Happy New Year! Before you question my sanity - please remember that each year the Church begins a new liturgical year – on the first Sunday of Advent – so – Happy New Year!
Advent is the time of year the Church sets aside to allow us to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ – yes, at Christmas – but more importantly for us – Christ’s coming at the end of our earthly lives – or at the end of time - which ever comes first.
So at ever Mass we pray that “we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ.”
So besides striving to be free from sin and safe from all distress – no small tasks to work on — What else should we be doing as we wait?
This Advent the four of us preachers: myself, and Deacons Jim, Larry, and Mike – want to suggest that what we should be doing as we wait during these days of Advent — is to grow in hope, in peace, in joy, and in love.
Traditionally that is the meaning behind the four Advent candles – so just as the light increases week by week as we light these candles – so might hope, peace, joy, and love – increase in our hearts and lives, in our communities and world — as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. . .
So on this first Sunday of Advent, three stories of HOPE in our Scripture readings. But we will only look at two for sake of brevity.
In the Gospel, Jesus says, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.”
So what was it like in the days of Noah?? Not so good for the people who were supposed to be God’s chosen. . .
Great was the wickedness of the Israelites – and their hearts were set on evil. At the dawn of creation God expressed delight in what was created – and within a few generations was now expressing disappointment at what humankind had done with creation.
Rather than embracing their relationship with God, the Israelites were chasing after false gods and were in full rebellion against God.
It was as if the vast majority of the Israelites were sleeping – and therefore they failed to understand their impending doom. They were about to be swept away in God’s judgment without even comprehending how much they needed God.
Only one was alert and awake. Only one knew why the clouds were gathering in the sky. Only one was prepared for God’s coming in judgment – NOAH. NOAH remained faithful and NOAH had HOPE: remembering God the creator was in charge - and NOT the created.
Hope is a wonderful gift from God, a source of strength and courage in the face of life’s harshest trials.
When the flood waters rise - HOPE points to the clouds that will eventual part and let the sun shine again.
When we are overworked and exhausted, hope gives us fresh energy.
When we are discouraged, hope lifts our spirits.
When we are tempted to quit, hope keeps us going.
When we struggle with a crippling disease or a lingering illness, hope helps us persevere beyond the pain.
Put simply, when life hurts and dreams fade – nothing helps like hope.
There is the story from Isaiah, similar to the days of Noah – when people turn from God and go their own way – and then there is the 3rd story of St. Paul writing to the Romans.
Although Paul had not yet been to Rome – he knew there was division in the capital of the empire.
A few years before Paul wrote to them – the emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome - which also included the Jewish-Christians as well.
So the Church in Rome then consisted only of Gentile Christians– that is non-Jewish Christians - who were not used to being in charge, or doing things their way- as Christianity was still seen as an off-shoot of Judaism.
So when the Jewish Christians were allowed to return a few years later – they encountered a very different Church - one where the once sacred Jewish ceremonies and rituals had given way to new ways of worshiping –
AND THIS CAUSED TENSIONS– which Paul wanted to address.
And then also Gentile and Jewish Chrsitians both were subject to the debauchery which surrounded them - which was just part and partial of the pagan Roman empire:
drunkenness, promiscuity, lust.
Paul hoped and prayed the Christians would stay alert and awake: – guarding against the darkness of the empire – and would choose to walk always in the light of Christ.
Paul wanted to encourage them – he wanted to be a good leader for them.
And one of the greatest gifts leaders can give to those around them is hope. Never underestimate its power.
Winston Churchill was once asked by a reporter what his country’s greatest weapon was against the Nazi regime. Without pausing for a moment he said: “It was what England’s greatest weapon has always been – hope.”
People will continue working, struggling and trying – if they have hope.
Hope lifts people’s morale, It improves their self-image. It re-energizes them. It raises their expectations.
It is the leader’s job – be that a pastor, a parent, a teacher, a boss – to hold hope high, to instill it in the people they lead.
Maintaining hope comes from seeing the potential in every situation and staying positive no matter what the circumstances.
So the first candle of Advent – signifies hope – something we all need and can grow in as we wait for the coming of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
For I guarantee everyone of us will be put in situations in life when the flood waters of life rise, when darkness comes upon us, when we are tempted to give into the easier ways of the world rather than standing confidently in the light of Christ – when we wonder how we are going to go on – how we are going to endure.
May God grant us all hope in those dark hours. And may we have the consolation of those who have gone before us who allowed their souls to be anchored by hope.
Pope Francis said that Christians are called to be women and men of hope – united by the certainty of a God who does not give up.
