God Has Not Given Up On Us, We Can Have Hope!

Posted: April 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

Advent 1A, 27.11.2016 Matthew 24:36-44

God Has Not Given Up On Us, We Can Have Hope!

Given what I suggest is a more helpful approach to liturgy, world view and life engagement it behooves me to argue that ‘seeing Advent as a penitential season is at best unfortunate and at worst a corruption of the gospel. Seeing it as a penitential season is the product of a seriously distorted and yet widespread understanding of Christianity: namely, that the central issue in our lives with God is our sinfulness (commonly understood as disobedience and/or failing to measure up to what God requires from us) and thus our need for repentance and forgiveness.

“Within this framework, that’s the reason Jesus was born. As the divinely-conceived Son of God, he was sent by God to be the perfect sacrifice, the payment for our sins, so that we can be forgiven. Provided, of course that we believe in him. Marcus Borg says that “That is a serious impoverishment of Christianity and Advent” (Marcus Borg, November 2013)

I want to suggest that our entry point to the idea of advent might be our own cultural exposure to advent and that we might start with the wonderful crimson bloom of the Pohutukawa. A pictorial start with the rich red flower dominating the NZ landscape heralding Advent in NZ. It is an already an established part of the New Zealand Christmas tradition. The iconic Kiwi Christmas tree, which often features on greeting cards and in poems and songs, has become an important symbol for New Zealanders at home and abroad, so why not our liturgical entry to Advent. I am not sure why or where it comes from but I can remember that some years the bloom was better than others and there was a tale that the early appearance or the reduced appearance of the rich red bloom signaled what sort of summer we would have. Maybe here we have the anticipation, the waiting of the traditional advent.

Another New Zealand story locates our advent in that the Pohutukawa and its cousin rata hold a prominent place in Maori tradition. Legends tell of Tawhaki, a young Maori warrior, who attempted to find heaven to seek help in avenging the death of his father. He fell to earth and the crimson flowers are said to represent his blood.

 

A gnarled, twisted Pohutukawa on the windswept cliff top at Cape Reinga, the northern tip of New Zealand, has become of great significance to many New Zealanders. For Maori this small, venerated Pohutukawa is known as ‘the place of leaping’. It is from here that the spirits of the dead begin their journey to their traditional homeland of Hawaiki. From this point the spirits leap off the headland and climb down the roots of the 800-year-old tree, descending into the underworld on their return journey. Maybe we have here the awareness of God in nature, an incarnational story that aligns with the story of the one called Jesus of Nazareth who is the human face of God for us. A place of leaping into the mystery, a place of connection, and a place where the human and the divine meet.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent. But unlike most of the northern hemisphere of our world, where the church liturgical calendar was first shaped, today is the first official day of summer. And summer in New Zealand is a natural time for celebration. Even in times of drought or flood. Even in the face of these there is new life and new growth to be seen, ripeness and richness, as plant and bush and tree display their many colours against the browning of the grasses. Nature is a gift in summer in New Zealand and we anticipate its arrival eagerly.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent.  And immediately we have another problem. Because the readings set down in the Lectionary for today have nothing whatsoever to do with our perceptions of either Advent or the coming season called Christmas. For instance, if we approach Matthew as a narrative, today’s reading comes about 9/10th of the way through the book… Closer to the end of the complete story than to the beginning. So it comes to us totally out of context.

Second, all the readings offered paint diverse pictures of a world quite different from ours today. And not only that, these stories or readings are not directed to a time thousands of years later – into our time, as seems to be assumed by those who shaped the Lectionary.

A far better place to start would be the beginning of Matthew, with the genealogy of Jesus. Where the best can come out of the worst. And the worst can come out of the best!

So what if anything are we to make of these stories? Perhaps process theologian John Cobb’s suggestions of a few years back can help. He says that those who have selected these passages “understand Advent to be the season of anticipation, of expectancy, and hope generally… [And] in all the texts the hope is grounded in faith in God” (Cobb. P&F Web site, 2004).

When we continue listening to John Cobb can we learn from and hear in these stories a number of things. We can acknowledge that we human beings are not good at predicting the future. We can appreciate that the actual course of history is far more ambiguous than are the visions that lure us forward. We can realize that even God does not control the future or know just what will happen. And we can hear also that the hope which keeps us going is far deeper and more fundamental to our faith than we realize. “Hope has survived repeated disappointments in the past.  It will survive many more in the future.  It will do so as long as we believe in the biblical God” (Cobb, P&F Web site, 2004).

But such a statement still needs clarification because it is radical to suggest that God is not in sole charge of everything. It is radical because as a statement it presupposes that God’s working in history does not displace the working of human beings, and this can be a bit of a shock to those who believe God is all-powerful! Or could ‘do something’ in various situations.

