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The In-Breaking of Hope

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Mon, Dec 03

Text: Luke 21:25-36

Today, on this first Sunday of Advent, we turn our faces with hope and expectation toward the Christ child, the Coming One, who is for us promise, hope and possibility. A small child.

It seems a bitter irony that this very week at the San Ysidro border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana, U.S. authorities shot tear gas across the border into Mexico at a crowd that included children. It’s not the first time we have fired tear gas at civilians across the border. To be clear, the U.S. has deployed tear gas at the border at least 126 times going back to 2012, during the Obama administration. So the responsibility does not lie with a single administration. This is something we do. Repeatedly.

Still, the images portray an agonizing reality: our government using tear gas against children. Seared in our memory—the photo of 39-year old Maria Meza fleeing with her two children. “I was scared,” she said. “I wanted to cry. That’s when I grabbed my daughters and ran. I thought my kids were going to die with me because of the gas we inhaled.” (1)

This tear gas, following a calculated policy of family separations, in this time of tent cities in the southwest filled in with unaccompanied minors. This time when—just a week ago—an American border protection agent was acquitted of manslaughter charges in the death of a Mexican teenager, shot in the back across the border in Arizona in 2012. I am not judge or jury. I was not there. I do not know what happened. But it sure hurts.

Beloved—it is into this world of empires and armies, centurions and border patrols, that the Christ child is born, small and vulnerable. Like all of us—needing shelter, nurture and protection. Like many of our sisters and brothers (especially those from Central America right now) fleeing violence, and very much in need of safety.

How, then, do we find comfort in the promise of the coming child? Where do we find hope? How do we find room in this Advent Season for wonder or stillness, peace or joy, sadness or outrage?

Trappist monk Thomas Merton calls Advent, the “Time of No Room.” In our 10:00 Advent Study this month, we are reading Merton’s short piece by this title, and contemplating where and how we find hope, peace, joy, and love in this season of urgency and so much grief. If you like, you can pick up a copy of Merton’s writing at either sanctuary door this morning.

Merton, an author, theologian, mystic, and social activist, lived from 1915 to 1968. He saw the world through the eyes of a priest and pacifist. Of the Advent season, Merton writes, “So there was no room in the inn? This is the time of no room,” he says. “No room for nature, no room for quiet, no room for solitude, no room for thought, no room for attention, for awareness. There is no room for belief. No room for hope.”

But Merton does, indeed, find hope in the coming of Christ. How does he hold together the urgency of our time along with the patience and waiting of Advent? The emptiness we feel with the fullness of God’s promise? The destruction (and destructiveness) of this world with God’s promise of a new creation? The already and not-yet of Christ’s coming to dwell among us?

How do we hold all of this together in our minds and hearts? This the peculiar work of Advent.

Advent begins, not with angels and cherubs and a sweet baby boy, but with portents and signs and the language of apocalypse. Luke doesn’t go easy. His words remind us of prophets Joel and Isaiah. He declares, "There will be signs in the sun and 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." (Luke 21:25-26
If we imagine that the coming of the Jesus is all sweetness and light, Luke is here to remind us that the advent of Christ is far more than the birth of a meek child in a manger. (Though it is that!) Far more sober than the fluff of angels wings. (We like that anyway.) And far more enduring than this 4-week candle-filled season of our church year. (Though we’ll keep that, too, thank you very much.)

We are people who need comfort. We need hope—desperately. Sometimes it feels like we are living in the end times. How unnerving that we seem to recognize the apocalyptic signs Luke sets forth. Right now this is happening—it is not the stuff of science fiction or end-time apocalyptic. The sea heaves with hurricanes, typhoons, each one stronger than the last. The earth quakes with tectonic shifts, tsunamis swallow the coastline, the ocean rises.

All of California seemed ablaze last month—the wildfire season is the worst on record, with over 7,500 fires reported in 2018, almost 2 million acres burned, and scores of lives lost. The air quality in parts of California last week was worse than anywhere in the world.

Even if these events feel terrifying, we do not need to interpret them as signs sent by God and portents of inevitable doom. We need not see them as signs of the end-time. Yet they are dire warnings of a planet in distress, an earth crying out for care. We need to watch, to listen, to take heed, and to act.

