Sunday, December 02, 2012

Keeping a hopeful Advent (J. Barry Vaughn, Dec. 2, 2012)

Several years ago First Baptist Church of Hayden, Alabama, the church in which I grew up, got its first Advent wreath. But it had five purple candles, not the usual four. Why are there five candles, I asked? And I was told that this year there were five Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas!


But Advent is not the Thanksgiving to Christmas shopping season. Advent does not begin on “black Friday” and end when the stores close on Christmas Eve. In a sense, Advent is really not about Christmas at all. Advent is its own season, and it has a message which is at odds with the message we usually associate with Christmas.


What makes Advent so different is that at the beginning of Advent we run right smack into the prophets. On the first Sunday of Advent, here comes Jeremiah, right on time. And behind him comes another prophet – the apostle Paul.


The prophets don’t tell us anything about Santa Claus and reindeer or sleigh bells and snow. Jeremiah says, “I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.” Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “May God so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”


And on the first Sunday of Advent, the prayer book borrows words that Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans and bids us pray  that God will “give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light…”


How different this is from the message that we are getting all around us. God will execute justice and righteousness… Jerusalem will live in safety… the coming of the Lord Jesus with all his saints… the works of darkness… the armor of light…


In other words, get ready… be prepared… the darkness is closing in… look for a place of safety…


The message of Advent is a message of hope, not optimism. The difference between hope and optimism is partly a matter of prepositions. Optimism is optimism THAT. We are optimistic THAT  we will get a job, THAT the doctors will find a cure, THAT the pretty girl we talked to at a party will return our call.


Don’t misunderstand me: Optimism is a good thing.  Psychologists tell us that although pessimists have a better grasp on reality, optimists are more likely to act to improve their conditions and look for solutions to problems.


Hope is something else all together. We do not hope THAT; we hope IN. We hope IN God. We also hope DESPITE the circumstances.


Optimism pretends that it is always Christmas and never Advent. Optimism pretends that it is always sunny and never dark, always summer and never winter. But Hope (as Paul says in his letter to the Romans) knows that the hour is late and that “it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed;  the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day…”


Hope knows that it is precisely when the darkness is deepest that the day is at hand and the light draws near.


So what makes the message of Advent so different from the conventional message of the Christmas shopping season is that Advent offers us hope, not optimism. Advent acknowledges the darkness. Advent is honest with us. Advent tells us that we are facing tough times, that the fight will be long and hard. Advent does not hide the suffering that is a part of human life. While the rest of the world is humming “Santa Claus is coming to town,” Christians who keep Advent are singing


Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of His train:


Hope knows that we cannot have Easter without Good Friday, resurrection without crucifixion. Hope is not a utopian vision of the future. Hope recognizes that history is complicated, difficult, and sometimes tragic.


Once again, Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Lo, he comes with clouds descending,” helps us understand Advent. Hope knows that just as the Risen Christ still bears the scars of his crucifixion, we also bear the scars of our struggles, the wounds that life inflicts on all of us.


The dear tokens of His passion
Still His dazzling body bears;
Cause of endless exultation
To His ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!


But Advent also teaches us that those scars can be redeemed and those wounds can be transformed into sources of strength. Hope walks into the future on legs that were once paralyzed by fear.


In Paul’s letters, he often brings together faith, hope, and love. For example, in his first letter to the Thessalonians from which we heard today, he says, “We give thanks to God always for you all, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”


The most famous place where Paul speaks of faith, hope, and love is in the 13th chapter of First Corinthians: “These three abide – faith, hope, and love – but the greatest of these is love.”


In other words, hope abides. Hope lasts. Hope is eternal. You can’t say that about optimism. Eventually, optimism runs out of steam; it hits the wall of our mortality, our finitude. But not hope. Hope goes on and on because to repeat what I said before, we do not hope THAT; we hope IN. We hope IN God.


An eclipse of the sun occurred during a meeting of the assembly of one of the 18th century American colonies. Some members of the assembly panicked, believing that the end of the world was at hand. One of the delegates moved that the assembly adjourn so that the members could return to their homes and prepare for the end. But one of the delegates spoke up and said, “Mr. Speaker, if it is not the end of the world and we adjourn, we shall appear to be fools. But if it IS the end of the world, then I choose to be found doing my duty. I pray you, sir, let candles be brought in.”


In Advent, Christians bring in candles. We bring light into the dark world around us. In fact, the world IS ending. It has always been ending and always will be ending. But we have hope – NOT optimism – because we believe in a God who does new things and who is with us even to the end of the world.