Sermon for Advent Sunday
in St Michael’s church 2nd December 2018
Readings Jeremiah 33.14-16, I Thessalonians 3.9-13, Luke 21.25-36
Advent is the season of hope. Advent is the season of hope because it is the season of the future.
For some, the hope of Advent is the expectation of presents. That is what advent calendars are about: countdown to Present Day. For those who cannot wait, many advent calendars have chocolates or little gifts to ease our impatience as we crawl through December towards the Great Unwrapping on the 25th. But just remember how many presents get laid aside by Boxing Day: many never hit the mark and even the very best presents are never fully satisfying. This means, I think, that the hope of Advent must be about more than the expectation of gifts.
For some – including many Christians – the hope of Advent is about anticipating Christmas, the arrival of the baby. This is what Advent wreaths are about: lighting a candle each Sunday as we journey with the patriarchs and prophets who prepared the way for the events of Bethlehem. That said, however hard we try to take ourselves out of our context and imagine ourselves into the time before Jesus, we can never fully manage it. We are creatures of our own age. So an Advent which throws us back to the past will be imperfect at best. This means that the hope of Advent must also be about more than getting ready for the birth of Jesus.
Ultimately, for Christians, Advent is a season of hope because it is the season of the future. It is about God’s future, Christ’s second coming, the inbreaking of the Kingdom – both today in small ways and in completeness at the end of time.
All this may seem a little surprising because many people have been deeply ambivalent about hope. The poet Hesiod, for example, thought that hope was all that remained in Pandora’s Box once the evils had escaped and spread around the world. This made him very suspicious about hope: he thought it might be something to trap the gullible. Many have followed Hesiod’s caution; the caustic philosopher Nietzsche dismissed hope as a mere delusion.
By contrast, the Jewish approach to hope – on which the Christian tradition builds – has always been more positive. Jews and Christians see time as linear: that God makes the universe, gives it a purpose, and leads it towards an end that is his own ultimate glory.
So what does this biblical springboard tell us about the nature of 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 so-called Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. Now with the arguable exception of Heaven, these are not things which most people relish. But set them in the light of Advent as a season of hope and I think 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.’ But, 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.’ This whole teaching, Duffy concludes, is like a disinfectant. ‘It is designed … to free us from idolatry and false expectation that our deepest longings can ever be satisfied in this world. Our world is the world which crucified the Lord of glory, which had its chance of welcoming him who was perfect truth, perfect justice, and which instead nailed him to a tree… To believe in the judgement of Christ is therefore to know the weight of human sinfulness, to be aware that no earthly state will ever really meet the needs of its citizens, that no human system will ever be truly just.’
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, but all the more so when I move to my next claim, namely that Christian hope is certainty. For most people, the word ‘hope’ means something like things ‘we would very much like to be true but suspect are not’. 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 the common understanding of hope as indefinite is transformed into nothing less than assurance of God’s plan.
There is a wonderful representation of the certainty of hope in stained glass at our sister church of St Mary in Childwick Green. In the chancel of St Mary’s there is a blonde beauty personifying the virtue of Hope. 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 a difference 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.’
So hope which is optimism and certainty also inspires practical engagement. Indeed, the very act of proclaiming the kingdom plays a role in 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 Bristol 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”.’
Hope is optimism. Hope is certainty. And hope is engagement. That is why we hope with expectation of the future, trust in Christ, and patience in waiting. Christian hope is bigger and better than we can begin to conceive. But in Advent, the season of hope, we come close to catching a glimpse.
 Duffy, The Creed in the Catechism, 76.
 In Howells, Lent Companion, 54.My italics.
 Both in Hoyle, Pattern of our Calling, 38