Looking and Living in Hope
Advent—the four weeks before Christmas--is a time of expectation. But it is not a time of just any kind of expectation. It is a time of hopeful expectation. As the season draws on toward Christmas, that hope gets its primary focus in the expectation of the birth of the child Jesus in Bethlehem. But the season is also more broadly focused on what God will do beyond Christmas, especially now and in the future. Our waiting for Christmas is a paradigm of our waiting for God to act on the near- and long-term desires we have for redemption, reconciliation, and new life.
The best biblical text I know about hope appeared in our Sunday lectionary yesterday. It is Psalm 126, a text that comes from the period of the Exile, the fifty years when Israel’s leadership was led in captivity to Babylon from about 587 B.C.E. to 537 B.C.E. The Babylonian Captivity lasted two generations, and it destroyed Israel as a political and a religious community. Those who were led into exile tried to maintain their religious and cultural identity in Babylon, but lacking both a Temple and a political community they found it difficult to do so. As another psalm, Psalm 137, says,
1 By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, *
when we remembered you, O Zion.
4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song *
upon an alien soil?
The Psalm we read on Advent 3 comes from that exilic moment of loss and alienation. And yet it does not despair. It is, instead, wildly, extravagantly hopeful.
Psalm 126 In convertendo
1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.
2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.
3 Then they said among the nations, *
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
4 The Lord has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.
5 Restore our fortunes, O Lord, *
like the watercourses of the Negev.
6 Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.
7 Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
Think, as you read it, about the time line projected by this psalm. The singers of it are speaking in the present moment of Babylonian captivity. And they sing exuberantly about God’s liberation. Yet they talk about it not in the future tense (as a wished event) but in the past tense (as a completed event). “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, “they announce, “then were we like those who dream.” They go on to describe mouths filled with laughter and tongues with shouts of joy. The hoped-for fulfillment has been proclaimed as an achieved fact. The exiled Israelites will dare to live as if their liberation has already happened. Even though they are imprisoned now, they will choose to live in that captivity as free people. And living as free people will help bring about their ultimate liberation.
Whenever we say this psalm in our liturgy I find my heart and imagination stirred. What would it mean for me, for you, for all of us to live as if what we most deeply long for were already a reality? Think of all the forces of life that oppress us—from political and social forces beyond our control to our own bad habits to the physical illnesses and inevitable losses we suffer and grieve. What would it mean for our lives if we were to choose to act as if God’s promises had already been fulfilled? I don’t mean that in some fairy tale way—I mean it in the way the early Christians meant it when they chose to live not in the oppressive control of Rome but in the freeing light of the resurrection. Caesar was not their king; Jesus was. They lived as citizens of his reign and enacted God’s abundant blessing even in times of privation. They were free even in captivity.
The Advent season is our opportunity to reclaim and orient our lives around the promises at the center of the Gospel. Our hope is one proclaimed in the midst of pain as the place where God’s promises become real. All religions face the danger, in Walter Brueggemann’s words, of moving “upstairs away from the realities of life.” [Israel’s Praise, p. 132] As he says, “It is the reality of concrete pain known in the specificity of a person or a community which is the locus of serious faith.” Christmas is not a nostalgic celebration of bygone happiness. It is the coming of God into the realities of life, the concrete pains and longings that mark each one of us as people living in the real world. Like the exiled Israelites and the early Christians, you and I can choose to be free even as we are captive to the pains and losses and limitations of life. Living that way is where serious faith begins.
“Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy”, said the singers of Psalm 126. They knew that because they hoped it. And because they hoped it, they could live it. May this Advent season give you the grace to trust what you expect, to live what you hope for.
Sunday, December 11, 2011
The Rector's Monday Message: December 12, 2011
Looking and Living in Hope