Hoping for the future, 1 Advent (A) – 2010

November 28, 2010

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44 

Happy Advent! Today marks the beginning of Advent, the season when we prepare for the coming of Christ, a season when we hear again the Church’s emphasis on hope and future. Part of what we do during this season is to prepare to celebrate the coming of Christ as a baby in Bethlehem. But that is not where we start on this Sunday. We do not start at the beginning of the story. We start at the end.

This is not a foreign concept to us. We are people used to setting goals. We nod our heads in agreement with the saying, “The one who wants to make a good beginning must keep the end in view.” It makes sense to us. Athletes visualize themselves breaking the tape at the finish line or scoring the goal or blocking the shot. Investment counselors talk about what you would like to be doing in your retirement so you can plan accordingly. Career counselors ask you to envision what you would like to be doing in five years’ time so you can take the necessary steps to get there. No one advises: just wander off aimlessly and see what happens. Keep your options open, sure, but nothing beats having a compelling goal and setting off toward it.

The picture offered in today’s first reading is a beautiful destination. Someday, someday, says the prophet, this is the future that awaits us, God’s future for us: peoples from all over the world gathered together, all worshipping the one God; no more war between nations; swords beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. A beautiful vision of the future. A bright future to hope for.

Advent is the season of hope, a season to remind us that we worship the God of things that are not yet, the God of things that will be. Advent is the season to hold up before us visions of things that sound impossibly remote to us – Advent images, like today’s, of weapons of war turned into tools for producing food, the lion lying down with the lamb, light that the darkness will never quench, a child born of a virgin, whose name shall be called Wonderful, counselor, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

The church dangles these images before us in these Advent days, not in curmudgeonly protest against the more prevalent images of red-nosed reindeers, and elves, and mistletoe, but because the church knows that Christian hope must keep the future before us, not nostalgia for the past. And Christian hope must be big and bold. Sometimes our hope fails because of lack of imagination, lack of courage, or because we fritter away our hope on small, private things, such as a peaceful moment by ourselves, which is nice, and maybe sorely needed, but not as compelling as peace in the world.

But let’s be honest. It’s hard to hope big. Sometimes our hope seems doomed or just foolish. Can we really hope for swords beaten into plowshares, or spears into pruning hooks, or Christ descending on clouds to call a halt to all the pain or boredom or stress or evil or tension of everyday life on earth, so that God’s reign of peace can begin? Are we a little afraid that all those Advent images of lions and lambs, and an end to war are just wishful thinking?

It’s easy to think so when we look to the past – either the past as it actually happened or the past as we imagine it once to have been. Isn’t that part of what causes the disappointment and discouragement for so many during the secular Christmas season, now in full swing? Nothing we do can live up to the way we believe things once were. Or nothing we’ve experienced has lived up to the way it should have been.

Thankfully, advice is available to help with the holidays.

Starting in the fall, magazines start appearing in the grocery store and bookstore giving helpful advice for the holidays. You know: Christmas cookie recipes and home decorating ideas and ideas for reducing stress. Sometimes they provide sound advice, such as to be more realistic in expectations of ourselves and others. You need not do everything perfectly, choose perfect gifts, please everybody, lose weight, redecorate your house, cook like a gourmet, and satisfy your child’s every desire. No. In a nutshell, holiday articles advise us to do three things: set more attainable goals; learn from the past; and be more realistic about what’s possible. The result of all this is a shorter to-do list, a smaller set of expectations, more limited hopes.

Oddly enough, the church, in our observance of Advent, advises exactly the same things, but with dramatically different results. The church’s Advent advice is the same: set attainable goals, learn from the past, and be realistic about what’s possible. But the anticipated results aren’t smaller expectations, it’s greater ones; not limited hopes, but bigger ones. We become people who dream of swords beaten into plowshares, and lions and lambs lying down together. We hope for world peace, not as wishful thinking, but as something we’re expecting God will accomplish, and we want to help.

Set attainable goals. Our goals, in the words of today’s Epistle lesson: Lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; live honorably. Let Christ transform us into people who love one another.

We learn from the past. The Bible is a record of divine promises made and kept. God, who was faithful in the past, will be faithful in the future. We are free to give up any obsession we have with the past, past wounds, past anxieties, past hurts, fears, and doubts, and live freely in the present, hoping for the future because God kept God’s promises. God will keep God’s promises.

We are realistic about what is possible. Trusting in God, we are realistic when we hope for things yet unseen, even big things, like joy and peace and salvation and wholeness.

But we are realistic: all of these things lie ahead of us. All of these things are in our future. All our real wholeness, our real joy, our real love, completely, fully realized, is in our future.

That’s why Advent, and our Christian faith, is future-oriented. Yes, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem. Yes, he actually died and was buried and rose again and appeared openly to his disciples. Yes, all these things, historically, in the past, happened. But they all happened so that we can live into the future which awaits us, a future for which God is preparing us, a future of which Christ, raised from the dead, is the first fruits.

We cannot underestimate the importance of our future goals. They not only give us hope, but how we envision the future breaks into how we live our present. Our future can form our present, rescue it, revitalize it, give it meaning.

Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, tells of his experiences as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. In helping other people survive that brutal and horrible experience, he said that one thing that made a difference for people’s survival was hope for the future. He wrote:

“The prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his future – was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold. … I remember two cases of would-be suicide. … Both used the typical argument – they had nothing more to expect from life. In both cases it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them. We found, in fact, that for the one it was a child whom he adored and who was waiting for him in a foreign country. For the other it was a thing, not a person. This man was a scientist and had written a series of books which still needed to be finished. His work could not be done by anyone else.”

When we know the “why” for our existence, we will be able to bear almost any “how.”

Hoping for the future is Advent hope – realistic, possible, practical hope, because God is the God who holds the future; God is the one preparing you for the future; God is the one calling us into that future and using prophets and wise people from every generation and even God’s own Son, to dangle some Advent images before us to whet our appetite: they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, the lion shall lie down with the lamb, and, behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

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