“Seeking God’s Hope in Challenging Times”
Mark 13: 24-37 & Psalm 80 ~ Northwood UC ~ November 26, 2023
Do you ever suffer nightmares as you sleep? It is certainly a horrible way to awaken, isn’t it? You are startled and disorientated and upset because the nightmare seems entirely real. I wonder, what are your nightmares? I’ll tell you one of mine. I’m asleep: warm and cozy under my duvet as the cold wind blows in, enjoying a deep refreshing sleep. With the morning will come the highlight of the week…worship as a church family. We will gather, see one another, shake hands, share hugs. We are singing and swaying. Laughing and praying. Sharing coffee and sharing life’s journey as people of faith. But, as the nightmare begins, something happens…I don’t wake up...I keep on sleeping. When I finally do awaken, the bright sun is already shining through my window and my bedside table clock tells me that I have missed it all. My nightmare is that I have slept through it all.
When I think of the four weeks that lie ahead of us, I would suggest that the potential nightmare that presents itself is not that we miss Sunday service; rather the fear would be of missing the wonderful birthing of God’s Hope. The fear is that we become so busy with our Christmas preparations that we neglect to get ready and actually prepare for Christ. It would be easy for us to become so busy, so distracted…that we just let it all happen and miss God’s birthing of hope.
Without question, preparing for Christmas is a BIG job. Home decorating, card writing, shopping and baking and wrapping. And there is more…party planning, hostess gifts, guest lists, finding that one burned out bulb on the string of lights, and that one last elusive gift. And it is, naturally, very easy to become distracted from the depth of hope that is to be found. How do you ‘stay on track’ and prepare? There are some tried-and-true methods to keep us on track, aren’t there? Advent calendars: each day, a new chocolate to enjoy, and when we are out of chocolate, we had better be ready for the big day! And if chocolate does not tickle your fancy, there are now adult versions: Advent beer, and wine, and scotch calendars, filled with a little treat for each day. There are even Advent Lego calendars for the creative child, and Advent pet calendars to ensure that even your pet is prepared as well. But all this merely prepares us for a festive holiday that we have assigned to the 25th. All of this does not prepare us for the hope that Christ brings. There is a big difference!
As you have noticed, over the coming weeks of Advent, we will be focusing on the arrival of God through the four movements of Advent. I love the church’s decision to commence with Advent with hope. We will move in later weeks to peace, to joy, and to love. But hope is that powerful essence that moves us beyond what we can accomplish or imagine on our own. It is the place where God intervenes in life. Two months prior to Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, he spoke these words on hope: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” What are the challenges and struggles you and your loved ones deal with? We might accept the disappointment of the day; however, we must never lose the infinite hope that is possible through God’s grace and power! Indeed, God is birthing hope; God is promising hope; God is coming to us as hope!
The text before us that Deborah read shouts for us to “keep awake”: keep awake from our slumber; keep awake from the distractions; keep awake from all the busyness that takes us away from our faith, and be present for the hope that Christ brings. Because Christ will come at an unexpected time; He will come in an unexpected way; He will come and surprise us…He will come and surprise us IF we “keep awake”. Jesus teaches using the parable of the master’s return. You do not know when he will return: “in the evening, at midnight, at cockcrow, or at dawn.” Society has agreed upon the date of the holiday as the 25th; however, the date and times of Christ’s arrival is coming at an unexpected hour! When will Christ come? How will this look? Will we be ready?
What I would like to suggest this morning as we engage in the preparatory, waiting practices is that we are actually uncovering two different kinds of waiting. There is passive waiting and active waiting. And one of them has a profound capacity for hope. Passive waiting might be a group of people who are waiting at the bus stop. They have their bus pass in hand, and they know the time when that bus will arrive to pick them up, they might even check an app on their phone and follow the awaited vehicle. That is passive waiting: killing time until the expected occurrence will arrive.
