Sunday Homilies with Pastor Wanda: First Sunday in Advent 2010

Happy New Year, Theologoholics! I am thrilled to let you know that we have a new partner joining in our conversation. Wanda Childs is pastor of St. Luke Evangelical Lutheran Church in Beckley, WV. Wanda is an excellent preacher with an unrelenting commitment to sharing the good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ! And she has graciously allowed us to publish the transcript of her Sunday homily in our now weekly segment: Sunday Homilies with Pastor Wanda

When writing What Happened to Hope, the late Karl Menninger went to the library in search of source material.  There he found volumes on faith and volumes on love, but he found none on the subject of hope. In the Encyclopedia he found the same thing: columns on faith and more on love, but hope was not even mentioned.  Menninger concluded that we don’t live in a time of hope. And in fact our century has been called the century of despair.

If you Look at Early 20th Century Literature you see an overwhelming shift from the writings of possibility and optimism to writings of despair and depravity. You no longer find the inspiring and inspirational writings that came from the likes of Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and others. Instead we find authors such as T.S Eliot, Ernest Hemmingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald with themes of Blackness, decline, lack of meaning, and overall depression and despair.

This morning, we lit our first advent candle, and we named it the candle of hope.  Hope – the opposite of despair. The definition of despair? a state in which all hope is lost or absent. But hope has other opposites as well.  Like sloth, or spiritual laziness.  When faced with the prospect of life forever with God, sloth yawns and says “BOR-ing.”  Sound familiar? Or how about presumption?  Hope is humble confidence that God won’t give up on me.  Presumption is the arrogant expectation that God owes me mercy, regardless how neglectful I am of the means of grace.

Hope is a spiritual muscle.  But like all muscles, it must be exercise just to survive.  Unused muscles atrophy.  Use it or lose it. That’s why each year the Church gives us a season of Hope, which we called Advent.  Though our society has made it a season of indulgence, it is meant to be a season of training.  It’s time to blow on the spark of spiritual desire within us till it bursts into flame.  Christmas lights are nice, but it is we who are supposed to be the light of the world.

We hear plenty about faith and love.  But when is the last time you heard a rousing homily on hope?  Why is hope important?  And what is it precisely?

To accomplish great things in life, you need a future goal that is big enough to keep you motivated.  The promise of a diploma makes college students stay up late writing papers when they’d rather be partying.  The dream of Olympic glory gets the runner up early to put in miles while others are comfortably snoozing.

An underlying confidence emerges from our readings this day. Scripture that is filled with hope, not despair. We pray it every week and many of us pray about it several times during the week. It is something that is rooted deep within the foundation of the Christian community.

“Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven…”

Ours is a faith of hope. So what does our hope look like? In other words — What if God was actually reigning on earth? What would it be like? Try to imagine it. Paul did: “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; 13let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.”

There would be no misunderstanding, but instead harmony and peace and  true understanding. There would be no injustice and the world would be right with God. Great joy would abound. What a world it would be and how we long for such a world.

This is the world we pray for week by week:  A world where Arab and Jew live as sisters and brothers. Where the tribes of the Balkans and Africa and Ireland, of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and China, no longer maintain their ongoing fears, resentments or rage. Where the peoples of the United States were truly united…rather than polarized in hostility & hatred among ourselves as democrats vs. republicans, labor vs. union, liberals vs. conservatives – you name the category, poor vs. upper class.  Think about a world where there is no longer need for armies or secret police, no more razor wire, nor more prison compounds or grey jails. Think about a world where the billions of dollars spent on armaments are diverted to feeding, clothing, housing, teaching, healing the peoples of the world. Think long about a world where all are neighbours and every individual in treated as intrinsically precious. Where the vulnerable can leave their doors unlocked, and ordinary people can walk on the streets at night without fear.

Think about Christ and his way:

He shall judge between nations,

and arbitrate between many races;

they shall beat the swords into ploughshares

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war any more

This is who we follow. We are Christians.   Christ is our hope.

Henri Nouwen was once asked: “Are you an optimist?” His reply: “No, not naturally, but that isn’t important. I live in hope, not optimism.”

Teilhard de Chardin once said the same thing in different words when he was accused of being overly-idealistic and unrealistic in the face all the negative things one sees in the world. A critic had challenged him: “Suppose we blow up the world with a nuclear bomb; what then happens to your vision of a world coming together in peace?”

