ADVENT IS ABOUT HOPE
There’s a story of two men, both seriously ill, who once occupied the same hospital room. One man was allowed to sit up in his bed for an hour each afternoon to help drain the fluid from his lungs. His bed was next to the room’s only window. The other man had to spend all his time flat on his back.
The men talked for hours on end. They spoke of their wives and families, their homes, their jobs, and where they had been on vacation. And every afternoon, when the man in the bed by the window could sit up, he would pass the time by describing to his roommate all the things he could see outside the window.
The man in the other bed began to live for those one-hour periods where his world would be broadened and enlivened by all the activity and color of the world outside.
The man by the window described a park with a lovely lake. Young lovers walked arm in arm amidst flowers of every color of the rainbow. Graceful old trees presided over ducks and swans floating peacefully on the water while children sailed their model boats. In the distance, the city skyline created a stunning backdrop.
As the man by the window described all this in exquisite detail, the man on the other side of the room would close his eyes and imagine the picturesque scene. One warm afternoon the man by the window described a parade passing by. Although the other man couldn’t hear the band, he could see it in his mind’s eye as the man by the window portrayed it with descriptive words. Days and weeks passed.
One morning, the day nurse arrived to bring water for their baths only to find the lifeless body of the man by the window, who had died peacefully in his sleep. She was saddened and called the hospital attendants to take the body away.
As soon as it seemed appropriate, the other man asked if he could be moved next to the window. The nurse was happy to make the switch, and after making sure he was comfortable, she left him alone. Slowly, painfully, he propped himself up on one elbow to take his first look at the world outside, relieved that, finally, he would have the joy of seeing it for himself.
He strained to slowly turn to look out the window beside the bed. It faced a blank wall. The man asked the nurse what could have compelled his deceased roommate to describe such wonderful things outside the window when there was nothing there.
The nurse responded that the man was blind and couldn’t even see the wall. She said, “Perhaps he just wanted to encourage you.”
Helen Keller, who was born blind and deaf, and yet went on to be a prolific writer and educator, said: “The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but no vision.”
The first thing to note on this First Sunday of Advent, is the vision of hope which God’s servants place before the faithful. In the midst of pain, suffering and darkness, some people are able to see through to something beautiful – to maintain a vision which creates hope. It seems to me that the man in the hospital bed did exactly what Jeremiah (33:14—16) did for the people of Israel: help them see through their present difficulties; beyond their current situation, into a new realm of possibility.
How presumptuous – to speak for God! And yet what a profound sense of confidence and certainty must have stirred within Jeremiah to encourage him to speak out to the people such an audacious and unlikely message of hope. With a vision of hope, people persevere through the worst pain and the most profound darkness.We might ask ourselves: How can we imitate Jeremiah in offering a vision of hope to the many around us who are negative and cynical, who are giving up on the world instead of embracing it in faith, hope, and love?
People often assume that when everything is chaotic and the world seems to be collapsing, it is a sure sign that God is absent. People are sometimes quick to call certain situations “hopeless,” or God-forsaken. Today’s Gospel suggests that actually, the opposite may be true – that it is in exactly such times that the vision of God can break in and make an impression, and in the breaking down of our old vision, we can find a new lease on life.
“There will be . . .distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” According to Jesus, in times of confusion, distress, upheaval, and fear, do not run for cover, do not cower, do not lose hope; instead raise your heads, stand up, look around, because it is a sign of something new breaking in. “Be on guard that you are not weighed down,” he says . . . “know that the kingdom of God is near.”
In The Life of Pi, the main character (Pi Patel) watches in horror as the world he knew sinks to the bottom of the ocean, and then, as the chaos gives way, a new world and a new life opens up to him. His ordeal opens him up to strengths and gifts and faith he never knew he had. Most of us, instead of learning to cope with the “tigers” in our lives, our jobs or parishes, simply abandon ship.
In tough times we need encouragement to persist, and in tough times we can discover new depths within us where God can reach and empower us. Author Caroline Myss said: “Faith is the power to stand up to the madness and chaos of the physical world while holding the position that nothing external has any authority over what heaven has in mind for you.”
In her book Broken Open, Elizabeth Lesser describes a friend who, after suffering through the disappointment of having a child born with severe epilepsy and brain damage, and then developing MS herself, was able to say: “I realized that the only hope I had was to give up on the life that had been, in order to make room for the life that is.” Instead of saying “this shouldn’t be happening to me,” it might be a time to recognize that this is exactly what is supposed to be happening. Seen in that light, we tend to be more open to what the future might bring and less inclined to be bitter and full of regret and resentment.
Caroline Myss says, “Fate is how your life unfolds when you let fear determine your choices. A path of destiny reveals itself to you, however, when you confront your fear and make conscious choices.” That is the kind of connection that we in the Church try to help people make – to point people deeper into their own lives, deeper into the quest for meaning, so they can find the faith that allows them to live in hope and peace even in the midst of the storm, that they may believe that, even when we may be tempted to label things as hopeless, God is with us – God will make a way, and God will be the way.
This is an important aspect of the message that Advent unfolds for us each year. I pray that we may continue to choose to hear the voices of those around us who offer a vision of hope, enabling us to see beyond our present darkness; and that we may get in touch with that same voice within us – that still, small voice – that tells us that even as one thing falls down, something else is rising up.
A child leaving the womb does not say, “Oh no, my world is coming to an end!” The child says, “I’m being born!”
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
RCL Readings for Advent I
Jeremiah 33:14-16 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Luke 21:25-36 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”