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"Anchored in Hope" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - December 2, 2018

posted Dec 24, 2018, 8:04 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

This morning we start a new spiritual season - Advent.  Advent anticipates the birth of Jesus. It waits for the coming of joy.  Often in our cultures and homes, Christmas overwhelms the season of Advent.  And I confess I started listening to Christmas music before I’d even bought my Thanksgiving turkey.  But this season of anticipation and waiting can teach us much about ourselves and the power of hope.

While Christmas warms our heart with a baby, Advent’s sacred stories talk about more troubling ideas and issues - apocalypse and fire, an endangered teen mother running to the hills, and terrifying angels who burst onto the scene.  A thoughtful person once said:

“The stories of Advent are dug from the harsh soil of human struggle and the littered landscapes of dashed dreams.  They are told from the vista where sin still reigns supreme and hope has gone on vacation. Many prefer the major notes of joy and gladness in the Christmas stories to the minor keys of Advent.”

And our readings today certainly fit that mold.  We heard Jesus say, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

Yet I wouldn’t want the minor keys of Advent - and all the imagery of destruction - to distract us from the beauty and hope of these texts.  Instead of becoming overwhelmed by the graphic imagery of catastrophe, I want to reclaim the hope hidden in apocalyptic stories. This is the spiritual challenge of Advent: to find hope in stories of catastrophe, to find our own hope in times when life feels desperate.

First, I want to return to the original meaning of the word apocalypse.  It’s come to mean fire and destruction, the end of the world. But originally the world apocalypse meant to uncover.  The apocalypse revealed the truth. And so, an apocalypse was only a disaster when we’re committed to lies, a revelation only bothers us when we want lies to cover up the truth.  An apocalypse happens when we see and know a hidden truth; the apocalypse - the great one - happens when God reveals the truth of creation.

Moments of revelation can be hard.  This fall Tomas went off to college in the Twin Cities.  We’ve missed him. And then he came home for Thanksgiving.  I had forgotten this one particular habit Tomas has. When I’m asking about something he doesn’t want to talk about and even more when it’s advice he doesn’t care for, Tomas will imitate me, “yeah-yeah-yeah.”  So frustrating; “when do you go back to the Twin Cities?”

After Tomas annoyed me, Jay and I started talking.  And I didn’t like what Jay was saying. “Yeah-Yeah-Yeah.”  And in that apocalypse, I knew where Tomas learned it.

In Advent, our sacred stories point to apocalypse too; not to scare us with cataclysm but to uncover the truth.

Second, we can only see and know the Advent truth if we understand the desperation faced by the people around Jeremiah and Jesus.  We heard these words - just a few lines - out of the context in which they were spoken. So, we need to remember when Jeremiah and Jesus spoke.

Jeremiah lived back in the 6th century BC - before Buddha taught in India and Socrates in Athens.  And at that time the people of Jerusalem looked around at a hostile and dangerous world. A foreign power long-menaced the nation and had recently attacked the country.  Jeremiah probably wrote after the sack of Jerusalem, after the defeat, after the forced exile and relocation of people to camps back in Iraq. People mourned freedom lost.  They endured trauma in the present. And they feared the loss of any future for themselves.

In this moment of profound distress, Jeremiah spoke, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”  To a people who grieved the past and couldn’t believe in a future, Jeremiah spoke of hope and promise.

A similar dynamic - distressed people and prophetic hope - unfolded when Luke remembered Jesus’ words.  Jesus too spoke to a people who lived at a tenuous time in the life of Israel. But the desperation of the people became even more pronounced when Luke wrote down the gospel.  Luke remembered Jesus’ words at time when insurgents against Rome liberated Jerusalem, declaring a free state again for the first time in centuries. Those same insurgents soon turned their knives against each other.  At the same time, a revolution happened in Rome - in the course of one year four emperors held the throne, each new one killing the other. War and reports of war sailed across the empire; Rome and Jerusalem burned. People fainted for fear.  They endured turmoil, faced death, wondered what would come of them.

To a people filled with anxious foreboding, Luke remembered Jesus’ words, “when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”

I’m sure we each know the taste of despair at moments in our lives.  But Jeremiah and Jesus spoke to people who not only faced it personally but saw and knew it all around them, a communal despair.  We’ve had those moments in our own nation too. Recently I read a reflection by Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow Nation, he spoke about the effects of white settlement on his people in Wyoming and Montana, the steady replacement of buffalo with cows, open spaces enclosed in wire and fencepost.  He said in 1932, “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”

A sense of communal despair haunts that phrase; “after this nothing happened.”  Chief Plenty Coups spoke to the loss of meaning and purpose his people faced. And that’s what happened to Jeremiah’s and Jesus’ people too.

