Literary critic George Steiner makes the following thought-provoking comment:
"Man alone can construct and parse the grammar of hope... Of all evolutionary tools towards survival, it is the ability to use future tenses of the verb – when, how did the psyche acquire this monstrous and liberating power? – which I take to be foremost." (quoted in Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist, p. 16.)
Advent invites us to "parse the grammar of hope," to exercise the 'liberating power" of the future tense. All of today's readings draw our attention to the horizon, to that which is coming. Isaiah writes, "In days to come..." Paul tells us that "the night is far gone, the day is near..." And in Matthew's gospel Jesus speaks of "the coming of the Son of Man" on a "day and hour no one know."
Twenty-first century Americans are inclined to have a love/hate relationship with the future. My generation grew up on the Jetsons, Disney's Tomorrowland, and any number of popular constructions of the future, such as Star Trek, Star Wars, and so on. However, we also grew up with the possibility of nuclear catastrophe or eco-catastrophe.
The Enlightenment predicted a hopeful future, because it was based on the idea of the inherent goodness of human nature. Darwin's theory of evolution appeared to give scientific support to the idea of the inevitability of human improvement. But the Enlightenment was given a staggering blow by the violence of World War I and was more or less finished off by World War II, the Holocaust, and Hiroshima. Rather than being a location of hope, the future of humanity after 1945 looked bleak. Popular constructions of the future were more likely to include nuclear war than utopias.
Advent directs us toward an entirely different set of possible futures. Advent challenges both the naive optimism of the Enlightenment and the superficial pessimism of the late twentieth century. Unaided by grace, human perfectibility is not an option. As the collect for Advent I reminds us, we need to "cast away the works of darkness," and in every life, there is plenty of darkness to cast away. The future is a location of hope rather than despair, not because of the basic goodness of human nature or its inevitability perfectibility but because Advent tells us that the future is in God's hands.
At times Christians, especially conservative ones have also projected a future of despair rather than hope. The conservative reading of Christian eschatology has too often been a matter of "Jesus is coming again... and he sure is mad!" From The Late, Great Planet Earth to the Left Behind series, the focus has been on the more spectacular (and peripheral) elements of Biblical eschatology.
However, from beginning to end, the Bible speaks of God's future in hopeful terms. Isaiah's familiar words project a future in which weapons of destruction become instruments of creation and cultivation, "they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." Paul encourages the Christians of Rome to "lay aside the works of darkness" not for fear of punishment but because "salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers."
Jesus, on the other hand, sounds a note of judgment. He compares the present age with the age of Noah and warns that when the Son of Man returns the process will be as comprehensive and violent as the Flood had been. We must not ignore or diminish the note of judgment. There is much that needs to be "swept away." But Jesus' apocalyptic teaching was in response to his disciples' question, "What will be the sign of your coming?" They were looking and longing for the return of one they loved and had followed. Like Jesus' first disciples, his disciples today, too, long and look for the return of the One who has invited us into his fellowship and walks with us on our journey.