THE REV. ROBERTO DESANDOLI
1st Sunday of Advent
God of Hope
Truth be told, Advent was one of those things that I found the most difficult as I was becoming a Christian as a young man. I was used to the world around me that geared up for Christmas as soon as Halloween was over and I couldn’t understand what exactly all this waiting was for.
What is Advent?
Why do we need a season of waiting?
Why do we need a season of expectation?
We all know Christmas is coming, we all know what is going to happen. Why don’t we just get there?
Well, as you know, the reason for all this waiting is that we need to know what we’re waiting for; we need to know who we’re waiting for; who we are preparing to welcome into the world.
So, it is in texts like these that we may find another bit of confusion. At Advent we talk about “Hope, Joy, Peace, and Love” and then we read texts about “the confusion of the nations and the roaring of the seas and the need to be alert and not become trapped in the things that are to come.”
Why such a troubling text in such a lovely time?
Well, I think we can agree that the difficulty of the world inhabited by Jesus and written about by Luke is not actually that different from the difficulty of our own world:
We do live in a troubled world.
We live in a world with rising political tensions; a world of suspicion, a world of politics, a world where not all people are treated with the dignity they deserve.
We live in a world with disease and with natural disaster.
The world, during Advent, is no safer a place than it is at any other time.
So, what does God do?
What does God send to help a world that “groans in labour pains,” as the Old Testament prophets described?
Well, He sends a baby; a baby who grew into a man named Jesus, who tells us the Good News; and He tells us Good News that often is not so good on the surface; He tells us news of “signs,” of “distress,” of “the heavens themselves shaking,” of “people fainting with fear,” of “the coming of the Son of Man.” It’s Good News but it’s not easy Good News.
Where is the “God of Hope” in all of this?
Where is the God of Hope we were expecting to meet in Advent?
Jesus likens these signs to the fig tree.
Jesus says “imagine the fig tree or any other tree and imagine the buds.” These buds are greener than anything you can imagine because they are the first sign of Spring. And just wait, don’t imagine the fruit, or the leaves, or the whole world in bloom, just imagine those green buds. Because the bud tells us what is going to happen. Without the buds there is no Spring. And that feels a bit like Advent.
If Christ’s Second Coming is the Spring, then how can we deny the Winter? And how can we deny the transition from winter to spring that is often so difficult?
I know we’re hardly into winter now, but as we move into February, and March, and April, and (as it’s my first Saskatoon winter I’m not sure when it stops snowing), May? June? We notice that our patience is running out. We notice that even though -5 in March is the same temperature as -5 in December, it feels colder because it should be Spring by now! And we’re looking for those buds and we’re not finding them.
And then one day they appear.
And we remember that God is going to redeem the winter. And not just the winter of the seasons, but also the winter of politics and disease and calamity, and that some of these things are even necessary, because you can’t have a spring without a winter. And that may be difficult Good News but it’s still Good News.
Well, OK fine, but that still doesn’t answer the question of what the winter is for. If God can make the world any way God wants, why have a winter? Why have the world go through suffering to get to redemption? What is the point? Are these things there just to be endured? Perhaps Advent, after all, is not so different for us as for a child who waits impatiently for Christmas. Except instead of a slow-moving calendar, we are enduring a world in “labour pains,” a world that groans in anticipation.
Why doesn’t God just “get on with it?”
Is Hope really the right world for this this season?
Yes, though it is not the kind of Hope we expect, or at least not the kind of Hope I was expecting when I first came into the church.
Hope is one of those words that we all know and we all recognize but it’s actually quite difficult to define entirely.
To “hope” is to believe in a future that is good. Not a future that is most likely to happen, not one that we can clearly envision and plot the course to.
It’s not the same thing as knowing what will happen or seeing how it will happen. It requires a leap of faith. The two are part and parcel.
As a long-time BC sports fan, I live with hope every day. I have no idea how the Vancouver Canucks will win the Stanley Cup. I really can’t imagine it happening but I have hope.
Hope is not seeing into the future. It’s an expression of desire, and on our best days, of “trust.”
We say that we want to believe in the Son of Man and we want to believe that God will redeem this world, even though we don’t know how exactly these things will take place.
We hope in things we don’t understand. We hope in things we can’t imagine but still want: an end to war, an end to racism, an end to injustice.
Hope brings us into relationship with a world or a life that doesn’t exist yet! And that’s what’s so amazing about hope. That God gives us an opportunity to participate in the building of that world.
Hope is, maybe, the main ingredient in faith.
Truly, the God we have faith in, is the God of hope. A God who speaks in the language of paradox in order to bring about the Kingdom of God.
The text we have before us this morning is a deeply paradoxical text:
Jesus asks us to imagine hope by inviting us to imagine chaos and hardship.
Jesus, in the other chapters of Luke and the Gospels, has spent many chapters saying what the Kingdom of God is like:
The Kingdom of God is like a man spreading seed.
The Kingdom of God is like a certain man who was travelling from one city to another when he was beaten by robbers.
The Kingdom of God is like a woman who lost her coin.
The Kingdom of God is like a shepherd who lost his sheep.
