SERMON ADVENT 1: "HOPE", 29 NOVEMBER 2015
Before we came to Australia I had never heard of rip currents in the ocean. Thankfully I have never experienced one – maybe because I am not a great water baby. But Clive has, very soon after we got here. He didn’t know what was happening. Fortunately one of his new colleagues saw what was happening and was able to swim close enough to tell him what to do. Clive is not a strong swimmer, so our Australian story could have had a very nasty beginning and even ending.
I love going to the beach, walking along the sand, listening to the waves washing ashore, enjoying the light and the space. I feel it connects me with all the many places where I have lived as this body of water that girdles the earth is all connected and all the time there are waves breaking on the shore everywhere. It is a beautiful environment. But, as we have noted, it is also threatening, and lurking below the surface are sharks, doing their own thing in their environment. Somehow this all seemed like a metaphor to me of this season. Around us people are enjoying the Christmas lights, the trees, the feeling of anticipation, for some at least, of good things to come. But there is also the rip current of fear and suspicion that threatens to pull us out of our depth into troublesome places from which we worry we might not escape.
Hearing the readings this morning is probably not what we expect as we begin our Advent journey. We look forward to being able to celebrate birth, love, hope joy and peace. But instead we heard, as we did from Mark just a few weeks ago, of disaster and threat. And in this time we are living in, it is easy to populate the words with images. It is easy to feel the fear, the threat of the times. Last Monday when I was in Parramatta with the group discussing these readings, we got caught up telling true stories of people we had met whose lives are lived, day by day, with those very feelings of fear and threat and discrimination. People who, through no fault of their own, cannot live freely in this country of supposed opportunity and welcome. The atmosphere around the table grew heavy and sad. Someone remarked that we are seeing a return to what some – possibly more than a few - hope for: a White Australia policy. What fear can do to us! On the one hand we have been able to celebrate the diversity that is evident all around, even if more so in some areas of Sydney than others. We enjoy food from a huge range of cultures. We rely on people of many different backgrounds to keep going our nursing homes, aged care facilities and hospitals, just to name one sector of life in this country. But fear has made some suspicious of everyone except those who are like them. And this at a time when we remember the story of the middle-eastern homeless couple who had nowhere for their baby to be born and then had to flee to a strange country, refugees. We wrap that one up in tinsel and surround it with glitter on our cards and so reject its meaning and its relevance that still would address us today.
It seems to me that this Advent season is of particular importance at this time. That is not to say that there has not always been some kind of trouble scarring this earth and threatening its peoples. Advent always asks us to think about what the coming celebration of the birth of the Christ-child means for our particular time. We prepare ourselves to look through the darkness and discern where the light shines and what it means to live with hope, and those other themes of Advent – joy, peace and love.
These concepts seem to be quite counter-cultural at the moment, though they are, indeed, what I think is a deep yearning within the human heart. One of the reasons that so many people love the anticipation of Christmas is that it indicates, for many, what “home” means, even if we idealise that. Of course it is also a season where many feel excluded, where loneliness and isolation is most keenly felt. And that is partly because there is something within us that is always looking for home. Even children who have suffered abuse or who have had no real home, still know, within themselves, what home ought to be. How many people in the world, this year, this season, have no place to call home? Ultimately that longing is connected to what we might call the God-shaped space within. And that space is common to all people, not just to Christians.
So how, this Advent, do we deal with the swirling feelings and background, even foreground, images of terror?
This is not a time to be hopeless. That little candle we have lit proclaims hope. Its very smallness is significant because this is a time for each and every one of us to take stock of what we believe in and what we want the world to be like. It is not a time to feel that hope is a far distant notion or too vague a concept to make sense. It is a time to realise that we have a choice. We always have a choice of what we think, how we act and what we believe in. The fact that we may be being called to make choices that are counter-cultural in this time makes our choices all the more important. This is something for each of us. It is also what then defines us as a community of faith. We come together here to share in this journey because we affirm, together, that we will hope; that we have hope because God chose to come among us as an insignificant baby in an insignificant place to an insignificant couple. They were insignificant back then. That was the point. That is how God works, transforming what we think is insignificant to things that bring life, hope, peace, joy and love.
