Updated: Dec 21, 2021
Rev. Amy Newell-Large
Advent 6: Zephaniah 3:14-20;Philippians 4:4-7
Canticle 9; Luke 3:7-18
December 12, 2021
Today we turn in our Advent journey to John the Baptist- the wildman of the wilderness, the prophet who baptizes Jesus, the truth-teller who points us to see clearly the world around us and our participation in structures of injustice.
John’s prophesying reminds us that no amount of looking back will save our future if our actions and faith do not support the beloved community of God. John points out that they claim, “Abraham is our ancestor,” I heard this in our context today as “But we’re honoring our founding fathers,” and “we’re funded as a Christian nation,” or even “we elected a Black president,” these mean little in the face of oppression, exploitation, elimination of human rights, deep seeded racism, poverty, greed, an insurmountable wealth gap, lack of access to health care, and suppression of voting rights! To name a few struggles we’re still facing. Let’s not mince words here: John the Baptist is clear. When people ask him what they should do he gives them answers: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, be fair and strive for just economic systems.
John the Baptist knows that the people around him are hungry for life and spirituality. They have come to him for guidance, to see the world as he sees it because they know his seeing bears witness to God who is with them. He is a prophet because of his seeing clearly through the human structures and calling upon people to undo these structures and participate in the building of God’s structure and community. His message is still significant- what humans have made humans can unmake. Unfortunately, as our Scripture testifies, and as we well know in our world today, we have not yet undone the structures that exploit and suppress.
But lest the realization of ongoing effort leave us feeling exhausted and powerless, his prophecy is a message of hope. Hope both in the coming of Jesus who will offer new creation, but hope in our own spiritual journey as a human community.
I will admit, sometimes for me when we look back to the prophets, taking in their call to justice, I really do feel exhausted and powerless- sometimes to a point of despair. I mean, for over two millennia people have been preaching care, compassion, justice, love, peace… And look where we still are! But… also, look how far we’ve come!
We participate in a much larger arc of justice than we often feel comfortable with. Many prophets know they will not make it with us, and while this may seem a dark reality, it is important for us all to see with such clarity. It is important for us to want justice and compassion, and when we work for that in our world we are participating in God’s work and striving to reveal God in our world. And yet, this creative project is so much bigger than us! Our God is not a God who will swoop in and make us comfortable, God is not an individual God adhering to how we want the world to be.
Here we have our cosmic call to hope- God tends to surprise! I rely on my prophetic imagination grounded in Scripture and my baptism to know that the world can be different, and through imagining a world of justice and compassion I formulate steps to take to bring that about. But, obviously, I won’t do it on my own. And what’s more, it won’t happen to any plan I alone make! Because my plan is limited by what I know and imagine. But God is a creative God, the God who created the cosmos will not be working within my limited scope, will not be thinking in human terms, and will not be restrained by time. God tends to surprise! This is shifting hope away from hope in my own vision, the future as I would have it, to hope in the disruption of the world as I know it. God surprises me beyond my limited seeing which is still grounded in structures of my whiteness, my privilege, my culture, and my place in history. I am learning a hope that necessitates discomfort- that is the hope of the Gospels!
This is tricky though, I’m leaning into a hope that is not rooted in outcomes, bound by what I want to have happen (which ultimately is also a self-serving future), rather, John the Baptist pushes us towards a hope that is in God, not our own idols. I must say, productivity is a strong idol- if I do this much work I hope to be successful, if I work this many hours I hope to be wealthy… placing hope in productivity leads to a hope that is limited and bound by our capacity, which only places our own self at the center of our lives, and displaces God. Hope in a creative God of love and justice moves us away from the myth of self-sufficiency that we can and must do it all, into a communal, creative, historical, spiritual seeing of God always active beyond our productivity.
God is always active. Even in the midst of our despair we can know hope. There is a paradox here- it is not one or the other, either I am hopeful or I am in despair, rather this waiting period of Advent helps us to know that in the darkest place and time, here, there is hope- and it is dark. Despair is not mutually exclusive of hope. They are held together.
This is what Stephanie Spellers points us to in Church Cracked Open, that while we may feel the pull of despair “Don’t.” She says, we cannot remain in despair alone. Rather, naming our despair is a profound opening to hope. I saw that opening to hope last week in our service commemorating World AIDS Day. Susan’s sharing about the stigma, isolation, and also love, tenderness and care made me feel both despair at the pain and also hope with compassion. Her story showed me the depths of heartache, and also the shards of light in those who brought love. Alan used the word “preposterous” to describe his sense of hope at the time of such despair. He said it was preposterous to even think of the church accepting LGBTQ people. Yet, God tends to surprise! This preposterous hope is exactly the Advent hope we need. It is preposterous because it is beyond the scope of the individual, while some could imagine that future, it was still such a place of despair that finding hope preposterous was the only way to hope. And there my heart both sank and rejoiced. The preposterous hope- for acceptance, and inclusion- was exactly the path of hope God clears for us, though there is no formula or clear way of seeing, and definitely no certainty of a time frame. Yet here we are, some 30 years later, remembering the despair and testifying to the new creation of a better world born of hope and action.
It was the most moving prayer I have ever had the honor of participating in. When I got to read the prayers from the St. Aidan’s community from 1986, I wasn’t even a year old at the time, yet I could participate in the arc of hope that is indeed so much bigger than any one person, I could feel it so much bigger than me! The thread of preposterous hope that St. Aidan’s in 1986 laid forth continues, and will continue beyond any of us here. God tends to surprise us! We need to be open to the surprises by not clinging to a hope in ourselves, or our own work, but by opening to the preposterous hope of cosmic proportions.
In her book Mystical Hope, Cynthia Borgeault writes, “Hope’s home is at the innermost point in us, and in all things. It is a quality of aliveness. It does not come at the end, as the feeling that results from a happy outcome. Rather, it lies at the beginning, as a pulse of truth that sends us forth. When our innermost being is attuned to this pulse it will send us forth in hope, regardless of the physical circumstances of our lives.” She continues, “Hope fills us with the strength to stay present, to abide in the flow of the [mystical hope] no matter what outer storms assail us. It is entered always and only through surrender; that is, through the willingness to let go of everything we are presently clinging to.”
How do you know hope at the innermost point, not as a hope in particular outcomes that would keep you comfortable, but a pulse of truth- a John the Baptist clear seeing of truth- that calls you to love? Hope gives me strength when I know it bigger than me, as the prayers and reflections last week pointed me to. Hope calls me to compassion when I give up my attachment to what I want and I reorient to what love wants of me in the moment. The willingness to let go of our self and be open to an arc of hope pulls us into the Advent prophecy- the Lord is near, do not worry about anything, but everything in prayer and supplication- everything in preposterous hope will bear witness to the true hope of the good news of Christ’s love.
May we have preposterous hope in God’s surprises.