When I was about six years old we spent Christmas at my grandparent’s house. I was NOT happy. I had a pretty strict routine for Christmas Eve at home. Not only was I not at home to listen for those bells and reindeer hooves I hoped and expected to hear, I actually had to go to church and listen to gobbledygook that made no sense to me. Yay, a baby was born, who was proclaimed the hope of the world. Big deal. Isn’t that what all parents say about their kids?
Fast forward to the present and here I am again, “yay, a baby was born who is the hope of the world.” But I’m not 6 anymore. I’ve had childhood friends die of cancer and suicide. I’ve watched planes filled with innocent people used as bombs to level the tallest buildings in New York. I’ve watched the news filled constantly with violence: the Middle East, Russia, Africa. I’ve watched a virus sweep the world and devastate our economy, our supply chains, our healthcare and education systems, and our entire sense of being connected to one another. I’ve seen friends, colleagues, run ragged by the demands of work and family, feeling isolated and lonely. I’ve seen people hurt by parents as children unable to break out of that past hurt, running from perceived repetitions of that hurt, or becoming confrontational and wondering why they alienate others. “Yay, a baby was born who is the hope for the world.”
Really? How many babies of hope have come and gone since the one preached about by my grandfather - that Jesus baby - and this world is still all we have to show for it? A world in which babies are caught in the literal crossfire of adults acting out of fear and anger?
This week I’ve been discussing with those who have come to the studies and mid week worship services a short reflection on Advent by Henri Nowen. One of the the central themes he discusses in this short reflection is what Jesus drives at in our Gospel lesson this morning: to keep awake. That is, to remain not just alert, but to remain hopeful about the promise God has given to us in the one who came into the world as a baby: Jesus Christ. There’s a difference, he says, between being alert or attentive to something in general, and remaining alert or attentive to the particular reality of God coming to us in Jesus. And the difference is this: Jesus’s coming into the world changes the fate of everyone and everything that exists, even if we cannot see what that change means now, or how it is taking place.
In really concrete terms it means that if we are willing to stay open to God coming to us in all those things and all the people that he’s created, we cannot help but have to grapple with how we might allow our own lives to be reshaped. Reshaped so that we can speak and act with hope in this world - a world that can often seem to be falling apart - rather than becoming caught up in fear or despair. Because the thing is, fear and despair often cause us to try to run away from or to fight hard against whatever causes us fear, anger or despair. We stop being open to the hope that God is actually there, here, with us, with those whom we love who are suffering, with ourselves who are coping with pain, or loss or disease, or exhaustion. We lose hope. How many in this world I described above, have lost hope. And when we lose hope, particularly when we’re tired, we get caught up in old patterns of thinking or reacting to other people or to events. We close ourselves off to God being present in the world at all and so we think we have to take control. We have to make things right. We have to do it all. And of course it has to be done our way.
This is the cardinal sin of Adam and Eve: there is no God, I will have to make it better: “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” The difficulty, when we lose hope that God is not at work in this world, is that we turn to our very faulty internal radar. We become arrogant in thinking that we have far more knowledge and understanding than we really do (that’s self idolatry). We become blind to recognizing that circumstances are far more complex and layered than we could ever imagine. And if we do know this, we are often blinded by our fear that there is no proverbial, “hand on the lever” i.e. that God is not really there. The result of such fear, such lack of attentiveness to hope that God really is reconciling all people and things to himself in Jesus, is that we lose hope and so we lose the faith to persevere in seeking God’s ways because they seem slow, or ineffective, or even non-existent. We think we can do it better, just like Adam and Eve. But look around at our news channels and you’ll see the result of such thinking: turned over to our own iniquity. Henri Nouwen says, to be attentive is not to sit still or be passive. Instead, it’s to have the courage to seek God just where you are; getting out of your own set ways of seeing or conceiving of things and asking: what is God doing here in this situation or this person? What is God giving me to learn? What is God challenging me to accept? What is God pressing me to give up? To wait on God is not to be passive: it is to take the seeds he has planted in you, and branch out to explore how he is nurturing and nourishing you and spreading your own nectar around his kingdom. AMEN