I Corinthians 1:3–9 ; Psalm 80:1–7, 16–18; Mark 13:24–37

We live in tenuous times. From Wall Street to Main Street to the streets of Mumbai, all around us, we see signs that life is fleeting. The foundations of security and success have been shaken to the core. What was once forgone conclusion is now tentative and unsure. Life’s vestiges have been scattered like dry leaves in autumn wind.

The challenge before us is how to live with hope.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Christian year. It is one of my favorite seasons, when we prepare to meet Christ in our lives and our world. It is the time when we are called to begin afresh our spiritual pilgrimage through the seasons of the church.

Our gospel reading speaks of a man going on a journey. We too are invited to journey towards a new beginning.

But at the same time, our gospel asks us to contend with the stars falling from heaven.

When we hear an image like that, it sounds a lot like our world today, doesn’t it? When the familiar pattern of our days and the shape of our lives have lost their clarity? Our footing is unsure. We are a bit off-balance. So the idea of beginning a journey, stepping out into the unknown, while the world is swirling around us, can be somewhat daunting. We might prefer to deny that we are feeling powerless against life’s uncertainties. In times like these, it seems easier to pull the covers up and go back to sleep.

But hope urges us on. Like a tight-rope walker dancing on tip toes, hope is actually love straining toward God’s glorious future. It demands a certain agility, balance, and equipoise—spiritual reserves found typically by time spent in prayer and the presence of God.

Yet this is also the time of year when friends and families often require more of us and when we are asked to be of service to those in need. To visit an aging friend or family member in the nursing home, take our place as a volunteer in the soup kitchen,
spend extra time with a little one who needs help coping with the emotions of the season. In times such as these, so much need can make us feel overwhelmed, even hopeless.

But the gospel calls us to choose a better way. In times of darkness, find light; in despair, find hope. And that’s what Advent is about. It’s a place where we’re supposed to stop and spend time looking for hope.

You see Advent begins with the end in mind. Not with the birth of the baby, but rather with yearning for Christ and his kingdom to be made manifest in our hearts, in our lives, and in our world. Advent tells us what to hope for: for the coming of Christ in the power of Love to restore justice and radically remake the world God intended.

So, Advent is a bit like sitting in a darkened theatre before the curtain rises. In Advent we await the coming of heaven on earth. Here we keep awake, and alert for signs of God’s reign breaking into our fractured worlds, lifting us up in light and love.

Now, there are times when hope comes easily, when we soar as if on eagle’s wings, when hope feels as close as our breath. But in more difficult seasons, hope is more of a cultivated discipline than a free-flowing emotion. So what are we to do? How do we act in a way that actually manifests hope in the world? One of the simplest of spiritual truths is this: that which you give away returns to you abundantly.

So the first step is practicing hope, to be alive to its presence. But hope is sometimes hard to spot, unless you know what to look for. You see, hope has many facets and can be practiced in the simplest of places.

When we visit someone who is sick, that is hope in the form of comfort.

When we sit with them and hold their hand, that’s hope in the guise of patience.

When we make sandwiches in a homeless shelter, we find hope in an act of mercy.

When we write a letter to our Congressperson advocating for improved elder care, that’s hope in the shape of justice.

When world leaders, despite differing ideologies, seek common ground, that’s hope in the form of reconciliation.

When we delight in the first snow fall, catching snowflakes on our tongue, that’s hope abounding in the joy of holy play.

If we want to stir up God’s gift of hope in ourselves and in our world, then we must exercise hope by participating in acts of mercy, joy, and justice.

In season and out of season it seems hope takes practice. Emily Dickinson reminds us that “hope is the thing with feathers” and, although hope asks nothing of you or me, we do need to fluff up that down pillow even after a good night’s sleep. Hope takes practice.

So what do we do when we take that step, when we donate a farm animal to a family in Somalia, or we send Christmas gifts to our soldiers in Iraq? We find that God is near, walking beside us, even when we are not quite sure where we are headed.

As we strain towards the future, we find that we are not only moving towards Christ but it is he who meets us on the path. And we grow in our awareness that all the time Christ has been here: within us, beside us, behind us, and in front of us. Christ is there—in people and places, in you and me, in bread and wine—if we only keep awake, keep alive to the awareness that God is always near. Through our acts of grace God becomes more visible to all.

Advent tells us that even in these dark times, and in the dormant places in our hearts, if we keep awake our lives will be quickened by hope born anew in the most unassuming of places.

As poet and preacher Samuel Longfellow reminds us,

Into all our lives, in many simple and familiar ways, God infuses instances of joy from the surprises of life…which unexpectedly brighten our days and fill our eyes with light.

What are those unexpected moments of joy? Longfellow says they are:

The success we were not counting on, the blessing we were not trying after, the strain of music in the midst of drudgery, the beautiful sunrise or sunset glory thrown in as we pass to or from our daily business, the unsought word of encouragement or expression of sympathy, the sentence that meant for us more than the writer or speaker thought. These and a hundred others that every one’s experience can supply are instances of what I mean. You may call it accident or chance—it often is; you may call it human goodness—it often is; but always, always call it God’s love, for that is always in it. These are the overflowing riches of God’s grace, these are God’s free gifts.

So what can we do when our hearts are heavy with the weight of the world and our faith is waning? Well, Advent reminds us that preparing to meet Jesus means that hope is ever-present in our world.

So what are we waiting for? For Hope is waiting to meet us on the journey—to enfold us in love today, tomorrow, and for all eternity. So let us refuse to live in fear, but rather let us live in faith, refusing to let the darkness overshadow the light in our lives and in our world.

Hold on to the awareness of God among us. Hold on. For hope has the final word.

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