“No one knows that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, not the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, be alert... do not let him find you sleeping.”
St. Mark 13: 32a36b.
When I was a child I used to long so very much for Christmas to come; but it felt that a child’s yearning made the days seem much longer. As a child, it seemed like Christmas came every three years! But now that I’m an “older man”, it seems like Christmas comes about every other Thursday! Time moves so very quickly! Advent has always been a happy time for most people, even in very difficult times. There is something about Advent with its promise of the coming of the Messiah, and the realization of all the promises that God has made to His people find their fulfillment in a stable, a little child, a poor young teenage mother and her gravely worried husband - into whose care God had placed this most precious twosome. I think that’s something that stirs great hope in us - and if we have hope we have everything!
Advent, perhaps this year more than ever, is a time blessed with hope! It’s a time when we put aside our major worries and realize that God is with us. For a Christian to have hope means to know that we are definitely loved, and that, whatever happens to us, we are awaited by love.
In our Old Testament reading today, we have words from the prophet Isaiah. This section of Isaiah is written, at the time when the Jewish people were in exile in Babylon and praying to God that they would be able to return to their own country and rebuild their Temple and once again be at peace in their own homes. It was a desperate time for them because they were enslaved and many felt that God had abandoned them. That’s why Isaiah says, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down… You are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter. We are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure.”
Of course, the thing that makes this a lovely passage is to know that, in the harshest and most difficult of times, Isaiah is speaking like a man in terrible need of God Himself. Not just to know that God exists, but to feel His strength, to feel that He is once again manifesting Himself to His people. But where do we find this “hidden” God? There’s an old story about Omar the candle- maker who is outside his house busily looking through the grass. He’s feverishly looking for something when his neighbour comes and says, “Omar, what are you looking for?” And Omar says, “I lost my wallet and I’m trying to find it.” His friend says, “Well, where did you lose it?” Omar says, “I lost it in my house, in my bedroom.”
The neighbour asks, “Well, why aren’t you in your house and bedroom searching for it?” And Omar says, “Oh, it’s too dark in there. It’s much nicer to search out here in the sunshine.” The meaning of this story is that we’re always looking for God in the wrong places. Very often, and for good reason, we find God not so much in the happy, carefree days of our lives; rather, we find God when we’re alone and suddenly darkness closes in on our life and we begin to wonder and have doubts about not only the future but also the present.
We lit the first candle in our Advent Wreath this morning - the Candle of Hope. But a candle only shows its true nature and its true value in darkness. We don’t put candles around with all the lights on - it’s when we turn the lights off that a candle begins to glow and give us hope. That’s why during Advent some of us fill our homes with candles because of the prophecy that says Jesus is the “light of the world” and, in this season, we rejoice in the “hope” that His coming brought.
This is an indication that the problems and difficulties that face us, and especially during these last eight torrid months that have been full of loss, pain, grief and loneliness. Months during which we wondered what will happen to us; and so we sound like Isaiah in the First Reading, when Isaiah is saying, “You must show your face. Why haven’t you come down and delivered us? We are in very difficult times.”And what Isaiah gives them is the word of God. And the word of God is, “I have never left you. I am with you always in good times and in bad.”
It’s been brought home to us these last eight months that we do not control life and we’ve been forced to recognise our own human vulnerability and our own human need. We’ve had to dig deep in our faith to remind ourselves that Jesus - even though He was poor, rejected and alone, remained the light for the whole world. Jesus helped us to understand that God comes to share the darkness and share the pain that we might have new life and new strength.
Over these last eight months we might have asked, “What the heck happened? How can God allow this disaster to occur?” But God isn’t what brought on this crisis. God is the solution; God is the response to this crisis. God has not left us, and remembering Him makes Him present and makes us continue on the road together with Him into eternal life. Even as we went through loss and pain and sorrow, Jesus called us to have hope; and to have hope is to know that we are definitely loved and cherished and cared for and whatever happens to us, whatever path we are asked to walk to another part of our lives, what awaits us there is God and His love and with this truth we make each other strong.
