Advent is a jumble of ideas and traditions, one tumbling over another, pulling us this way and that, and that’s not even taking into account the secular push to be “holly and jolly;” to “buy, buy, buy,” to keep stores and our country in the black; to rush toward the “Holidays,” get the most out of them that we can, and then settle back into the real world, with a new time stamp.
So forgive me if I got lost trying to imagine how to approach my message for the first Sunday in Advent, 2019. I was struck by the suggestion of packaging the gifts of Advent and opening them, week by week, reminding us all of how to keep a little “Advent” in the pell-mell of pre-Christmas, as well as giving us a blueprint for the new year (our ever-present future).
Hope--that is what was in our gift box today. I looked up a definition of hope and got “an optimistic state of mind that is based on an expectation of positive outcomes (in respect to one’s own life or the world in general).” But somehow that didn’t really seem quite enough.
Certainly Isaiah 2, a passage we read frequently during the Advent season, is a call to hope: with its soaring language and vision of a better world, a more tranquil world, a more integrated world. Yes, we need to have a picture of what can be—of what will be, say the prophets. Is that what hope is? Steadfastly holding onto something larger than ourselves, something that we may not see, something that will fall from the skies--God’s plan, God’s doing, God’s new heaven and new earth? I think hope has to have that vision that we use as our destination, it is the “prize” on which we are to keep our eyes.
But hope is more than just a pretty picture of the future. Hope does not allow us to sit back and wait for God to make everything right. Hope asks more of us. And this is where our reading from the gospel of Matthew (the primary gospel for the “new” year) is helpful. Although talking about the “end of days,” the quasi-parable about one taken/one left is meant to shake us from any passivity. Stay awake; be watchful; be ready—you never know when God will appear.
Because we as Christians have gotten complacent about the end of times—with too many people projecting exact time and place (in sheer disregard of this morning’s reading, I might add) and, surprise!, these projections then don’t pan out—so we have relegated the concept to zombie apocalypses and sci-fi demolition of worlds. Hope seems to be in opposition to end of the world scenarios—unless the end of the world is the beginning of something better!
Hope, in the lens of Matthew, cannot, should not be passive. It is vigilance, it is preparedness, it is being ever ready for the Advent of God and God’s reign. This hope is active, doing stuff—very different from just dreaming of a beautiful vision and pining that it hasn’t yet come true.
So hope is both out there and right here; hope is something to head towards and the action of getting on the road. Something still seemed to be missing. As I read a little more about what people think hope is about, I stumbled into the science of positive psychology—and its specialist Charles R Synder. In what Synder called “Hope theory” he argues that “hopeful individuals are able to establish clear goals, imagine multiple workable pathways toward those goals, and persevere, even when obstacles get in their way.” (from “Hope” Wikipedia)
The more I thought about it, the more I liked this three-pronged approach. Isaiah gives us the vision (in one form)—the goal so to speak—the new way that we could be together, and the new world we (with God’s help) could produce. Matthew gives us the pep talk that we need to be doing something (in Synder’s terms, the agency, the will to be on the way toward the goal).
So we have the vision or goal from Isaiah; we have the agency, the push to be one the way from Matthew; what is missing from Hope as seen through our morning’s Scriptures is the pathway—how do we get from where we are to where we want to go? I like that Synder imagines there are multiple workable pathways—that we don’t have to get on one road and stay there—that we don’t have to all be on the same road—that there might be other ways other than roads! And that is where our concept of hope circles back in.
Hope certainly has an individual component to it. One of my favorite “definitions” of hope comes from Emily Dickenson’s short poem,
“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.”
But another poetic image of hope is more ancient and more expansive. In the Greek myth of Pandora, after allowing all the ills to escape the box/jar and plague the earth, Pandora is left with only one thing in the jar—hope. I’m not sure I understand how hope was in the jar with all those ills (greed, envy, hatred, mistrust, sorrow, anger, revenge, lust, and despair)—but the moral of the story is that humanity—us as a collective, is left only with hope. Hope is the one gift we have that might do us some good.
And maybe the wisdom from the ages can partner with the vision of Isaiah of “all nations, all peoples, all” coming together. Although our individual stories can be buoyed by hope, Hope itself is not intended as a solitary occupation. Hope is a gift given to the world. Hope is what God speaks as the future of God’s full creation. Hope is what we dream together, Hope is what we do together, Hope is us figuring out pathways that intersect and fly over and merge and separate in our mutual movement toward a shared future.
And that is how we get to the “work of hope.” Hope isn’t a present that we put on the shelf—to comfort us in the dark times (although it can do that). Hope is a present that we put into our pocket to be a touchstone, an wake-up call, to constantly remind us to get out of our chairs, out of our funk, out of our individual bubbles, and be at the work of hope, together.
Dickenson imagined that hope “sings the tune without the words”—and as a musician I can kind of understand that. Sometimes tunes float around in our heads without the words, sometimes we can’t for the life of us remember the words, and yet, I know that science tells us if you code information with both words and tune, it gets embedded deeply into the brain. It has been shown that people who are deep into the haze of Alzheimer’s and cannot speak, will still remember the words to a song they learned years ago.
So, although I will let Emily have her tune without the words, I wanted us to have a tune with words to hang onto as we go our way this week, as we plan for this year, as we try to be faithful in our service and work. It is a contemporary carol found in our hymnbook written by Marty Hagen in 1983.
Awake! Awake, and greet the new morn, for angels herald its dawning. Sing out your joy, for soon he is born, behold! The Child of our longing. Come as a baby weak and poor, to bring all hearts together, he opens wide the heavenly door and live now inside us forever.
To us, to all in sorrow and fear, Emmanuel comes a-singing; his humble song is quiet and near, yet fills the earth with its ringing; music to heal the broken soul and hymns of loving-kindness. The thunder of his anthems rolls to shatter all hatred and violence.
In darkest night his coming shall be, when all the world is despairing, as morning light so quiet and free, so warm and gentle and caring. Then shall the mute break forth in song, the lame shall leap in wonder, the weak be raised above the strong, and weapons be broken asunder.
Rejoice, rejoice, take heart in the night. Though dark this winter and cheerless, the rising sun shall crown you with light; be strong and loving and fearless. Love be our song and love our prayer and love our endless story; may God fill every day we share and bring us at last into glory.
Let us sing it together, holding fast to our first Advent gift from God. The gift of Hope.