Although we were a bit low on numbers today due to the icy roads and very icy pavements we still had a full and good celebration of Advent II. Rob gave the excellent sermon this morning which is reproduced below and Fr James a wonderful meditation this evening.
If there is one word that defines Christmas for you what word would you choose? Some words that come to my mind are singing, peace, love, joy, hope, incarnation, and Jesus (not necessarily in that order though). Other words are more worldly: snow, presents, parties and the shopping rush, but I’m sure there are other words that we use in describing what we feel about Christmas. I would like us to look briefly at two words in particular: hope and peace. I know that Fr Ivan talked about hope last week but I think it’s important to look at what we mean by it again because it will help us to understand our readings this morning.
Both Advent and Christmas are often described as being ‘seasons of hope’, but sometimes I get the impression that people aren’t quite sure what this actually means. What do we really mean when we say that we hope for something? At its most basic, we can define hope as the belief that a positive event will happen to us at some stage, either in the near or distant future. At this time of year we hear it all the time: ‘I hope I get the latest game for my X-Box for Christmas’, ‘I hope I get a new I-phone’ or ‘I hope I don’t get given another dozen pairs of green socks again this year’.
This problem with kind of hope is that it is based upon uncertainty. For example, we could say ‘I hope to wash my car tomorrow: I hope it doesn’t rain’. That kind of hope is merely a wish, not a certainty. We can hope all we like for something, and sometimes we can see some indications that it may well come true, but life can be unpredictable and situations can change at any moment. We can all so easily tumble from hopefulness into hopelessness. Over the few years we have heard stories of how people have gone from incredibly well paid jobs in the city to losing their lifestyle, homes, and in some cases, their family.
The message which Isaiah gives in our first lesson today is told to a people who feel like they are in a hopeless situation such as this. Not only had Israel had been weakened by warring with other tribes but also God had told the them through the prophets that their special covenanted relationship with him cannot protect them from punishment when they went astray. They had committed idolatry, acts of injustice and cruelty, among other things. They are in a dire situation - they have opposed God’s Law - but Isaiah is also tasked by God to remind them that there is hope for their future. This is a concrete hope, one that comes directly from God and is not merely a wish: it is the immanent coming of a messiah.
Isaiah describes him as one who has a spirit of wisdom, who would be of good counsel, understanding and might. He would be be a righteous judge, uplifting the meek and removing exploitation. He would come to restore the earth to how it was before the Fall: we are told age old enemies in natural world are to be reconciled. All relationships based on fear will be ended. Tribes and factions will come together. What this tells us is that God's hope makes the seemingly impossible possible. Isaiah describes the Messiah as having the power to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. The lion and the lamb will come together in love. There is no fear of death by vipers. No hurt exists, and no destruction. The shoot from the stump of David grows new, green, and fresh, and brings life to a dying world. As Isaiah describes God's kingdom on earth, the cynic would see the image of the wolf and lamb, the child and snake together as absurd, even mad. Sometimes there is a fine line between madness and hope, but is it mad to believe that God had a plan for a better world?
Well, the writer of our psalm this morning certainly didn’t think so. He continues the Messianic image in his song of a king’s son who will be the one under whose rule righteousness and peace will flourish. The psalmist, who was possibly Solomon, looks forward to the endless reign of this Messiah who alone can rule with perfect justice. He is a king of peace.
In our epistle we heard St Paul linking Messianic signs directly to our Lord Jesus Christ. For him the messianic promise of hope is not abstract, but fixed firmly in Jesus’ person and actions. We could say, then, that Paul provides us with a different – a Christian – definition of hope. Christian hope is an expectation based on the promises of God. Paul tells us that everything written everything written in Scripture points to the coming of Christ. He tells us that the purpose of his teaching is that we might have hope. No matter how dark the day, no matter what disasters may befall us, God’s Word gives us peace, joy and hope. We can then be assured that God’s hand actively directs all things for the good of those who love Him.
John the Baptist, our own patron, had a different view of what the Messiah would be. He realised that the people living in the regions of Jerusalem, Judea and Jordan had once again slipped into some of the bad habits of their ancestors. They had become less concerned about their adherence to their relationship to God and consequently fallen into sin. Already having a reputation as a fiery preacher, he proclaimed that God’s wrath was coming. According to John, the one who was to come (and come soon) would arrive with the axe of judgment, to cleanse the threshing floor and divide the wheat from the chaff. John’s baptism of repentance was with water, but the Messiah would baptise with fire and the Holy Spirit. Hardly a man of peace!
As we prepare this Advent to celebrate the birth of the Messiah this Christmas, and think about Jesus’ triumphal Second Coming, we might ask ourselves which Jesus is it that we are expecting? Is it King Jesus, the shoot from the stump of Jesse, who heralds a new kingdom of hope and justice – the herald of peace – or is it Judge Jesus bearing the axe, winnowing fork and fire?
I would say that the answer is both – and neither. Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus surprised (and disappointed) some people by not doing what they expected – he did not wish to conquer with military force and seize thrones to bring absolute order. His message was one of love: to bring all peoples together into one community by virtue of his passion, death and resurrection. However, we need to remember that Jesus did say things that separated people. He gave people a choice: to carry on with life as they had been, or to stop and follow him. Some chose to follow his teaching, others went away despondent. Perhaps this is what John the Baptist was alluding to. This Advent we too have choices to make. We were reminded at the Ordinariate exploration day last month that in this season God is giving us a time in which we can prayerfully reflect on our future and see where we are called to be. We would be wise to heed this advice for as we heard in last week’s gospel, we need to be ready – the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour!
I strongly believe that alongside our Advent preparation we need to remember Christ’s presence and work amongst us here and now. By focusing on this he is able to bring us the hope and the inner peace that we need to sustain us until his return in glory. He comes to us through every aspect of our Christian life together – we are his body: we are His Church. He comes to us in the waters of baptism and in the words of the Gospel. He appears with the gentleness and power of the Mass.
As we draw closer to the celebration of His nativity we remember that He brings his peace and hope to us as a baby lying in a manger. That he came to carry our sins, to bear a heavy cross. That he will come again in all His power and glory to bring us and all believers into His heavenly kingdom. Because of this we are assured that we can place our hope in God’s promises yet to be fulfilled.
In these last two weeks of Advent let’s look forward the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ who gives us, and will continue to give us, the best gift of all this Christmas: the gift of himself, the gift of Hope and peace. Amen.