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Hope? We’re going to need it. 8 December 2007

Posted by Dr Moose in Church, Faith.
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Sermon for this Sunday, Advent 2.

If there is a single word that links all the readings today it’s hope.

For Isaiah, speaking to his people, the vision he offers in something that must have seemed nearly impossible – nothing more than the restoration of national fortune after near total catastrophe. Israel was like a tree, cut down to a stump, and yet here was a picture of new-growth wildly greater than what had gone before. It would have been very easy to discount ti at the time because it would have seemed so unlikely. But nevertheless there it is – the promise of new growth and revival that is ultimately understood in the coming of Jesus. Isaiah offers hope in the darkness.

So does John the Baptist to the people of Judea, under the yoke of the powerful empire of Rome. Although his words, are rather less than hope for all. The ordinary people may come after a baptism of repentance, but not the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Indeed John questions what they might hope for, or even hope in. As far as he is concerned they seem to be placing their hope in their lineage as Sons of Abraham, the greatest of the Patriarchs, who received the promise of unnumbered descendants and divine favour.

It’s almost the very opposite of John’s message. He is calling people to repent. And repentance is a much-misunderstood word. Maybe as part of our preparation and penitence in Advent it’s worth pausing to ponder. It doesn’t mean being sorry, or even owning up to the gravity of the situation. It is possible to regret, but not to repent.

It’s not like a small child saying sorry because they’ve been told to, the sort of sorrow that isn’t particularly real. Repentance is reasoned regret coupled with righteous response. It’s about a 180-degree turn of attitude and action. The Highway Code frowns on U-turns, but they bring a smile to the face of God.

John the Baptist sees through the visiting “religious professionals” and challenges them to respond in the strongest of terms. The hope he offers both to them, and to the “ordinary” people is the imminent approach of the coming of God – maybe a little like how we now might understand the Second Coming. The great wrap-up at the End of Time.

John might not have got quite what he expected, but he recognised and knew enough to see Jesus as the one through whom this would all be made manifest – as well as to warn those who leant on their lineage as a shelter from divine judgement.

In Romans we are called to nothing less than a continued hope in Christ. Paul encourages his hearers, and hence us, to engage with three things: The past of our faith – our Bibles, the person of our faith – Jesus Christ, and the people of our faith – each other.

Isaiah’s contemporaries maybe didn’t know what to hope, other than starting from a recognition that things could only get better.

John’s hearers were challenged to put their hope in the grace of God, rather than in their genealogy.

Romans – what hope does that offer? Nothing less than “all joy and peace.” Not though as an abstract something, divorced from reality, but an end that requires something of us, or from us. Paul encourages his readers to an attitude and reality of unity. Not a mere acceptance, but a unity as we follow Christ.

He reminds them of the place of Jesus, the Saviour we await, coming in the sheer ordinariness and humility of a servant to his people. He reminds us that this is a fulfilment of the great hopes of the founding fathers of the Jewish race – a fulfilment of the faith of Abraham.

It’s something that goes beyond the old though – the mission of Jesus is that the Gentiles may glorify God. It is so that we, who stand outside the tradition and genealogy of the Jewish people, may come to faith in the God who has revealed himself through them.

But I’d like to return to that word hope. Isaiah’s hearers needed something, or somebody, to sort then out and bring them hope in the darkness. The ordinary people who flocked to John the Baptist placed their hopes in the grace and forgiveness of God, even as the religious leaders singularly failed to do so.

And us, what do we hope for? A mended roof? A full church? A healthy bank balance? Even a full-time vicar? Maybe, dare we, ask the question that applied to the Pharisees and Sadducees: in what or who are we hoping? We are offered in Christ the hope of “all joy and peace” – but do we really need it? Do our current straits place us in somewhere where we need to rely on divinely-offered hope?

At the risk of being contentious, if we are happy and content with the status quo, or think that we can solve our own problems, then we do not need hope at all. But if we want our church to be making a difference, both in the village and on the estate we really do need hope.

We need it because the only way forward lies in raising our game, to use a sporting adage. It will require leaving behind some (or more than some) of our comfort. It will involve change, because change is an integral feature of growth.

I think we all know that already, in our heads if not yet in our hearts, but like the difference between regret and repentance it requires action, not just acknowledgement.

Action in using our facilities like the Old Schools to better effect.

In learning and growing in our faith so that we can see and understand how we need to share it with others.

In considering the messages our practices send to those outside our fellowship, and respond accordingly.

And I use the plural, “us” and “our” advisedly, because it can’t, won’t and shouldn’t all come from the vicar. I know that we aren’t all going to agree. That’s the only thing that is a certainty!

As we prepare for Christmas, the celebration of the Incarnation, the power of heaven infiltrating the grubby realm of humanity let’s prepare to grasp, and to respond, to the reasons why the Son of God came. Why it matters. Why we need to respond, individually and corporately.

As God made promises to the Patriarchs to spread his name to the Gentiles so that they would give him glory, so we need to hold on to that promise – that God will be faithful. Faithful in his promise to those outside our circle, our Church family, to our own Gentiles, if you like. That they may come to glorify God for his mercy too.

And to do that we really will need to hope and trust in the power of God, in our place and in our time.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give us a spirit of unity among ourselves as we follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth we may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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