Sermon: Hope Greater than the Shadows

“Hope Greater than the Shadows”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Nov. 30, 2014 • First Sunday of Advent
Michah 5:2-5, Mark 13:24-37

When I was a child, it was my family’s tradition to enjoy an abundant Thanksgiving dinner and then in the evening to drive into downtown Atlanta to Rich’s department store, a store so large that it needed two buildings that faced each other across a busy street. To help shoppers avoid the traffic, there was a several story bridge across the upper floors connecting the various clothing departments located on one side of the street with the “Store for Homes” situated on the other side of the street. Every Thanksgiving, crowds would gather in that street which had been blocked off for the occasion, so that they could see various levels of the bridge light up with Christmas lights and hear church choirs singing at every stage. The grand finale of the evening was the lighting of the “big tree” which was a huge Christmas tree held securely to the roof on the very top floor of the bridge. Inevitably there would be a loud gasp and then applause from the crowd beneath as the tree burst into light. When that happened, I knew it was finally Christmas time, and not a moment before.

Times have changed. Christmas starts now before Halloween, when lights and decorations show up for sale in many places. Commercials for the ideal gift begin and Santa arrives before Thanksgiving to listen to the requests of eager boys and girls. Thanksgiving Day is cut short by stores cashing in on Christmas shoppers, so that as one commentator has put it, as soon as we’ve given thanks for what we have, we can rush out to buy more. It’s no longer news really, when fights break out, sometimes even violence and mayhem, on “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving when shoppers tussle with one another over gifts to be given in the name of the prince of peace.

And that’s one of the reasons I’m so very thankful for the season of Advent. While much of America is gearing up for this extended and massively marketed holiday with cards, carols, parties, and above all, shopping, and stretches now from before Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day (exhausting just to think about it!), the church insists on proclaiming the end of the world as we know it! And it is a bracing and needful corrective.

Although we may be doing some holiday preparation, we as Christians are significantly also pausing to reflect on the shadows and the darkness that permeate these days before December 25. It’s not all sparkle and light, 24/7! The days are becoming increasingly short; shadows take over earlier and earlier, both in our streets and sometimes in our lives. Many people become depressed around this time of year, unable to make the leap from the shadows of their own lives to the Christmas brightness. And even for those of us who do not suffer in this way, it is difficult to ignore the almost cruel juxtaposition of festive activities with the realities that greet us every day around us and in the news.

In Advent we, as Christians, prepare for the first coming of Christ – the event we celebrate on Christmas Day, but we are called to prepare also for what is sometimes called the second coming of Christ – a time when the injustices and evils of the world will finally be put to right and everyone will live in peace and in harmony with one another and there will be war no more, nor hunger, nor poverty, nor dis-ease of any kind.

The desire for a world of justice and peace is ancient. The prophet Micah, whose words our children studied this morning in Sunday School, lived in a time of great transition as the world as he knew it was rapidly changing. It was a time of economic and political instability when the rich and powerful used their influence to exploit the vulnerable and create even greater inequalities of wealth and influence, and where much of the country’s wealth was used for defense – for arms and for fortifications to protect against warfare with the Assyrians, rather than for the care of those in need. As usual, it was the poor, the hungry, the children, those without means or influence who bore the brunt of these actions. And so Micah predicts that terrible days are coming because of these inequities, and that God will make things right again, but not before there is suffering and loss because of the poor choices that have been made.

He also offers the people hope in the midst of their despair. To those who saw no future, no way out, nothing but more of the same or worse, he offers the hope that a messiah, like King David of old, will once again rise up from the little insignificant town of Bethlehem to become a shepherd for God’s people and to lead them from their current place of desolation into a time of peace and security.

Forward about 800 years to the time of Jesus when the Romans occupied and oppressed Israel, and we find in Mark’s gospel that Jesus speaks to his disciples as he prepares them for his impending death at Roman hands, sharing with them the hard truth that in the days to come the temple will be destroyed and persecution will follow them all because of his name. The disciples ask him when will this happen and how will they know when it is about to take place. He answers no one knows the time but that there will be various signs of crisis both in the heavens and in the world, and their task is to keep awake and to stay alert to what God is doing.

