The First Word of Advent: Hope

Old South’s worship last Sunday, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, included quite a few visitors. One visitor was a young man who came to worship by himself. He stayed for coffee and fellowship, so I had a chance to chat with him a bit. He readily admitted that he doesn’t know much about church and wasn’t raised in a church. When I asked him why he had joined us, he paused and considered and then said something like, “Well, because of what you talked about today.”

This young man was not alone. I have lots of people who are worried about the future, disappointed and even despairing over the recent presidential election. I’ve heard comment after comment reflecting pain and sadness, even to the point of hopelessness. In turn, my sermons have sought to address at least some of what I’m hearing.

For those who are long-time churchgoers, Advent is a season of familiar words—hope, peace, joy and love. The familiar words, though, now have taken on something new. What does it mean to hope when everything feels so terrible?

This past Sunday, my sermon offered some thoughts based on a recent experience at a YMCA swim meet (my son is a swimmer). I couldn’t help but notice the array of children and youth, as well as their families, at the meet. Maine is a very pale place, among the whitest of states in the entire country. At the swim meet, though, there was a noticeable diversity of skin color, hair texture, shape of face and eye. Sure, most of the people there were white. But, not all.

And, there they were, this array of children and youth, talking, laughing and goofing off with each other, competing against each other in a friendly way, encouraging each other and cheering each other on.

My first reaction to this tableau was worry and concern. What kind of world awaits these children and young people, as we learn about the “alt right” and the newly energized white supremacists and nationalists? The president-elect may choose to distance himself from these groups, but the lead up to the election has given some very dangerous people, usually on the far fringes of society, a new energy and sense of purpose.

Although there was plenty of discord before the election, the post-election landscape offers a deeper, and more treacherous, feeling of division. Yet, there are moments deserving of hope. In looking upon the young people I saw in action at the swim meet, I was reminded that scene didn’t just happen by itself. It didn’t just materialize out of magic. It came to be not just because of policies and laws either.

It came to be because of a lot of invisible actions of normal, everyday, good and decent people—like those who attend Old South.

When we look for hope and signs of hope, we so often cast about for what’s “out there,” something that will bring hope to us.

Advent and Christmas remind us, in very direct and significant ways, that faith is not a spectator sport. Faith depends on participation, and that includes our first word of Advent: hope.

Hope isn’t just “out there,” something for which we wait patiently in a detached sort of way, like a gift waiting to be opened. Hope is in each of us, and in all of us together as church, as a community of faith, as a community of followers of Christ.

When we are feeling a little bereft of hope, it’s a good time to take a good look around and take a look in the mirror as well. In the small actions and moments of our lives we have the opportunity, the calling, to live out of hope, to live out the vision of being in community even with those who seem so different—the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the cow and the bear.

Hope doesn’t just happen, as if by magic. It’s takes effort, a conscious effort, an effort that many have already been about.

Do you remember at the end of the Wizard of Oz, after the curtain was pulled away and the wizard became not the great and powerful, but a regular man, and Dorothy’s companions thought that all of their efforts to do as the Wizard had commanded, that that was the only way to get their true heart’s desire, that all of that had come to nothing, because here was this sad, regular man and not the powerful wizard before whom they had cowered? But, still it was the wizard who showed them that what they sought, they possessed all along—a brain, a heart, some courage. It had all been there. They just couldn’t see it.

It seems to me that we are at a time when we shouldn’t be spending much time looking for hope “out there,” waiting for the magic to happen. Part of the anticipation of Advent is the coming to that knowledge that what we long for, we already have—that to be among God’s people, to have faith in Christ, to follow in the Way, is to be renewed in knowing that God doesn’t bestow these things as if they will fall from the sky one day in a big box topped with a large bow. We have already been given us the pieces we need. It is up to us to discover them, to rediscover them, and to let them capture us, and to recapture us.

Advent seems different this year—and the familiar words, too. It feels like we are not just trotting out the comfortable ritual in the preparation for Christmas. Instead, we have the opportunity to reconnect with some of the most vital aspects of faith. The first word is hope. It’s not an empty word, nor is it an easy word. We people of faith know this. Yet, we hope and we live as a hopeful people—because we know that there’s reason to hope. It is fragile and vulnerable, just as an infant, but real and present.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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