For those who are counting, there are now twelve days until Christmas. The flickering lights are everywhere, and so are the sounds of Rudolph and bah-rum-pa-pum-pums. For all of the high spirits of the season, it is about as frenetic and emotionally demanding a time of the year as we have. There is year-end pressure for many businesses, there are gifts to buy, cards to send, travel to plan, Christmas trees to haul in and decorate, office parties to go to, and all this on top of the usual intense pace of things.
All of this makes me think of the little boy I heard about who came home exhausted after a hard day of being dragged around the malls doing Christmas shopping with the nonstop rush and shoving. That night saying his prayers before falling into bed, he got himself confused saying the Lord’s Prayer and said, “Forgive us our Christmases as we forgive those who Christmas against us.”
This is the Third Sunday in Advent, our season of preparation for the Feast of Christmas. While the world around us is impatient to sing carols and open presents, the church says, ‘Not so fast. First look honestly at where you are, where your world is, because where you are is where Christ seeks to be born in this season.’ Here in church, Advent calls us to a time of sober, realistic hope in the midst of this busy season.
Did you hear the prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson speaking to the traumatized people of Israel? Their massive Temple has been destroyed by invaders and their leaders have been carried off into captivity. Isaiah’s people are worried, broken-hearted, grieving. The world looks bleak.
And John the Baptist in the gospel lesson is in a prison cell, where everything in his ministry seems to be unraveling. Gone is the bravado we heard last week announcing that a powerful Messiah was coming to set the world right. Now in his confusion John sends a messenger to Jesus saying, “Are you the one we’ve been looking for, or should we wait for another?” ‘We thought you’d turn the world upside down,’ he is saying. ‘But nothing has changed.’
Advent will lead into a Kingdom of Hope, but it begins in the dark. And there is plenty of dark in our world too—a jittery world of war and nuclear tension, of global hatreds and global poverty. And I imagine that all of us here have our own shares of deserts and dark places—health worries or child worries, jobs not working out, loneliness and lack of connection, wondering where our life is going.
But then Advent points us toward hope. What ever happened to hope? Andrew Delbanco from Columbia University has written a book called The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope in which he describes how our hopes have diminished over the years. The early New England Puritans placed their hope in God. In the 19th century, people increasingly put their hope in their nation. America came to see itself “the last best hope for mankind,” as Abraham Lincoln put it. But in the late 20th century, America’s hope became focused on the self. We Americans, Delbanco says, “conspired to install instant gratification as the hallmark of hope of the good life.”
Well, where do we place our hope? Is it in democracy, or military might, or our capitalist prosperity? Maybe shopping is the answer. You may have spotted the airport poster that reads, “You’ve got the whole world in your hands—MasterCard.”
Of course we know that none of those gods will give us what we most seek in this season. We come here this morning because we yearn for something deeper for our selves and our world—a God who can act from outside the closed universe we imagine ourselves to be in. Most of us don’t really expect much from God—a little empathy, a list of problems in society we should work on, but not a sense of a living God we can trust. “The worst thing you can say about God,” that great theologian Woody Allen once remarked, “is that he is an underachiever.”
The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat in a Nazi prison in 1943 during a cold, dark, lonely Advent, and there he wrote a letter to a friend comparing his prison life to the situation of Christians in Advent:
For a Christian, there is nothing peculiarly difficult about Christmas in a prison cell…. One waits, hopes, and does this, that or the other—things that really are of no consequence—the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.
That is our situation, Advent says: longing for peace in our hearts and families, longing for a more hopeful and just world—but the door can only be opened from the outside—by a Power from beyond us.
And that’s what the prophet Isaiah describes. In the darkest possible time, he says this:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom…
They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.
Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God…He will come to save you.”
Isaiah declares that our lives and our world are open to a future we can barely imagine. Blossoms in the desert? Water breaking forth in the wilderness? God will come to save, he says. He points us to a Kingdom of Hope.
Hope can make all the difference in our lives. You may have heard the old adage, “Where there is life there is hope,” but the opposite is just as true, “Where there is hope there is life.” We depend on a sense of a future filled with possibilities to give us the energy to live.
