Posted by on November 28, 2021

preached in St Michael’s church 28th November 2021

Jeremiah 33.14-16; I Thessalonians 3.9-13; Luke 21.25-36

Towards the end of the year 1596, a man called Philip Nicolai arrived in the German town of Unna. Nicolai was a Lutheran pastor and he had come to Unna to take up a new job as minister of the town. Late 1596 was not a good time to arrive in the German town of Unna. Come the summer of 1597 and the city was hammered by a virulent outbreak of plague. Over the course of seven months some 1300 citizens of Unna died. These were days of great distress: every household was in mourning.

From the window of his parsonage Philip Nicolai looked onto the churchyard where the bodies were being buried. At the height of the epidemic they were burying thirty people every day. To put that in perspective, here in St Michael’s we do thirty funerals every two years. Back in those days, before modern medical care and vaccinations, attrition rates from disease were many times higher than what we know today.

What was the response of Philip Nicolai to the plague in Unna? When faced with all this suffering and death, did he despair? Did he run away to a place of safety? No: when faced by the plague of 1597, Philip Nicolai sat down… and wrote a hymn. He wrote the words and he wrote the music. And we sang both at the start of today’s service. ‘Wachet auf! Wake, O wake with tidings thrilling.’ In the face of suffering and death, the response of Philip Nicolai was this extraordinary poem of hope. With carnage in the streets and fear at his door, Nicolai lifted his horizons. He gathered a string of biblical allusions and wove them into a timeless expression of his trust in God and hope for the future.  

  • Midnight strikes! No more delaying. Nicolai knew the immediacy of the trials which beset his parishioners.
  • Now the gates of pearl receive us. Here was a man who did not know what the next day might bring but who was determined to make the most of each moment.
  • Earth cannot give below / the bliss thou dost bestow. For me, the pathos of the hymn is deepened further by the knowledge that Nicolai embedded at the start of each verse the initials of a former pupil who died in the Unna infection. Wilhelm, Count of Waldeck was just fifteen years old. This hymn is an epitaph which makes a courageous stand for God’s future.

The response of Philip Nicolai to the plague in Unna is redolent of Christian response to times of trial, drawing also on the earlier experience of our Hebrew antecedents. Jews and Christians see time as linear: that God makes the universe, gives it a purpose, and leads it through the bumps of the present towards an end that is his own ultimate glory. Thus at the dawn of this new year, on Advent Sunday,

  • We heard the prophet Jeremiah proclaim a coming era of equity: ‘In those days … I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.’
  • And we heard the apostle Paul pray with confidence for Christians in Thessalonica, ‘may [God] so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless … at the coming of our Lord Jesus.’  
  • And we heard Jesus find strength when confronted by cataclysm: ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations … 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.’ Whatever Jesus thought would happen at the end of time, he wanted his followers to ignore the signs of decline and destruction and focus instead on God’s act of final reconciliation.

What might this biblical smorgasbord tell us about the nature of Advent hope? I want to say a little about hope as optimism, hope as certainty, and hope as engagement.

Firstly, hope as optimism. Traditional Christian theology associates Advent with the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. With the arguable exception of Heaven, none of these are particularly pleasant. But set them in the light of Advent as a season of hope and we can be more positive. Meditate for a moment on these words about the end times from Catholic academic, Eamon Duffy. Duffy writes that

we naturally think and talk of Christ’s return as an ‘event’, the last event of all which will bring the world to an end, and we picture it, as Jesus himself and the writers of the New Testament did, as a great court of justice, with books, a judgement seat, and so on.

However, Duffy continues, we should push beyond images to inner meaning.

Just as creation is precisely not the first in a series of events in time, but the declaration that time and event themselves have a meaning, so our faith in the return of Christ in judgement is not a belief in one more event, one more thing that happens. Instead, it is the belief that in the end God will make all events add up, that our broken world will be mended, that the longings of our hearts for justice and truth will be satisfied. How that can be we cannot know, any more than we can know how a dead man can be raised to a glorious but to us invisible life.[1]

So Christian hope is optimism because it draws us from the flaws of this present world and towards their ultimate resolution in God. That is challenging – all the more so when I move to my next claim, namely that Christian hope is certainty. For most people, ‘hope’ is an ambiguous aspiration. But if Advent hope is about God’s future, and if God can know and determine the future in a way which we cannot, then true Christian hope is nothing less than assurance of God’s plan.  

There is an allegory of this certainty in the stained glass of our sister church St Mary’s Childwick. A window in the chancel personifies Hope as a blonde beauty. In one hand she holds a lily; in the other an anchor. The lily is a traditional picture of the resurrection: we have hope because Jesus was raised triumphant. And underpinned by a power like this we have confidence that God is master of the future, even of a future which we cannot see. Thus Hebrews 6.19 insists ‘we have hope as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul’. And because of all this, Hebrews 11.1 links hope to the faith that we place in the risen Jesus, quote, ‘faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’. If Advent hope is about that which is known to God and determined by his will, then true hope is not a doubtful thing but nothing less than certainty in God’s plan.

And if hope as optimism and certainty seems demanding, let me also tackle the misnomer that those who hope for the future are distracted by ‘pie in the sky when you die’ and so fail to make an impact on earth. Against this misconception, CS Lewis wrote that

a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some … think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read History you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great [people] who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. [Lewis concludes], it is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.[2]  

So, hope which is optimism and certainty also inspires the third quality I want to extol this morning, namely practical engagement. Indeed, the very act of proclaiming God’s kingdom is a means of advancing its progress. The Methodist pastor Walter Wink wrote that ‘Hope imagines the future and acts as if that hope is irresistible.’ This is a truly radical task which we must not domesticate or diminish. As the Dean of Westminster puts it, ‘the good news of the gospel is not three priorities and a working group; it is repentance, forgiveness, and salvation’. Or as the Catholic theologian Herbert McCabe writes, ‘the business of the Church is to “remember” the future. Not merely to remember that there is to be a future, but mysteriously to make that future, full of grace and truth, “really present”.’[3]

Hope is optimism. Hope is certainty. And hope is engagement. That is why we hope with expectation of the future, with trust in Christ, and with patience in waiting. Christian hope is bigger and better than we can begin to conceive. But, as Philip Nicolai knew, in Advent – the season of hope, we come close to catching a glimpse.

[1] Duffy, The Creed in the Catechism, 76.

[2] In Howells, Lent Companion, 54. My italics.

[3] Both in Hoyle, Pattern of our Calling, 38

Posted in: Kenneth Padley, Sermons