Turn Toward Hope

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, December 3, 2017.

We’ve just entered the season of Advent, the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. It’s meant to be a time of getting ready, of waiting and watching for the coming of hope and love, breaking into the world and into our own hearts.

At the same time we are in the holiday season, this time of celebrating and shopping and unrealistic expectations. Some of us love the way our culture celebrates Christmas and Hanukkah and Solstice—the gift giving, the feasting, the decorating.

And for others, this month brings painful reminders of what we’ve lost. We feel the absence of those who have died or are separated from us. It’s hard, and the best we can do is try to get through. As the country song says, “if we make it through December.”

Whether you love the celebrations this month brings, or whether you are just trying to get through, I want to remind you there is another way. A deeper, more soul-satisfying way. Beyond the commercialism, the tinsel and presents, beyond the demands to be merry, the reason for this season is the two thousand year-old story of hope in a time of fear, of light shining in the darkness.

I love the musical telling of this story, Handel’s Messiah, and I’m so grateful to Neal and Fred for bringing some of it to our service today. The text we heard sung and read, from the prophet Isaiah, is an Advent reading:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, 
that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned… 
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, 
Prepare ye the way of the Lord, 
make straight in the desert a highway for our God (Isaiah 40:1-3).

This passage about taking comfort was written during an uncomfortable time, during what’s called the Babylonian exile. The Hebrew nation of Judah had been invaded and defeated by the army of Babylon. Hebrew leaders were taken into exile, and their land was occupied by the invaders.

The Hebrew prophets believed that their nation’s unfaithfulness was the cause of these troubles. Their leaders had turned away from God, had ignored the commandments to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly. This defeat proved God was no longer on their side, and created a theological crisis: “If we are no longer God’s people, then who are we?”

In the midst of this crisis comes the author of the lines we heard this morning, speaking on behalf of the heavenly host, saying, “You fighting and suffering are over. You have paid for your sins. Now is the time to make room for the Holy One, make straight in the nation a highway, for God to lead us home. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed and we will all see it together!

These words were written by a prophet who was being held, against his will, in a foreign land. He didn’t have any rational reason to hope this vision would come to pass, but this was the message he heard from God. “Take comfort, my people. I am with you still.”

One commentator calls this passage “the turn toward hope” (Dennis Bratcher, www.crivoice.org/isa40.html). He says, “The people did not earn the shift from wrath to mercy introduced here; God granted it.” I wonder if we can even hear this. We, who live in a society that is so rooted in both our Puritan heritage and our capitalist ideology, who are taught that it’s all up to us, that we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and have earned everything that we possess.

This season invites us to see that our lives are not something to be achieved, but rather, to be received. Advent asks us to try on a different way of seeing and being. To be open to the gifts that we have done nothing to earn or deserve. Rather than running around so much, to sit with the darkness, to wait and wonder, “Is there any room in here for God?” 

Advent is about being in touch with our hungers enough, and being humble enough that we cry out, “Come thou fount of every blessing!” One of the gifts of parish ministry is that I regularly get reminded of my own limitations and inadequacy, am pushed to my knees. Where I ask for God’s help. Where I pray for you, and for myself.

On Friday, church member Laura Morley, granddaughter of our former minister, Rev. Janet Bowering, posted a picture of her son William on Facebook, with these words: “This morning he reminded me that Advent is the season of waiting and being patient. Someone has been paying more attention than I realized.”

This season is about listening to the voices of children and prophets crying in the wilderness. Theirs are not the voices saying “Hurry up, do more, buy more, because you will never have enough!” No, they are the voices saying, “Be present. Pay attention. Be patient, be expectant, be still for a change.”

I know it can be easier these days to be cynical, to be anxious, to be resigned. Wendell Berry writes

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be…

You know what this is like, don’t you? We live in fearful times. And this season just amps up the expectations and brings back sad and painful memories. You could be  tempted to power through or to check out. But beneath these impulses there is a deeper call, to put yourself in the presence of that which is holy and good. 

To trust that in waiting and watching we will see there is more going on than meets the eye. We will remember that we are part of a great Love, which is breaking into the world. In the voices of children. In moments of breathtaking beauty. In times of connection, in moments of grace when we experience what Isaiah was talking about: “And glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” (Isaiah 40:5).

This is no mushy, sentimental hope. It is hard-won hope, born in exile, when there was no evidence that things were going to get better. It’s the hope of the prisoner, longing for release. The hope of the parent, that their child will come home. It is living in expectation of what is not yet able to be seen.

In these days, when it would be easy to fall into despair, the invitation is to keep turning toward hope. To trust that we are not alone; that our prayers are heard, that Love does abide. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary.

So please, do what helps you to keep an open and tender heart. Make time for what feeds your own soul. Stay after church today for yoga or to reflect on hope; come to Vespers on Wednesday if you can. Make space for what is holy: light a candle, pray for peace, look for ways to be of use.

And if holding on to hope right now seems impossible to you, seems too big a task to bear; if putting one foot in front of the other is all you can do right now, then keep on doing that, and don’t feel bad about what you aren’t able to do. Trust that there are others here holding the hope for you, we will watch with you until you are ready to take up hope again.

I made copies of today’s readings, in case you want to take them with you. Maybe they will be part of your Advent practice. My prayer for each of us, in this season, is that we will feel the blessing and the peace and the urgency of these days. That we will be awake to the wonder and the promise in our midst. And so I offer you this blessing for Advent by Jan Richardson:

Blessed are you
who bear the light
in unbearable times,
who testify
to its endurance
amid the unendurable,
who bear witness
to its persistence
when everything seems
in shadow and grief.

Blessed are you
in whom the light lives,
in whom
the brightness blazes—
your heart
a chapel,
an altar where
in the deepest night
can be seen
the fire that
shines forth in you
in unaccountable faith
in stubborn hope
in love that illumines
every broken thing
it finds    (janrichardson.com).