And so we pray…
God of hope,
enter into our memory and remind us
of the yearning of the people of history.
Stir up stories of how the ancestors hung onto your promises,
how they stole hope from tiny glimmers about you,
passed on from age to age.
who proclaimed that a new age would dawn.
…God of hope, be the Morning Star in our midst,
the Light that can never go out,
the Beacon of Hope guiding our way to you.
Come into our midst and make of our lives a home,
where your everlasting goodness resonates
with assuring love and vigorous hope. Amen
(Joyce Rupp, Out of the Ordinary, p. 24, adapted)
The Scripture lessons for this first Sunday in the Advent season reveal the concerns of people who are experiencing difficult times of transition and hardship. Isaiah’s community had just returned to their homeland in Judah after years of exile in Babylon. This new generation, who had never seen Judah, had been persuaded by the stories and songs of their faith tradition that God would be with them and guide them on their way back home. Having arrived at their destination, the reality of the hard work of rebuilding their community in the home of their ancestors was not as idyllic as they had imagined. The sight of their beloved Temple in ruins, disputes amongst those returning from exile and those whose ancestors had never left the land were intense and the returnees began to lose hope and enthusiasm. As their spirits sank, and their faith in God waned, they demanded a dramatic sign of God’s presence such as their ancestors had experienced in the past. They dreamed of a cataclysmic upheaval that would make everything right with the world as they hoped it would be.
In a similar way, the Christian community of Mark’s day had lost hope that there could be any change in the harsh conditions they were experiencing unless God intervened and Christ returned in a blaze of glory to save them. In those extreme and dangerous times, Mark and his community seemed to lose sight of the teachings of Jesus that encouraged people to take action that little by little would bring about a radical change in their lives. This new generation of Christians believed, as did their forebears, that Christ would return in the flesh to vanquish their oppressors and to liberate them and deliver them into an idyllic life free from struggles and pain. They seem to have forgotten that Jesus’ life and ministry focussed not on cataclysmic change but rather a call to his followers to live into being God’s commonwealth of peace and justice moment by moment and day by day.
In the United Church of Canada, most of us don’t have an expectation of the second coming of Christ in the same way the early Christian communities did. Our theology generally reflects a belief in Christ’s presence in a tangible way, here and now, reflected in our worship, our actions, and in the face of friend or stranger. However, when I attended the 38th General Council of the United Church of Canada in 2003, I saw someone wearing a T-shirt that stated, “Jesus is coming – look busy!” In my own mind I changed the words to read, “Christ is with us – act like it!”
This season of Advent poses a bit of a paradox for us. We believe that Christ is with us in our daily activities, that he is our constant example and guide and yet at this time of the year we pause to reflect on the miracle of his coming into the world and into our hearts and homes. Advent provides us with an opportunity to anticipate anew the coming of the light of Christ in the world in lowly circumstances and in a time of great peril and adversity. We are blessed with stories that inspire in us a renewal of hope and an opportunity to rededicate our lives as followers of Christ. This season of anticipation and preparation offers us a renewal of hope for the future. This future will come day by day as we participate in its creation.
In few moments you’ll hear Gail McColl read a Mission and Ministry Moment written by Sally McShane, the current minister of First United Church in Vancouver, that offers an example of Christ’s ministry in action in our world today. Having read Sally’s words this week I was reminded of a story by former First United minister, Ruth Wright, in an Advent reflection booklet some years ago. Ruth said that,
“Sometimes being a quiet person pays off. People somehow forget you are present and talk to each other more freely. It happened for me this week. I had stopped to talk with an old friend who was getting ready to sleep in the sanctuary. Our conversation ranged from his wet feet, to the fact that the morning soup was too salty for his taste that day, and then to what he was thinking about God that day.
In the midst of our conversation I asked him why he thought Jesus had come. One of the most theologically articulate of our regulars joined the conversation at that point and I became the quiet outsider, listening. They chatted heatedly for a while until one said:
‘It’s obvious, Jesus came to bring us the gift of hope.’
‘You’re wrong’, said the other. ‘Jesus didn’t come to bring us anything. He came to wake us up to what we already are.’ ”
(Advent Reflections, 2002, the Reverend Ruth Wright, First United Church Vancouver)
I believe they were both right. I think Jesus did come to wake us up to what we already are — beloved ones created by God. And when we see ourselves, and others, as gifts of God we may also be filled with hope at the power and love of God within ourselves and our world.
I have always been a very hopeful person. I believe there is always room for hope in our lives even when adversity is great and hope seems a foolish wish rather than a concrete possibility. It is, after all, hope which keeps us going when all appears to be lost.
A story from the news a few years ago surfaced in my memory as I was thinking about the importance of hope in sustaining life. You may remember the story of hope, grounded in deep faith, that sustained Chilean miners who were trapped underground for close to three months. It was an amazing story of fortitude and faith, hard work and determination, of hope where there was no reasonable cause for hope. It is this stubborn and persistent hope that has sustained people of faith in times of hardship and adversity and in the ordinary mundane challenges of life.
Currently on the United Church of Canada’s website is a link called, “The Hope Collection: a New Story for a New Day” (www.hopecollection.ca)
The introduction to this website states that, “God is doing a new thing through us. Let’s witness and share it.” That’s the vision behind The Hope Collection. It’s an expanding library of inspirational stories about people – including communities of faith and national and global partners – who are following the call of the Spirit in creative and life-giving ways!”
These stories remind us that God is at work and hope is inspired through people of faith everywhere. Reading these stories may also remind us that God is at work in our own community in many and varied ways. We need only look as far as our neighbours to see Christ’s ministry of service in large and small actions of sharing and caring.
Each one of us is a vessel of hope for our community and our world. No matter what struggles or adversity we may face we have the assurance that God is with us. We are strengthened and empowered by God’s spirit which infuses our very beings with love and blessing.
With this in mind, I’ll end with thoughts from Betty Radford Turcott about finding hope in the midst of the Advent season,
“Hope hides in the corners of our lives, quietly waiting to be discovered. We find it in the open trust of a child. It is present in the gentle caress of a couple in love. It is present in the wonderful wisdom of the old and wise ones among us. Each time we pause to look at the first star, a sunset, a new moon, a twinkling snowflake, we touch hope. Every time someone turns away from anger and embraces forgiveness, hope is reborn. …In this time of waiting and preparation, the whispers of hope, like the voice of an angel, gently surround us and wait for us to welcome them and respond to them with loving action.” (There Is A Season, Betty Radford Turcott, The United Church Publishing House, 1996, pgs. 28-29)
Thanks be to God for these words of hope and promise this day.