St John’s, Tolpuddle
Sunday 2nd December 2018
Jeremiah 33.14-6; Luke 21.25-36
Advent has always been the season of hope. It becomes harder and harder, so it seems, to keep Advent properly. Every year, Christmas creeps into and often seems to start before Advent has even begun. For instance, today is the beginning of Advent and yesterday I attend two Christmas markets and my first Christmas dinner of the season.
In the world out there, Advent has certainly lost its meaning – Advent calendars still exist but they are as much about chocolate and Disney characters as they are about Christ.
The Church in previous times has adapted and Christianised pagan and non-Christian festivals but it happens the other way too. Consumerism has certainly for many taken over the season of Advent and rather than its being a season of hope and a time to look forward to when Christ comes again, it has become all about getting.
Have you seen the Advent calendars which contain perfume or gin – last year a whisky calendar was selling for £9,995. How much further can you get from a Jesus, who came to dwell among the poor and needy not sup whisky with the rich?
The world has gone mad. But are we Christians any better at keeping Advent properly as a season of hope?
First, let us ask what we mean by hope. A dictionary definition describes it as “the expectation or desire for something to happen,” such as “I hope I win the lottery” or “I hope to see Ben for lunch tomorrow”. Other meanings are given including “a person or thing that may save someone”, such as “his only hope was in the surgeon’s skill” or “grounds for believing something good may happen”, such as “she does see some hope for the future”. It’s an optimistic state of mind.
According to Google, use of the word hope was much higher in the past than it is now.
Its height was in the early 19th century, then it began a steady decline through the second half of that century and all the way through the 19th, reaching a low in around 2000, when mentions of it began slowly to creep up again, though the level is nowhere near that of 200-plus years ago.
I’d be intrigued to know why that is. Is it because people have become less hopeful? Is it because there are fewer Christians now so hope – often used in church vocabulary – is used less? Is it just because in the explosion of media and the greater literacy of people there are far more words in frequent use so that mention of each goes down? Who knows? Perhaps you can think of a different theory.
If we look around our world today, we could feel very lacking in hope. We have a government, opposition and other politicians who are completely consumed with Brexit, and who seem to intent on widening divisions between people rather than trying to ameliorate them.
We have the Metropolitan Police considering armed patrols in London because the rate of knife murders among young people has increased so much in the past couple of years.
We have an increase in the use of food banks across our country, a rise in the number of homeless folk living on our streets.
We have greater numbers of people suffering from mental ill-health.
Climate change is causing real problems for some – it would appear that creation is broken as well as its people.
Our church congregations are dwindling and ageing.
And across the world there are conflicts and poverty and distress. As populations continue to grow across the world, more and more people seem to be living in hopeless situations, and rich and poor seem to grow ever further apart.
We could certainly do with some renewal of hope.
I wonder how many of you can quote the diocesan vision which was launched five years ago: Renewing Hope: Pray, Serve, Grow.
You may even remember the associated questions: What do you pray for? Whom do you serve? How will you grow?
During this season of Advent, I will be preaching in the different churches about each of these things: hope today, praying next week, and then serving and growing. Because of the nature of a multi-parish benefice, each congregation won’t get each sermon, but they will all be on the benefice website so I do urge you to try and follow them there.
What does it mean to renew hope? How, in a world where hope is so frequently lost, can we be messengers of hope?
We Christians are not always great about putting across our message.
The message of hope is a gift that we have to share. For Christian hope is much more than just a desire for something to happen.
Christian hope is not a vague desire for something to happen but a confident expectation in the promises of God.
We too easily forget that Advent is as much about looking to the time when Christ will come again and the whole of creation will be renewed as about the preparation for the birth of a child.
In that, Advent holds together the past, the present and the future, and provides an assurance that hope will be renewed. God’s promises for Creation – a renewed heaven and a renewed earth – will come true.
In God’s plan, there will be a time when suffering and poverty are no more, when human beings work together for the good of all and divisions between people of different races, creeds, nations, colours, beliefs will be ended.
There will be a time when creation is restored to full health, when the deserts will spring with flowers and water, when justice and righteousness will be everywhere.
There will be a time when all wrongs will be righted and God’s love will heal all wounds, restore all brokenness and transform everything.
That hope underpins everything we are. Hope in Jesus Christ is not just hope in a baby who came into the world 2000 years ago, but hope that something new will happen. That is the hope which Christians are called to live with.
In the time between Christ’s birth and Christ’s coming again, God does new things all the time, but it is sometimes hard to discern them among the many ills and evils of our world.
If we are to help people renew their hope, then we need to be people of hope.
That is one reason why at the start of every church council meeting and every diocesan meeting, people are asked to share stories of what has renewed their hope. The more we talk about and share things of hope the more we will believe in them and the more people will come to know that Christianity is something positive and renewing rather than, as some believe, irrelevant or life-sapping or judgemental.
The Christian hope says that there is better to come, that accepting things to be just the way they are is not enough.
It’s not always easy, especially for those of us who, by nature or nurture or a bit of both, tend to be pessimistic and find it hard to move beyond the glass half-empty attitude. I’m one of them, but that’s not something I’m proud of because I don’t think it is a godly attitude. I am called to be a person who proclaims hope in all circumstances not just when I’m feeling positive.
There are always signs of hope in our world, and God will remain at work whether the church survives or not. Part of our role is to help the world to see where God is at work now. To point out the cracks of light in seemingly dark situations, to remind people that they are never truly alone.
How can we bring hope to others? There are so many different ways but if we are to be those people, those hope-sharers, we need to be rooted in that hope ourselves, which means we need to pay attention to our own spiritual lives, and not put them on the back burner. The more dedicated time and attention we give to God, the more we will become people of hope who will be transformed from the inside out.
Hope can take all sorts of forms – it can be an encouraging word, a generous deed, a reminder of God’s goodness. It comes from looking at the world with the eyes of Jesus who sees all that is good and to be celebrated.
The stories of hope we share in meetings inspire me, and I’m reflecting on how we can bring more of them into our Sunday gatherings, and give the opportunity to a greater part of the congregation to hear them and to share their own. Our hope can be renewed, both when we share our own stories and when we hear those of others.
So let us make this a hope-filled Advent, and offer ourselves to God in the words of the diocesan Renewing Hope prayer:
God our Father,
renew our hope.
By the Holy Spirit’s power strengthen us to pray readily,
serve joyfully and grow abundantly,
rejoicing in Jesus Christ our Lord.