The second thing about difficult times is perhaps a realisation that maybe we have been preoccupied by a lot of false gods around us. Maybe we have invested our hope in success, or riches, or in never seeing pain. Perhaps these are the gods that have to come crashing down before we once again realize that we are here to share hope, love, peace and joy. We are here to make a new world! Each generation must build a new world so that we come closer and closer to the final coming of the Lord at the end of time. Each generation has to discover for itself the promise, the love and the reality of God. But the One that comes at the end of time must be brought to us by our own good selves. Jewish mothers, praying for the Messiah, used to say to their children,
“Every good deed that you do,
brings the Messiah one step closer to you.”
That, perhaps, is the challenge of difficulty; for two things can happen. Number one is we shirk and fear and each day we worry more and more about what’s going to happen - and we live in the future. But those who “live in the future” die in the present!
Or perhaps we have so many regrets of what brought this on or what brought that on - and we live in the past. But the past is already gone - and we’ll always be chasing shadows that breed only regret and guilt!
What Advent is saying is we must live now with faith. We must live now with love; and what drives us on to live with faith and to share love is “hope”. Hope is the great virtue! The noted French poet, Charles Péguy wrote a poem that is possibly the greatest masterpiece of any poet in the 20th century. Péguy died in the battlefield of the First World War, but he left this beautiful poem that says,
“I am, says God, master of the three virtues: Faith, Charity and Hope.
It’s arguable that the most important of all things that hold us close to God is not faith - we can live without faith, some people do. It’s not love - we can live without love; some people have to. But no-one can live without hope!
Faith is like a faithful wife.
Charity is the ardent mother.
But Hope is a little girl.
I am, says God, the master of virtues.
Faith is she who remains steadfast through centuries and centuries.
Love is she who gives herself during centuries and centuries.
But my little Hope is she who rises every morning.
I am, says God, the Lord of virtues.
Faith is she who remains firm and strong.
Charity is she who unbends during centuries and centuries.
But my little Hope is she who every morning wishes me good day.”
And so difficult times make us aware that of these three virtues, the least known, the least talked about, the one that we always feel is like a little child, is the one who feeds Faith, and the one who gives joy to Love. And so it’s the “little girl” in Péguy’s poem that we ask God to grace us with - the humble little girl who says “every morning is a new day”.
This is what it means to prepare in Advent. We’re to help and support each other as we go through these difficult times, but now with new, real and ever increasing hope in our hearts; a hope that feeds the deep faith that we must recommit ourselves to the world in which God lives and moves and has His being. Advent is the season of hope; Advent is the season that reminds us that we worship the God of things that are not yet; the God of things that will be. Advent is the season to hold up before us visions of things that sound impossibly remote to us. In the week before Advent we received such welcome good news about new vaccines and new treatments and increased testing.
It’s true that Advent and Christmas this year, and Epiphany and Lent next year may still be a little different. But by the next great festival of the Church, Easter, the landscape in our country and across the world is going to look vastly different and richly restored and resurrected - thanks be to God. And, yes, we will, I fear, be called to face more loss, pain and grief in these dark winter weeks that lie ahead. But now there is genuine, tangible, measurable hope that the coronavirus pandemic can be brought under control and that life can, in due course, return to something that we recognize. So, in this short and sacred Advent season, as we prepare for the coming of Christmas, we recommit ourselves to reaching out in Christian love and compassion. We can now do so with a relentlessly positive, joyful, light heart, because “Hope” is a little girl who gets up every morning and wishes us “Good Day”.
Emmanuel has come! God is with us! Let us be willing to let His light of hope fall on us; and in this new Church year begun this very day let us resolve to be a fellowship who are committed to sharing His precious light of hope with others.
Loving Father God, in Your mercy Advent comes again, and in faith we set out on the road to Bethlehem to see this thing that has happened. Lead us on our Advent journey, Lord, and kindle in our hearts a spirit of expectancy; And may we not rest until we bow in wonder and adoration before the Child of Mary, the everlasting Son of the Father, and sing;
“Glory to God in the highest!”