First Sunday of Advent
Who here has finished all their Christmas shopping? I think all I can say is we’re hoping to get everything done by the 25th! Hope is an interesting thing, isn’t it!
What actually is hope?
Is it a wishy washy maybe or a kind of unsure optimism? The modern idea of hope is “to wish for, to expect, but without certainty of the fulfilment.” In that sense, I hope at some point to get a Mazda MX5, but, I’m told its okay to keep dreaming, but there’s not much chance of it happening!
But in bible tradition, the Hebrew and Greek words translated as “hope” includes a level of certainty. So, ‘Hope’ becomes “a strong and confident expectation.” I often have conversations with people concerning the end of life which express hope somewhere between the two. “I think there is reality in the idea of heaven but I’m not sure.”
And that’s understandable, as this form of hope is linked to the idea of faith – daring to believe that heaven is real.
One of the functions of a church community is to live out belief, to dare to believe this, in such a way that it helps each person to dare to believe our hope of heaven is true and for that reality to then give confidence to live a more secure life now.
Now, in the season of Advent, we are going to look at four traditional themes that have been reflected on over the centuries during advent: Hope, Joy, Peace and Love. As these themes frame how we respond to the Christian story, and how we make sense of the Christmas story today. And the Christmas story is one of hope. Not in the soft understanding of hope of the romantic image of a baby in a barn and hoping that the essence of that warm image stays with us just for the Christmas season. But, rather, that to understand the reality of the Christmas story can provide the basis of a real, firm hope in the wider Christian story. God comes to earth, which culminates in our eternity in heaven.
How is that possible? How is the Christmas story one of hope that says Heaven is a reality?
My starting point is to say that there are the heavenly realms. For me, I say that there are because I cannot see how something comes from nothing. Philosophically, this, the world, can’t just happen. So, for, me, my starting point is that we are created.
That doesn’t mean I believe in creationism, the world made in 7 days – I think that is divinely inspired poetry. But I believe we are created which for me raises the questions of by whom and why?
And, for me, the Christian story makes sense of that. So, in Heaven, wherever that is, beyond space and time is God – and the bible tradition reveals God as Father, Son and Spirit. And the Son of God becomes Jesus. He enters space and time as Jesus, like us, flesh and blood. Plausible?
I say yes, and I partly say yes to that by reading the bible story and seeing it makes sense of the world around us. That’s partly what I base my proof on. Partly through the tradition of 2000 years of people engaging with this tradition – seeking to live it out as well as seeking to pull it apart and yet, it still stands as such a robust story today. Far better than the story of secularism and of consumerism which is the big story that western society wants us to engage with today.
I’ve been reading a book called Happiness written by an economist who argues there is no god and that if we could all live happily with one another all would be okay – a form of positivism. His way forward is that we should all engage with cognitive behavioural therapy to make us positive. But he also makes two significant points.
Firstly, he acknowledges that statistics, he is an economist after all, show that we feel no happier than we did 50 years ago and that the end of the big story of Christianity which strongly shaped society 50 years ago has left a moral vacuum. He is someone who is a secularist and a consumerist yet his argument doesn’t hold water. The alarming thing is that his rationale affects government policy in areas such as wanting to move from GDP as a measurement of global development to that of GWB – gross wellbeing, which is trying to measure if we are happier!
And that plays out in the talk of ‘wellbeing’ which you can easily find in the workplace and on self-help bookshelves and in government speeches made by the likes of the then prime minister, David Cameron. It is an ideology that shapes us even if think we’re beyond that! Happiness is a key thing in society. It is a key value that shaped the big thinkers who developed the idea of the Enlightenment.
Back to the Christian story, we have to read our story in light of all this other kind of stuff and my experience is that as you do it still stands up. The son of God becomes born as Jesus. And if he leaves the reality of heaven so the Christian story says he returns. We could look at the evidence for the resurrection at this point, but not enough time – and that’s part of the reason for Easter, yet as you look at the evidence for the resurrection there is enough there, I would suggest, to prove on the balance of probability that the resurrection happened.
Our Christian story holds water – it provides, as Peter suggest, that we can hold a “new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.”
And so, hope based on looking at the whole of the Christian story, based on how the tradition of the Christian story has been lived over 2000 years and how it is lived today, so hope becomes robust – not just a pie in the sky dream, but more steak on your plate today. It is a more robust prospect than the secularised notion of happiness. And that is what our reading, not very Adventy I know, but that is what our reading from the bible is wanting to convey.
Hope can be real.
Yes, you have to dare to believe it – it is a dare when the louder voice is to believe the pursuit of happiness, The author of Happiness, Richard Layard, and many of his readers, dare to believe that happiness is the only way, even though he proves to himself there is no proof for it!
But the Christmas story starts that process of a living hope. So, at the beginning of Advent will you consider again how you understand hope? The Christian understanding of hope – the reality of heaven, of Jesus’ birth, his life, death and resurrection, to hold to that does give a hope that the hope of happiness simply can’t match.
And a final thought. There is nothing wrong in feeling happy! I love feeling happy – this isn’t to say that the Christian story is against happiness – actually it is for fulfilment!
Jn 10:10. But in considering to what level you let the Christian understanding of hope to shape your life, start looking out to how much western society is simply looking for happiness, that the statistics show is just not happening. And hold that story up against the Christian understanding of Hope. If you’ve never through of the Christmas story in this way before, as the story that brings real hope into the world, and the opportunity to let that story affect your life in that way, then, dare you believe it more? Why not let the next four weeks of Advent be a time to consider where your real hopes in life are?
My experience, for what it is worth – life is challenging, but the Christian story is robust enough to deal with those challenges, and yet still gives that hope and an offer of fulfilment in life. That’s different from happiness, but it is more profound. I wonder what you ultimately think?