During these waiting days of Advent, when the days grow shorter and the coldness sets in – may we always nurture the gift of HOPE God gives us. And may we strive to share the gift of HOPE with our families and communities so as make our world a better place.
Back when I was growing up in the Super 70s – my whole family would gather together on a Saturday evening, often with popcorn and sodas – to watch the Fab Four on CBS.
No, not the Beatles but:
All in the Family
Followed by the Mary Tyler Moore Show
Then Bob Newhart
And finally, Carol Burnett.
The actor Carroll O’Conner masterfully played the character of Archie Bunker on All in the Family.
Archie had an opinion about everything and everyone – including God.
He once declared, “God don’t make no mistakes – that’s how he got to be God.”
Another religious Bunker-ism: The Lord might be out finding sheep - but they still end up as lambchops. . .
For those of you too young to remember Archie, he was once listed as number 1 on Bravo’s 100 Greatest TV Characters. Wikipedia says Bunker was characterized by his bigotry toward: “blacks, Hispanics, commies, gays, hippies, Jews, Asians, Catholics, women’s libbers and Polish-Americans.”
Archie was presented as a Christian, however, and often misquoted the Bible. He took pride in being religious, although he rarely attended church services.
Archie Bunker is an excellent reminder that way too many people have a theology rooted in ignorance or immersed in hatred. And the Bible, for them, is only an excuse to hold onto their bigotry or to justify their brand of politics.
And Archie is a humorous reminder that we must NOT remake God in our image, but allow the Spirit of God to remake US into the image of God.
So Archie could be the poster boy for today’s pseudo-Christianity, in which many substitute
“Popular Wisdom” - the kind you see on bumper stickers – for the teaching of Jesus.
Popular wisdom likes a Jesus who would confuse religion with a misguided patriotism that proclaims: America: right or wrong.
Who would describe the poor as lazy and interested only in a free ride.
Who would easily jump to conclusions about the guilt of others with phrases like “lock them up” – who would dare lump “God, guns, and country” in the same phrase.
Popular wisdom likes the plastic Jesus, the one whose being is portrayed in countless images as bland and melancholy, who understands and approves of our prejudices, our clinging to popular belief instead of JESUS’ actual teaching. And as one preacher recently put it – if you think this is hard to listen to – then just wait until you meet Jesus face to face. . .
Within the last few months, I have become a frequent reader of Tish Harrison Warren. She is a priest of the Anglican Church in North America and frequently writes columns in the New York Times.
Her God, she writes, “is not a culture warrior.”
“In the news and on social media” she writes, “God usually shows up when we are fighting about something. The subject of faith seems most often discussed in conversations about voting patterns and campaigning and promises kept or broken by politicians.
God appears in public discourse when a politician calls for Christian Nationalism.
Or when another paints ‘Jesus, Guns, and Babies’ on the side of a campaign bus.”
“This doesn’t sound much like Pope Francis,” Warren says, “who has said that instead of being a player in the culture wars, the Church should be a ‘field hospital’ where modern people, buffeted by the indifference or outright hostility of various ideologies, philosophies and politics are treated with the medicine of God’s love.”
I love it when our protestant brothers and sisters quote Pope Francis when so many in our own Church turn a deaf ear to him. . . Like the majority of our American Bishops who voted in a very anti-Francis bishop to be their leader for the next 3 years.
Funny how others – know Francis is on to something. . . something radical and new and holy and true. Something akin to what Jesus taught.
Warren believes that the way religion is used in the culture wars inevitably shapes, as a culture and as individuals, how we discuss faith. “And that,” she says, “inevitably shapes who we understand God to be.”
Instead, faith is about fundamental issues with which, acknowledged or not, every human being must deal.
Warren calls them “questions that haunt every human life: how does one know what is true and false, right or wrong? Is there a God? If there is, can we interact with him, her, or it? If so, how? Can God speak to us? Can we speak to God?
What are our obligations to God and to other human beings? How can we have joy? How can we live well? How can we be wise?”
People searching for God must not be distracted by popular wisdom or the hot-button issues foisted upon us by the culture wars.
The wisdom accumulated by the “great cloud of witnesses” the billions of people who have found God through the ages –
shows that the true God can be found by open-mindedness, prayer, silence, reflection, and study.
And it should go without saying – so probably needs to be said: the true God also decries both lies and violence.
Obviously, that’s not Archie Bunker’s god.
But it is our God, our king – who we find with outstretched arms on the cross.
Who, without judgment.
