Good morning. It’s good to be with you again, for our second week of Advent. I don’t know how you’re feeling, but I’m feeling like Advent couldn’t come soon enough.
Advent: Waiting in the Dark
Advent wasn’t part of my experience growing up. As an adult, I’m envious of those raised in homes where Advent is an annual tradition–not just a single day of celebration, but an entire season to prepare for Christmas. Where they spent weeks of learning to wait in the dark for the promise of light.
Advent is many things, of course. Amidst the hurried crowds, Advent is a season of waiting, anticipation. Here in Advent, the church aligns itself with ancient Israel in her long wait for the promised Messiah. In Advent, we sit with Mary in her anticipation, waiting for the birth of a promised Son. In Advent, the church takes its time. It slows down. It resists the hurried pace that surrounds us.
And, amidst the shine of so much commercialism and sentimentality, Advent is also a season of lament. In Advent, we align ourselves with the Psalmists who boldly confess their grief over the evils that surround and also make their home within us. Rather than deny, ignore, or resist so many griefs with a veneer of optimism, in Advent, the Church names the darkness. It lights candles. And it actively waits for the promised coming of its Lord.
But when it has been so dark for so long, our eyes can begin to adjust to the darkness, so that the darkness becomes normal. And when that happens, our hopes for the promised light can grow dull.
Recently, I texted a friend in the wake of yet another tragic mass shooting–this time in a Colorado nightclub. Wanting to acknowledge the targeted pain of this tragedy, I told my friend I was sorry for the ways this particular shooting put his own life in question. I wanted him to know I love him, that I’m grateful for his presence in my life.
Days passed. No response came. I began to grow concerned. Had I said something wrong? I wondered. Insensitive, perhaps? Was this friend even more upset than I expected?
Five days later, my phone buzzed. “Hey Ryan,” he texted. “Apologies for the delay here. I’ve been deep in dissertation mode…Thanks for checking in. The honest reality is I didn’t feel much about the shooting. It’s just so normal now, even if it’s abnormal in the truest sense.”
Mass shootings have become so frequent in our country that, for some of us, they hardly register. Our eyes have adjusted to the dark. Our imaginations have become misshapen—by evil, by exhaustion, by fear. How do we learn to imagine life freed from the power of fear when fear surrounds? How do we learn to live toward responsible, active hope? Admittedly, when we’re already struggling to hope, when we begin to believe that how things are is how things will always be, an invitation to hope can feel like an invitation to run a marathon on broken legs. And then our inability to feel hopeful only compounds our pre-existing grief.
Perhaps Advent can help. Each week of Advent offers a different invitation.
Thanks to the Church in the West borrowing from the more penitential Advent traditions of the Eastern church, the second week of Advent invites us to be honest about our grief. Being honest—before God, before one another—is one way to disarm fear. Fear threatens to separate us; honest lament promises to unite us.
But being honest is, for many of us, disorienting, when we spend so much of our time ignoring or hiding our grief. In Advent, we practice being honest about the evils that surround in order that we might become rightly oriented once again—that we might finally see, as John invites us, that God’s Kingdom has come near.
Here, in the second week of Advent, we’re invited to name aloud the many evils that surround us:
• War that pulverizes cities, fills mass graves, and grinds global economies;
• Mass shootings that follow mass shootings, with no reprieve to grieve;
• Poverty that crushes our neighbors who go without adequate clothing, shelter, food;
• Great efforts that are made to restrict those who can vote for how our nation will be led;
• Consumerism that runs unrestrained, imprisoning folks in such debt from which they have little to no hope of ever escaping;
• Pollution that overburdens our climate until it finally gives out;
• Political machinations that leave us exhausted, alienated, and worse.
What are those evils that you find your mind drawn to in this season?
The second week of Advent is a time when we lean heavily into the Psalmists’ words: “How long, oh Lord? How long will You sit by?” It’s important to remember: we come from a tradition that is not afraid of accusing God of responding to injustice with indifference.
We’re also invited to be honest about those evils that continue to make their home within us:
• the way pride or greed become like a second skin;
• those many ways we live plagued by shame;
• or imprisoned by addictions we cannot seem to shake.
What are those internal evils that keep pricking your conscious, keep threatening to cut you off from the promised fullness of life?
Here in the second week of Advent, we’re invited to find relief in finally being honest about it–all of it–to finally lay it down, rather than continue to try to carry it all by ourselves.
Hope as Communal
In addition to being a time of waiting, of being honest about the evils that surround us and make their home within us, Advent is finally a time of hope. Hope that the darkness is not the end of our story.
In my own experience, hope is not something I can drum up on my own. Flooded by several intersecting crises in the past few years, there have been long stretches where I could not imagine feeling better. I couldn’t imagine things getting better. It seemed like how I felt is how I would always feel. Maybe you’ve felt the same.
