(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Sunday Worship on Nov 29, 2015, Advent I)
It’s the End of the World
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. And just as we have already decorated the sanctuary, many of us have begun decorating our homes for Christmas. Setting up trees, adorning the windows with lights, assembling gentle nativity scenes on coffee tables. And all against the background of festive music and the warmth of a roaring fire, perhaps, and the occasional cup of hot chocolate or cider.
All these preparations make for a charming scene. One that’s almost completely ruined by today’s scripture. Why did the church choose a text of trouble for a season of joy? In my mind, it plays out like this: there’s a choir, full of smiles, empty of anxiety, singing “Deck the Halls” with gusto, with delight, lifting our spirits as we set up the trees and put on the ornaments and take out old keepsakes that warm our hearts. And then, all of the sudden, Jesus barges in like a wrong note, like a misplayed chord, discordantly declaring one of the most disturbing speeches we have recorded in the gospels.
Stars falling. A blood red moon. Flooding along the coasts and rivers. Cities trembling from earthquakes. People huddled in places of refuge, fainting from fear. These are some of the images that today’s scripture evokes. Today’s text is about the end of the world. Literally. Jesus says, “Heaven and earth will pass away,” which is another way of saying that the world as you know it will end.
While Jesus’ proclamation today seems dreadfully misplaced in a season of joy, it is not an unfamiliar cry to our ears. In fact, it is quite common. In the last few decades, the popular genre of doomsday or end-of-the-world stories has flooded our culture. The list of books and movies is almost endless: Armageddon, The Day after Tomorrow, 2012, Interstellar, and one of my favorites, The Road. It is a rich genre of stories, and if nothing else, it shows us that there are many ways the world could end. But I think if we look beneath the surface of these different doomsdays, we find something even more fascinating. Underneath the different plots of these stories lies a common theme: hope holding out in a hopeless world. Which is precisely the reason we watch these stories, again and again, why they never get old, why they keep coming out. Hopeless worlds make us hope. Each time, as the twisting storyline draws us deeper into a bleak landscape, further into a world without hope, we finding ourselves hoping harder and harder, matching the hope of the heroic characters who hold out until their deliverance or their death, whichever comes first.
Our Own End Times
But why do these stories captivate us? Why is hope such an attraction? Perhaps it’s because our own lives mirror these stories. We all endure experiences that seem, in the heat of the moment, like the end of the world. From the outside, a person may never guess. But on the inside, it feels just like the catastrophic terror we see on the big movie screen: stars falling, buildings collapsing, darkness and confusion and terror. The end of the world is not a far-fetched fear. It is something we all feel.
I’m reminded of a story my good friend from New York City told me once. It was New Year’s Eve. My friend and his housemate were hosting a little get-together, and supplies were running low. So he ran out to the corner shop. The lady in front of him in line to the cashier was visibly distraught. She said nothing, but her tear-stained face spoke volumes. After paying for a single bottle of wine, she shuffled out the door. When my friend had made his purchase and left, he couldn’t help but notice the same woman sitting at a nearby bench, head bowed. He felt an inexplicable pull to sit beside her for a moment. So he did. He asked how she was. And she poured out a hopeless story: a divorce, the threat of losing her home…and more than anything, the feeling that life was finished, that there was no way out of the darkness. For her, the sky was falling. The earth was shaking.
My friend ended up sitting with her for over an hour. Mostly just listening. Occasionally offering a sympathetic and encouraging word. I don’t know whether she got a start on the bottle she had bought or not. But either way, I cannot help but feel that the moment they shared was sacramental. That somehow the light of hope found its way through a tiny crack into her hopeless horizon, that “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” came to her (21:27). Because my friend tells me that at the end, she expressed her deep gratitude to him, hugged him for an uncomfortably long time—although he says that in this case, it wasn’t uncomfortable—and said that even though she didn’t know what would happen next, the future no longer frightened her quite as much as it had.
As I picture their parting, I imagine the lady walking away with her head held higher than before. In a very real sense, her world had passed away (cf. 21:33). But the presence of my friend and the few words he offered her—I would like to think that they echoed an ancient word of hope, a word that looks upon life and says, “It is good, very good.” I would like to think that, in that moment that she shared with my friend, redemption was drawing near, the kingdom of God was drawing near. I would like to believe that for a moment, the woman’s heart had been cut free from the worries weighing her down (cf. 21:34), like a balloon cut free from its string.
A Hope/less Christmas
Like all the doomsday stories that give expression to our moments of hopelessness, this personal story of despair hints at a paradoxical truth. It is precisely when things have become hopeless that hope is truly born. Before things have become hopeless, before darkness has covered the horizon, when we can still see possible solutions or answers, it is not hope that fills our hearts. It is our own plans or proposals, our own strategies or schemes. When there is still a chance of delivering ourselves, we live in the closed world of our own thought. We are not yet praying (cf. 21:36), not yet on our knees.
Hope is not a reasonable expectation. It is not the currency of stockbrokers, who measure probabilities and plan for possible outcomes. It “is not hope if you can see what you are hoping for on the horizon.” Hope begins with hopelessness. Hope begins when we cannot see a way out, and yet we keep our eyes open anyway.
Hope is a woman who has lost her marriage and mostly likely her house, but who is nonetheless convinced in her heart of hearts not to give up on the possibility of new life. Hope is a homeless couple in Bethlehem, who cannot possibly foresee how their child will be born, but who nonetheless keep knocking…until they find a stable. Hope is a world that cannot possibly imagine peace but presses on for it anyway, trusting that its redemption is drawing near, believing that the kingdom of God is meant for earth as it is for heaven.
The words of Jesus that we hear today are not pleasant like the words that we expect to hear at this time of year. But to forget them, to sing “Deck the Halls” without any awareness of the many halls of life that are crumbling and passing away, including our own, is to—as the pope recently said—make a “charade” of Christmas. If nothing else, today’s scripture strips our seasonal preparations of their excessive sparkle and glitter. It turns down the blinding lights. It returns us to a world of dirt and shadows, where hope actually means something.
Our joy at this time of the season is not mistaken. It’s only forgetful, sometimes, of where it comes from. Not from our own doing or wishing or expectation, not from our own plans or programs, but from the God of hope—which is to say, the God of hopelessness, the God who is truly born only when things are hopeless.
God, the truth is, the world is sometimes a very scary, very unwelcoming place. And so we put up lights and sing songs and make merry. Bless our festivities. May they not be an escape or a charade, but rather an honest reflection of our hope. Not a hope that merely smiles and makes believe that everything is alright. But a hope that wakes, works, eats, and sleeps in a world that is often without hope. Bless our festivities and our lives with a hope that can hold its head high even as the world ends, a hope that anticipates the advent of a new, unforeseeable world, a hope that relishes all the adventure, risk, and joy of birth and new life. Amen.
 See, e.g., Cormac McCarthy, The Road (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 213, which explains the main character’s the hope: “He hoped it would be brighter where for all he knew the world grew darker daily.”
 John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), ebook loc. 5379.
 http://time.com/4123703/pope-francis-christmas-charade/. Accessed Nov 28, 2015. Put otherwise, it is to make the same mistake that the prophets made long ago, when they said, “Peace, peace” even as there was no peace. Cf. Jer 6:14.