There is another kind of waiting though, that waiting is called active waiting. Active waiting is knowing that hope is on the horizon, yet never entirely knowing when that sun will rise setting the hope of the new day. Active hope is a readied form of waiting knowing that a new day, a better day, God’s hope will come! I’m wondering when have you participated in, and experienced, the hope found in “active waiting”? If you have been part of the circle around a deathbed, actively waiting for a loved one to move to the next, you know about the hope that is found in active waiting. Family and friends take shifts, sometimes sleeping on cots in the loved one’s room…all the while actively waiting. Together we wait, all the while buoyed with the hope of God’s presence that is there. We actively wait with the hope of God’s mercy that will be received, of God’s peace that will come. In the active waiting there is a deep hope…for Christ is there. I wonder how God’s birth of hope might arrive if we actively waiting God’s arrival?
As we begin the White Gift campaign again this year again, I think of the tender hearts that are actively waiting through the Surrey Christmas Bureau. Each year, we have the honour of sharing our abundance with those who find themselves in need. We adopt families in need, get a list of food and present items and deliver it the week of Christmas. To speak with these families, you will hear stories of uncertainty and fear of how things will unfold for Christmas. They have had a difficult year, they apply at the Surrey Christmas Bureau, hoping for some form of assistance….and they wait. Delivering the Northwood hampers to these families is the gift of seeing the hopes fulfilled and ALL of our hearts are warmed as we have the honour of participating in this time of sharing the hope of the season. I wonder how God’s birth of hope might arrive if we actively waiting God’s arrival?
This season is always one that is extremely difficult for those who have suffered loss over the past months and years. There is always that salient reminder of that special person who is not there. The empty chair around the table, those things that they would have done to prepare for the season, it is truly painful. This is the reason that we offer the Quiet Christmas each year. A gentle way to experience the deep meaning and hope of the season. I wonder if active waiting is truly a practice that is good for those navigating the grief journey? Actively waiting for the hope that God is birthing. Not that the pain will be ever entirely taken away, but that God’s hope might arrive providing comfort and care, providing an unexpected presence that offers gentle healing and ongoing hope to get through. I wonder how God’s birth of hope might arrive if we actively waiting God’s arrival?
And as you may have noticed our Moderator of the United Church has written a letter to our Prime Minister of Canada urging our Government to call for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas war. When I heard this, it struck me as another example of active waiting. Of calling out injustice and seeking for God’s hope to come to this increasingly escalating situation.
This spiritual practice of preparedness touches on the core paradox of Mark’s entire Gospel story. The paradox is that we live in the “already and the not yet.” We live in a time of the “already”… and…the time of the “not yet”. The “already” is the spiritual reality that Jesus has come; he has been birthed into our world; he has taught, and loved, and sacrificed; the means through which we are drawn into this relationship with God has been established. Already. The realm of God is present in our world, now. We live in God’s “already”. Yet, paradoxically, we also live in the world of the “not yet.” While Jesus has established this relationship, while the realm of God is here; we do “not yet” live in full communion with God. We live in hope. The Kingdom of God’s realm is “not yet” fully established. This call for us to “keep awake” is one of participating in the fulfillment of God’s coming realm. That is what being part of the body of Christ is really about. When we “keep awake”, we become partners in the coming of God’s kingdom. When we “keep awake”, we become partners in the fulfillment of this “already but not yet” paradox, as Christ arrives in us and through us…if…if we “keep awake.”
There was a tragic devastation that occurred just over 200 years ago in a church in Austria. The church was flooded, the organ and building were destroyed just before Christmas. Father Joseph Mohr was the priest serving this church and he was tending the heartbreak of all the people. How could they celebrate Christmas without an organ, without their favourite carols? That Christmas Eve would truly be a sad and silent night. Yet Father Mohr “kept awake” and Christ came to him amidst a walk in the forest. On his walk, he wrote out the lyrics for the beloved hymn “Silent Night”. And that Christmas Eve, he played his guitar, and the congregation sang their new favourite Christmas Carol: “Silent Night”. You see, the good news is that Christ comes, amidst the challenges and the struggles, amidst the pain and the suffering, even in the silence…Christ comes.
Let us “keep awake” for the hope of Christ comes, indeed Christ’s hope is coming.