Well, here we are, in the season of Advent. The modern word advent comes from the Latin word, Adventus, which means ‘coming’, and refers to the coming birth of Jesus.
The early church, around 5 or 6 hundred years after Christ’s resurrection, began to observe fasts and prayers 5 weeks before Christmas. Pope Gregory shortened the season to 4 weeks, and the season eventually developed away from fasting and repentance, and took on a more reflective and celebratory tone.
The liturgical colors are purple, sometimes blue, but they echo the liturgical colors of Lent, because it was originally a Lent-like observance.
Each week of Advent signifies a unique aspect of our observance. Many churches use Hope, Peace, Love, and Joy, in varying order to help congregation’s focus their attention on the Christ child’s arrival.
Advent wreaths are common in churches and in homes, where simple prayers, or even more complex readings are offered.
Today, we light the candle of Hope. So for us, Advent begins with hope: literally and figuratively. This makes sense to me, especially as I began to plan for today’s sermon, and started to look for aspects of hope in our faith, and in our faith traditions.
Christianity is one of the more hopeful religions. Each year, we begin our Advent devotions in anticipation of the birth of the Christ child. And each year, at Christmas, we celebrate his birth. You could say that he is born anew each year, in our hearts and in our traditions. But we each know the sacred story of the Messiah’s birth, and we retell it every year. And every year, Christmas arrives, right on schedule. We hope for it, and it comes.
Some of our foundational principles of Christianity are based in hope, and hopefulness. Jesus loves us, just as we are. Not as we wish to be, not as others would have us be, but just as we are. Often flawed, rarely perfect, we are loved by our Lord and Savior and our Creator God with our shortcomings and our imperfections intact.
And we are forgiven our sins when we ask, when we repent, when we realize what we have done. This is such a hopeful aspect of our faith!
Even our basic communication with our Lord and Savior and our God is hopeful: prayer is an act of hope. When we pray, we let God know about the things that worry us, the things that disturb us, the things that frighten us, as well as the things that thrill us, the things that feed us, and the things that lift up our hearts. Prayer is a hopeful act based on faith, trust, and experience. So when we pray, we are participating in a tradition of hope.
Our bible, the sacred Word of God, is a hopeful book. The New Testament contains our Gospel. And the word gospel means ‘good news’ in Greek. So the central stories of Jesus, his birth, his ministry, his arrest, crucifixion, death and resurrection, are known collectively as the Good News. Their focus on our forgiveness through the Messiah’s sacrifice is good news. Our gospels are stories of hope, and they give us hope when life presents us with challenges.
The Christian faith presents us with the concept of the life ever after. The Kingdom of Heaven, and just plain Heaven. Our faith, our traditions, our practices tell us that we need not be afraid of anything, not even death. That our place in heaven is secure when we are secure in our faith. This is amazingly hopeful, and helpful for us when we are struggling. There are few things we fear more than our deaths. But Jesus tells us we need not even fear that!
On this first Sunday in Advent, we are surrounded by signs of Hope. When we act on our faith, we help provide food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, water for the thirsty, comfort for those who mourn, company for the lonely. And when we are hungry, or thirsty, or homeless, or in mourning, or lonely, we have brothers and sisters who can help us.
When we think we have reached a dead-end, there is a new path to follow. When we’ve run out of ideas, a new one pops into our heads. When all we have left is our tears and our cries, we have a God who not only hears our prayers, but who promises to love us and protect us and walk with us in the darkest valleys. This gives me hope.
In the midst of chaos, violence, uncertainty, and sometimes even evil, we belong to a faith that offers not only triumph over those earthly things, but victory over eternal things as well. And our relationship with the sacred, with our God, with our Lord and Savior, does not depend on how ‘good’ we are, no, it depends on whether we believe or not. We make mistakes, but we are forgiven, if we believe. No amount of donations to the church, or a charity, will guarantee forgiveness if we do not believe.
Even our sacred music is hopeful. The lyrics of course describe the many blessings that God bestows upon us, the many blessings we have because of Jesus, but even the very chord structure of many of our hymns end in hopeful major keys. Yes, there are a few hymns that end in minor chords, the ones that are either based on ancient Jewish tunes, or the ones that are written to make us reflect on a particular sadness or issue, like Christ’s crucifixion, but the majority of our hymns are hopeful and hope filled, and they can leave our hearts and our souls singing for hours and even days after our worship is over.
And if that isn’t enough to convince you that we are a hopeful people, let’s take a look at our Advent observances: each week, we introduce more light into the world, by lighting another candle. In fact, this is the opposite of what we do during the Tenebrae, or the service of the shadows on Maundy Thursday, where we extinguish candles until we are in the dark. So Advent, then, is about bringing more light into the world, in order to celebrate the ‘Light of the World’. And who wouldn’t want more light?
Now, I’ve spoken about our traditions, about our worship, about our sacred texts. The next thing I want to mention is that our faith practice is based on Jesus coming again into this world. The end times, the second coming, is something we cannot predict, but is something we as Christians hope for, because it signifies yet again a new beginning for the world.
This is what Jesus is speaking about in our good news passage, our gospel reading for today: we must be ready for Jesus to come again into our world. That is our hope, that is our aim.
And how do we do that? How do we prepare when we know not the hour that he will arrive? By always being ready! By practicing our faith each day, each week, each month and year, until he come, or we are taken.
By caring for the least of our sisters and brothers, by welcoming the stranger into our midst with grace and hospitality. By turning the other cheek when we are hurt by another. By going the extra mile, by giving up our shirts too, when someone asks for our coats. There is no shortage of instructions and suggestions from our Lord and Savior in our gospels, we are not without a roadmap in following Jesus.
