Homily: Yr C Advent 1, Nov 29 2015.
Readings: Jer 33:14-16;Ps 25:1-9;1Th 3:9-13; Lk 21:25-31
Today we begin the season of Advent. It is a time of preparation, a time of waiting for the coming into the world of the one that we call Immanuel, God with us. We began this time of Advent together this morning by lighting a single candle, a candle which symbolizes hope.
I am reminded of the candles that we choose to light in response to tragedy, in response to Paris and Beirut and Nigeria and Baghdad.
I am reminded of the sense of hope upon which our national and local efforts to bring Syrian refugees to Canada is founded.
I am reminded of the Community Ministries that are such an important part of our ministry in the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa. Centre 454 and St. Luke’s Table, day programs for those who are homeless, the Well, a day program for women and children, Cornerstone Housing for Women, and the Pastoral Counselling Centre. If you look at the bulletin boards at any of these Community Ministries, or their newsletters or any of their correspondence you will always see two words. “Choose Hope”.
“Choose Hope” is the motto, or tag line if you like, of our Community Ministries. Now many of us think of hope as something you either have or don’t have, or as something you feel or don’t feel. But have you ever thought of hope as something that you choose?
There are many things in this world that work against hope. Many of these are on full display when you walk through the doors of a place like Centre 454. Homelessness and Poverty. Addictions and Substance abuse. Mental illness and Disease. Unemployment and Broken relationships. And yet in the midst of all of this, there are two words posted on the wall: Choose Hope.
Some people confuse hope with optimism. And while there may be value in having a positive outlook, optimism can often become naïve or false or simply drain away when confronted with difficult truths. In contrast, hope is chosen and proclaimed in full acknowledgement of the difficult truths of our human condition. And for that hope to be true hope rather than false optimism, it must be well founded. On what do you place your hope?
The prophet Jeremiah understood the difference between hope and false optimism. His words which we heard in our first reading were spoken in a time of great difficulty. Jerusalem was under siege by the army of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. The people of Jerusalem were tired, hungry and afraid. King Zedekiah of Jerusalem had been trying to fend off defeat through a series of failed military alliances and manoeuvres. As the situation worsened, he was desperate to rebuild the sagging morale of his people, and so he forbid anyone to utter any discouraging words. Jeremiah, however, would have none of this false optimism, nor would he place his hope in Zedekiah’s military strategies. Instead, Jeremiah looked honestly at the situation and declared that these military strategies would fail, that the Babylonians would destroy Jerusalem, and that the people should return to a way of life rooted in God and his commandments. Jeremiah was arrested by Zedekiah. And so it was from prison, with Jerusalem crumbling around him and its citizens falling into despair, that Jeremiah wrote the words of hope that we heard in today’s reading. He was able to look beyond the disaster of his present situation to declare that “the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel, when Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”
And Jeremiah uses the image of a tall tree which has been cut down, leaving nothing but a stump, a stump which appears to be dry and lifeless. But out of that stump, God will cause a branch to spring up. New life will emerge out of that which looks dead. Jeremiah chooses hope, a hope based on his trust that God will remain faithful to his people and that he will restore them to life once more.
Today’s gospel uses a similar image. Luke’s gospel was written in the last decades of the first century, written for a community that was experiencing many of the same difficulties that Jeremiah’s people had experienced. The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman army. Followers of Jesus were undergoing arrest and persecution. There was fear and uncertainty. And so Luke reaches back to Jesus’ own words, words spoken in the time of fear and uncertainty just before Jesus himself was put to death. He chooses these words to offer hope to his listeners. Yes these are difficult times. Yes there are signs of disaster all around us. Yes it would be easy to despair. But choose hope, stand up and raise your heads, because even in the midst of all this, God is near and you can trust him to restore you to life.
And to illustrate his point, Jesus uses the image of the fig tree. Now I’m told that the fig tree, of all the trees in the Middle East, is the tree which looks completely dead in winter. It is bare and grey and dry, and it appears totally lifeless. And as spring arrives, it is the last of the trees to sprout leaves and come back to life. And yet, each summer it finally does sprout its leaves and eventually produces both fruit and shade for those who rest beneath it. The fig tree was for the people of Jesus day both a symbol of divine blessing and a symbol of the life that emerges from death.
We are the fig tree. We experience winter, the time of lifelessness, the times of dryness when the winds of adversity can snap our branches in two. In times of desolation, in times of uncertainty, do we choose hope? And in what do we place our hope? Is our hope well founded, able to persist when put to the test?
Once again this Advent season we wait, and we prepare and we tell the story of how the Creator of the universe is coming into the world, and will be born as a human child, and how that child will be called Immanuel, God with us. It is a story told on two levels. It is of course the story of what actually happened some two thousand years ago, in a place called Bethlehem. But like the story of the fig tree, which is brought back to life again and again, it is also the story of how God chooses to enter into our lives again and again. We are not alone, we have not been abandoned. God is with us. And each year we set aside this season of Advent as a time when yet again we seek to rediscover this truth for ourselves. And we do this not with haste, not in an instant, but with patience, with waiting, with time for prayer and reflection.
Because it is by once again going through this process of rediscovering the truth that God is with us that we rebuild the foundation that enables us to choose hope. And we choose hope not just for ourselves but for others as well. We are called to speak words of hope and promise in a world which is often filled with fear and uncertainty. Like the angels who speak to the shepherds on that first Christmas, we must learn to say “Do not be afraid” to those around us. There are lots of things in our world that can drain the life from us. Hope is spoken to bring us back to life. And so our Advent journey begins with the light from a single candle, and continues on its way towards the birth of a child. Both are symbols of the hope that we have chosen and which we are called to proclaim to those around us.
May you come to know this Advent that God is coming into the world, indeed that God is with us on our journey, and may you be enabled and empowered to choose hope and to speak words of hope to those who need to hear them.