Rev. Beth Hoffman Faeth
December 3, 2023, First Sunday in Advent
Scripture: Mark 13: 24–33
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from the sky,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
“Then they will see the Promised One coming in the clouds with great power and glory. Then the angels will be sent to gather the chosen from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the Promised One is near, right at the door. The truth is, before this generation has passed away, all these things will have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Only Begotten—no one but God. Keep alert, Stay awake! for you do not know when the appointed time will come.
The most meaningful ministry often happens via interruption. I can have a daily agenda with a long list of tasks, visits and meetings to complete and one phone call or email can cause all of my intentions to unravel while priority reorganizes. Sometimes these interruptions are heart wrenching and painful, other times they are joy-filled and reminders of all the reasons church community is transformational, and other times they are frustrating while systems and status quo present obstacles to basic human need. But always these detours in the daily life of ministry are meaningful and keep me, to quote our scripture, awake and alert and ready to respond.
One such unanticipated moment happened a couple of weeks ago. Nearly every day the phone rings with people needing financial assistance and we at Plymouth continue to hone our practices regarding the best way to tend these requests. Sometimes people come to the church in person and that was the case this day. A weary looking man stood in Jones Commons asking about help to secure some gas for the car he was living in. He looked, in a word, defeated. I invited him to sit down and have a cup of coffee with me. He told me some of his story, which was filled with so much heartbreak: suicide of his beloved, loss of his home, debilitating health issues, unemployment. Our wonderful staff sprang in to action—Foxon offering caring hospitality, Malcolm taking him to the food shelf to get some things he could eat without a kitchen, and I set out to find a way to replace some of his essential items that had been stolen from his car. When I returned to him with my offerings he looked a little more fortified. As he filled the space in between us with words of gratitude he said… “I am not giving up. I simply refuse to give up. I know things can be better.”
That day’s interruption led me to sit next to hope personified.
It is a new year in the life of the church. Advent marks this beginning. While the secular calendar sees 2023 coming to an end, the Christian calendar has turned the page towards a shiny new year filled with unknown opportunity and divine potential. Walter Brueggemann writes of this sacred season: “Advent is an abrupt disruption in our ‘ordinary time’…utterly new year, new time, new life. Everything begins again…” While the world around us wraps up another year hoping for increased consumer spending and waiting for annual reports on profits, the church already steps into a new time, to begin a span marked by the powerful touchstones of hope, peace, joy and love. Bruggeman continues, “Advent invites us to awaken from our numbed endurance and our domesticated expectations, to consider our life afresh in light of new gifts that God is about to give”. These days are given to us as a time to prepare, to wait, to expect—to make space in our lives to once again welcome the Promised One into our hearts, who comes to us as a fragile yet resilient baby, awaiting our care and nurture. Our Advent theme is “A Season of Expectation” and through these weeks we invite you to embody a practice of expectation—to cultivate your imagination around change and discovery and live into what God has proclaimed as possible. How fitting that we begin with hope.
For me, hope is the knowledge that what ever the situation is now—personal, communal, global—will not always be. Shifting and change are the outcomes of hope as we strive to both live presently and look forward, trusting that whatever it is we wrestle with in this moment has the capacity, when attention is paid, to develop into something beautiful and better. Hope includes a steadfast spirit and a perseverance in prayer. Hope asks us to lean in to God, trusting that the Divine source desires to lead the beloved from any kind of suffering to healing, and joy, and betterment, and security rooted in love. Hope invites tenacity and grit, a determination that while we may not know what the future holds, we know God holds the future.
Our scripture lesson from Mark this morning may seem a strange way to begin Advent—for rather than any foreshadowing of the arrival of a savior baby we hear from Jesus about what needs to die and before he is able to return. And frankly, it all sounds rather scary. The sun and the moon will extinguish, the stars will fall from the sky. And once the earth is plunged into darkness Jesus will arrive again, but in doing so, according to scripture, no one really knows what will happen then. Even so, the charge is to stay awake and keep watch. Do not stop anticipating the return of the Promised One even when everything known comes crashing to a halt. As progressive Christians, we don’t focus much on this rather obscure notion of Jesus Christ’s return. Yet according to one scholar, it may be helpful to think of apocalyptic texts as crisis literature. “Something about a given moment calls into question the righteousness of God. Apocalypses reach deeply into the symbolic foundation and mythic resources of a tradition in order to invoke divine transcendence in the face of such difficulty.” (David Schnasna Jacobsen, WP) In our text today Jesus the crisis is the impending destruction of the Temple. This tragedy implies that the center of religious life will be destroyed. And then what? Jesus cannot address the realities of a situation yet to be seen but instead roots his counsel in a message of hope…stay alert, Jesus says, so that you will be aware and ready to glimpse God. Move through your life awake and observant, open to God’s beckoning and direction. Look forward to the hope of what is next while staying present to the reality of right now. This is powerful advice for an Advent season in which our weary world and our own sagging spirits experience crisis after crisis and long to rejoice and experience something other than despair, destruction, isolation and pain. We can wait in a state of drowsy boredom, or we can wait with attentiveness, trusting that God is moving us in a different direction, one of possibility and potential. Living expectantly provides opportunity for clarity of belief that lives in the fire of hope. We stay aware. We do what we can. We show up. God has created us as beings of hope.
About a week after my first encounter with the man living in his car, he called me and then stopped in. This time he was buoyed with excitement. He had secured a place in a shelter and the staff was working with him to create stability in his life. That afternoon he was to report for a newly secured job. He was networking with community resources. The hope he had proclaimed a week earlier—in the midst of the deepest despair when it seemed he had lost everything—now became the determining force to expect a future filled with opportunity and joy.
He has become my Advent beacon, a living example of hope personified. I know so many right now are wondering what their future holds; and this Advent season brings with it poignant meaning on waiting and expectation. And collectively we pray as humanity everywhere fractures over war and terror and racism and homelessness and food insecurity and, and, and…the list seems endless. Anne Lamott, in her book “Almost Everything: Notes on Hope” writes “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.” I would add that God doesn’t give up either, rather God surrounds us, holding together our expectant hearts so they won’t shatter, loving us into a journey of grace filled resiliency.
Hope disrupts our status quo because it keeps us looking forward—awake and alert—convinced that what is right now will not always be; trusting that those changes will bring gifts and possibilities we can not even yet imagine. And God is with us… every step of our determined way.
Be open to life’s interruptions for in those unplanned moments anything is possible.
Expect hope this Advent season, stay awake and alert to God’s abundant invitations.