And now here we are 2000 plus years after Mark’s gospel was written, in the midst of our own set of world, national, and local crises. We don’t face the imminent invasion of the Assyrians. And we are not suffering from the cruel oppression of a ruthless conqueror. And yet we know something about what Micah and Jesus were trying to explain. We still live in a broken world; a world broken in some of the same ways as their worlds were – there are still power imbalances. The rich still exploit the poor with great efficiency; if that were not so, why would we have “black Friday?” We still worry more about defense and protection than about feeding the hungry; hence Congress is quite willing to cut back on food stamps and to beef up an appropriation for an airplane that the Pentagon doesn’t even want.

In our country today in Ferguson, Mo. and in other towns and cities there are people every bit as hopeless as those in the past who were exploited by the rich and powerful or abused and killed by oppressive forces. They too see no future, no way out, and nothing but more of the same or worse. Thank God for Advent, which frankly, couldn’t have come at a better time because it gives us a theological framework in which to consider and to confront life in the shadows because, “Advent isn’t about our best world; it’s about our worst world.”[i]   And it gives us a community in which to do that necessary and painful thinking. Separately, we might sink into bitterness or hopelessness or despair. But together, we can face the reality of our worst world, and help one another to remain awake and alert to the activity of God in the world — activity, which is usually of the small, quiet Bethlehem variety, rather than the large, splashy New York City or Hollywood type we so much prefer.

Our question for this morning is can we see beyond the shadows, the darkness, the brokenness of our world or of our lives, to catch a glimpse of the world made whole; and, against all reason, can we find a reason for hope? Not happy-clappy optimism – but true hope. Hope that is of the kind described by Paul in Romans 5 – that comes as a result of suffering, which then brings about endurance, which in turn develops character, and which finally results in hope, a hope that does not disappoint because the love of God has been poured out for us in Christ Jesus. The kind of hope that is not unacquainted with brokenness, the kind of hope that does not feel easy, inevitable and unchallenged, the kind of hope that embraces suffering but says that suffering and shadow will not have the last word.[ii] The kind of hope that is defined by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

It’s a kind of hope that is active and doesn’t sit quietly and do nothing while it waits for a turn of events. It’s the kind of hope that is expressed daily as mercy and brings comfort abd that sees injustice, and speaks out and offers action. It is the kind of hope that tries to make real to those who can no longer make meaning of their world, that there is a future worth believing in.[iii] On a very concrete level, it’s the kind of hope that doesn’t simply note the sad fact that millions of children go to be hungry each night here in the richest country in the world, but instead, goes about feeding children. This is the kind of hope I see in our participation in Food to Kids and Seamless Summer, as well as Our Daily Bread and I rejoice in it.

Advent is a time to face the darkness, but not to wallow in it or become lost in it. Because Advent is also a time of watchfulness when just as the darkness seems to blot out all light, if we are awake and alert, there comes a glimmer, a glimpse, a moment of light, a conviction that God is up to something, and that we can be in on that action.   While others are busy this season with lights and greenery, egg nog, apple cider, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire, we join together to face the dark realities of our world where violence and injustice often seem to rule the day, and we encourage one another to look close, to see God a work doing small unexpected and unnoticed things. And to remember the true meaning of Christmas – God comes to us now – today – just as God came to shepherds living under Roman oppression in Bethlehem, and in the midst of our dark night, angels proclaim once again to us peace on earth, good will to all people. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Christena Cleveland, “Advent/Darkness,” blog, November 28, 2014

[ii] Guy Sales, “Preaching Advent Hope while Millions are Reading the Left Behind Series,” Journal for Preachers, XXVII,I, 2004, 12.

[iii] Sally A. Brown, “Hold the Chicken Soup: Preaching Advent Hope,” Journal for Preachers, XXX,I, 2006, 12.