Sermon given by Rev. Patrick Crocker at First Christian Church in Las Cruces on December 3, 2023.
What gives us hope? What inspires us? What do we even think about hope? And what is it that we hope for?
The question of “what we think about hope” comes up partly because the lectionary this week, as we start out on our journey toward Bethlehem, is what is known as the “little apocalypse.” What I think of as the CliffsNotes for Revelation. This is Jesus speaking to just four disciples within the last moments of his time before the trial. Jesus is speaking within the Gospel of Mark to his closest friends, and yet He is also speaking to us.
I think it’s amusing when people talk about movies or actors that break the fourth wall as something new or inventive, because I see that all the time within the Gospel. Jesus speaking to the disciples and those around him, but at the same time looking out to the camera and saying, “This is for y’all too.” You can think of your own commedian perhaps. For me, the one that comes to mind is Bugs Bunny, after some shenanigan, looking at the camera and saying, “now ain’t I just the sweetest thing?”
We see within this gospel lesson words that are difficult to fit in to messages of hope, and yet not. Because messages of hope resound most loudly when they are brought in a time where they are most needed. We see within this passage, the second half of what Jesus was talking about will come. He first talks about the wars and rumors of wars and the difficulties that will happen throughout the year. And we think, yeah, we see that all around.
We think of the famous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: war, famine, pestilence, death. We have to wonder, are they trying to do the Kentucky Derby again? Because they’re running around awfully fast. And yet, I wonder, has there been a time when war, famine, pestilence and death have not been abroad in the land? It seems that they are always with us.
And that’s what this piece from Matthew just before our lectionary this morning is talking about: that these dreadful times, the times that the Church of Mark was living through, the times when they could not go to church. Not just because they were being persecuted, but because the church had done disappeared. The place that they knew as the center of worship, the place that they had centered their lives around as people of faith had been destroyed.
And if God’s house no longer existed, did that mean that God’s protection no longer existed? Did that mean that God had withdrawn, did that mean that God wasn’t even there anymore? Was God still listening? Let alone still speaking?
We find these words coming out of the times of Jesus and our own times, the times of the mark and church and the times before. Like people who awaited the coming of the Messiah. Like people who have always awaited the coming of the Messiah. Question of “how long, oh Lord?. How long will it be, when we are in trouble now?” And what Jesus is saying is: all of these things? They’re rough, but they ain’t the end. We look for other signs. And yet, even with signs, we see that sometimes we just don’t have a good idea.
I’ve been brought up in my religious life not to trust prophecy much. Partly because I see how many times the end of the world has been predicted and how many times the world has continued to go on spinning. It was also because the pastor who taught me to understand these things, this way was also a mortician before he became a pastor. And so his understanding of the end of the world was, when the undertaker pulls the sheet up over your nose, the world has ended for you. So it is we look for all of these ways and we try to look for signs and patterns so that we can have a bit more comfort, a bit more peace, so that we can plan and feel at least a little bit in control.
And maybe that’s another good reason for having a scripture like this at the start of our Advent journey: to remind us that we ain’t in control as much as we would like to be or as much as we think we’d like to be. Sometimes I have actually been put in control and then looked around and said, oh no, never mind, I don’t want this at all. Thank you very much. We see within this passage not only the warning to let the future take care of itself, but to be watchful. We see within this passage questions about what it is that we are hoping for and what we think about hope.
In his remarkable book, Hope Dies Last, Studs Terkel collects a number of histories from people all around, all around the country at least, who have gone through tough times and had some words to say about hope.
I particularly appreciated his conversation with Arlo Guthrie. But one that struck me was a military adviser who said military people have no use for hope. Hope is a wasted emotion. Hope is wishful thinking. What we are taught to do in the military and what we teach to do in military is don’t hope. Go make it happen. Which is a nice idea when you have something in your control. But when it comes to the coming of the Messiah, it’s not our timetable. It’s not our control. And yet it is our responsibility.
I think also often of one of my seminary professors who talked about an ecumenical conference that happened in Christchurch in England. He was there was rabbis and imams and priests of all kinds. One of the rabbis started off one of the morning sessions by saying it is patently obvious that the Messiah has not come. He looked around. I noticed birds singing sunshine coming through stained glass windows. I noticed moderate temperatures and I noticed music in the air. I noticed which my belly was still full from a very lovely breakfast. And I wondered at that. It is patently obvious that the Messiah has not come.
Of course, depending on where we look, we can definitely see signs that God is not in charge as much as we might like. We see wars and rumors of wars. We see children of God crying out in pain. We see ourselves yearning for hope, yearning for life. We see ourselves, sometimes even hoping to hope. That we don’t even have enough with us to fully hope yet, to fully trust. We cry out in the words of the man who approached Jesus for a blessing for his daughter: I believe, help my unbelief.
We want to trust. We want to hope. We want to live out prayerful expectation, not just the mild hoping, the passive waiting of someone who is waiting for the bus to come along, which will come along on its own schedule, regardless of what you do. Then you can choose to fill up the time with a crossword puzzle or book, or simply fretting and watching the clock. Or we can turn our hearts and minds to hopeful expectation. To looking for the startling.
One commentator talked about this active waiting as being very much like a fisherman, actively waiting for the bass to come up and snap at the flies. Now, I have never experienced fly fishing, but the fishing that I have experienced as a youth led me to understand that my ADD self and fishing are not going to have good terms. Because there is a whole lot of passive waiting in there for me, a lot more that I can deal with. It just happens when it happens. If it happens. And there were a lot of days that the fish that we got all the way back from the fishing trip came from Long John Silver. But we are enjoined to do more than just wait around twiddling my thumbs. But to be active, to be fellow dancers in God’s creation, in God’s creating of a new thing, of God singing a new song.
Another commentator said qe should be more like the waiter, who is so busy serving that they don’t have time to count the tips. We have these opportunities to think about what hope means for us, who we shall be. During the hope, during the waiting, and perhaps even looking at what our hope means for others. It occurs to me that perhaps the reason that this season starts out with a note of despair is that there will be a lot of despair when the Messiah comes again.
When the Messiah comes again, the great leveling that we talk about within our faith lives, the great reversals of the first becoming last and the last becoming first. Equality and justice. These are the things that will look like oppression to those who have been privileged. For each of us, as we have experienced privilege, we will experience discomfort in those days.
The lion and the lamb may indeed lie down again, but if both are going to get up again, one is going to have to change its diet. What is it that we are called to be about differently? How is it that we are called to live out our hope, our hopeful expectation, our waiting with purpose and intention? What is it that we shall do for the coming Kingdom in order to call on the name the Lord of Love, the Prince of Peace, the One who gives life to all, and who has a care for the greatest and the least? Let us live this out each moment of our lives as we look forward to more light, more understanding, more hope.