Sermon Advent 1: 29 November, 2015 at Leura UC
Our subject today is ‘hope’. A small four letter word but one on which worlds are built. To hope is to ‘look forward to’, ‘to expect with desire’, ‘to anticipate’, ‘to suppose’, ‘to expect’. Then in 1 Corinthians 13: 13 hope stands alongside faith and love as for St Paul the bases of Christian spiritual life. Hope in itself gives us a future. There’s always something to live for when we have hope.
Jeremiah is a good case in point. He was not by nature a man full of hope. Indeed, his name suggests the very opposite. Today we speak of a man being ‘a Jeremiah’, meaning someone depressed and despondent, someone always complaining, or being negative. Yet in the reading we have heard today Jeremiah is proclaiming the promise of the Lord: ‘In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David’, a sentence seen as suggesting the coming of a Messiah. It is hope spelt out in a very particular way: a particular time, a particular man and genealogy, and a particular set of moral qualities – of justice and righteousness – all are involved. It is like a cultural springboard. Like Winston Churchill in WW2 using Shakespeare’s Henry V to suggest his country’s destiny. Jeremiah has provided his people with the words and the vision that are filled with hope.
Hope, here in Jeremiah, has in one sense leapt out of necessity. Israel and Judah, five centuries before the birth of Jesus, were surrounded by hostile aggressive nations such as Egypt and Assyria, not unlike the way it is today. Jerusalem was on the point of being destroyed and its people being taken away into exile in Babylon. Jeremiah’s words cut right across the prevailing mood of the people. In this context, there is something unusual about his words. Indeed, there is a quality we might call ‘grace’. To be believing in a Messiah or Saviour figure in the context of war and defeat is in itself a miracle. Hope is the energy of last resort. Yet here in Jeremiah it is a unique and creative impulse, as act of grace for a people turning to God for help and finding it in a prophet’s words.
How interesting it is, and how different, to think next of Paul writing his letter to the people of Thessalonica more than 5 centuries after Jeremiah. We meet the real Paul. Here, he finds himself tapping into this same spiritual reservoir called ‘hope”. Elsewhere, he often seems all doctrine. In reality he is all ‘life’, all happening, all feeling and passion – and not to mention footsore from travelling.
His letter to the Thessalonians, it should be noted, is the earliest document we have of all the New Testament writings. It comes from around 50 AD. We know of Paul’s earlier history: a Jew violently opposed to this new group of followers of Jesus. Paul may have been present at the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. But Paul’s later conversion on the road to Damascus was to become a turning point for himself and for world history. He went on to become the apostle to the Gentiles, the people outside Judaism. Paul travelled through Asian Minor (now Turkey), through Macedonia and Greece and eventually throughout the Mediterranean ending in Rome. He brought three powerful spiritual traditions into play with one another – Hebraic, Hellenic (or Greek) and Roman. A remarkable achievement!
But here we find him in a very sympathetic situation. Paul and his younger companion Timothy had left Jerusalem, Antioch and Damascus behind them, and had now crossed over into Europe. Does this sound familiar? Think of the thousands of refugees today doing the same thing. Hope is alive and powerful today in this part of the world, isn’t it? Yet Paul’s reception among the Thessalonians had left him somewhat despondent and uncertain of his call.
Today’s reading from Paul’s letter, however, tells a different story. Timothy has brought ‘good news’ from the people of Thessalonica of their ‘faith and love’. It is a remarkable moment of emotion, of hope that has become realised. In one sense it is Paul’s hope as an evangelist that the people he has ministered to have received the good news of Jesus, and are now experiencing ‘love for one another and for all’, just as, Paul continues, ‘we abound in love for you’. Against the difficult background of Paul’s travels, this experience is all he could have hoped for. Hope happens. It does become life.
The passage from Luke’s Gospel presents Jesus at the end of the week he spent in Jerusalem just prior to his arrest, trial and crucifixion. He has much on his mind, and much to teach and share with his disciples and others. There is a sobering quality about what he teaches. He could be Jeremiah telling his hearers to expect the worst. Jerusalem is to be destroyed (the Romans did destroy Jerusalem in AD 70). “There will be great distress upon the earth”. These are his words. He continues with language not of hope but of fear. He is announcing the time of the Apocalypse, a time imagined in terms of fear and terrible destruction. Yet it will be one that will also reveal or unveil “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory”. It will be a Day of Judgment.
Jesus warns his hearers to watch for signs and to be prepared and alert. His message is a grimly realistic one, not unlike a doctor’s warning that we hear today in the interests of good health. It is hope heavily qualified by caution. It tells people that there will be an End ahead, and that it is wise to take it into account in daily life. It sounds like the issue before the Heads of Government in Paris this coming week on climate change.
Three presentations of “hope”. Between them as a trio they offer a beginning, a middle and an end. Jeremiah opens up the possibility of a beginning – a birth, like the one we will be celebrating in four weeks time – Paul’s Epistle to the Thessalonians offers us a middle, the actual precious and rare experiencing of the results of hope and hard work – while Luke’s Gospel presents Jesus acknowledging a future end, but one that goes further and reveals a larger overall purpose accessible in the Christian life. It is an awareness of the need for holiness in daily living and beyond that of redemption, of knowing in faith the grace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Hope is both a future and a fact. Living for something beyond ourselves and as yet to be realised, best of all living for others – this is good for us. Especially now as we enter this time of Advent: are we thinking of others? Are we responding to the Christ-child in ourselves? Are we aware of all the Christ-life going on around us? Are we open to the cosmic dimension of Christmas?