Despair or Hope?

On this First Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of hope. Here in the darkest season of the year, as the days get shorter and shorter—we look for signs of hope, for light—for bright days and bright hearts. As the collect for today puts it:

“Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility….” 

Cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.

We yearn for light, we long for bright—since darkness is all around. Beyond the physical darkness of fewer hours of daytime and the cloudy winter skies, there’s the darkness of the soul that comes from a world bathed in the shadows of war, moral crises, hatreds and violence of every kind.

The scriptures for today reflect our anxiety and our hunger and thirst for better, sunnier times. Isaiah’s agonized wail to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” Psalm 80 repeats this verse 3 times in only 10 short verses: “Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

The texts that were read this morning are laden with images of the end of the world, the great judgment, the coming of Messiah: heavens torn open, mountains quaking, fires so hot the waters boil, sun and moon darkened, stars falling from the sky, and the powers of the heavens shaken. 

These are apocalyptic texts about the end times. But “apocalyptic” also means “an unveiling” or “revealing.” Biblical authors like Isaiah and Mark use these dramatic images of a supposed distant future to reveal something about the present. The 13th chapter of Mark was written around the year 70 of the Christian Era just as the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and the residents of Jerusalem fled the city. It purports to come from the mouth of Jesus forty years before as a future prophecy, but for the author of the gospel, it’s really a description of current events.

The apocalyptic language of Isaiah was actually a contemporaneous description of the destruction of Jerusalem in the first part of the Sixth Century Before the Christian Era. The Babylonians destroyed the city and the Temple, and carried the residents off into captivity for a period of fifty years. 

The Markan language about “the desolating sacrilege” and “the Son of Man coming in clouds” is actually taken directly from the Book of Daniel, another apocalypse written during the time of the Antiochus IV, the Seleucid Emperor who in 167 BCE desecrated the Temple with the sacrifice of pigs on the high altar and banned all Jewish religious practices. Hannukah, the Jewish festival that begins this Thursday, marks the time of the Maccabean revolt that drove out the Seleucids and rededicated the Temple after the sacrilege.

So what we have here are apocalyptic projections lifted from earlier contexts and applied to new, current situations.[1] These biblical writers were looking around at their contemporary world – especially at the earth-shaking events that called into question the survival of the world as they’d known it – and they were asking, “What does it mean?” and “Where is God?”

Isaiah laments, “You used to speak clearly to our ancestors, the great heroes of our past, so where are you now? You talked plainly to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Elijah. But you’ve hidden your face from us.” “Our world is falling apart. But you are the potter and we are the clay. Make us anew, and sculpt a new world for us.”

Cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.

When terrorists strike, when fires and famines and floods and Pandemics occur – we, too, look back at the apocalyptic predictions from the past and ask, “Is this the time?” Is this the end? We listen to the news, spinthe dials of our radios, scan the newspapers, surf the channels of our televisions, scroll  through our phones searching for pundits (prophets) to interpret the signs. 

  • “Is this the time?” 
  • “What does it mean?” 
  • “Where is God?”

Theologian Christopher Hutson has written:

Amid the smoke of battle, the fog of politics, the confusion of economic distress, the babble of would-be leaders wearing God masks and claiming divine authority, how shall we know which way to turn? God’s people should not be surprised or confused, because Jesus warned us ahead of time that such things would happen. 

The powers that be will lull us to sleep by reassuring us that they have our best interests at heart as they pursue their worldly agendas. They play to our fears, our prejudices, our self-interests, so we don’t notice their demonic behaviors. Beware. Keep alert. Keep awake. The one who endures to the end will be saved.[2]

The reality is that although there may one day be a final apocalypse, there have already been multiple apocalypses – ends of worlds as we have known them. The Babylonian Captivity, the Antiochine desecrations, the destruction of the sTemple, The Black Plague, the Middle Passage, the Trail of Tears, the Holocaust, 9/11, Global Economic Recession, climate change, the Covid Pandemic. Each was an unveiling. 

  • September 11 brought to an end the view that we were immune from evil; and revealed that the United States was not the City on a Hill and a New Jerusalem for all people.
  • Katrina revealed the racism and poverty that had been so carefully hidden from plain view. 
  • The economic apocalypse of 2008 unveiled the greed and collusion that was rampant among bankers, financial institutions, markets, government, and rating agencies. It revealed the cooperation of many of us who – even if we didn’t know the details of what was happening – nevertheless enjoyed the easy credit, consumer lifestyles, and the upward-spiraling Dow Jones. 
  • And the pandemic has certainly revealed just how fragile we are—fragile health, fragile jobs, large and small businesses as risk.

Here at the beginning of Advent, we’re invited to open our eyes and to stay awake. As the world rushes toward another Christmas, with its Black Fridays, Cyber Mondays, frantic shopping, let’s pause to recognize that whenever one world ends, a new one emerges. The Potter’s hand is at the wheel as she reworks the clay and recasts her creation. 

The people of God are asked to watch for signs of it, and to listen for the voice of God. It’s a time of waiting for the holy to be born. 

Cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.

But it’s not just a passive waiting, like a person standing at a bus stop. Rather, it’s an active time of caring for one another, serving the victims, and ministering amidst the brokenness of the latest apocalypse — all the while listening, watching, waiting on God; Lighting the candle of hope instead of giving in to despair.

Advent – God is coming.

God is speaking.

God is creating.

God is. 

Listen! Watch! Wait!

[1] See David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2008, p. 22. 

[2] Ibid., p. 24.

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