The season of Advent is, perhaps above all else, a season of hope and expectation. On the simplest level, of course, we look forward to the celebration of Christ’s First Coming at the Christ-Mass (Christmas). We also have the hope and the expectation that this same Christ will come into our lives daily (in Word and Prayer and Sacrament) and in all the ways he shows up in our lives on an everyday basis. And finally we hope for, and expect, one day his Final Coming at the End of time to set things right again once and for all – that his Kingdom truly will “come on earth as it is in heaven!”
These themes are seen all the way through our Lessons from Holy Scripture this morning. Isaiah looks forward to God’s Reign finally being established when he cries, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” (Isaiah 64:1). And the prophet’s yearning for this future action is not some kind of “Pollyanna optimism” but is firmly based on the fact that God has acted in Israel’s past. He writes, “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.” (64:3).
The people of Israel had seen God’s mighty acts before – not least in their liberation from slavery in Egypt centuries earlier and his manifestation on Mount Sinai in the giving of the Law. So, even though they are facing Exile once again at the hand of the Babylonians and the people are worried, Isaiah wants to give them the hope and the expectation that they have not been deserted.
“There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand…Now consider, we are all your people.” (64:7-9)
The Psalmist sings the same message in today’s Psalm 80: “Restore us, O God of hosts; show us the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” They are suffering now, but because their God is the same God who “led Joseph like a flock” (1) in the past, they can have hope for the future: “And so will we never turn away from you; give us life, that we may call upon your Name.” (17)
Our Lord Jesus Christ preached that same message of hope and expectation hundreds of years after Isaiah and the Psalmist. The people of Israel had indeed been restored to their land after the Exile by then, but had fallen on hard times once again. Now, they are being oppressed by Rome and their land occupied once again by foreign troops, but Jesus says,
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Mark 13:28-31)
They had certainly not passed away by the time St. Paul wrote his first letter to the Christians in Corinth 25 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, “I give thanks to my God always for your because…you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Corinthians 1:4-8 passim)
How could all these prophets and mystics and apostles have had such hope and expectation and confidence in God’s coming Kingdom even in the midst of adversity and suffering? Because they had experienced God’s sovereignty in their history, and in their own lives. Isaiah not only knew the history of his people and how God had rescued them, been their hope and strength in the past, he had had a deep encounter with that God in his own personal life – a “vision” of the very throne-room of God where he heard God say, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah had said, “Here I am, send me!”
King David, who was likely the author of some of the Psalms if not all of them, knew what it was like to be rescued and redeemed, not only in wartime and battle but from his own personal sins and shortcomings as well. He was a deeply flawed servant of God, but a servant nonetheless! Jesus had encountered his heavenly Father in the waters of the Jordan River at his Baptism, on the Mount of Transfiguration, and in countless other ways during his brief, three-year public ministry. And Paul had been knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus, discovering how wrong he had been in persecuting the followers of the Messiah whose faithful servant he would soon become!
Beloved, we live in frustrating and confusing times as well. The world is changing so fast we can scarcely keep up with it. Many of the things we have always thought and believed are being brought into question or are at least up for discussion. In these tough economic times, the “American dream” we used to rely on – that we would do better than our parents and our children do better than us – seems questionable at best. We despair of leaders – in the Arab world, in our own country or even in our church – who can converse with one another civilly, put their own agendas aside, and come together and find consensus for the common good. Reading the newspaper these days can be an exercise in frustration!
But, especially in days like these, it is absolutely essential that we grasp and hold on to that “theology of hope” held out to us by our forebears in the Faith. The reason we want you to learn the history of your Faith through Bible study and theological refection, the reason we want you to seek encounters with the Living God through worship and prayer; the reason we want you to look around you and find signs of God’s activity and presence in the world about you is precisely so that you can be hopeful people! Not just “optimistic” people who think things should get “better and better every day in every way,” but truly people of hope.
We want you to hope in the God who has surely acted in the past. Hope in the God who is mightily at work in the present if we only have eyes to see. And, most of all, hope in the God of the future. Which is why we say every day in Morning Prayer, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.”
God has been with us in the past. God is with us today. And God has promised to be with us always — even to the end of the ages!