Teilhard’s response lays bear the anatomy of hope: “If we blow up the world by nuclear bombs, that will set things back some millions of years, but eventually what Christ promised will come about, not because I wish it, but because God has promised it and, in the resurrection, God has shown that God is powerful enough to deliver on that promise.”

Hope is not simple optimism, an irrepressible idealism that will not let itself be defeated by what’s negative; nor is it wishful thinking, a fantasy-daydream that someday our ship will come in; nor is it the ability to look the evening news square in the eye and still conclude, realistically, that there are good reasons to believe everything will turn out well.

Hope is not based on whether the evening news is good or bad on a given day. The daily news, as we know, is better on some days and worse on others. If we hope or despair on the basis of whether things seem to be improving or disintegrating in terms of world events, our spirits will go up and down like the stock market.

Hope isn’t based on CNN, CNBC Fox, nor any other network.

Instead, hope looks at the facts, looks at God’s promise, and then, without denying the facts or turning away from the evening news, lives out a vision of life based upon God’s promise, trusting that a benevolent, all-powerful God is still in charge of this world and that is more important than whether or not the news looks good or bad on a given night.

Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners and one of the prophets of hope in today’s world, has a wonderful way of illustrating this: Politicians, he says, are all of a kind. A politician holds up his finger in the wind, checks which way the wind is blowing, and then votes that way. It generally doesn’t help, Wallis says, to change the politicians because those who replace them do exactly the same thing. They, too, make their decisions according to the wind. And so — “We need to change the wind!” That’s hope’s task. The wind will change the politicians.

How does this work? Wallis uses the example of the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid was not brought down by guns or violence or even by changing the politicians, but by changing the wind.  In the face of racial injustice, people of faith began to pray together and, as a sign of their hope that one day the evil of apartheid would be overcome, they lit candles and placed them in their windows so that their neighbors, the government and the whole world would see their belief. And their government did see. They passed a law making it illegal, a politically subversive act, to light a candle and put it in your window. It was seen as a crime, as serious as owning and flaunting a gun.

The irony of this wasn’t missed by the children. At the height of the struggle against apartheid, the children of Soweto had a joke: “Our government,” they said, “is afraid of lit candles!”  It had reason to be. Eventually those burning candles, and the prayer and hope behind them, changed the wind in South Africa. Morally shamed by its own people, the government conceded that apartheid was wrong and dismantled it without a war, defeated by hope, brought down by lit candles backed by prayer. Hope had changed the wind.

During the season of Advent, Christians are asked to light candles as a sign of hope. To light an Advent candle is to say, in the face of all that suggests the contrary, that God is still alive, still Lord of this world, we still pray, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven.

Advent is a kind of journey, a journey from where we are now to where God is leading us.

Advent is a reminder that we are living in the meantime.

My teenage years were some of the most topsy turvy times of my life. What a great example of what it means to live in the meantime. Teenagers are something more than a child, on the way to becoming an adult, but not quite there yet.  College students who are looking forward to graduating, looking forward to moving on – guess where you are? Living in the meantime.  Not really knowing what the future holds, what kind of job you will have or where you might be living is not so easy. The truth is, we all live in the meantime.  Looking towards the promise “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

And we are called to stay the course, to plant that tree, to keep hammering away at those swords in our own lives, in our homes, in our relationships, in our jobs, in our community, even in our church, until they look more and more like plowshares: until hatred is changed into love; until rejection is changed into acceptance; until quarreling is changed into listening; until apathy is changed into service; until selfishness is changed into sacrifice; until greed is changed into generosity.
For Isaiah believed with all his heart that God would one day bring about a world where all humankind would live together and walk together before the Lord in faith, righteousness and peace.

And so every time our congregation comes together to pray, we are living faithfully in the meantime. Every coin you placed in our noisy offering for the hungry, is faithful hope, as we live in the meantime. Every time we share our faith, live as a witness of Jesus Christ, make a decision to do good rather than evil, try to understand rather than condemn, we are living faithfully in the meantime. Every time you speak a word of forgiveness in a situation of bitterness and hatred, that Christian is speaking in the future present tense. We are giving the world a foretaste of how God will help us to live together in God’s kingdom. Every time we stand up and sing from the heart, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus, Born To Set Thy People Free,” we are joining Isaiah in the prayer that one day the whole world will indeed walk in the light of the Lord.

We live in the meantime.  Christ has come and Christ will come again.

In the meantime, Christ keeps coming again and again into our hearts, into our lives, our families, our communities, our world. We live in hope.

Thanks be to God.

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