Looking back at old sermons is an interesting exercise in revisiting the past.

Fifteen years ago I preached on the first Sunday of Advent a sermon that was greatly shaped by the fact that at the time, I was suffering with a painful condition called “frozen shoulder”. I am filled with gratitude that my body eventually healed and that the condition has never returned. Here’s the sermon:

Matthew 24:36-44

This morning is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of our preparation for the coming of God into human history in the form of Jesus.  On this First Sunday of Advent we light the hope candle.

Probably all of us from time to time use the word hope.  I heard it used last Wednesday.  You may remember it was pouring with rain last Wednesday.  Early in the day I was talking to Francis the teacher for the pre-school that meets here at St. Philip.  She told me that an Oak Bay Fire Department fire engine was going to pull into our parking lot at 10:30 to visit the pre-school children.  She said, “I hope the rain is going to stop.”  Some of you may have heard yourselves in the past few weeks say, “I hope I can get my essay finished on time.  I hope I do ok in my exams.”  I have certainly heard myself recently saying, “I hope that the procedure I had on my shoulder two weeks ago is in fact going to work eventually.”

All of these examples of the use of the word hope share in common the idea that hope is about us being able to get the circumstances of our lives to unfold the way we wish they would.  We want to be in control of how things go in our lives. If only we could get things to turn out the way we feel they should then everything would be ok. We feel that we understand what would be best for us and so we hope that things will in fact turn out as we believe they should.

There is a flaw in this line of thinking.  The flaw in this line of thinking is pointed out in our Gospel reading this morning from the Gospel of Matthew 24:36-44.  It is a difficult passage and we need to work hard at avoiding the temptation to get caught up in the details and miss the point of the story.  Whole theologies and an entire entertainment industry have been built around this story.  But I think that actually the “Left Behind” series misses the central point Jesus is trying to make here.  The focus of this story is not on the fact that when the Son of Man comes, one person “will be taken and one left.”  This is an entirely incidental detail.  The point of the story lies in verse 42 where Jesus says, “Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”  The key is in the four words “you do not know.”

Christian hope is not about us being able to organize the circumstances of our lives in the way that we feel is best for us, because in fact we do not know what is best for us.  We do not actually know what is going on in life.  We think we know what we want.  We think we have an adequate awareness of what we need and of how life should work.  But our perspective is so limited, so self-interested, so compromised by our own particular prejudices and agendas that we are half blind most of the time.

I visited my favourite orthopaedic surgeon this past week.  He was pondering the fact that the procedure he performed on my shoulder in the hospital two weeks ago had not quite achieved the hoped for results.  He said, “Well it is true that we do not completely understand exactly what it is that is going on in these cases.”  I thought that was a remarkably honest assessment and candid admission from a man of science who spends much of his life trying to convince people that he knows exactly what is going on and precisely what is needed.  The truth is none of us knows exactly what is going on.  So, if hope depends upon life unfolding the way we think it should, hope is a complete illusion. In fact any idea of hope that connects hope in any way to external circumstances is a misunderstanding of the Christian understanding of hope.

Paul, in Romans says,

For in hope we were saved.  Now hope that is seen is not hope.
For who hopes for what is seen?  But if we hope for what we
do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:24, 25)

Hope is not about seeing.  Hope is not about things that we can touch or hold onto in the outside world.  Hope is not a transaction we conduct with the external circumstances of our lives.  Instead, the Letter to the Colossians tells us that “To the saints God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).  Hope is not about getting the circumstances of your life to turn out a certain way.  Hope is not about imposing your will upon life.  Christian hope means knowing that Christ is in you and that he alone is ”the hope of glory.”

Hope is an inner transaction.  Hope takes place within the human heart and it exists completely and absolutely independent of all external circumstances.  Hope comes into play when things are not going as we wish they might.  Hope is discovered at that very moment when we know that our wishes and dreams are not being met.  Hope is the thing we discover right in the midst of frustration, anger, defeat, and let down.  Hope says, “Things may not change.  Things may not appear to get better but that is ok.”  It is ok because there is that within me which does not need anything to change.  There is that within me which is permanent, which is eternal, which does not rise and fall on the fickle whims of chance and circumstances.