The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds but grows to be so great that even the birds of the air can find shade in its branches.
This is what the Kingdom of God is like. It’s hopeful.
But, paradoxically, to get there, He invites us to imagine the opposite. Imagine chaos, imagine calamity, imagine just the green buds.
Jesus says, imagine the Kingdom of God (the feeling, if not a physical place), now imagine the difficult transition; the nations in distress, the rolling seas, the fear, the shaking.
Our great Board of Managers just did a great job leading a project to change the shingles here at St. Andrew’s.
However, Jesus seems to be saying that God isn’t “just” changing the shingles, God is changing the very foundations of the whole world. This changes everything. There’s nothing gentle or safe about this transition. Nothing safe or gentle about the Second Coming of the Son of Man. Nothing safe or gentle about that baby who is born at Christmas. And that’s another paradox: this baby who will rise to be the greatest man, God’s embodiment on earth, introduces himself as the most vulnerable thing there is; a refugee child, a homeless child.
Speaking of shaking and the changing of the foundations of the world, there were terrible earthquakes near Anchorage, Alaska this week.
I had a friend who lived and taught at UC Berkley during the large earthquake they had in that part of California in the 1980s, and she described that experience as being “too close to God.”
She told me “you can’t imagine it until you experience it but we depend on the earth staying still, and when it starts shaking it is a very upsetting and terrifying experience and it is like God coming too close for comfort.”
When I moved to Vancouver to go to seminary, I did the very unwise thing of researching earthquakes before I arrived.
If you’re going to go to Vancouver (for a visit or to move), please do not do research on earthquakes. There is going to be a great big earthquake! The research is scary. The Anchorage earthquake was 7.3 in magnitude, and even the most conservative estimates of “The Big One” in Vancouver place it at no less than 9.6!
So, I made myself very anxious doing all this research.
I made a friend at UBC, who was a geologist named George, and he was from Munich, Germany.
One day I said to George, “Well, it must not be so bad. Afterall, you live here.”
And he said “Oh no, I’m going back to Munich!”
And so, I was frightened; I had the opposite of hope, I had fear!
I was afraid of something I didn’t want to happen; to wake up one night and have the whole world shaking around me!
I was very frightened.
Until one day, I went to visit my sister in Victoria.
We went for a day trip to Miracle Beach. This beach is one of those places on the island where you can see Washington State very clearly from across just a little channel of water. That channel of water is the Juan de Fuca straight – the place where “The Big One” will actually happen; where the Juan de Fuca plate and the North American plate will break off from one another and create a huge earthquake.
But that day I was standing on this beach and it was so peaceful and so calm. I had my feet firmly on the ground, standing at the edge of two tectonic plates. I wasn’t frightened anymore, because I had made the step of going to approach God; of going to face the very thing I was frightened of and to look straight at it.
It didn’t change the fact that the earthquake will happen but it still filled me with peace.
God can be frightening. God can be way too close for comfort, but He is still a God of peace.
CS Lewis, in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, describes when one character meets Aslan the Lion (the Christ figure in the series).
The character asks “Is he safe?”
And the reply comes “It doesn’t matter if he’s safe, he’s good.”
We have a paradoxical God, we have a God who can frighten us into hope, who can confront us into Hope.
Honestly though, we likely would not trust a God who was too good, too sweet, to safe.
If you’ve spent enough time following God, you know God by His paradoxes.
We can all think of a time that was difficult, where God pulled us into a direction we didn’t know we could go. And these experiences are actually faith-building.
God calls us into difficult situations.
Believe in me and my way.
Take this man or this woman, and pledge to them as I have pledged to Israel in covenant.
Take this bread and this cup and know that I am with you.
None of these things are particularly easy, but we do find God in them.
The Good News of this is that God shows up right here to bring about His promises.
God shows up in our space.
God achieves God’s purposes through humanity in Christ’s coming and coming again; the whole reason the foundations of the earth, the tectonic plates were put there in the first place.
It is all culminated in the person of Jesus Christ and the victory He achieves on the cross.
The most amazing thing is that God comes down here. God doesn’t hit “reset” from off in space somewhere. He comes into our lives and our relationships and gives us the opportunity to be Christ to one another, and have Christ reflected in the most unusual and unexpected ways!
Now we may be challenged. We may raise an eyebrow, we may balk at the words of Jesus Christ when he tells us that the calamity of the world is there to be escaped.
“Well why does it have to happen at all!” But we can each think of a time in our lives where we asked that same question.
God comes close. Sometimes too close.
If we imagine ourselves on the way to Christmas, on the way to Christ’s arrival in the world, we imagine ourselves on a paradoxical journey. On the way to welcome and rejoice in the God who has already formed and welcomed in us.
God looks at Godself in Jesus Christ.
We celebrate and welcome Christ, not because we are responsible but because God is so gracious as to allow us to participate!
“I will let you welcome me”
That’s how self-giving God is, that’s how paradoxically mighty and vulnerable God is.
In the season of Advent, Christ invites us to imagine His coming and coming again in glory; to imagine the Kingdom of God and its difficult arrival; to imagine a future beyond mere hope.
God does all these things because God is the “God of Hope.”