It is now 22 days before Christmas. How are you feeling as you hear that? Excitement? Trepidation? Does that seem like a long time or a short time to get the Christmas shopping done? At this time of year, it feels like everything leads to December 25th. Every part of our society is shaped by Christmas in December. The stores, obviously, but also the travel agents, the airports, the florists who sell mistletoe, the butchers, choirs who put on Christmas concerts. It is like December is a snowy toboggan hill, and we’re all flying down towards December 25th at the bottom.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t treat Easter like this. Theologically, it is even more important than Christmas. Christ’s resurrection is why we meet on Sundays, why we have crosses, the whole faith is built around it. Yet, despite all that, Easter doesn’t get a fixed date in the calendar like Christmas. Although we celebrate Easter, we don’t mind it moving around the calendar every year. This year it was on April 9th, next year it will be March 31st, and the year after it will be on April 20th. What would happen if Christmas moved around that much? This year it is on the 25th of December, next year on January 9th, the year after in late November. For stores who hope to make a profit with Christmas sales, waiting over a year for Christmas to arrive would be torture.
Now, let’s go one step further. What if Christmas was even less predictable than Easter? What if we might have Christmas one year, but not again for a few years, and we couldn’t tell in advance when it would reappear? Could be next year or six years from now. Would we still wait in anticipation for Christmas? You can imagine the practical problems. For people who like to buy presents early, this would be a big headache. Your grandchild might outgrow the clothes you want to buy if Christmas doesn’t come for a few years. I suspect that if Christmas became that unpredictable, we might just give up on Christmas as a big holiday. Perhaps Black Friday would evolve to become a gift-giving holiday, and Christmas would fade away.
It's human nature to want big events to come with a firm date, so we can look forward to them. It gives us a chance to plan, to prepare, to get excited and wound up with anticipation. But what if you really, really don’t know when a big day will arrive? That’s what today’s scripture reading is struggling with. Jesus is talking to his followers about the advent of the Second coming, when the Son of Man, the Messiah, will come down from heaven to begin the great reckoning and the end of the world.
That may sound like a scary event. Why would anyone look forward to that? Early Christians felt differently. They were a persecuted minority. The Jews were against them, the Romans were against them. The Romans resented them because they refused to make sacrifices to their pagan gods. They feared that if the gods felt slighted, they might withdraw their favour from the empire. So Roman officials forced Christians to make sacrifices. Those who refused were killed. As you can imagine, Christians didn’t like living in fear like this, so they yearned for Christ to come back, to rule the world and defeat the Romans and all evil in the world.
But when would Christ return? In today’s text, Jesus says that even he doesn’t know. The date of the Second Coming is up to God the Father. So, we need to be patient. We need to stay vigilant, be kind and loving, even to our enemies, even if there is no immediate reward of Christ’s return. We need to stay in a state of constant anticipation. Like waiting for a Christmas day that may be years away.
And that’s hard to do. How do you keep up that sense of anticipation, that sense that your good behaviour will one day be rewarded, but no one knows when?
One way is to incite fear. To tell us something bad is coming, so we had better get prepared now. In our time, scientists have told us that we need to change our ways by the year 2050, or really terrible things may happen. But 2050 seems like a long way off, and we all know that’s a fuzzy number. Few politicians can think more than four years in advance, so 2050 might as well be 3050. In Canada, the federal government is starting to back off of its carbon tax because the future reward is small compared to the cost of losing of votes now. Telling us that we had better behave well now because the end is coming sometime in the far future just isn’t very motivating for most people. Human nature demands closer deadlines to get our attention.
So, what if the end is just around the corner? That’s the approach some evangelical Christians have adopted when talking about the end of the world. They look at each set of natural disasters as a sign that the end of the world has begun, often by quoting from the Book of Revelation. You may remember this man,
Jim Bakker 1 Jim Bakker.
Jim Bakker 2
He was married to Tammy Faye Bakker. He was a major televangelist before he went to jail for fraud.
He’s back broadcasting online in the US, raising money by predicting that each new natural disaster is a sign that end has begun. He regularly declares that we are living in the end times, Revelation’s prophecy is coming true right now, as revealed by political events  and natural disasters. Christ will arrive to separate good Christians from everyone else. So, if you want to be in Christ’s good books when he arrives very soon, you should give money to the church that warned you.
The rest of Christians cast a skeptical eye on this approach. Fear is a poor motivator for virtue. It’s hard to be kind when you are scared that the world is about to end. That kind of fear leads to conspiracy theories, suspicion and the hoarding of guns and survival supplies. It doesn’t lead to kindness towards strangers, much less perceived enemies.
But there is another approach which works better: to cultivate hope. Not hope that the Second Coming is imminent. That, as Jesus says, will be decided by God, not any of us.
Hope is worth cultivating as a way of living with uncertainty. Hope is a way of seeing life, with confidence that good things can occur even when we can’t see them coming. The poet Emily Dickinson said that hope is the thing with feathers. It perches in the soul and sings through the worst storms of life. Hope is the recognition that the universe is always more complex and fuller of surprises than we can predict or account for. Hope is not a superpower for bending reality to our will. Hope may not cure your cancer or the cancer of a loved one. But it can help us see that life is possible even after an unwelcome death. That a family and community can come back together even after someone has gone. Hope is what makes life worth living, for it is the promise that life will keep giving even when people and circumstances are taken away. Hope is that vague promise that makes no sense at all, until it does.
But hope takes practice. We have to allow hope some space to sing within us. If we dismiss every hopeful idea as impractical or unlikely, we can lose an ear for hope, that bird that sings within our souls. But there are ways to keep hope alive, to exercise it like a muscle. And that’s to spend times of the year in hope. And that’s part of what advent is. It is a season of hope.
We spend these next few weeks reliving the experience of Christians as they looked forward to Christ’s arrival. And not just one arrival, but his many arrivals. We relive their hope that Christ would return very soon. We remember the hope of the Jews, who had been ruled by so many empires, yet continued to hope for the birth of a messiah. We remember the hope that smoldered among the Jews of Israel in the days of John the Baptist, who promised that a messiah had been born among them, and was here, now, ready to fulfill his mission.
All those episodes of hope are remembered in Advent. In time, they have given birth to a whole season of hope that has been amplified by stores and radio stations, endless Christmas specials, and travel agents. Our Christian hope has wings, and it has flown all over our society, creating a month when everything seems a little more hopeful. People who normally don’t give much to charity open their wallets for good causes in December. Christmas songs sing of joyful family reunions. We string up lights in the darkness on our streets and our homes as signs of hope. The glow of Christian hope in Advent illuminates this entire society, even when many people have no idea what the word advent means.
Hope is like that. It is full of unintended consequences. And this month, as we look forward to Christ’s birth, and the joys of Christmas day and the days that follow, we are flexing that hope muscle. We do this so that once the Christmas decorations have been put away in January, we will still have the power of hope with us.
On this first Sunday of Advent, let that song of hope continue to sing inside us. Not because we know exactly how things will turn out. Even Jesus didn’t know when he would return. No, let us revel in this season of hope so that we will have hope for the rest of the year. So that we can dare to see possibilities where others just see a cruel and heartless world. Let us keep hope alive for ourselves, and for others, as a light in the darkness for the peoples of all nations.