Jeremiah 33:14-16 & Luke 21:25-36 – Advent 1: Hope

A reflection by Dan Spragg

So, here we are, finding ourselves surprised by Advent having snuck up on us again! Well, it certainly feels that way to me. With everything else that’s going on that we need to try and keep up with it seems kind of strange to be thinking that Christmas is just around the corner. Getting bogged down in all the other things, like traffic lights, and rising unrest, and tricky conversations around how to manage get togethers with vaccinated and unvaccinated family and friends; getting bogged down in these seems very easy compared with looking forward to Christmas and the end of the year. I think however that the season of advent and Christmas is exactly what we need right now. Perhaps especially today’s advent theme of Hope, and by hope I mean not just optimism or wishful thinking, I mean the Christian understanding of hope which to me carries far more resilience and resoluteness than simply ‘hoping for the best’. The German theologian, Jurgen Moltmann in describing the telling title of his book, Theology of Hope, said, “…I tried to present the Christian hope no longer as such an ‘opium of the beyond’ but rather as the divine power that makes us alive in this world.”[1] Hope as ‘the divine power that makes us alive in this world.’ That to me has some gravity to it – gravity in that it grounds us in the here and now, and gravity because it contains a sense of energy, that whatever the ‘here and now’ is, there is life to be found and life to be lived into. The Christian hope is no ‘opium of the beyond’ but rather a grounding in the here and now knowing that the life of God is both now and not yet. The life of God is here and it is still to come – God’s work is not finished. This is what we can and need to hold to as we work through all we are facing in our world. Yes, hope is certainly a good thing to be reminded of at this time.

The text from Luke’s gospel we’ve just heard at first glance might seem a little out of place in advent. But there is hope there even if it does come to us amongst what feels like catastrophe. It’s apocalyptic in genre which is why it has a fantastical kind of edge to it but it also tells us that there is something beneath the surface that it has to communicate. This is always what the apocalyptic genre is up to – trying to reveal something to us, trying to communicate a message and meaning through the weird and the wacky. Time, it seems to me, is important in this passage. There will be signs… redemption is drawing near… summer is on its way… things will take placebe alert… I’ve talked before about how Jesus uses a different concept of time often when talking about ‘The Kingdom of God’. We go about our lives in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years. This is chronos, as in chronological. It is linear. One thing happens after another. The concept of time Jesus often uses however is kairos. Which speaks of moments, things of significance. It is what we talk of when we say ‘The time has come,’ or ‘now is your time,’ or ‘seize the day.’ You may recall moments in your life where time has seemed to have stood still. Usually these are special moments. Usually they stick around in our memories for many years to come. For Jesus, time often takes on a sense of both past and future being caught up together for the sake of this very moment. This is the reason there is hope in this passage even though it may not seem obvious. At the time the book of Luke was written to its intended audience the early Christian community had seen a failed revolution and the destruction of the Jewish temple. They had seen the might of the Roman Empire come to full fruition. Life was far from easy! No wonder the author held on to Jesus’ words, “…stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Lk 21:28). This passage is intended as words of comfort. Words that would give hope, that their struggle was not in vain. I interpret this passage as saying, ‘all around you it may appear as if things cannot get much worse. In every area of life there are signs of chaos and struggle. But, do not fear, hold your heads up, because it is in these moments when the Kingdom of God draws near, it is in these moments when your hope can be placed on God.’

This passage shows us the depth there is to hope. Hope begins with acknowledging that the way things are right now is far from how things should or could be but, however impossible it seems or however slow things appear to shift, good news is on its way. It is when things seem to be heading to the worst place that hope digs its heels in and relentlessly refuses to let go of life.

Some take these sorts of passages a little too literally for my liking. I haven’t been surprised that recently there has been a rise in the volume coming from certain corners of Christianity spouting that we are heading into The End Times with accusations of beasts and anti-christs and judgement being thrown about left right and centre. Mostly I want to, affectionately of course, dismiss them to the looney bin! But I also feel sadness for them because it seems sad to me that the only way they can deal with or face up to brokenness, darkness and chaos is to resort to judgement or escape or handle it by being self-righteous and inventing blame. Personally I love the genre of fantasy. Throw me a good fantasy movie with some action, dystopian future, alternate universe elements and that’s a pretty good Friday evening. But that’s the point, fantasy is not reality. Truth can be told wonderfully well through fantasy. This apocalyptic writing is only meant to reveal truth, to pull back the curtain and allow us to see what is truly happening, it does not become reality.

It seems to me like we, the country, the world, needs the antidote of hope. We need the anticipation of advent, we need the Joy of Christmas. What can our participation in this mission be? I wonder if we can look for and welcome the little signs of hope we can see. I wonder if we could set out on a mission of being ‘hope planters’ in the midst of all the conversations we have. As I said earlier, it’s easy to get bogged down by the tone of things. What if we were to plant a little pointer to hope in the middle of the next conversation that starts to spiral into the despair of all that’s going on? The author of Luke put these words of Jesus into the midst of struggle in order to bring comfort. Comfort found in the message that God is near. Where could we plant a message of hope?

In The Lord of the Rings, Sam gives a speech to Frodo when Frodo is at a dark moment. In the movie, The Two Towers, this is what he says:

FRODO: I can’t do this, Sam.

SAM: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened. But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.

FRODO: What are we holding on to, Sam?

SAM: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.[2]

There’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for. That’s the Christian message of hope. That despite how dark things get. Despite how chaotic and unsettling things are. There is still good to be found. The Christian hope is that which resolutely refuses to give in and settle for the darkness and chaos to be all consuming. The Christian hope is that God draws near and makes us alive. Sometimes it can feel as though the ‘life’ part is taking a long time. Sometimes we might say, ‘Come on, God, get a move on!’ but, because we have hope we do not give up. Despite all that seems broken, we still believe that there is good worth fighting for.

Perhaps one way to really be a planter of hope this advent is for us to hold on to hope on behalf of someone else? Perhaps that’s our role in our country, our role in the world – to be a people who hold on to hope on behalf of those who seem to have lost theirs. Perhaps we are to do what Sam did for Frodo. Share the burden and be bearers of hope.

[1] Kärkkäinen, V.-M. “Theological Perspective on Luke 21:25–36” Feasting on the Word: Year C (Vol. 1, p. 24).