Without worrying about what anyone else will say or will think–
Turns to a thief hanging near him, and to any and all repentant sinners - and says: Today you will be with me in paradise.
I don’t know about you, but that is certainly the merciful God into whose arms I want to be embraced. . . In whose image and likeness we are all made. And who – I hope & pray – We can do our best to be like.
Throughout our reading of St. Luke’s Gospel this year – Luke has told us about Jesus making his way to Jerusalem. Along this journey, he has been teaching his followers what discipleship means and what they must do to carry on his life and ministry.
Jesus has told them along the way that he would suffer, die,and be raised from the dead IN Jerusalem. And now his feet are standing within the gates of Jesusalem: Jesus is teaching in the Temple just a few days before he will be put to death.
While many people welcomed Jesus when he arrived in Jerusalem – others did not - like the Sadducees.
They are part of the wealthy aristocracy who cooperate with the occupying Romans.
They are the fundamentalists of their day who insist that the only authentic word of God comes from the Torah - the first five books of the Old Testament.
They are also the priests of the Temple - and they are the ones who stand to loose the most if any of what Jesus teaches comes about - and so they want to take one last stand to discredit him before the crowds who follow him.
So they try to trap him in his teaching about the resurrection of the dead. Knowing there is NO mention of the resurrection in the Torah,
they quote a marriage law found in the Book of Deuteronomy, part of the Torah – part of their most sacred texts.
The law they quote requires that if a man dies without a male heir – then his brother is to marry his widow and produce such an heir.
The Sadducees propose a somewhat ridiculous situation of a woman who married all seven of the men in one family and still died childless. Whose wife will she be if there is such a thing — as resurrection?
They think Jesus has only two options: to either dismiss the law of Moses – thereby showing he is not a faithful Jew – to to dismiss the idea of resurrection - which has been part of his teaching. . .
But Jesus responds that they do not understand the nature of resurrection and the new life that follows.
They are focussing on the reality of an earthly kingdom. But Jesus is referring to the reign of God – which will be ushered in by his own death and resurrection.
Resurrection is life transformed by the God of the living. As his closest followers will discover - life transformed is not the same life on earth – as they will fail to recognize him after his transformation from death, his resurrection, in the weeks to come – they will think he is a ghost, or the gardener – there will be something physically different about him – much like when he was transfigured before Peter, James, and John.
At the heart of our faith – is the Paschal Mystery: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As we walk together to the New and Eternal Jerusalem, we are convinced that death is not the end. We do our best to trust in the promise of Jesus that if we die with him – we will rise with him.
But as much as we want to believe that – we do sometimes have a hard time explaining it in a clear and understandable way.
The Second Book of Maccabees provides an insight. It tells the story of a very difficult time for the people of Israel two centuries before the birth of Christ.
The Greeks had taken control of Israel – and decided to ban all religious practices – except their own.
The king at the time was Antiochus Epiphanes which in Greek means: Zeus Revealed. In other words, his name meant: just call me god!
At his command, the temple in Jerusalem was desecrated, and all other places of worship were destroyed. Those who refused to worship HIM were put to death.
So in today’s first reading, a faithful Jewish mother is arrested, along with her seven sons. They are given a choice – worship the king – the one with the big ego – or be killed.
Each of the brothers refuses to worship the king and chooses to die rather than abandon their trust in the one true God. Each of the brothers is murdered in a brutal way, along with their mother.
They choose death because of their firm belief that God would raise them up again. Their heroic actions are more eloquent than any theological or philosophical attempt to explain the mystery of life after death.
We may think that what happened to the mother and her sons is an isolated event that happened a long time ago.
But we have all heard of the anti-Jewish rhetoric that has been growing the last few years.
And according to the World Watch List released by the magazine Christianity Today:
Everyday, 13 Christians worldwide are killed because of their faith.
Everyday, 12 churches or Christian buildings are attacked.
And everyday, 12 Christians are unjustly arrested or imprisoned.
North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iran, Nigeria, and India – being the countries most dangerous for Christians to live in.
Now we might think, well those numbers aren’t too high – but isn’t just one too high?
It is the firm belief in the resurrection which continues to give these Christians hope – and should give us hope - in whatever slight difficulties or hardships we need to endure, to remain faithful.
It is the firm belief in the Paschal Mystery which continues to give us hope: that light is stronger than darkness. That love is stronger than hate. And that life is certainly stronger than death.
It is the firm belief that: We shall rise again on the last day with the faithful rich and poor. Coming to the house of Lord Jesus, we will find an open door there, we will find an open door,
Moments in time...