How do we respond to those moments when we lose meaning and purpose; when it seems like time can go on but nothing that matters happens?  In those moments, can we experience Jeremiah’s and Jesus’ apocalypse? Uncover a hidden truth, see and know the promise? Hope, for the Kingdom of God is near?

Now, I want us to really focus on those particular words of hope Jeremiah and Jesus spoke.  Jeremiah spoke of God fulfilling promises made to the people of Israel; God promising, “in those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”  Here’s what I think Jeremiah does with these words. To a desperate people, he calls them to imagine what could happen. But not really just to imagine, but to also extrapolate from what God has already done in the past, that the God who once freed the slaves of Egypt would save them again.  And even more than to extrapolate, to improvise. For when we forget our future, when we’ve lost the script of our lives, hope moves us to improvise.

Jesus called people to see and know hope.  Even now, even in a desperate moment, Jesus said God’s promises were coming true.  He proclaimed this through the metaphor of the fig tree. “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.”  The fig tree wasn’t just a random plant for Jesus to point to; it represented peace in Jesus’ day. As if after telling a story about the threat of terrorism, I spoke about a dove. You would know it was more than just a bird, but a hope of peace.  And so, Jesus said, “see the changing fig tree, it sprouts, know that summer is near, peace comes.” Jesus woke people up to the signs around them, the first buds of summer, the holy beginning to grow. Hope sees and knows.

Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow did this work of hope in his own day - improvising, seeing, and knowing.  He found a way to lead his people during a difficult time, preserving their heritage, rooting them on their land, finding ways to navigate a changing world.  He told his people, “Education is your most powerful weapon. With education, you are the white man's equal; without education, you are his victim, and so shall remain all your lives.”  Chief Plenty Coups knew the despair of his people; and he improvised a new future, found a new hope.

I think Chief Plenty Coups would have agreed with Wendell Berry who said:

“[Hope] will stop your ears to the powerful when they ask

for your faith, and to the wealthy when they ask for your land

and your work.  Be still and listen to the voices that belong

to the stream banks and the trees and the open fields.  

Find your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.

Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground underfoot.”

Advent promises hope.  And yet I want to face the danger that hope can often just feel like an “opium of the future” that distracts us from what’s broken now.  That’s why it matters that Chief Plenty Coups didn’t deny the reality of loss - “after this nothing happened” - but he also worked to see and know how God would keep the promise, finding hope on the ground of his sacred land.

I’ve certainly known people to use hope like an opium of the future.  But Advent hope isn’t a drug, a delusion. And the distinction can become clearer with an analogy Thomas Aquinas once made.  Aquinas described the natural hope he saw in animals.  A rabbit rushes by and the dog hopes to catch it.  I see this hope every day with my dog Duchess. The peanut butter jar opens and she quivers with hope, she drools hope.  But a spiritual hope works differently; a spiritual hope operates more by memory and understanding.  As one person described this hope, “it accompanies us on the full journey of our lives.  It connects our past with our future. By hope we reach from one to the other. Hope holds us in our time.”

Natural hope moves the dog to action - chasing the rabbit or begging for the peanut butter.  But spiritual hope does something else. The Apostle Paul called hope an anchor, when he wrote, “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”

Jeremiah and Jesus and Chief Plenty Coups knew the importance of hope as an anchor.  When the sea buffets our boat, we need an anchor to keep us secure. When despair rocks us, we need an anchor to keep us in place.  Jeremiah anchored himself in the promises of a God who liberated the captives. Jesus anchored himself by seeing the buds of peace and knowing the signs of change.  Chief Plenty Coups anchored himself to his land and improvised a new future.

We live in a time that can feel catastrophic, from weather to politics.  Many Americans feel anxious about our future, fearing each other across our political barricades.  White nationalists exploit this fear; and we see too often that fearful people turn to violence. And so white terrorists have killed more Americans in the last five years than anyone motivated by ISIS; and every day comes new stories of peril, like a Jewish scholar’s office vandalized with swastikas.

Advent calls us to hope against this fear, to hope against this terror, to hope against this despair.  While darkness seems to gather, on the first Sunday of Advent we light a candle. We anchor ourselves in hope.

This weekend former President George Bush died; for all I disagreed with him, I know hope anchored him too.  I heard it as I watched his inaugural address, when he said:

“I do not mistrust the future; I do not fear what is ahead. For our problems are large, but our heart is larger. Our challenges are great, but our will is greater. And if our flaws are endless, God's love is truly boundless.”

May we be anchored in hope.  Alleluia and Amen.


In addition to Feasting on the Word,

  • Beechy, Leonard, “On the Lectionary,” Christian Century, Nov. 17, 2009.

  • Pinches, Charles R., “Hope to Live in Hope,” Christian Century, July 19, 2017