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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Keeping Hope Alive: an Advent sermon

Hope is the theme of Advent, and hope is the theme of tonight’s second lesson. St Paul begins by speaking of the word of God in Old Testament which was written, he says, ‘so that by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope’. He continues by referring to the promises made to the patriarchs, that in their seed all the families of the earth should find blessing. He recalls how the prophets looked for the day when all nations, gentile as well as Jew, would be included in the covenant God had made with his people. And he rises to a climax as he returns to the word with which he began: ‘may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’.

How can we ‘abound in hope’ in a world that often feels hopeless?

We must recognise what underlies our need for hope. Put simply, it's our own deepest longings and desires, our knowledge that we are incomplete as people and as a society, that we look for something more than this emptiness we so often feel inside. There is a kind of restlessness about us human beings, an inward ennui or unease that we know only too well. We were made for more than this, is what our beings cry out, though we can barely glimpse how and why, and even then only in our best moments. The Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard said: ‘Faith means just that blessed unrest, deep and strong, which so urges the believer onward that he cannot settle at ease in this world, and anyone who was quite at ease would cease to be a believer.  For a believer cannot sit still, as a man might sit still with a pilgrim's staff in his hand; a believer journeys on.’

Blessed unrest he calls it, because this kind of unease throws us on to the mercy of God, drives us into his arms like the lost son returning home from a far country with empty hands and an empty heart. Augustine speaks for every soul longing for home when he says: ‘O God, our hearts were restless until they found their rest in thee’. George Herbert's poem The Pulley pictures God as having a glass of blessings to give to the human race: beauty, wisdom, honour, pleasure. The last blessing he keeps back. It is rest. For, says God, ‘let him be rich and weary, that at least, if goodness lead him not, yet weariness may toss him to my breast’.

Of course, this is a huge venture of faith. Kierkegaard talked of religious faith as treading water at 70000 fathoms. I once read of a young curate who was asked why on earth he wanted to do something as foolish as throw up a promising career in business to be ordained. ‘I wanted to do a job where my feet wouldn't touch the bottom’ he said. To stake everything we are on this faith is, as St Paul says in his letters to the Corinthians, nothing short of folly. By most people’s standards it is absurd. And yet, if I speak only for myself, it is this hunger inside me that will not go away, this emptiness that wants so badly to be filled; this longing that looks for some other to speak a word of peace from across the void and say ‘I am here; I am life; I am eternal life’.

That is what makes life without faith and without hope impossible to contemplate. ‘Truly thou art a God that hidest thyself’ cries the prophet in despair. Luther said that until we cry out to this hidden God like that, until we are at the end of our rope, there is nothing he can do for us. So the beginning of hope is to feel the absence of the one who alone can make a difference. If you have ever felt the ache of longing for someone so badly that you think your heart will break, then you will understand what I am talking about. ‘Give me a lover, he will feel that of which I speak; give me one who longs, who hungers, who is a thirsty pilgrim in this wilderness, sighing for the springs of his eternal homeland; give me such a man: he will know what I mean’ said Augustine. Is the poet Par Lagerkvist writing about God when he says:
                        My friend is a stranger, someone I do not know.
                        A stranger far, far away.
                        For his sake my heart is full of disquiet
                        because he is not with me:
                        because, perhaps, after all he does not exist?
                        Who are you who so fill my heart with your absence?
                        Who fill the entire world with your absence?
The prayer of longing runs right through Advent. You can't miss the urgency behind a prayer like the majestic collect from the Sarum rite that we know as the collect of the last Sunday in Advent: Excita, quaesumus, Domine: O Lord, raise up (we pray thee) thy power, and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us, thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us. It is there in the Great O Antiphons of Advent that we know best as the hymn ‘O come O come Emmanuel'.

But our longings won’t go away on Christmas Day. They are there in the prayers we pray throughout the year as well. The liturgy is always realistic about our human condition. It knows the way we are made. We don't have to be afraid of acknowledging to God and to one another that we long to be made whole. It puts on our lips every morning and evening the cry for help: ‘O God, make speed to save us; O lord, make haste to help us’. It give us psalms of longing like tonight's: Expectans expectavi: ‘I waited patiently for the Lord;....Make no long tarrying O my God'. It gives us prayers like the opening prayer at the eucharist, the collect for purity. ‘Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid....’ Kierkegaard said that ‘purity of heart is to will one thing’. If we can see our desires as deeply connected with our God-given desire for God, we will not be far from willing the one thing the prayer asks, that ‘we may perfectly love thee and worthily magnify thy holy name’, not only in the liturgy but also in life.

So restlessness, longing, desire are basic to hope. They pull us into God's future, make us pray and struggle for what is ultimately worth hoping for, what the scriptures call the new heaven and the new earth. If I can learn to desire God from the depths of myself, if I can come to want him with every fibre of my being and not in my usual half-hearted way, if I can harness my energies to that one profound desire, then I discover that there can be transformation here and now. Things that looked hopeless start to emerge from the shadows. They begin to be lit up in a new and wonderful way. The deep desire I hardly perceived breaks through the wants that can see. I recognise it as the only thing I ever wanted. I glimpse what it is to hope, what it is to believe in St Paul's God of hope.

What does incarnation mean, if not that hope has made its home among us, ‘now in the time of this mortal life’ as the Advent collect says, ‘in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility’. That is what unlocks the gateway from fear to hope: our conviction in the most important truth in the world, that in the child of Bethlehem is Emmanuel, God with us. So in Advent, and in all of life, we wait for the day when travelling days are done and it is time to come home, when restless longings are satisfied and hungers met, when hope is emptied in delight, and God is as present to us as we have all along been to him; and we see, and enjoy, and praise, and rest, and know as we have never known before, that he is God of love and truth and beauty, world without end.

Romans 15: 4-13

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