Hope is Messy
If you’re like me, each year you come into Advent thinking that the Christmas carols have been playing in the stores since Halloween, decorations have been out, and people have been shopping for a month now; but, wanting to resist that Christmas creep, you’ve put off getting “into the spirit” and, hey, Church has this handy marker for when it’s time to start thinking about Christmas: Advent. Now the church is decorated, we’ve busted out the wreath and candles, the songs change. Now we can get into the Christmas spirit: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love!
And then you show up for church the first Sunday of Advent, ready to start talking about the story, gentle Mary and the baby in the manger, but your church follows the Revised Common Lectionary, and the Bible reading is not the angel visiting Mary, is not anything about a virgin giving birth; no matter what year, A, B, or (in this case) C, the reading is not about anything related to Christmas; it’s about the end of the world!
Year A, Matthew 24: “But about that day or hour no one knows . . . two will be in the field and one will be taken and another left behind.”
Year B, Mark 13: “But in those days, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven.”
And now, year C, Luke 21: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”
And these are the Gospel texts; you know, the friendly, gentler God of the New Testament texts. I mean, Jesus actual Christ, can we not get away from the distress among the nations for even one moment? It’s Christmas, not the end of the world!
In a way, theologically, it is appropriate: to the writers of the New Testament—Paul and the four Gospel writers including Luke—and to the early Christians who gathered to put these stories to paper for the first time, Jesus’ birth was supposed to be the beginning of the end. The culmination of God’s creation, finally. It was supposed to happen in their lifetime: “This generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”
Many, many, many generations later, we read these words and wonder what they have to do with Christmas. We might even wonder why we should pay attention to them, since what Jesus says here is a broken promise. That generation did pass away, and not all things have taken place. The nations continue to be distressed. What happened, God?
And every year, we come to the Christmas story and all that it means to us—hope, peace, joy, and love—maybe hoping that this time it will be different. that when we sing “peace on earth and goodwill to all” it might actually happen. How do we keep hoping through that?
So my theme for Advent and Christmas is going to be: messy. Hope is messy; Peace is messy; Joy is messy; Love is messy; and Christ is messy. Every year, we experience two Christmases, one neat and one messy. One is the Christmas of decorations placed perfectly, a dinner cooked exactly, presents neatly wrapped, expertly knitted if ugly sweaters, and pleasantly sung jazz standards. This Christmas might not feel neat, as you rush to fill out cards and wrapping paper is all over the floor, but neat is the ideal. The other is the Christmas of the Bible, and it is messy: a terrified young girl told that she’s pregnant, a child born homeless on the streets and forced to be a refugee in a faraway land, a mad king massacring infants, and texts about the end of the world.
Now, I’m not exactly above the sentimentality of Christmas and the things associated with it; Christopher can testify that I have been guzzling eggnog lattes since Starbucks put them on the menu. But the Advent and the Christmas that strikes to the core of my being is not the first one.
Hope is a messy thing. We have hopes, especially around this time of year, but when we choose to hope for this thing or that thing, we always make ourselves vulnerable to disappointment. Whether we’re a child hoping for a specific Christmas present or a first-century Christian hoping for God to finally sweep away the evils of the world—the Roman empire, the widespread poverty and disease, the injustice, the brutal war, etc.
When we hope through illness, when we hope through difficult times . . . hope sustains us through those times, but it doesn’t necessarily change things. One of the clichés in counselling circles is “grief is the price of love;” maybe disappointment is the price of hope.
Is it worth it? Is hoping worthwhile enough on its own?
The key message from all first Sunday of Advent texts is this: Keep awake. Some churches teach that this is Jesus saying to us that we still have to expect and prepare for the end of the world, even 2000 years later, because it could still happen anytime. For us . . . yeah, no. But how about this: God is saying to us, keep hoping.
In the Netherlands, in the Hague, a family from Amenia fleeing political persecution requested asylum and was denied. They fled to a church to avoid being deported and possibly killed, but the Netherlands doesn’t really have any “sanctuary” laws, except for the fact that Netherlands law says that a service of worship cannot be interrupted, so the police cannot enter until that worship service finishes. That church, Bethel centre, has been holding a service continually since October 28 to protect the Tamrazyan family.
I wonder how they, the family and the church, uphold hope for over a month. Does praying heal your soul and give you hope when you need it? Maybe we should all try praying for 800 hours straight.
When I heard about this on the CBC, when I think about this, to me this is hope. This is God’s profoundly messy but powerful grace to which I can only respond with equally messy hope and faith. Will anything change; do I and does this church and this family open ourselves up to deep disappointment when the service finally, somehow ends? Maybe. But maybe part of our difficult call as Christians, part of our cross to pick up, is to hope beyond hope in this way.
Things will take place, the nations will continue to rage and the seas will continue to roar, but this means that there will always be opportunity for hope. There will always be opportunity for active faith. It will always be the kairos moment for us to step forward and stand up for Jesus—the Jesus who is a refugee, the Jesus who is a homeless child, the Jesus who is a member of the oppressed. It will always be time for hope. Keep awake; keep hoping; keep your eyes on Bethlehem through this wonderful, messy season. Amen.