United Presbyterian Church of West Orange


“The Courage of Hope”

 December 3rd, 2023

 Rev. Rebecca Migliore



        Happy New Year!  No, I’m not off my rocker—it is the start of a new church year.  And this year, year B of the lectionary, is a year with Mark (and John thrown in for good measure).  What do we know about the gospel of Mark?  It is the shortest gospel.  We believe it was the first to be written down.  It moves at a fast pace (“immediately” will become a familiar word).  It has no birth narrative.  Next week we will read the beginning of the gospel, with its pronouncement about Jesus and the story of John the Baptist.  That’s enough for now.  (By the way, Mark is a short enough gospel that you can read the whole thing in about an hour and a half.)

        The other thing to remember is that the Christian year begins with Advent—a two-part time.  One part is the preparation for the coming of the baby Jesus, Emmanuel, “God with us,” the incarnation.  But alongside that is the preparation for Jesus coming again, the end times, the judgment day, the apocalypse.  And that is where we start today.  With Jesus, the Son of Man, coming in the clouds, inaugurating a new heaven and a new earth.  Angels are sent out to “gather in the elect”—the realization of the parable of the sheep and the goats (from Matthew’s gospel). 

        We are listening in on the last part of this depiction of what will come to pass.  Earlier in the chapter Jesus has foretold the destruction of the temple, and false prophets, and “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”  Jesus has already foreseen all those zombie and apocalypse movies!


Jesus goes on.  He says they, the disciples, will be handed over to councils, beaten in synagogues, stand before governors and kings, “brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all.”  Happy New Year!

In other words, life is going to be (insert your favorite swear word).  If we look around, it seems to be coming to pass right now.  There are wars popping up everywhere.  Hatred is on the rise.  The inhuman things that people can do to other people is front and center in the news.  Our planet is in trouble, and we are not taking the threat seriously.  Our institutions are under siege, from the church, to the congress, to the courts, to even democracy itself.  Surely it feels like the sun is darkened, and the moonlight is dimmed, and any moment now the stars will begin to fall.  Great way to begin the year, right?

So what do we do with this first Sunday of Advent—with its macabre scenario—just when we want to coo over the baby Jesus?  If Advent is a two-part time, where is the part that has to do with God being with us, with good news to all people, with the wonder and beauty of that silent night?  That’s what I was thinking as I started my musings for this sermon. 

 And how do we square all this with the messages of the Advent candles: hope, peace, joy, love?  How are these terrible occurrences a time for hope?  Where is hope in all this?  Especially since the final moral of the Markan “little apocalypse” is “Keep awake.”  It reminds us of the bridesmaids—with the threat of what happens if you aren’t prepared, if you aren’t well supplied, if you aren’t ready. 

And that is when it came to me, that hope isn’t something that is presented to you in its own little jewel box.  Hope requires something from us.  It takes courage to hope.  When everything around you is falling apart, it takes courage to believe there will be a better time.  When everything you touch seems to disintegrate, or turn out wrong, it takes courage to keep on, keeping on.

      When every time you do justice or love mercy, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference, it takes courage to continue to do the right thing.

It seems to me that hope is our essential oil, like the oil for the lamps of the women waiting to welcome the bridegroom.  Hope is something we need to cultivate.  Hope is something we need to share.  Hope is something we need to watch for, to expect, to welcome.

There once was a school system in a large city that had a program to help children keep up with their school work during stays in the city's hospitals. One day a teacher who was assigned to this program received a routine call asking her to visit a particular child. She took the child's name and room number and talked briefly with the child's regular class teacher. "We're studying nouns and adverbs in his class now," the regular teacher said, "and I'd be grateful if you could help him understand them so he doesn't fall too far behind." 

The hospital program teacher went to see the boy that afternoon. No one had mentioned to her that the boy had been badly burned and was in great pain. Upset at the sight of the boy, she stammered as she told him, "I've been sent by your school to help you with nouns and adverbs." When she left she felt she hadn't accomplished much. 

The next day, a nurse asked her, "What did you do to that boy?" The teacher felt she must have done something wrong and began to apologize. "No, no," said the nurse. "You don't know what I mean. We've been worried about him, but ever since yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He's fighting back, responding to treatment. It's as though he's decided to live." 

Two weeks later the boy explained that he had completely given up hope until the teacher arrived. Everything changed when he came to a simple realization. He expressed it this way: "They wouldn't send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?" (Bits and Pieces, July 1991)


Maybe that is how we ought to look at Jesus coming into our world.  God wouldn’t send Jesus if we were past being redeemed.  God wouldn’t bother to try to talk to this world, be in this world, love this world, if it were destined for the trash heap.  That is the hope that is rekindled on each Christmas Day. 

And maybe the part of Advent where we see Jesus coming back is a promise that our hope for a better world, God’s kingdom come, will actually happen.  That there will be a day and a time (not that we can circle on our calendar), but it will come to pass where wrongs will be  righted, and the high and mighty will be leveled, and the low and the least will be held in great esteem.  Where hope and peace and joy and love will blossom and flourish.  Where we will be able to see God face to face.

That is where our focus should be.  Not on the lead-up to this wondrous event, as devastatingly spectacular as it may be.  We humans have a fascination with destruction.  That is not what God is about.  The Advent of God, the second coming, is about the recreation of the world, and the hope that all Jesus taught us, all God has shown us through the years, will reign supreme.

Yes, and the hope that we carry with us, the hope that we have courage to hold onto, the hope that frames our lives, and gives them meaning is based on what happened that starry night when the angels sang, and the shepherds ran, and the kings followed on.  It is this.

Into the midst of darkness, God comes.  Into the chaos of political rumblings, God comes.  Into the grief and fear and trembling of destruction of beloved objects, God comes.  In each and every time and place, God comes.  That is the foundation of our hope.  That God has been coming into the world and that God will continue to come into our world, until there is a new heaven and a new earth.




That is why we can say with the African-American spiritual,

“Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King,

Say it with me, “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King,”

One more time, “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King,”

“Hallelujah, Hallelujah!  We are going to see the King!” May it be...