Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
And so, the story begins. Notice, the Church starts the new year on this first Sunday of Advent as the days grow shorter. In place of swaddling clothes, twinkly stars, and fleecy lambs — each year we begin the story of God looking fiercely and honestly at the world as it is, not as it should be: gorgeous, fragile, and falling apart.
Frodo Baggins, the halfling hero of J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings, famously said, “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.” The wise wizard Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” We must learn to kindle and keep our hope.
Advent is not a season for the faint of heart. Perhaps that’s why we used to rush through this season. Advent didn’t even have its own color, blue, until the 1990’s. We didn’t give it a second thought in our hurry toward Christmas. Yet without a proper Advent, Christian hope becomes shallow, as if the Christmas star were nothing but another store-bought light, colorful, but not enough to hold off the crippling power of fear and shadow.
Fearful thinking and living is the enemy Advent emboldens us to confront. “Be on guard,” Jesus warns his disciples. “Be alert.” “Stand up and raise your heads.” Look. We cannot escape our troubles and calamities. God has no mass exit plan from this world to the next. Your personal end will come soon enough and in its own time. Yet this does not mean we are along. God is in, with, under, and beside us.
“People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:26). In prophetic language that sounds distressingly contemporary, Jesus points to a world reeling in pain. “When you see these things,” Jesus says, don’t turn away. Don’t hide. Why? Because it’s when we face reality — when we acknowledge and welcome the “here” of human suffering — that we draw closer to the life of God and to the healing power of grace.
“Raise your head,” Jesus says, “to respond to these apocalyptic signs with staggering hope and confidence. When it feels like the very foundations of the heavens are crumbling, we are to stand up. When the roaring sea and the waves confuse us, when the sun, moon and stars come tumbling out of the sky, we are to raise our heads. When the news cycle feels like an endless fire hose, people pour into the streets in protest, families are separated, and fires blaze through neighborhoods, we are to stand up and confidently usher in and claim the redemption that God promises.” (Lauren Wright Pittman)
In Advent, endings and beginnings run together. Ancient truths and dreams of the future teach a single startling truth: our creator and redeemer are one and the same. Our living God, the Ancient of Days, is our Alpha and Omega, our beginning, and our end. Today, at the start of Advent, the past and future join hands. Lutheran theologians are fond of saying the kingdom of God is both ‘already and not yet.’ The gift of this season shines a light on our path as we navigate the difficulties of this present moment and lead us into the loving embrace and the ongoing work of God that is already, always, and everywhere.
And we do face some difficulties, don’t we? Economic, political, and ecological disasters loom around us. Our fear of the future is also deepened as we navigate the rebuilding and reweaving of our faith. Our old ways of being religious have ruptured. Look! Something new is being born among us. We were taught to seek out and pray to a God whom we imagined to be entirely outside the natural world only to discover, or to rediscover, that God to be found deeply within it and in all that exists, everywhere. “The Trinity reveals that to be and to be in relation become identical, and hence there is no God outside the Trinity, and its characteristic is a constant giving and receiving in love.” Sallie McFague, A New Climate for Christology, p. 72)
The word religion is believed to have come from the Latin, religare, meaning to “bind” or “reconnect.” Religare is about mending what has been broken, recovering what has been mislaid, bringing people together, and reconnecting that which is frayed. From the perspective of its definition, religion should not have caused the breaches, it should not itself be fractured, and it should be part of the solution to the troubles of this world.
“But neat definitions rarely match the messiness of reality. One can rightly claim that religion has always been fractured and fracturing, and it has never embodied its etymological promise. There is another possibility, however. Cicero, the ancient politician and philosopher who lived as the Roman Republic ended and Rome emerged as an empire, believed that religion derived from relegare (not religare), meaning “to re-read” or “to go through again” (as in teaching again or rethinking).
The project of rereading religion – contemporary theologian Catherine Keller refers to it as dreamreading – a kind of reading that awakens new possibilities and leads us to “apocalyptic mindfulness” amid destruction. She asks, “Might facing the Apocalypse in its ancient intensity help us face apocalypse in our own time? Such ‘facing’ would not mean mere recognition, submission, acquiescence. It means to confront the forces of destruction: to crack open, to disclose, a space where late chances, last changes, remain nonetheless real chances.’” (Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage, 11/28/21)
“In the first Gospel text of the new year, Jesus calls his followers to apocalyptic mindfulness – to dreamread the ruptures visible in the world all around and see their meanings more clearly. To Jesus, signs of the end are harbingers of glory, signaling a world saved from evil, pointing toward the full bloom of a just new creation. In Luke, Jesus implores that his disciples will have the “strength to escape” not the crises themselves but the fear and dysfunction and disorientation that come from ruptures. Fear is the trap, inattention the temptation. Know that the Kingdom of God is near, Jesus urged. See what comes over the Advent horizon.” (Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage, 11/28/21)
As we prepare to enter another Advent that will not look quite like we anticipated, I pray for grace to kindle hope. Hope does not wait until we are ready for it and have prepared ourselves for its arrival. It does not hold itself apart from us until we have worked through the worst of our sorrow, our anger, our fear. This is precisely where hope seeks us out, standing with us, in the midst of what most weighs us down. Hope is beautifully stubborn this way. (Jan Richardson)
A Poem by Jan Richardson entitled, “Blessing of Hope”
So may we know
that is not just
but for this day—
in this moment
that opens to us:
hope not made
but of substance,
hope made of sinew
hope that has breath
and a beating heart,
hope that will not
and be polite,
hope that knows
how to holler
when it is called for,
hope that knows
how to sing
when there seems
hope that raises us
from the dead—
but this day,
from The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief