What a difficult year. We light the candle of hope on the first Sunday of Advent, and hope is needed this year more than I ever remember before.
Hope for a COVID-19 vaccine is probably front and centre in most people’s minds. But also hope for a resolution to the wider suffering in our society – poverty, homelessness, mental illness. And hope for justice for the indigenous peoples of this land, fighting for their survival. Hope for an end to racism, both individual and systemic. Hope for a real commitment to climate action on the part of governments and people.
The gospel speaks of the coming of the Son of Man who brings an end to this suffering and waiting: In those days, after that suffering… they will see the Son of Man coming with great power and glory. [Mark 13:24a, 26] And Christians have a vision of the coming kin-dom of God, where all is put right. It’s a vision of hope.
The gospel reading says we need to learn to read hopeful signs, like a budding fig tree that presages the coming of summer. And the hopeful signs are actually to be found in the midst of the suffering, in the awfulness of the present, if we can only find them.
But, and it’s an important “but” because it fits with our reality, about that day or hour no one knows, only the Father. So beware, keep alert. Stay awake! [Mark 13: 32f]
We cannot know or control when the waiting and suffering and struggling will end. And I’m not talking about waiting for a big apocalyptic end of the world, but for the ending of our every day struggles and pain. We can’t see very far ahead; we don’t know how our individual or collective stories are going to turn out. We don’t know when this thing we’re waiting and working for will come to pass. And it’s easy to get extremely pessimistic.
That’s why it’s so important to keep alert and stay awake. To look for hopeful signs. To be, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu famously said, “prisoners of hope” not of despair.
Thomas Keating, the great teacher of contemplative prayer, writes that “Patience is hope in action.” We wait for justice, for healing, for peace with a patience that bears the waiting willingly and hopefully and actively. It’s not passive waiting, it’s very active and engaging. In fact we are called to be part of what we’re hoping for by co-creating it with God – by being the change we want to see, as the saying goes.
And all this we do much better together than on our own. On our own it’s easy to give up and feel powerless. On our own it’s natural to see from just our own perspective, with our blinkers. On our own we know all too well what our limitations and shortcomings are that hold us back.
But together we can bear more, and wait with endurance longer, and live into God’s future with stronger faith.
I see this happening daily in the St Aidan’s community: we can’t all do everything; we can’t individually fix poverty and climate change and reconciliation; but together we can do an incredible amount through our outreach activities, our fundraising, our refugee support, our educational events, our projects like the carbon calculator challenge. And in all these things we can see signs of hope. We can see the buds of summer growing on the trees.
Hope, patience, waiting, bearing, trust. These are profoundly Christian Advent practices.
Let me share with you something that happened to our friend Ernst. Many of you know that we have been praying for him for some months now, in his healing journey with cancer. He has given me permission to tell you in his own words about a recent encounter he had:
A grocery store cashier with whom I had spoken a couple of times at the cash looked at me recently and asked, "Do you have cancer?" I answered prostate. Then she asked if I believed that God's love has come to us in Christ. I said yes and she asked me to say "Lord Jesus Christ, I place my trust in you", which I did, and also then rephrased a bit to "Lord Jesus, our brother Christ, I place my trust in you." Said from the heart, what a wonderfully releasing and relaxing effect this has had on the stress tension I having been holding unbeknownst, particularly in the chest, with an energizing optimistic lift in the body and feelings! Choosing explicitly and affirming this trust is healing for me in some way.
I’m so grateful to Ernst for letting me pass this story on, because it illustrates how healing and hopeful trust can be, when we’re in the midst of a difficult time, whether dealing with illness, or working on a seemingly impossible project like ending poverty, or waiting for this pandemic to end.
Hope, trust and patience hold hands together, as we pray Lord Jesus, our brother Christ, I place my trust in you. And with the strength that comes from that it’s possible to go on, to do the work, to find healing and peace even in the midst of the waiting for God to make all things well.
So let us encourage each other, as that cashier did for Ernst, and let us hold to hope, to trust, to patience, as we journey through the darkness towards the light. Not alone but together. Not alone but with Christ. Amen.