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Seeking Hope in the Darkness – The Rev. Marcea Paul – Church Building

“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21: 28)

The movie Shawshank Redemption tells the Story of Andy Dufresne, a man who has been wrongly convicted of murder and must endure life inside the cruel and corrupt Shawshank prison, but despite this he never loses hope of finding freedom. Hope is an important inspiring idea in this film. Hope is what sustains him during the long and difficult years within the prison, and it is because of this enduring hope that Andy finally finds freedom. Andy’s demeanor also affected his friends. At the end of the movie Andy’s friend Red who felt that hope was dangerous as well as useless in prison is finally paroled and all he has is hope. The final lines in the film belonged to Red, who said “I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.”

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of our Church year. The first candle of the Advent wreath is known in some traditions as the “candle of hope” or the “prophet’s candle.” It reminds us of the prophets of Israel who looked forward to God doing something new in the world, who saw that change was coming—and that this change would ultimately be a renewal. But what hope, and renewal can we find in today’s Gospel reading? Where are the invitations to shop for gifts, to decorate Christmas trees and sing Christmas carols? Jesus offers none of these invitations! Instead, Jesus challenges us to acknowledge a world full of pain: distress among nations, roaring seas and people fainting from fear. Jesus warns his disciples to “Stand up” “raise your heads”, “Be alert.”

Apocalyptic language is the poetic speech of the oppressed as they strain toward hope. It declares God’s cosmic victory when all evidence points to God’s defeat. In our Gospel, Luke is writing after Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. At that time, the people of God were straining toward hope. They needed to believe in the hidden victory of God.

I can imagine those impacted by the fires in Colorado and California having no sense of escape and fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon our world. For those living in distressed, beaten down communities, this passage may be a sign of hope. The passage is relevant not because it is pointing out our future, but because it invites us to speak truth about our human brokenness and the condition of the world, which never really changes. “When you see these things,” Jesus says, don’t turn away. Don’t hide. Because it is only when we embrace reality and acknowledge human suffering that we experience the nearness of God.

Advent does not invite us into the beauty and tranquility that culture hopes for this time of year. Industry has been preparing and everything is in place. Many have worked diligently on store window displays and sales campaigns. We choose the right colors, the right scents, and the right textures to bring about familiar feelings and concerns.
The Son of Man’s arrival however, comes without tranquility. Instead, it calls us away from the distractions in our lives. It also challenges so many things that are familiar to us, areas where we are comfortable and complacent: the increase of violence in our society, homelessness, poverty, sickness and abuse of all kinds.

Our Church begins its new year when the days are getting darker and Episcopal Priest and writer Fleming Rutledge reminds us that Advent begins in the dark. It is not a season for the faint of heart.” Advent invites us to describe life “on earth as it is.” We are invited to name our fear that God seems to be absent. And we are called to sit uncomfortably yet courageously in the truth. In Advent, we long for peace and goodwill on earth. We long for the hungry to be filled with good things. We long for light to overtake the darkness.

Advent is the season where we wait with quiet anticipation. This is no easy task in our culture, where football players rush to the goal line and we live for instant gratification. But Advent reminds us that things worth waiting for take place in the dark and we cannot speed through the darkness to get to the light. Seeds break open in dark winter soil so that plants can appear in the spring. God’s Spirit hovered over dark water, preparing to create the world. The child we wait for grows in the deep darkness of the womb.

Whether the seas are roaring, or the fig trees are sprouting, Jesus calls us to pay attention to the signs of what or who is to come. We need to be on guard so that our hearts are not weighed down with drunkenness or any other destructive coping mechanisms we might use to numb our feelings. We need to be clear headed so that we can recognize movements that are of God and participate in them. Advent is full of the present and the ‘not yet’ of God’s kingdom and speaks to the tension between our reality and God’s vision for our future.

In Shawshank Redemption, Andy kept hope alive in his jail cell. In Luke’s Gospel, Hope showed up in the womb of an unwed teenage mother. Advent is the season we begin to tell the story of God who loved the world so much that God sent Christ into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save it. Our gospel text this morning attempts to hold these two things in balance: being alert to the painful realities of life; yet remaining hopeful. It tells us there are two different responses to distress in our lives and in our world: one is to faint with fear and foreboding; the other is to look up, to raise our heads in anticipation of redemption. What makes the difference? For us, as Christians, it is a basic trust in God, in God’s good intentions, and in God’s power working in and through us to be forces of change for good. The source of our hope is not believing that Christ is going to return in some instant in the future, but believing that Christ is always near at hand working in and through us to be his hands, his feet, his mind, his voice in the world. We respond differently when we know that, despite all appearances to the contrary, God remains in charge.

It is advent, and time to be watchful for a light shining in the darkness. We have lit our own candle of hope this morning, and during the coming days we need to protect and nourish the flame. I pray that all of us might live into God’s hope this advent season and be people of hope in a world in desperate need of Hope.

[i]  Movie: Shawshank Redemption, directed by Frank Darabont, 1994
[ii] Ragan Sutterfield, The Christian Century, November 16, 2015
[iii] William H. Lamar IV, The Christian Century, October 23, 2018
[iv] Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ
[v]  John 3:16-17