Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Today we begin a new year in the calendar of the church. And as we mark the first Sunday in the season of Advent, we jump from last week’s celebration of Christ as our King and Sovereign, back into the experience of waiting for Christ to come into our world. A week ago, we declared Christ as our Lord, and acknowledged his presence, power, and authority over all things. Our Christ candle shone brightly in our worship, and we were challenged to go out and shine that light into the world.
But today, we lit only the Candle of Hope. The Christ Candle is not shining today. And not because Christ is not present with us… I certainly believe that he is. As much as Christ was King last Sunday, Jesus is our Lord today. But in Advent we take time to acknowledge the fact that although Christ has come, Christ’s presence and power is not yet felt throughout the whole earth. Although the light of Christ shines, there are still many dark places in our world and within our lives.
As you may remember, Advent means “coming”. Christ came among us 2000 years ago in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. And in Advent we both wait to celebrate that coming, and we anticipate Christ’s coming again — the future time when Christ’s presence will pervade all things, when everyone will live in peace with justice and righteousness, and all will be well in the world.
Our scripture texts this morning connect us to the experience of God’s People long ago, when they waited and hoped for God to act powerfully and help them in their trouble. The prophet Jeremiah spoke words of hope to the people of Judah and Jerusalem. Remember that at this point in history, the Babylonian Empire has invaded Judah a number of times, and the city of Jerusalem has been destroyed. Many of the people have been exiled to live in Babylon, and others are left to live a shattered existence in the aftermath of the invasions.
And rather than thinking about these events as “bad luck”, God’s People are interpreting them as evidence of God’s having abandoned and forgotten them. They wonder how God could allow their devastation, why God would turn away from the covenant made at Sinai, and they even consider the possibility that God might be powerless compared to the Babylonian deities who seem to have won the war. And so the prophet’s task is to give the people some hope. He brings a message from God that encourages them to hang on and to remain faithful until things finally turn around for them. They need to trust God and wait for the time when things will get better.
“The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made… I will cause a Righteous Branch to spring up for David [a ruler, a king in the line of King David will come] and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.”
Looking back, we can see that there were some better days ahead for the People of Judah and Jerusalem. The day did come when those in exile were allowed to go home, and eventually the temple was rebuilt. They did have one or two reasonable kings in the centuries that followed as well, kings who cared about their people and even encouraged the people to turn back to God and God’s commandments. Perhaps Jeremiah’s prediction did come true.
But those who lived nearly 600 years later and who met the man Jesus of Nazareth came to a different conclusion about Jeremiah’s prophecy and others like it. The Jews of the first century were struggling too, like their ancestors before them. Though they had their temple and their religion, they were occupied by the Roman Empire now, and lived under their oppression. And even if some among them lived fairly comfortable lives, many of God’s People suffered from poverty or illness, or simply from a lack of hope for things to get better.
When Jesus began his ministry of teaching and healing and forgiving in God’s name, they interpreted his presence and work as the fulfillment of the prophet’s predictions. When one woman was healed by Jesus, they saw hope for the healing of all who were suffering. When one man was forgiven and restored to community, they were encouraged that no one was outside of redemption. When the least among them was welcomed by Jesus, they caught a glimpse of what God’s inclusive love would look like. When Jesus came on the scene, hope came with him, as God’s people were lifted above their distress into the joy of relationship with God.
Those who watched what was happening with this man called Jesus must have wondered. Though some were seeing him as their Saviour and Messiah, he didn’t act like the king that the prophets were calling for. He didn’t take power. He didn’t conquer. And he didn’t even appear to win. He was put to death on a cross, and he was dead and gone. At least, that’s what some people must have thought. But Jesus’ followers had been transformed by their relationship with him. They had received the gift of hope, and that gift could not be taken back.
It’s not that their lives became easy at that point. Things actually got pretty challenging for those who became followers of the Way — for those who professed their hope in Jesus as their Saviour and Lord. Things were bad enough that Christian writings in the mid to late first century were sounding very much like the prophetic writings of centuries past. In the face of trials and persecutions, the Gospel writers were encouraging the faithful with predictions of great trouble, but followed by ultimate victory for the Son of Man and those who were faithful to the Christ. The author of Luke’s Gospel encouraged his Christian friends to be alert, to be on guard — ready for Christ’s coming again to make everything right, to inaugurate the Kingdom of God.
Like those before them, they needed some hope. They needed some encouragement to know that God could get them through their present struggle and on to a new day. The Gospel writer has Jesus sharing a parable. Jesus says, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the Kingdom of God is near.”
Today, our Christ Candle is not lit. Today, we pause to acknowledge the chaos and confusion in our world and within our lives. We remember that there are hungry people needing to be fed. We take notice of the brokenness in our relationships, in our families and communities, and even in our churches. We pay attention to the fact that our lives are so often ruled by greed and a lust for power, rather than by the humble love of Christ our Lord.
We cannot ignore these things any more than the first century Christians could ignore the trouble they were experiencing. But Jesus’ parable called those Christians to look around at all the chaos and confusion, and to see all of that as a sign of the coming Kingdom of God. Like leaves growing on a tree indicate the coming of summer, when they saw trouble around them, they could be sure that Christ was on his way once again into their world.
In the midst of the darkness, the Candle of Hope shines out. It is the same hope that encouraged those before us, that the first Christians discovered in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Because Christ did not come into a perfect world where everyone was healthy and happy and content. Christ came into a world of darkness and doubt, of poverty and illness, of sadness and isolation, and Christ transformed the lives of those he met and he transformed the world itself.
Today we can certainly see signs of trouble. But we must keep looking for the way that Christ’s light is shining into those dark places and bringing hope.
Today we can read about hope on our PWS&D insert — how women in El Salvador like Gloria are starting their lives over as they learn about women’s rights, family planning, and mental health — as they develop lasting friendships and change their futures through the gifts of our church.
Today we can see that hope in the faces of those on the front of our bulletin. It’s a Christmas celebration at the Evangel Hall Mission in Toronto. In the midst of poverty and despair, people are finding food, and friendship, and community, and through support, training, and encouragement, many of their futures are being transformed.
Today we can participate in sharing the gift of hope with those who are suffering most. Through our gifts to PWS&D or Presbyterians Sharing, and through our participation in the Advent Appeal, we have the opportunity to be Christ’s hopeful presence, to shine Christ’s light of hope into some very dark and sorrowful places.
And today we also get to experience a taste of hope. Christ is calling us not only to wait for the coming kingdom, and not only to work for the coming kingdom… but Christ is inviting us to experience the coming kingdom right now. As we gather at the Table of the Lord today, may we be filled with hope. May this truly be a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in the coming kingdom of God, and may God’s kingdom come. Amen.