(Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14)
(watch here: https://youtu.be/eZ8kq8PGecQ)
36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”
Today we set out on our 4-week journey through the Advent season. As I mentioned last week, it is a time of joyful anticipation for many of us. We joyfully await the birth of Jesus and the new opportunities and possibilities that come with him. At the same time, there are many of us who are anxious during this season. We’re anxious about all the expectations of gifts and feasts and family gatherings and traveling. Memories of times gone by can make us anxious too. Some of us aren’t sharing the season with someone we loved for so many years. Some of us are dreading what’s in store for the new year. This is time of new beginnings but it is also a time for closures. Some of us are eager to be done with the struggles of this last year but some are fearful of the struggles yet to come. Clearly this season is a time of mixed feelings and differing perspectives for all us.
Regardless of how each of us approaches this Advent season, there is a commonality shared by all of us: none of us knows exactly how the season will unfold. Sure we might go be going into the season either dreading it or looking forward to it but none of us really knows what agonies or joys lie in wait. We simply don’t know who or what will come into our lives over the next four weeks. I like to believe that Jesus will be coming into all of our lives at the end of the four weeks but I don’t know that for certain. I pray that it will happen but I just don’t know that it will happen. Nor do we know what memories will be stirred up this Advent season. Certain people and situations might stir up memories we didn’t think we had. Some memories will bring joys; some will bring sorrows. In fact, some people and situations will create new memories for many us! We just…don’t…know how this Advent season will play out!
I’m reminded of the little story about a man who approached a little league baseball game one afternoon. He asked a boy in the dugout what the score was. The boy responded, “Eighteen to nothing—we’re behind.” “Boy,” said the spectator, “I’ll be you’re discouraged.” “Why should I be discouraged?” replied the little boy. “We haven’t even gotten up to bat yet!” Anyone who’s ever been to a little league baseball game knows that a score of 18-0 isn’t all that dreadful—scores can easily get into the 50s, 60s, or 70s! But I think the little boy conveyed something even more profound in his response. He wasn’t depressed by that rather dismal score because he was confident in the unknown future. He found strength in the unknown future. He was enlivened by the unknown future. Sure, his present situation was bleak but not without hope. And hope transformed his perspective on his situation. It allowed him to not only be content in his situation but also to delight in his situation. It allowed him to find joy in an otherwise despairing situation. And it was precisely because his situation had an unknown future that enabled him to have hope. Hope doesn’t arise from situations with known futures. Hope can only arise from situations with unknown futures. Lucky for us, all situations have unknown futures. Only God knows all futures. So all situations have the potential for hope!
The biblical prophets and Jesus himself understood the importance of situations with unknown futures all too well. They were constantly using the unknown as a tool to elicit hope. We heard the prophet Isaiah from our first reading proclaim, “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above hills; all the nations shall stream to it.” The prophet didn’t give an exact time and day when the mountain of the Lord’s house would be established. He simply left it as an unknown future event: “in days to come.” Jump to the gospel lesson and we also hear Jesus using the unknown to elicit hope from his disciples. Answering their question about when he might return, he states, “but about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Jesus understood all too well that giving them an exact time and day when he would return would actually lead to complacency. We humans have a particular knack for doing just enough at just the right time. Perhaps you’re familiar with the expression of “putting on a dog and pony show.” Only when the judge is present do we display our livestock in their best form. We primp and preen them for just the right time and place for the judge to do his/her work. Likewise, we have a tendency to primp and preen ourselves only for special occasions when we feel that we are being judged. Otherwise, we become complacent and let our livestock and ourselves become less than show-worthy. And Jesus understood that about his disciples and all his followers. To counter this tendency in us, he doesn’t give us a time when he’ll return and leaves us with nothing but the unknown. He says, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
Remember, hope can only arise from situations with unknown futures. But what purpose does hope serve? Why do we need hope? The apostle Paul understood hope to be of the three greatest gifts of the Spirit along with faith and love. We need faith and love to stay connected with God and each other but one can’t help but wonder why we need hope. Perhaps because it is in and through hope that we have faith and love. We need hope to believe and love God and each other. And hope is more than simply optimism. Hope is an acceptance that God is in control of all that is in existence. Hope is an acceptance that God is a loving God. Hope is an acceptance that God is a gracious and merciful God. It is in accepting these qualities of God that we come to love and faith. And just like love and faith, hope is a call to action. As Paul wrote to the people of Rome in our second lesson for today, in hope we are to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.” Indeed, how can we continue in works of darkness knowing and accepting that God is in control, loving, gracious, and merciful?! No, hope changes how we behave and helps us to live God-pleasing lives.
So we need hope just as much as we need faith and love. And we need times of uncertainty to create hope. We need this Advent season, with all its mixed feelings and perspectives, with all its unknown qualities, as a seedbed for hope. Hope changes the world for the better. Hope enables faith and love to blossom into fruitful relationships with God and each other. Let us go forth into the season rejoicing in all its uncertainty and giving thanks for it being…a time of hope.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.