Sermon given at Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Advent 2021
What is hope, and what do we hope for?
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon in Residence
Sunday, 19th December 2021 at 3.00 PM
Advent is often described as a season of hope. But what is hope, and what do we hope for? I suggested last Sunday that the categories of our hope are frequently too narrow, and too domesticated. In straightforward anthropological and sociological terms, we tend to limit our hope, not helped by what we might describe as a culture of immediacy, where longing has been replaced by instant gratification, and where a common sense of time and rhythm is hard to articulate and share. In theological terms, our hope is often limited by the images we cling to, and by a lack of imagination and trust.
So, in Advent, we are confronted we are perhaps confronted with a slightly awkward question. Do we really hope for anything anymore? It is very important to say that in the biblical witness, and generations of subsequent experience, hope is not optimism. Hope is not positivity, and it is certainly not glib. In fact, hope can be the fruit of a very deep disquiet. For example, a remarkable degree of exceptionally moving writing on hope emerged from the horrors of the holocaust. Hope often emerges in a very distilled form from within contexts where it seems most logically absent. In our current climate of pandemic and pandemically-induced exhaustion and depression, that should be an encouragement. As Julian of Norwich put it, during what has been described as a previous ‘age of anxiety’, that of the years surrounding the Black Death, “there are many hidden mysteries which can never be known until the time when God in his goodness has made us worthy to see them.” The unfolding of Christian hope is always hope in something – in God – but the content of that hope may often seem elusive and beyond the contours of our expectation.
Of all the New Testament writers, predictably, it is St Paul who develops a rich theology of hope. In his letter to the Romans, he reminds his listeners of some basic ground-rules, “Hope which is seen is not hope! For who hopes for what they can see?” Hope needs commitment, or as Paul helpfully explains in the following verse, eagerness with expectancy. These categories, along with the imagination, need to be honed if we are to be hopeful people. And as with all muscles, the muscles of our hope need to be exercised and stretched, especially at times when we are neither optimistic about the immediate future nor particularly confident in those whose decisions will shape it.
Christian hope is a fruit of the incarnation of the Son of God, of his ministry, his death and resurrection. It is rooted in that single phrase spoken by the Angel to Joseph in today’s second lesson – the child promised in the words of Isaiah, is Emmanuel, God is with us. The background to all Christian hope is that this promise has staying power; the God testified to in scripture is not into smash-and-grab raids. What we see in Jesus Christ is God’s permanent, lasting, and final promise of salvation. Although our hope is always before us, its shape is discernible, recognisable, through what we see in Jesus’s life and ministry. Hope, not optimism – the story of St Joseph’s encounter with the angel was hardly one which would have left him optimistic. His initial decision to dismiss Mary once she was found to be pregnant, we are told by St Matthew, was one intended to spare her the disgrace which would inevitably come once the news got out. The arrival of an angel onto the scene in Joseph’s dream changed his mind, but it can hardly have made him optimistic about the entire situation. But Joseph decides to trust the dream because it rhymes with God’s covenant promises. His own life, about which we know so little, surely becomes one lived in the hope of those promises which must have seemed very distant indeed. Hope can be a fruit of deep disquiet.
Today, our newspapers are full of the possibilities of another disjointed Christmas, as COVID cases soar and reports emerge of the ambulance service already being overwhelmed. The question in our minds, and quite frankly, in our guts is how on earth can we be hopeful in this context? Even with a strong theology of what hope is, it can be hard to activate. But that, perhaps, is to articulate the question from an unhelpful angle. Hope, like faith, is a gift given to us, but one which must be activated, chosen. Hope is not optimism. It is trusting the future into the hands of the one who is the origin and destiny of all things. Can we unclench our hands sufficiently to allow hope to live in us? Can we let go of our relentless need to control the future to the extent that God’s grace and mercy might shape it?
There is of course a practical argument for the triumph of hope: straightforwardly, new futures become thinkable or possible precisely because they are hoped for. But theologically, the living of a hope-filled life is more than that. Learning to trust in God and God’s promises, expecting to see signs of grace in the world around us, and schooling our own lives to be sites of that grace for others, even when its costs us – that is a hope-filled existence, drawing its energy from the promise of Christ’s victory, from the future consummation of all things, which we have often called Christ’s Second Coming.
So, to pose a blunt question, to myself as much as to anyone else – do we live as if this promise is real? Do we actually order our lives, our hopes, in a way which expects the faithfulness of God-With-Us to endure? There are, of course, all sorts of glittering images vying for our attention, and there are certainly reasons not to be particularly optimistic. But hope in what we do not yet fully see – that can galvanise us as Christians, and can release a new kind of energised existence. God is with us. God is for us. God will not leave us. God’s promises are neither old nor new – they are eternal.
Henry Parry Liddon, preaching in St Paul’s Cathedral in Advent 1878, responded to an emerging contemporary cynicism about Christ’s second coming, in the following words,
“The answer then to the question of the scoffers, “Where is the promise of his coming?” is that it is where it was when he made it. For the Infinite Mind there is no such thing as delay; nothing is postponed when all is present.”
Our hope is that this promise has staying power. The truth of Emmanuel, God-With-Us, is a truth which will enlarge our sight and enrich our lives if we allow it to shape us, if we let go of our own need to be in control of our future, and re-learn our hope in the strength of a God who reveals his power in weakness and his glory in the face of a child. In that hope, we can abide. As G. K. Chesterton put it, rather more beautifully,
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.