December 11, 2016
We are continually assaulted by disturbing images from around the world and within our own country: a politically deeply divided nation; the ongoing trials of Dylan Roof and Michael Slager; institutional racism; escalating and rampant gun violence; ISIS, multiple wars and the even more real threat of domestic terrorism. It seems at times that the world has gone crazy. This shopping season leading up to Christmas is not enough of an anesthesia to relieve the fear and anxiety with which many of us are living.
Confronted with the constant reminders of the brokenness of the world, Advent arrives as a gift, seeking to take us in search of a place that longs for a new possibility. We call it hope.
Isaiah the prophet was writing to a people who were in danger of losing their moral and national identity. It was a world in political turmoil as they were threatened by the rising power of Assyria. Right in the midst of their own struggles, however, Isaiah holds before them images of a hopeful future. “The wilderness and dry land shall be glad, the desert shall blossom…and rejoice with joy and singing. To those “who are of a fearful heart,” they are offered the words, “Be strong. Do not fear. Here is your God.” Even today’s reading from the Psalms, the hymnal of the Hebrew people, resounds with a word of hope: “Happy are they whose hope is in the Lord their God.”
Then we get Matthew’s great vision through John the Baptist that God reverses everything, coming in the midst of the conflict with the religious and political rulers of his day. Jesus calls him a prophet, that is, a truth teller, even and perhaps especially when it is inconvenient to do so. He points to the dream of God as offered by Jesus and we get the glimpse today that it means, at least in part, “…the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” In other words, anyone despised and discounted and marginalized, even those counted as dead to the world, are offered a place with God.
The Advent scriptures are infused with hope in the face of the world’s evil, even as we get a sense of longing for what has not yet been fully realized. We get a sense of this longing for hope in the midst of an anguished present when we listen to people from the margins, the ones to whom John the Baptist and the other prophets are always pointing us. I read a moving account told by a Syrian mother who had come to the United States with her family, fleeing the violence of her country and the murder of her 7 year old son. It was heart wrenching. She, her husband and three girls were waiting with bated breath for that one rescuing word of welcome to a new home of hopefulness in the United States. The promise of release and freedom, daring to stare down hopelessness: this is the quality of Advent.
The annals of former slaves tell us this is how they survived the cotton fields and the brutality of slave owners, that is, by staying centered in the promise of restoration and God’s new future. One can understand people giving up, or even more insidious perhaps, being de-sensitized into doing nothing to change the world. People live out their rage on the world in manifestations of violence, often because of some deep historical injustice that has led to a loss of hope. Even as we don’t condone it, when hope is missing or has been taken away, violence is often the only choice some believe they have.
So what do we do now, in this in-between time of Jesus having come to us in Bethlehem and the yet to be fulfillment of God Kingdom, God’s full reign, on earth? After all, we pray, nearly very day, “Thy Kingdom come,” do we not? The Letter of James encourages us to be patient, just like a farmer waits for a crop. But note this is not a patience of passivity. We have work to do. As my mother was very clear when she taught me, “Never pray for anything for which you are not willing to be a part of the answer,” we must stay clear in our own resolve in the way of Jesus.
Our Advent call is the transformation of the now. We persevere as a community of faith, “strengthening our hearts” as James would tell us in the Epistle, and “As an example of suffering and patience…take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” With the prophets we dare to speak the truth even when costly to do so, then seek to do something about it. As Henri Nouwen once said, “You are a Christian only so long as you stay unsatisfied with the status quo and keep saying that a new world is yet to come.” Such a hope is not born in mere optimism that things will eventually get better. It is born in God, or rather, God born in us. The Kingdom of God is already here within us, right here at the Episcopal Church on Edisto!
In this way we are always an Advent people – unsatisfied with the way things are when they are less than God’s hope for the world. I trust it is why you care so much for the community around you in your outreach efforts to which you are so deeply committed. We are to be God’s change agents who work to tear down every wall that would separate and divide God’s people as we usher in ever more fully a community of God’s all-embracing love.
Our hope is in the One whose birth we celebrate in two weeks. We belong to a God shown forth in the child of Bethlehem who promises that the end is already secure. We seek to change the world now as an act of thanksgiving for the promised One to come. Our hope, past, present and future, is held in Christ Jesus as we hear one more time those audacious words form Isaiah: “Be strong, do not fear, here is your God.” It may be the most radical thing you can do. It starts right here on Edisto.