Hope does not disappoint us Dave Rogalsky
Scriptures: (not lectionary) Romans 5:1-5, Matthew 12:15-21, Romans 12:9-21, Romans 15:7-13
Theme: To grow in hope.
We have come to the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new church year. Custom has this Sunday look beyond this year and this Christmas into the future when God’s rule will be complete. When God is joyfully and willing acknowledged by all people as the one who has created, who sustains, and who is making right the cosmos, then all will have enough: enough food, shelter, safety, peace, wholeness, health care, education, freedom to practice faith and on and on. God does not come to dominate or put down. God comes to lift up and free. This is our hope on this first Sunday of Advent.
I have stayed away from the lectionary readings for today. The lectionary is a list of reading for each Sunday of the year. There is a three year cycle with different passages for each Sunday – usually an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a Gospel reading, and an additional New Testament reading. Lectionaries are used by most Christian churches around the world as a guide to reading scripture year by year, and Sunday by Sunday.
For the First Sunday of Advent the readings always focus on the return of Jesus and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. The readings tend to come out of Jesus’ apocalyptic speaking like Mark 13, from the Book of Revelation, and from other apocalyptic parts of the Old and New Testaments – and there are lots! Apocalyptic means unveiling – the uncovering of the end of the age. The time of the early church was one caught up in thinking about the end of the human age and the beginning of the ruling of God. The Jews before Jesus were into this in a big way and both Jesus’ and his followers’ writings are full of comments and thoughts about the end of the human age. Jesus’ followers made a sharp turn in this when they insisted that the end of the age meant that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, the Christ, would return and bring an end to the human age and establish God’s rule on earth. Jesus would be King of God’s kingdom. Hope, in these writings, both Jewish and Christian, have to do with the end of the sinful human age, the end of the suffering of God’s people, the judgement of the unrighteous, and the beginning of the holy divine kingdom. Hope has to do with getting out of this earth, this life, this culture, and getting into the time when God rules the earth. Much of this is based on the Old Testament idea of a kingdom which first gives allegiance to God, even if it has a human king. We call that a theocracy – a king ruling with divine authority.
Of course a major problem with this is that they all expected it to happen within a few years. Jesus told his disciples that there would be some living in his day who would still be alive on earth when he returned to rule (see Matthew 16:27-28). The writer of the book of Revelation used many symbols that the people of his day could attach to real personages and events of their time, expecting Jesus to return soon and get them out of the persecution and suffering they were undergoing. The writer of the book of Revelation was in political/religious exile on the island of Patmos. Hope for them was to get out of the troubles they were in.
The Swedenborgian Church of North America writes on its website:
One of Swedenborg's premises is that the Second Coming has taken place - and in fact still is taking place. The Second Coming is not an actual physical appearance of the Lord, but rather His return in spirit and truth that is being effected as a present reality as the New Church. The information revealed to Swedenborg, he felt, is a continually-occurring Second Coming in that the new information enables a new perception of the Word of God.1
Interestingly most Mennonites tend toward the idea that God’s kingdom is growing slowly among humankind in every person who allows God to grow in them. According to these Mennonites, and many other Christians, hope is not about God coming and slaying God’s enemies, judging humankind as good or bad, doing away with governments and big business, and establishing God’s rule on earth. Instead hope is about God’s kingdom growing all the time. Jesus’ parables of yeast growing invisibly in dough until it is ready to be baked, tiny seeds like mustard growing until they are large plants (Matthew 13:31-33), and grain finding good soil in which to germinate, grow and bear fruit (Matthew 13:1-23) are what we turn to for hope. Hope is that God has been working, continues now, will continue into the future, and is at work in all who are willing to be worked in.
That is kind of hope which we find in our reading for today from Romans 5. Hope is part of a growing follower of God. Listen to it again:
1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Romans 5:1-5 (NRSV)
We are justified by faith. Justified means to be made righteous, to be made to be in right relationship. When we put our trust in God - that’s what faith means - then God begins to develop a right relationship between us and God. We are at peace with God. This is through Jesus, God among us, who came to tell us that God was nearer to us than our breath, and wanted us to each and every one turn towards God to be in relationship (See Mark 1:14-15). Jesus taught this and when we believe this we can hope in being in the joyful presence of God, the glory of God. This is a hope not only for the far future, but for now.
Paul, who was writing to the Christians in Rome had himself recently suffered persecution in the city of Ephesus. The Christians in Rome, in particular the Jewish ones, who had only recently been allowed back into the city of Rome after been exiled under Emperor Claudius, had also suffered. Suffering for being a follower of God was their common experience. I long ago stopped trying to figure out whose suffering was greater. God uses any suffering we experience to grow us.
Suffering, Paul notes, produces endurance. The sense of this word is of patience. Suffering produces the ability to wait, to endure, to be patient. Yes, some who suffer can be rather impatient, but for mature people there is an acceptance of the present, as well as a waiting for a better future. Paul hits it on the head when he tells us that this kind of enduring patience develops character in those who practice it.
The word for character that Paul used can mean ‘experience,’ the kind of experience that leads folk to act in ways that find approval from those around them. It is the kind of character and approval that we sometimes call wisdom.
God gives us hope by coming among us as one of us, blessing our form and lives.
Notice, this “hope of sharing the glory of God” can be understood as growing in relationship with God. This growing in relationship with God results in people becoming the kind of people whom God knows will build a peaceable world for all of life to share. Patience from difficult experiences leads a wise character. When we notice this happen in us, and others around us notice it too, then there is hope that God is indeed at work in the world.
So hope isn’t a hope in some future golden age. And hope isn’t a blind hope – we have experienced God at work and because of that hope in the future. “Hope does not disappoint us, God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” We hope because we experience God in our hearts and lives now.
This is the first Sunday of Advent, traditionally a time to focus on a future that God would make with an intervention into human history. In many ways that way of thinking was based on a young earth theory – God had created recently. Humanity had lived through the whole of that time. God would soon end it all.
But if we see God at work in creation, in our over 13 Billion year old universe, then we can see that God’s action is longer, gentler, less invasive, and invites us to be co-creators with God. Hope isn’t in getting out of suffering, but of seeing God present in our world, in all its joys and griefs. God with us in both joy and grief and everywhere in between. This is how I have experienced God in my life – a gentle presence, inviting me day by day into growth in my character, in how I relate to others, in how I live in the world. This isn’t a quick fix of my character and flaws but a life long journey of God at work.
In some ways, by God coming among us as Jesus, God was telling us that it takes time and development. Jesus was gestated for nine months, lived for around thirty years before he even started his ministry, and left the task unfinished with the apostles and disciples to continue. Hope, our focus this Sunday, is patiently waiting, patiently working with God, growing in character, in wisdom, and in love.
How does this happen? I’ve talked to people about this. I’ve read about it. I’ve watched myself. This what I’ve discovered.
Belief in some higher power is necessary
A belief that the higher power wants to be in relationship with you is essential
A desire to grow into a better person is needed
A willingness to take time to invite the higher power into your life through some kind of spirituality. Spirituality is being in relationship with God through practices. Mine include prayer, contemplation, worship, study, retreating, journaling, and many more. I’ve been interviewing you folk the last six months, there are many ways to invite God into your life. It might take some time trying things until you find what works for you. It might need a spiritual guide. I’m available to help you find what works for you.
And it takes time – that patience, endurance, willing to wait.
But it’s worth it. It is an invitation to share in God’s joyful presence. It’s an invitation to share in God’s glory! It’s an invitation to experience God’s love in our hearts from day to day!