So what are we to do? What are we to do as faithful followers of Jesus, as faithful children of God, as Christians in a world that is growing increasingly secular, or non-religious?
Today, it’s simply to have hope. Have hope in our God, in our Savior, in the future of the world and the universe. For today, it’s enough to be hopeful in a world that is mostly hopeless.
We will need to be the lonely single Hope candle, burning in the dark world, defying the dark, against the cold, offering light and warmth as a beacon to the future. Today it will be enough if we become the hope we need to see in the world. Amen.
Have you ever wondered about the human capacity for endurance? I’ve always marveled at the various ways people can endure disasters and hardships: veterans enduring war, typhoon or hurricane survivors enduring homelessness, lack of food and water, being surrounded by death and disease, victims of domestic and sexual violence enduring their assaults, and finding ways to triumph over them. It’s almost like humanity was built for endurance and recovery.
I was read an article about human evolution once, about how we came to possess a brain that is comparatively larger in proportion to our bodies than any other animal on earth. Scientists believe that we developed a more upright posture so that we could pursue other animals for food. In fact, our ability to run long distances without getting tired is almost unmatched in the animal kingdom: certain animals can run faster than humans, for short distances, but few animals can match our ability to run 10, 20, even 30 miles at a clip.
As humans became more successful at enduring long distances in the pursuit of food, the extra calories that came as a reward were employed by the body to grow bigger brains.
It didn’t happen overnight, but the key components in our genetic make-up were already there.
When someone we know has heart surgery, by-pass surgery or valve replacement surgery, what is the most striking thing that doctors make them do just a few hours out of recovery? They have to walk around the unit. Their first faltering steps outside their room are just the beginning of a regimen designed to strengthen their heart and lungs. Because just hours after traumatic surgery to the heart and lungs, the human body is ready to build its endurance. You’ve probably heard the stories: first just a few steps, then once around the unit. Then several times around the unit, and by discharge time, maybe 10 minutes of walking.
Rehab consists of more aerobic activities that will strengthen the heart, because every fiber of our being is designed to improve when challenged: we are designed and programmed to excel at endurance.
Without one scientific article to refer to, Jesus understood that both literally and figuratively, we have been built to endure. Without anthropologists, without cardiologists, without psychiatrists or psychologists, Jesus knew that by our endurance we will gain our souls. That’s just a fancy way of saying that triumphing over our challenges helps us grow.
Biologically, we are programmed to heal. Psychologically, we are programmed to learn from our mistakes and grow from our failures. Spiritually, we have been given a resilience and a tenacity that makes new beginnings in the face of disaster a daily possibility.
Just think for a moment what each of us has survived in our lives, what we have endured. Health crises, the loss of loved ones, loss of jobs, financial disasters, we are a gathering of survivors. Our genetic predisposition gives us a head start, but we also have something many others do not: our faith. The faith that God walks with us when we are in the valleys of the shadow of death, that we will come through our most challenging times perhaps scarred, but not defeated.
With our faith, Jesus said, we can endure anything. With our faith, we don’t have to be afraid of anything.
Both our Hebrew Scripture and our Gospel Lesson make reference to what scholars call ‘The End Times’. A time when the end of the world is at hand, and Jesus is ready to return. The reward for enduring what Jesus described, the wars, the insurrections, the famines, the plagues, the persecution for our faith, is our very souls. Our reward described by Isaiah is a time when humanity prospers in peace, when life will be so good, when no one will remember the hard times.
Isaiah’s vision is compelling, nearly impossible to comprehend, especially in this day and age, when our world more closely resembles what Jesus described. But while Isaiah described the world that God will create, Jesus actually gives us some ideas about how to bring Isaiah’s vision to reality: The challenges put before us in our lives give us opportunities to testify about our faith.
The ways in which we endure the disasters of our lives, the ways in which we triumph over our losses give us opportunities to live out our faith. Jesus said to testify, but we don’t actually have to say anything, do we? We already know the people in our lives who are testifying about their faith by living their lives in the face of impossibly sad challenges. Some of us are testifying this very day, by bravely living our lives in the face of pain and loss. Some of us are testifying about our faith by simply getting up this morning and coming to church!
By our endurance, we will gain our souls.
By taking our first step after surgery, by refusing to let someone else define who we are, by owning our mistakes and learning from them, by mourning the loss of our loved ones, but living in spite of our losses, we will gain our souls.
God is going to create a new heaven and a new earth. But before that happens, we are going to be challenged to the very core of our faith. How we respond to those challenges will be our testimony. How we respond to the challenges of our lives is how we testify about our faith. And we don’t have to say a word.
The human capacity to develop endurance is a gift. It’s in our DNA. It flows through our veins. Each of us can develop endurance, no matter what level of fitness we might be in now. And I mean that physically as much as I do emotionally and spiritually.
We don’t have to be marathon runners to improve our endurance levels. It only takes a few steps each day, and in time, we can go from being out of breath after 2 steps, to walking for hours without a break. We don’t have to be Olympic athletes to have endurance, we only need to be faithful children of God, living our lives faithfully with Isaiah’s vision as motivation.
Jesus will come again. The end times will come when God decides. But in the meantime, we must endure. In the meantime, we are called to testify in the face of our fears, in triumph over our disappointments, and in spite of our losses.
What you endure might not be what I can endure. And what I endure might not be what you can endure. The details aren’t important. What is important is that we live our lives as God puts them before us, with faith and with gratitude. What is important is that we understand that the way we live our lives in the face of the world’s challenges is the way we testify about our faith.
Isaiah’s vision of the new heaven and the new earth is out there somewhere in the future. But before we get there, we’ll have to get through our Savior’s vision first. I thank God that we are so wonderfully made that we are designed to build endurance in the face of the world’s challenges, because I know that by our endurance, we will gain our very souls. Amen.