Dare to Hope

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Advent II—Year C; Malachi 3:1-4; Canticle 16; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

The headlines are rough right now. The Paris attacks. The shooting at Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs last week. San Bernardino this week. 300+ mass shootings this year. A first degree murder charge for a police officer accused of shooting Laquan McDonald, a 17 year old African American male, in Chicago, the video of which set off protests in that city. A civil war in Syria and the rise of ISIS, resulting in a horrible refugee crisis. Have you lost hope yet? It’s tempting, isn’t it.

And it’s Advent—that season of preparation for Christmas. The culture does this in its own way, offering us all kinds of ways to get into the holiday cheer. You can eat your way there, or drink your way there, or spend your way there, shopping for loved ones like crazy. All of these offered to us as fast-track ways to joy. But you can’t fast-track joy, and the Advent that the church offers us knows that. No, if we are to know joy at Christmas, it will be because we do the hard work of Advent.

The collect reminds us that it’s the prophetic call to repentance that prepares the way for our salvation. It speaks of heeding warnings and forsaking sins, so that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer. This is about a prophetic call to hear the pain of the world, as opposed to cranking the holiday cheer up so loud that you can tune out the pain. This is about repenting of that which will get in our way of wholeness. This is about heeding the warnings so that we don’t go the way of cynicism or despair. This is about forsaking our separation from one another.

Malachi also talks of the messenger who prepares the way—one who is like a refiner’s fire, refining and purifying. That’s hot, hard work, both for the refiner and that which is refined. That’s about burning away the dross, and being melted, and molded, and shaped anew.

Philippians draws our attention to the heart, and speaks of how we can hold one another in our heart. Paul speaks of longing for the Philippians with the compassion of Christ Jesus; he speaks of love that may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help us determine what is best. Can you imagine approaching all that is before us with longing for connection and compassion? Can you imagine bringing our best selves, full of love and knowledge and insight, earnestly seeking what is best in these incredibly complex times steeped in intractable problems?

And then, Luke locates all this preparation in time and space. In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. The word comes to John in the wilderness at a specific moment, at a specific time, in a specific place, in a specific set of circumstances. God is not other than this world, far and distant. No, Luke locates God right here, right now, in our history, in our place, in our time, in our messes.

And that voice crying out in the wilderness tells us this, “It’s all going to have to get rearranged if all flesh, all flesh, is to see the wholeness of God. It won’t do for some of us to see it; no, this wholeness is for all flesh—God will be satisfied with nothing less.” And the landscape of our world, and our lives, and our hearts will have to get completely rearranged in the process.

Advent is this wondrous season, so counter to the culture. A season calling us to go inward and quiet, a season calling us to hard work, root work, deep work. A season calling us to take seriously where our world is right now, and calling us to repent, but the repentance to which we are called right now (and maybe the people of God have always had to exercise this repentance) is to repent of despair and cynicism and easy cheery answers.

As I listen to the news, it is easy to go the way of despair. It is easy to be cynical. It is easy to say none of this will ever change. It is easy to put our hands over ears and throw ourselves into the food and drink and shopping and cheer. Advent calls us to repent of all of these and to look to the east where a much harder thing is being birthed—HOPE. Advent calls us to hope, deep hope, steely hope. The kind of hope that knows this birth will happen in the middle of a tyrant’s reign. The kind of hope that knows this child, the Prince of Peace will die a violent death, and in the process, will show a stronger way—the way of love and forgiveness and empty tombs and life that can’t be contained. The kind of hope that refuses to believe that the way it is has to be the way it is.

Advent is our time to burn off the dross of cynicism and despair, so that we can put on the armor of light. Only a heart that can dare to hope will know how to greet with joy one such as Jesus Christ because he is going to turn our world upside down.

So, put your ear to the world, and hear its pain, but don’t go the way of despair, cynicism, and denial that so many will go. Instead, as you hear all the pain that is out their right now, hear the longing of God for this world; hear God’s compassion; let your hearts be filled with that love, let it overflow with knowledge and insight. Be the people of God that God longs for us to be so we can help the world determine what is best, and point the way forward to a landscape where all flesh can see the salvation, the wholeness, of God.

Let your preparation be that of one who can dare to hope, even if we are the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. How will the world recognize the HOPE that has come if we don’t prepare the way? Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
December 6, 2015