is with us.
We will not get through the rough places of this season, we will not get through the rough places of our lives by simply smiling and trying to be of good cheer. We won’t get through the dangerous and distressing parts of this world by telling ourselves next year all our troubles will be out of sight.
We will move forward in the faith and the hope that even in all our troubles, the God of love whose incarnation we announce—with joy—the God of love is with us. And nothing can separate us from that love. Once again this week we announce that God still enters into the silent and lonely and fearful nights of our lives, our world, sharing our sorrow, comforting us with joy.
This fourth Sunday of Advent is challenging.
I can give you carols—I have given you carols!
I don’t know if I can give you hope. It waxes and wanes in each of us. But this is the good news: when we cannot hope, others are here to hope for us. And this is the glory of a congregation such as this: your neighbor is here to do just that—to hope for you when you cannot, to hope for you when you are weary, to hope for you when the waiting has been too long, the disappointment to great.
Let us, then, in the days ahead, once more tune our voices to sing of joy and faith.
Let us train our lives to show love and mercy.
Let us shape our world into a place of justice and peace.
Let us look again with wonder as God incarnate in Jesus recreates our lives and makes the world as it might be.
In the coming year, let us allow God to work among us in surprising and unexpected ways.
In the coming year, let us allow ourselves to be generous so that we might learn what it truly means to flourish.
In the coming year, let us allow God to transform what is weak within you and me into new strength.
Rejoice. Along with all of creation, you are loved by God, whose mercy is great, whose compassion is eternal.
Let us pray: Come, Emmanuel, be with us even now when the days are short and the darkness seems to overtake us. O God. Let those who weep find laughter. Let those who despair find hope. Let those who dwell in deep shadows know the light of your presence. In the days ahead give us eyes to see and ears to hear the good news that you are with us and we are held in your care; through Jesus Christ. Amen.
[i] John Polkinghorne, Living with Hope, pg. 4.
[ii] Madeleine L’Engle, Miracle on 10th Street, pg. 71.