Titus 3.4-7, Luke 1.5-25
What does Advent mean? I’ve been asked this question numerous times this year. It has been a unique question that I have not been asked before. As I have been asked my quick response is that Advent is a time of holy preparation – the anticipation and expectancy – of God’s coming to us. Advent reminds us on our dependency of the Holy One.
Hope interrupts our understanding of life. The season of Advent interrupts the silence of God, and brings forth new birth. Imagine a span of 400 years between the time of the last prophetic utterance in the nation of Israel. This was a time of silence when the voice of Israel’s’ influential religious figures provided no recorded prophetic guidance from God through anointed leaders. The 400 years of prophetic silence was disturbed with the sound of a crying baby– John the Baptist. The nation of Israel has always been shaped by prophetic (visionary) hope. God had always provided religious zealots who were anointed with the vision of a Messianic leader who would shift the reality of the whole world.
Hope depends on a holy story. Our Advent story today comes from the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. The priest Zechariah has grown old and is without children. Although he and his wife are without blame, holy people, they find themselves ridiculed as unworthy in their community. At this time in history infertility or barrenness was seen as a curse from God. But God had a plan, and the fullness of that plan had not come to pass – yet! Even still Zechariah enters into the temple at the time of prayer to offer incense on behalf of the people. Zechariah was responsible for bringing the prayers of the people before the Lord God Almighty. And, it was in this moment of obedient prayer that an angel of the Lord of Heavenly Forces makes his presence known to Zechariah. This encounter of the holy broke across the barrier of time and space to deliver a message to Zechariah. But it wasn’t a personal message, although it was very personal; it was a communal message. It was a message for all the people. And, even more significant the angel named the child. Zechariah would not even get the opportunity to name his only son.
Hope depends on holy prayer. Prayer hopes for the impossible; the things that only God can achieve. As a child I remember entering the church sanctuary and imaging that I was Zechariah offering the prayers for the people and burning the incense as an offering. Sometimes its hard to get past all the movies we have seen to discover the real story of Zechariah. What was it like for an aging man without children to suddenly be confronted with the power of God? I can only guess that this was not what Zechariah was asking for. Perhaps he would have preferred something subtler!
Hope depends on holy reflection. It is a season of pondering the meaning of the Incarnation – God with Us! I remember as a child growing up that the time between Thanksgiving and the visit of the Magi was my favorite time of the year, but not because of the gifts – but because of my reflections on the baby Jesus. I remember sitting in a stall filled with hay and staring down the nose of a Holstein cow chewing her cud wondering what it was like to be baby Jesus placed in a manger with all the messiness of being with animals. I remember playing in the hay loft and making a manger scene for baby Jesus to come and visit me. I remember pretending to be a shepherd with a tobacco stick and my two trusted sidekicks, my mutt dogs, who served as very unruly sheep all the while sporting my sky blue hooded overcoat as my headpiece.
Hope depends on our holy imagination. Jesus instructs his disciples that the kingdom of God belongs to children. Perhaps it is to children because they indeed have the greatest capacity to use their holy imagination. To wonder who is this Incarnate Babe and discover the mystery of God who cannot be shaped or formed by human minds. God can only be received and believed as a great mystery.
Hope depends on holy mystery. As Christians we believe that God is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. God stands outside of time and space, and, therefore, God is with us all the time. God is all-powerful, and rules the heavens and the earth by his own design. God is all-knowing; there is nothing that has happened or ever will that God is not privy to. God knows. There are no secrets with God.
Hope is defined by what we are hoping for. We hope for such things that it might not rain today. We hope that test results are clear. We hope for a good night sleep. The things we hope for are the results of what we cannot control, manipulate or dictate. Hope by passes the mind and is shaped and formed in the emotions and will. Hope is the longing for something that cannot be grasped in the natural. It is chasing after something that only God can do, a miracle. Hope is not defined by natural reason; it depends on the supernatural.
Hope is defined by a holy definition. Hope is the opposite of pessimism. Hope is defined: aspiration, desire, wish, expectation, ambition, aim, goal, plan, design; dream, daydream, pipe dream, optimism, expectation, expectancy; confidence, faith, trust, belief, conviction, assurance; promise, possibility, chance, prospect, likelihood, probability, possibility; informal shot, expect, anticipate, look for, want; wish for, long for, dream of, aim, intend, be looking, have the intention, have in mind, plan, aspire.
Hope give us holy character. Hope is the characteristic of things unseen that is most like God. Hope causes us to stand in the middle of this messy world and to see the vision of the future with aiming all our best efforts toward God promises. Hope sees beyond the now to something better. Hope forms us, shapes us, creates us, delivers us from our troubles. Hope does not disappoint us. It does not leave us in the mess, but calls us from our troubles into the future promises of God. Hope influences how we understand our circumstances and our pain. Hope challenges us to live into the holy mystery of God, the Incarnate Babe and the Suffering Servant. Hope calls us to Eternal Life.
Hope is the Holy Incarnation. Scripture defines the Incarnation as the hope of eternal life. Hear these words from Titus 3.4-7, “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”
Hope reorients our lives to be holy. The season of Advent reorients our cultural understanding of the Gospel. Traditionally, we don’t put up decorations or sing songs of Christmas until after Christmas proper in the church calendar year. Traditionally, the texts we read during the Advent Season are preparatory in nature – only prophetic texts from the Old Testament and second coming texts from the New Testament about the Messiah. Traditionally, the Christmas stories are told on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day proper. It is really difficult for us to imagine how we might live counter-culture to our popular view of Christmas. Just for a moment imagine with me that you and I might have the opportunity to experience Christmas afresh – with new eyes and ears this year. How might we together rethink Christmas?