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November 29th, 2020

We Have this Hope

By Rev. Dr. Kristin Philipson

Mark 13:24-37 – First Sunday in Advent – November 29, 2020

Across time and culture and geography humans have found comfort and hope in the constancy of the cycles that circle us through life.  The earth’s axis sways this way, then that, and the seasons turn.  Fall deepens to winter, and even now we hold on to the hope that deep under its blanket of wet leaves spring is quietly cocooning.  I can take comfort from the knowledge that the night’s shadows are only temporary and every morning the earth will turn and turn again toward the sun.  I watch the moon wax, then wane, then wax again; a cycle dependable as the stars that rotate round through their yearly progression and begin again.  The grandmother cradles the baby who grows into the grandmother who cradles the baby.  There is comfort and hope in the knowledge that it’s round and round we go.  But we have gathered this morning to talk about Christian hope and Christian hope is something different altogether.

Christian hope is different, strange even, you might have noticed from the passage we just read from Mark’s gospel.  Its comfort is not in the cycles that circle us through life but in what breaks through them.  Christian hope is not in the never-ending wheel of life on earth, but in the swift and sudden intervention, in the slicing of the circle clear through.  Christian hope is the hope of interruption, of a great and seismic wedge, a sudden halt that stops earth’s circling – “the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken,” and the Son of Man will come “in clouds with great power and glory” to disrupt, to intervene, to interject.  

Now there are those who say that this strange hope is just a product of its time and context.  The first century of the Common Era was not an easy time in which to be alive, especially for members of the early church.  They lived as subjects to forces entirely beyond their control.  Scholars date the composition of the Gospel of Mark to somewhere between the years 60 and 75 CE, a period of time which saw the Emperor Nero terrorize Christians who lived in Rome.  And later the Roman Commander, Titus, son of the subsequent Emperor, Vespasian, silenced a Jewish revolt and uprising by executing 6000 Jews and destroying the Temple in Jerusalem, which was never rebuilt.  In his introduction to the New Testament Raymond E. Brown notes that “the arch of Titus in the Roman forum depicts the Jewish sacred paraphernalia and captives brought to the capital in triumph in [the year] 71” (61).  There are those who think that Mark was writing escapist literature for his time and place, spreading a fantasy; the Risen Christ as a kind of superhero who would usher in God’s reign.  Evil would be vanquished; love and justice would reign supreme.  

But what about you?  What do you make of Christian hope?  Is it just a relic of a bygone age?  A curiosity to consider as you would, say, the petrified wheel of a Roman chariot or an ancient coin at the ROM?  Is it simply magical thinking for a troubled time?  Does it seem like wishful thinking?  Does it speak to us, today?  The whole world is in various degrees of lockdown.  Do you know that when I wrote a draft of this message on Thursday there had been 1.4 million deaths to date worldwide from Covid-19 and would you believe that now, only three days later, that number has risen to almost 1.5 million?  No one is untouched by the circumstances through which we are living.  You hear small business owners – grown men and women – crying on the radio.  There are teenagers, once gregarious and spritely, who almost never leave their rooms now, who almost never look at anything other than the white glow of a screen.  A woman came on CBC radio the other morning to say we need a national grief strategy.  “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you,” Isaiah prayed.  Christians hold out hope of an interruption, an intervention; we hold out hope for a scene straight from a Marvel movie, “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”  “Come, thou long-expected Jesus,” we sing.  Interrupt!  Intervene!

Christianity holds the strange notion that life is going somewhere.  Life is a journey with a destination; it’s a line, not a circle.  History follows a trajectory.  “Life is a cycle, just a cycle,” Fred Craddock writes in the voice of dominant human thinking throughout time.  “The rain falls into the rivers and the rivers go into the sea and the sun pulls up the water and the rain goes into the rivers and the rivers go into the sea and the sun draws it up and it rains into the rivers,” he writes (282).  That’s comfort for you; the fact that nothing changes, nothing ever changes.  That was how Abraham was brought up, thinking that everything repeats itself, that life is always the same fall, winter, spring, summer, fall, time is a wheel, what has been will be and so on.  Until a profound experience of the Divine interrupted him, cut clear through the cycle.  “The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.  I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:1-3).  The experience of God-with-him gave Abraham a life-changing gift: not just land and progeny, but the concept of a future; it’s not just round and round we go, we’re going somewhere.

A couple of weeks ago I called up my grandfather while I was riding my bike home from the church.  My grandmother died in May and I’d been meaning to call, to check in on him – we hadn’t spoken in a while.  He was in the middle of baking cookies, he told me, to serve when he’d have visitors.  “Well now, that’s strange,” I thought, “maybe even wishful thinking.”  You see, my grandpa lives alone, on a relatively isolated stretch of Lake Okanagan in BC, on a delta populated by only a handful of people once summer ends; one has to drive 45 minutes in either direction along a winding mountain road to reach any kind of town.  All this to say that his isn’t the house to which you’d just pop on over, and who is popping over in these pandemic times?  What are you thinking, Grandpa, baking cookies right now?  But you see he’s had the experience of his day to day being suddenly interrupted by the wonderful and the fantastical and impossible to predict so he can see it happening – it has, in fact, already happened to him – it’s not just wishful thinking, baking cookies, even though doesn’t see people all that often.  Still, he has this hope, the concept of future, based on the interruptions and interventions of the past.