John Cobb explains his comment a bit more. And here the quote is a bit detailed so we need to listen carefully. “God works in hope for peace and justice, but the world turns to violence and oppression.  Still God’s work is not futile. Here and there it succeeds, encouraging the hope for wider and more inclusive success.

That success depends on our response to God’s invitation to share in the achievement of God’s purposes.  I have called this a co-creative engagement. And our hope depends on the assurance that God does not give up on us” (Cobb, P&F Web site, 2004).

Despite frustration and disappointment, we are still called to be a people of hope. For hope is what is handed down from mother to daughter to son, not merely as a package passed from one generation to another. But as hope which is alive in mother and daughter and which now lives in the child of the third generation.

Today is the first Sunday in Advent. A time of waiting… a time of change… a time of hope. Indeed, as I have already suggested, in none of the Three Year Lectionary stories set for the first Sunday during the season of Advent, are there stories “of babies or shepherds or stars or lullabies…

These [stories] are not literal accounts of real events but they are deep and rich stories that link civilizations in their archetypes and in their retelling. Their primary message is that the world, as we know it, is about to change.  Their message is ‘wake up, pay attention, and get ready… Strange words, but maybe we need something jarring to lift us out of our complacency and wake up to something new” (ETigner. “Twilight time. A sermon” First Cong. Church web site, 2009). So, in the face of waiting, of change, yet in the continuation of hope itself, we can tell other stories of a ‘continuing hope’. I want to tell you a couple that many of you have heard before, but like the Christmas biblical stories it bears retelling.

Our first story begins in Dresden, the German city that was devastated by the fire-bombing at the end of the World War 2, and then there was a wonderful discovery. They found in the ruins a musical score that had survived the fire and devastation.  It was the score to Albinoni’s ‘Adagio for Strings and Orchestra in B Minor’. In the midst of this devastation of war – the very worst that we do to each other – there survived something of the most beautiful that we create for each other. So the Albinoni piece became a sign of hope. And it has been used that way. But the story goes on……

During the siege of Sarajevo during the Balkans War, the city was shelled month after month, every single night. On one of those nights a group of people standing in line in front of a bakery were waiting to buy bread. A mortar shell fell right in the middle of them. Twenty-two people were killed. Innocent people. Hungry people.  Wanting to buy bread. A few days later, at the same spot, in front of the burned out bakery, a man named Vedian Smailovic placed a chair, and began to play his cello.

For 22 days he played his cello, one day in memory for each one of the people who had been killed at that spot. Just the gesture of playing music was wonderful, but what gave it deeper significance is that the music he played each day was ‘Adagio for Strings and Orchestra in B Minor’. Hope takes the story across the events that make up our lives and it lives on, ready for anything.

Our second story begins when God finished with Creation, It is said that God had a desire to leave something behind, just a small piece of divinity and wholeness so humans could experience this delight. But God was a bit of a trickster too, so this gift wasn’t to be too easy for human beings. God wasn’t sure, at first, where to put this special something, so God asked the other living things in creation.

Someone suggested in the stars and God replied, No, I have this feeling that one day humankind will explore space and they’ll find it. Someone else suggested hiding it in the depths of the ocean. God thought about it for a moment and answered, No, I also have a feeling that some-day humankind would explore the deepest places in the seas – that will also be too easy.

Then suddenly, God had it “I know where I’ll put this special something, a place where they will never look. I’ll hide it in them, they’ll never look there.” And so it was. And so it has been (FJMuir 2001:114).

Hope!  We have it.  Without it, we cannot live. Advent hope calls to us, lures us, to breathe, to pause, and to shake off the doldrums – and what seems to be our hardest task to live out of love rather than fear.

So in summary then, this Advent hope, first announced by angels to shepherds, “means that despite appearances violence and fear no longer need to control our history… those who would seek to determine history’s outcome through violence and war and even just the fear of it Our history tells us this, No-one wins a war so violence will never succeed… When the angels announced the coming of Christ to the shepherds their first words are ‘fear not'” (Northcott 2010:17).

So today in the baptism of little Sangita we have the opportunity to say to her ‘fear not and step into the mystery of life, the whole of life. We have the opportunity to say with her I fear not for love changes everything and so walk with us into a future filled with hope that transcends time and place and permeates the whole of life. Amen..

Notes: Muir, J. J. Heretics’ Faith. Vocabulary for Religious liberals. Annapolis: F. J. Muir, 2001. Northcott, M. S. Cuttlefish, Clones and Cluster Bombs. Preaching, Politics and Ecology. London: DL&T, 2010.

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