What we choose to do matters. How we choose to act matters. The words we use matter. We hear so many words around us these days that are laden with anger, driven by fear, by hatred even, or perhaps plain ignorance. Words can divide. But God’s word is love. So we have a choice as to whether we indulge in the easy rhetoric of judgement, suspicion and division, or whether we make an often harder choice to leave a space wherein we can find the words that may bring love to birth. We then make room for God to do the rest.
We do have a choice. And we can find inspiration from people who make these hard choices in difficult times. I want to share with you some words from a young husband and father in Paris whose wife was shot in the Bataclan theatre. Even if you have heard them before, they are worth hearing many times. (YouTube clip).
I don’t know how many of us feel we would be able to respond in such a way. But the fact that these words have touched so many people around the world is testimony the fact that we know that what he has said is right because it affirms life and not fear and hatred.
So let’s turn back to the texts that gave rise to this reflection. Jeremiah seems to foreshadow the birth of Jesus, the righteous branch that comes from the line of David. Out of him will come prosperity and security for Judah and Jerusalem. Yet the words of Jesus in Luke tell a very different tale. It is important for us to remember that Jewish people grew up with images of disastrous happenings, natural and man-made. It was part of their story, prophesied many times in the Hebrew Scriptures. They also looked forward to a time when the Messiah would return, and, although they would have to withstand a day of judgement, all would be well. They all knew about this. Advent, for us, is a time when we hold the birth of Christ and his second coming together as part of the story of God’s intervention and purpose. You can’t have a second coming without a first. So, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, here we are, in the in between time. We can hold before us what the incarnation tells us and how Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection are the basis of our faith and mould how we live. Within that we discover that, through Jesus and God’s grace, we are given the immeasurable gift of forgiveness and renewal. It is all part of the purpose of God’s Kingdom. So, even when we make wrong choices, we come to see that, as our understanding and focus becomes clearer, God tell us that we can start off again.
That, surely, is the message of hope for us today. We may all wonder how different the world would be now were it not for misguided and self-seeking decisions made by people in power decades and centuries ago. We live with the consequences today. We can make the choice to sit back and feel helpless, or we can make a choice to believe and think and act in ways that may not change the world, as yet, but which can shape our hearts, our words and our actions in the small spaces of the world that we occupy.
At the risk of trying to say or do too much, and maybe just wanting to put some completion before the end of 2015 to what I began last week – none of this is unrelated to the Lord’s Prayer. We know some of the challenges of our times. Jesus’ prayer reflected his. There was real hunger and poverty, especially in Galilee. Give us today our daily bread had real focus on real need. We see it played out as Jesus feeds the multitudes. It points backwards to the manna from heaven that fed the Hebrew people, day by day, as they struggled through the desert. It gave them hope. And then it was bread that Jesus took at the last supper and shared with his friends as he told them he would give his body for their lives.
Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, as is the most literal translation, reflects the fact that debt and poverty and injustice were very closely linked and held people in bonds of hopelessness. Jesus tells stories about debts and debtors because people knew what this was like.
This part of the prayer echoes the sentiment of the Magnificat, where God’s Kingdom will be about overturning such oppression. Again, it is a prayer of hopeful conviction that is a call to action.
The final clauses of the prayer “Lead us not into temptation” or “save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil” again reflect the earthly power of the time of Roman occupation. It was a time of much violence, just as we experience today. It was a time when there were actual and metaphorical trials, just as there are today. Even more, perhaps, these words turn us to think of how Jesus was led into the desert and was tempted to use his power for political and selfish ends. It is not hard to see connections today. Jesus turns his back on this and makes a different choice. And so his prayer can encapsulate so much of the struggles, the hopes and fears for people then and just as much for us now.
The Lord’s Prayer can be a model for faith and for life and for hope if we let it. It is a prayer we can hold onto in the privacy of our won hearts and is such an important thing for us to pray together as a community of faith. It is a prayer that reminds us that we are called to be counter – cultural in how we live. It is a prayer that strengthens us as we choose not to be governed by fear, suspicion and hatred.
So, as this journey through Advent begins, may it indeed be a time of affirming hope, peace, joy and love for us all, wherever we may be. Amen.