How do we get our bearings in this landscape so full of destruction? How do we know what faith requires?

Allow me to speak for a moment about eschatology, for this is the literary genre of our morning text from Luke. We cannot understand Luke without delving into eschatology, and I suspect we cannot ultimately understand Advent without an understanding of this most unnerving genre.

Eschatology is “the a branch of theology concerned with the final events in human history or the history of the world.” (2) There are at least two types of eschatology in our scriptures and we run smack into both of them in Advent. It’s helpful to tease them apart a bit.

“Prophetic eschatology” and “apocalyptic eschatology” both expect a future in which God will be revealed and the faithful will be vindicated. “Yet,” as one scholar observes, “they are radically different in how they conceptualize what will unfold.” (3)

“In prophetic eschatology, the expectation is that God will work within human history to accomplish God’s purposes for humanity.” Through the lens of prophetic eschatology, God’s work is up close and personal. God is present within persons, families, and communities. The Holy One works through human imagination and innovation, and through qualities like compassion and care—transforming our structures, working in new ways, inspiring deeper faithfulness. Through the lens of prophetic eschatology, God speaks through prophets and apostles, who call us to back to her ways of mercy, justice and peace.

“In apocalyptic eschatology, the view of history is different. From this perspective, human existence has become so corrupted by sin and evil, that is it basically unredeemable.” Rather than working within human history, apocalyptic eschatology anticipates the destruction of human history as we know it, and the beginning of something utterly new. Images of judgment, cleansing, purification and fire, are often used.

Luke heads in this direction. “Be alert, praying that you will have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.

Think, also of the Prophet Malachi’s words, sung in Handel’s Messiah. “But who may abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner's fire…And he shall purify the sons of Levi.” (Can you hear the aria and the chorus in your head?)

So, true confession. I do believe that God is working to redeem human history and all of creation. But I truly hope that rising seas and wildfires, and skies filled with smoke are not signs of the end time. I’m just not that into apocalypse.

I can, however, come really alive with prophetic eschatology, and I wonder if it’s the same for you? I believe that God is with us, even now. Emmanuel, God-in-Christ, opening up new possibilities. Inviting us to see—not only what is probable—time as we know it, but what it possible—the fullness of time redeemed by God’s power and presence. (4) Asking us to see signs of hope right before our eyes.

Signs of hope in these ordinary, trying times?

I wonder—was that photo of Maria Meza and her two daughters that went viral, a visual witness akin to the images of firehoses turned on school children in Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement? A profoundly troubling image that lets us all know what’s what. Human rights organizations are paying attention and Mexico is asking for a full inquiry. A small sign of hope? Perhaps there is another reality which is made visible by this image of tear gas and children. One of accountability and outrage, and insistence on just policies and practices.

Signs of hope? There’s a church in the Netherlands that has been holding a continuous worship service since October 26 in order to protect an Armenian family seeking asylum. By law, Dutch police are not allowed to enter a church building while worship is in progress. The Armenian family who have been living in the Netherlands for nine years, are facing deportation. They have taken refuge in the Protestant Church The Hague. (5)

Signs of hope right here in Cambridge? The children who are our sanctuary guests are growing up beautiful and happy and strong and we are all part of their extended family, through the Cambridge Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition.

Signs of hope at First Church? We are exploring whether we might put solar panels on our roof. This week, the Friday Café hosted a record number of guests. In two weeks we will provide an annual holiday breakfast for the guests in our Men’s Shelter –a sumptuous feast of food and good cheer. Next Sunday, you’ll have an opportunity to opt out of consumerism and live into your values of connection with the global community by stopping in at our Alternative Christmas Fair.

Truth be told, there are signs of hope everywhere. Signs not of the end-time, but of the in-breaking of God’s Spirit, here and now, calling us to be partners in her new creation.

1) https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/26/world/americas/tear-gas-migrant-child..., https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/28/world/americas/tear-gas-border.html
2) https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/eschatology
3) Dennis Bratcher, The Voice, Christian Resource Institute, http://www.crivoice.org/eschat.html.
4) I am indebted to Ministerial Intern Lexi Boudreaux for pointing out the gospel promise of what is possible, and not merely what is probable.
5) https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/church-worship-service-continuous-a...

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