What I learned in this season, when hope was beyond my reach, is that I need help to hope. I need others to hold onto hope for me, and to offer it in bite-size pieces.
When I arrived at a favorite taco shop for lunch in Oakland one afternoon a few years ago, I was visibly shaking, I felt sick to my stomach—like I was on a rollercoaster that I couldn’t get off. The night before, I received the news of a student of mine who had suffered sexual assault and whose university system was failing her. Earlier that morning, a text message informed me that the father of two of my dear students fell victim to depression and suicide. And it was becoming more and my clear that my own marriage was coming apart at the seams—all of this within about 24 hours.
Before I had a chance to explain, my friend told me we didn’t need to talk if I didn’t want. We could simply sit and eat in silence.
“Whatever happens, Ryan,” Josh said, after hearing what I was going through, “you’re not going to feel this way much longer.” It wasn’t too much of a promise of hope. It was just enough, just what I needed to calm down, to breathe, to keep going.
When someone’s starving, you don’t offer a feast. That will make them sick. When someone’s despairing, you don’t shine fluorescent light in their face. That will blind them. The beauty of Advent hope is that it tells the truth, but it tells it slowly, tells it slant, in a way that provides the relief we need; the kind of bite-sized, authentic hope we can trust enough to put our weight down on.
Letter to the Romans: Hope for the Outsider
The grace of this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter is the reminder that hope is not meant to be mustered on our own. “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction,” Paul writes, “so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”
At the end of his tome of a letter to the divided church in the seat of Empire, the Apostle Paul goes on to borrow heavily from the psalmist, the Prophet Isaiah, Moses, and, finally, he invites the Holy Spirit into a blessing to offer his audience a concluding word of hope they can lean into. Hope is a gift of God, he writes. A gift of those who have come before us, and a gift, finally, for all the nations.
The story Scripture is telling, over and over again, is that the hope of God’s people is bound up with the hope of the stranger. Which is what Paul reminds us in this morning’s text: “The nations are to be summoned to worship [the promised Messiah]…and here in particular to hope in him,” writes NT Wright. “He will rule in such a way as to bring hope to the whole world, something sorely lacking then as (so often) today.”
Contagious hope that starts in the dark, is extended to the outsider, and then spreads around the world—that’s the kind of hope that Advent is all about. This kind of hope was never meant to be placed on our individual shoulders as a burden. The hope God invites God’s people into is not a white-knuckled hope. It’s offered in the welcome of neighbors, in gatherings with foreigners and strangers, received as a mutual gift. “The object of Christian hope is the coming of God’s kingdom,” South African theologian Albert Nolan writes. “What God wants is whatever is best for all of us together, whatever is best for the whole of creation. . . The object of Christian hope then is the common good.”
Candle Story: Reciprocal Hope
Can I tell you a secret? Do you know who lights the candle that lights up your sanctuary on dark nights? The blue one with the dove embossed on it right over there in the corner? It is not electric or artificial. It’s made of wax. It melts, it runs out. And when it does, I come into the sanctuary each week with my friend Bernadette, and I replace it with a new candle. And then, I sit quietly in its glow. In a way that I struggle to adequately explain, I feel peace wash over me. I leave feeling my hope rekindled.
When I was a stranger, you welcomed me in. In your welcoming me, my hope has been renewed. In your welcoming me, your darkness has become a little less dark. Our hope, you see, is reciprocal. Is bound up together.
Hope, God’s Gift: Holy Spirit
Paul’s letter concludes with a blessing, and a reminder that as hope is offered to us in community, it is, finally, a gift of the Holy Spirit’s presence among us. “May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope!” (Eugene Peterson translation) When our hope wears thin, my former professor Willie Jennings notes, “The Holy Spirit prods and pushes us to think creatively toward new possibilities.”
Perhaps it was the Spirit’s movement among us she was thinking of when the poet Emily Dickinson wrote: “Hope is a thing with feathers… [it] perches in the soul / and sings the tune without the words / and never stops – at all.”
Hope is the Holy Spirit’s work among us, in us, through us. It swoops and soars. It is always active, never passive. It welcomes and therein is renewed.
“Welcome one another,” Paul writes, “just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” The kind of hope that Advent invites us into isn’t ultimately up to us. It’s a Holy Spirit reliant hope that sees the world not as it is, overcommitted to death and its operatives, but as it’s promised to be—renewed by Christ’s light and life. Even as we wait in anticipation of the fullness of what God is doing in and among us, ours is an active hope, a contagious hope that turns around and notices the many surprising ways God is already stirring the present darkness to be near us, to bring about the common good, life out of death, and to gently offer the Light of that vision to others.
In showing welcome to one another this Advent—and especially to the outsiders to whom our God first appears—we are invited into the kind of hope that is finally beyond our best efforts. We are invited to see with eyes that perceive more than we can now see. We are invited into the hope, joy, and peace that spills over its walls.