A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Graham Low on 29th November 2023
Last Sunday we ended the church’s liturgical year with the feast of Christ the King. This was a kingship defined most sharply by Christs’ time on the cross, when the utterly radical and extraordinary nature of his kingship, human and yet divine, was revealed to the world.
We are now in the middle of a brief pause before we begin four weeks of preparation for Christ’s coming, the season of Advent. It is a season which sits uncomfortably with the secular world in which Christmas is already arriving, or has arrived.
The liturgical origins of Advent are not clearly known, but the season has long included thinking and liturgy about light coming into the darkness of the world, Nowadays this is marked by that gradual building up week by week of the candles in the Advent wreath. As the light comes so things now hidden in darkness will be revealed, and the purposes of the heart will be revealed, with opportunities of penitence and amendment of our lives. In some traditions there has been emphasis on eschatological themes, particularly the four last things in human life and beyond – death, judgement, heaven and hell. For some reflection on these themes may be linked with anticipation of the end of earthly life.
But another great theme of Advent is hope, which is about expectation, desire, and trust. Our gospel passage this morning speaks about turbulent times for Jesus’ followers. We hear that opportunities will come for them to testify, but without necessarily having plans in advance about how to do so. We read that patience and wisdom will come from God in the midst of their turmoil. We have seen such words and wisdom come in the midst of immense challenge down the centuries. For example, the church in Rwanda appeared at one point to have been completely destroyed, and yet the hope of some survivors has led to its revival. These words in today’s gospel are words which have been trusted down the centuries, and hope has emerged from seemingly hopeless situations. In the course of my ministry I have seen the emergence of hope in the darkest of situations, and I am sure that many priests would say the same. And when this happens there is rejoicing. The great German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote that “hope is lived, and it comes alive, when we go out of ourselves and, in joy and pain, take part in the lives of others. It becomes concrete in open community with others”.
Over the years I have been repeatedly struck by the words of Paul in his Letter to the Romans. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit”. Hope is traditionally one of the three theological virtues. Broadly speaking hope is the desire and search for a future good. Its end, its motive, and its author is God. Like faith it may continue even if charity has been lost by mortal sin. It is confined to this life alone.
In more contemporary thinking hope may be seen as a seed or a spark of the God of hope which is part of our inner being. Maybe this is activated at baptism and confirmation by the reception of the Holy Spirit. And in the eucharist we receive our Lord again and again, strengthened and renewed for life and abounding in hope. In spite of the immense challenges which Jesus faced, we see that he was grounded in hope, a hope that has transformed the world.
This work of the God of hope very clearly goes on in spite of all the traumas of the present times. Advent is a time when we are called once again to join prayerfully and practically in this work – with a living hope. Amen.