The Letter to the Hebrews was written in the context of desperate persecution and trial for the early Christian church.  It was written to people who were facing circumstances that would test anyone’s faith.  It was written in the context of a situation that no one would choose to face.  And the writer does not pretend that the circumstances being faced are not difficult.  He does not pretend that the struggle is not real.  And, at no time, does he suggest that everything is going to change and it will all turn out to be lovely in the end.  Rather, the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews sings a triumphant hymn of praise to the possibility of a hope that stands firm and strong and unshakeable in the midst of circumstances that are not going to change, in the midst of circumstances that may well remain difficult and deeply challenging.  He says,

We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul,
a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain,
where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered.
(Hebrews 6:19,20)

The English word for hope is fascinating.  No one is exactly sure how the word “hope” came into the English language.  The best guess is that it came to us from the Low German word “hop” which in its verb form carried the sense of “jumping to safety,” but in its noun form suggested  “a place of refuge.” That is what hope is.  Hope is finding “a place of refuge” in the midst of the storm.  Hope is knowing that within myself I have a place of rest, a place that cannot be beaten down by the ravages of daily living and the uncertainties of human life.  Hope means that I know there is within myself that place where I am not battered and bruised, a place where I am not broken.

Hope does not depend upon my understanding what is going on.  Hope does not depend upon the illusion of my ability to control the circumstances of life to make them turn out in such a way that life is always comfortable and to my liking.  Hope says, even when I do not understand, even when I do not like what is going on, it does not matter.  It does not matter that I am confused and feel lost and bewildered.  Hope resides in a place within myself that is deeper than knowing, deeper than feeling, deeper than any external circumstances or experiences.

I may think that what I really want in life is to get this situation sorted out.  I may think that what I really need is to get this person in my life fixed, or to pass all my exams with flying colours, or to get over this particularly irritating physical thing that is afflicting my body.  Any of these things might be nice and pleasant.  But they are not the source of hope.  In the end they do not matter and they cannot give me that for which I really long.

We think we want healing.  But how much healing is enough healing?  We live in an incredibly broken world.  We will never be healed deeply enough in order to feel that all is right with the world.  We think we want relationships that will always feel supportive and encouraging.  But there is no such thing as any human relationship in the world that will not let us down at some time or another.  We think that we want financial security.  But as our financial security increases, our need also increases and enough is never quite enough.

If we are honest we all know that, as soon as we get one thing sorted out, even the one thing that we thought was the really big thing, there will always be something else to come along and take its place.  As soon as I get this relationship fixed up, I will encounter some awkward situation in my work that I am not at all sure how to handle.  When I get over that, I will discover that my finances are presenting a challenge, and when I get my finances under control, I discover that my body has let me down.  And on and on it goes.  There is no end to the challenges that life will always throw up in our faces.

Hope tells us that there is a place within us that is deeper than all of this.  There is a place within ourselves where we can trust and rest.  The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says, ”Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall” (Hebrews 4:11).  What we long for is to “enter that rest,” to find that place of calm in the midst of the storm.  We long to experience that inner peace and calm that no circumstance can take from us, that no feeling can undo.

Do not hope to get life right.  Do not hope to fix things.  Do not hope to arrive at some place other than where you are right at this moment.  Be here.  Be in the situations that you find yourself in.  But be in those situations with a new way of being.  Be in those situations with a deep abiding place of rest in your soul.  Be in those situations with a hope that knows there is that within you that no circumstances can remove and no difficulty can undo.

Hope is not about fixing anything.  Hope is about a new way of being.  Hope is about being in the midst of the brokenness of life with a radiant presence at the centre of your being that never stops and never lets you down.  Hope connects us with the triumphant presence of God known to us in Christ.  And it is this presence that will carry us in any situation we may ever face.