That is true of people who are going through grief, or illness, or joblessness. The worst fear is that the future will be empty of possibilities. And the path of healing entails becoming open again to a future that we cannot yet see or imagine.
One of the great books of our time is a work called Man’s Search for Meaning, by the psychiatrist Victor Frankl. Frankl was a young Jew just finishing his training when he was shipped off to a Nazi concentration camp. There he observed what happened to people amid the horrors of overcrowding, bitter cold, inadequate food and shelter, and cruel death.
Frankl saw that most of the people who came into the camps gave up quickly. They either became ill or died of what were called “natural causes” like pneumonia that were clearly rooted in hopelessness and despair. Some simply threw themselves against the electrified wires to end things.
But Frankl noticed that a few were surviving, and they were even able to busy themselves helping the others rather than being lost in their own self-absorption. One person had a retarded child and felt an urgent responsibility to get back to care for him. Another man couldn’t wait to get out and be reunited with his wife. Then he received word that she had died in another camp, and in two days he was dead. Frankl concluded that the man died not because of physical ailments, but because he lost hope that there was anything beyond the bleakness of the prison. We can live longer without bread and water, Frankl concluded, than we can live without hope.
Writer Maya Angelou once listed the terrible brutalities that African Americans endured through the era of slavery, and then she said this: “There was much to cry for, much to mourn, but in my heart I felt exalted knowing there was much to celebrate… [because] through the centuries of despair and dislocation, we had been creative, because we faced down death by daring to hope.”
Desmond Tutu was often asked how he could keep up the struggle for freedom during the terrible decades of apartheid. “Because we are on the winning side,” he would say. “God will one day lead us to freedom.” It was hope that brought down apartheid.
An old preacher Harold Luccock once wrote, “Nothing really great ever happened without a great many lives lived in expectation. Those are the kind of folk by which the world moves forward, always standing on tiptoe.”
Living in the Kingdom of Hope doesn’t mean knowing how things will turn out, or whether they even will in our lifetime. It is putting our lives in God’s hands, trusting that God will see us through to the healing that awaits us, in ways we cannot imagine.
And what will this Kingdom of Hope look like? You hear the same thing from Isaiah and from Jesus—the earth will be renewed, the blind will see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and the poor hear good news. When God comes, that’s what begins to happen.
The Kingdom of Hope is an old man named Joseph Sittler, a much loved teacher at the University of Chicago Divinity School. When I met him some twenty years ago, he was in his late eighties and was known for devoting his time to planting trees around the campus that he knew he would never see grow tall and strong. In a little book published near the end of his life, he explained it this way:
I do not believe that our relationship to the earth is liable to change for the better until it gets catastrophically worse. Our record indicates that we can walk with our eyes wide open straight into sheer destruction if there is a profit on the way—and that seems to be what we are doing. I have no great expectation that human cussedness will somehow be quickly modified and turned into generosity or that humanity’s care of the earth will improve much. But I do go around planting trees on campus.
The Kingdom of Hope is a world and an America that are beginning to wake up to the fact that it will now take far more than planting trees to save the climate of our globe.
The Kingdom of Hope is a brave new Chancellor of the DC School System, Michelle Rhee, who says that nothing is more important than giving the poor students in our city a chance at a decent future. With the support of our new mayor she is taking on every obstacle in the way of creating the strong, imaginative, demanding schools these kids need if they are to break out of the cycle of poverty.
The Kingdom of Hope is when families in this complex season ahead make even small steps toward healing old wounds.
The Kingdom of Hope is a Salvation Army clanging bell with its reminder that this really is a season of giving—a generous check written, time given in a soup kitchen.
The Kingdom of Hope is cities with homes people can afford and health care for everyone. The Kingdom of Hope is a nation that is beating its swords into ploughshares and building alliances to create a safer world.
The Kingdom of Hope means preparing for Christ to be born again this year. Of course, Christ is already inside each of us, or we wouldn’t be here. And Advent is the time when that Christ embryo inside us is seeking to grow and emerge in new ways. Christ’s life is taking shape in you. And Christmas—the real Christmas—will come, not necessarily on December 25, but whenever we actually allow Christ’s life to emerge and begin to fill our lives.
Welcome to the Kingdom of Hope, my friends. May Christ be born in our world this season, and in every one of us.