We read this passage from Mark and, yes, Jesus is talking about a fantastical and improbable future, but he is also recalling the past.  Mark is not writing to the church only about what will happen; he lifts up these words of Jesus to remind the church of what has happened already.  When Jesus talks about the sun and the moon and the stars he’s not looking forward but backward, quoting the prophet Isaiah – “the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not show their light, the rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light” (13:10).  And the vision of the Son of Man coming in the clouds?  That’s Jesus quoting the prophet Daniel – “In my vision at night I looked and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven” (7:13).  It’s because we’ve been met by unexpected, interrupted by the Divine Presence in the past, all of a sudden and out of nowhere, Mark reminds his church, that we have this strange hope that God will come to us again – keep awake!

We were talking last weekend at our Zoom coffee hour, everyone was noticing that our neighbours were hanging their Christmas lights earlier than usual.  Our music director, Susan, said that every day at 4:30pm she sees her neighbour’s Christmas tree lights come on, she can see them from her front window as she’s teaching from her home.  Most nights I go walking with my youngest, who is eight, and there is no end of delight when we notice that our usual route is suddenly brighter because another house has put up their lights.  And so on Friday night this week I stood out on my porch, looping a string of multi-coloured lights and a long garland of fir and cedar branches along the railing.  And I was thinking about the message I was conveying to the world, putting up these lights.  What I’m trying to communicate is not that I’m longing for some kind of miraculous escape from the fact of decreased daylight right now; my message isn’t that I want to be a part of some bright fantasy world elsewhere.  I was hanging my lights because, in fact, they expressed a reality I had already experienced, that even when shadows grow long and looming, still and somehow I have been met by the presence and power of brightness, of warmth, of light.  My neighbour from the across the street walked by.  “Everyone’s putting up their lights so early,” she shouted across the road.  “I see you’re a joiner,” she said.  And I thought, yes, well, I have had the experience of a long night through which I was walking suddenly interrupted, and so I have this hope, this strange hope.  “We are not stuck in present circumstances,” writes the great preacher, Catherine MacLean.  Like Abraham, like Jesus, like Mark, I have this hope in what could be because of what has been.  

Let’s not confuse this with wishful thinking.  Wishful thinking is expectation untethered from reality, a helium balloon that floats into the atmosphere the minute you let go of it.  Christian hope, on the other hand, is grounded in reality.  Christian hope sees what is, the “now,” and also what is “not yet;” what could be.  It is like a tree – like that great maple outside your window, or the cherry tree in your neighbour’s yard, or the fig tree from our reading – a glorious bursting of potential and possibility germinated entirely from reality – the soil – in which it is planted.  It’s going to be a long winter, we can see that, and people are going to be cold, people living rough, on the street and here we could say, “oh well, that’s just life, always the same,” but instead we have this vision, this hope in a future good beyond imagining.  And Clare and her grandson, Liam, said “we’re going to intervene, interrupt, we’re collecting coats.”  And then Wendy got involved.  “Say we’re collecting 500 coats, aim high!”  We know it’s possible – anything is possible – we “will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”  And we got more than 500 coats – way more.  Coats and coats and coats and thousands – yes, thousands! – of dollars to purchase even more coats, an intervention, an interruption.  And now Victoria is leading us putting together these kits, home starter kits, for people transitioning from a shelter to their own home because we have this hope that it’ss possible, that cycles can be broken, that there is a future good beyond imagining.  Now let’s dream big, walk through Trinity Bellwoods where there is currently a tent village full of people who do not have a home and cannot go to a shelter for fear of contracting Covid-19 and let’s ask ourselves: what is the intervention and interruption that could happen here?  What light might punctuate these shadows?  And let’s walk the corridors in the nursing home and peer around each door and into each room to look at the frail figures sitting propped up by the windows and imagine what could be.  “Come thou long-expected Jesus.  You have met us; meet us here, now!”  What might we do?  What might we say?  Let’s sit down on the bed next to the teenager scrolling, scrolling, scrolling.  “What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch’!”  The “now” can always be interrupted by what is “not yet”!  And what about you?  Do you believe this?  Have you seen it?  Keep awake!

Advent beings with the end – not the end that comes to mind when you hear that ‘the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light,” but rather the goal, the point; advent begins with the end, God’s vision for all of creation.  “We place our hope in God,” it says in the United Church of Canada’s A Song of Faith.  “We sing of a life beyond life and a future good beyond imagining; a new heaven and a new earth, the end of sorrow, pain, and tears, Christ’s return and life with God, the making new of all things.”  We have this hope, and it’s not because we are unmoored from reality, but because we are recalling what has happened to us in the past.  “Come thou long-expected Jesus,” we can sing, because we have been met by him already.