This morning we light the candle of Hope on the Advent wreath. Hope is the basis for all the other candles. Hope sustains peace, and joy, and love.
In the reading this morning, Paul tells the church in Rome that hope means waiting patiently for what we can’t yet see. If we could see it, it wouldn’t be hope. And this is the time of year when our need for hope is perhaps at its greatest. In this latitude, we watch the sun setting further and further south, and earlier and earlier in the day. If you still commute to work, you travel to your job in the dark, and you come home in the dark, and even the bit of daylight we get is filtered through dark clouds and rain. It just keeps getting colder and darker.
And yet, ironically, we look forward to the darkest day of the year, the longest night, and that’s because we know that after that day and night, it can’t get any darker. That’s the promise of science, and the promise of our experience—that even in the darkest and coldest of times, warmth will return, the sun will rise again, the early crocuses will appear.
In so much of Christian belief, hope lies in being saved from our earthly existence, which many Christians call a Vale of Tears—a dry and desolate place we have to pass through on our way to death, and then to heaven, if we’re lucky. The sin of Adam and Eve has condemned us all to this existence, and only the intervention of Jesus can rescue us. So the hope of resurrection has inspired Christians to try to act good enough, whatever “enough” means, and to partake in rituals like baptism and communion and confession, so we can eventually be freed from the sorrows and pain of this life. And even then, we have to hope that God will be merciful to us sinners, because none of us can actually achieve perfection.
But there’s another stream of theology that sees our divine destiny, not as salvation from a place of evil, but as a dance of mutual flourishing—where we help one another toward a life where all beings can be their best selves—on earth as it is in heaven. In this belief system, we are blessed, each of us, to be able to participate in the ongoing work of creation.
To help us do this sacred work, we have the gift of the Holy Spirit—that aspect of our loving God that dwells intimately with and in each of us. And everyone can participate in that beautiful dance, even those who don’t name it as the Holy Spirit: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, followers of other religions, those who are spiritual but not religious, those who follow the spiritual practices of their ancestors, those who don’t claim any spiritual orientation at all. The Spirit reminds us all through the words of indigenous people to consider our impact on seven generations to come, in everything we do.
We ground our actions in the hope that there actually will be at least seven more generations to receive our gift of renewal, the hope that we can slow climate change and support other species as well as humans who feel the impact of the damaged earth, the hope that more and more people and organizations will join in this holy dance.
There’s a meme going around social media right now, that goes like this:
When people talk about traveling to the past, they worry about radically changing the present by doing something small. But barely anyone in the present really thinks that they can radically change the future by doing something small.
The Holy Spirit inspired this church to install the cisterns that prevent massive runoff from our roof into the storm sewers. When we did that, we joined with thousands of other projects in Seattle—cisterns, rain gardens, permeable pavement, natural filtration ponds—that protect the health of the salmon who are swimming upstream to spawn right now, a few miles from here. And when we help the salmon, we enhance the ecosytems where they live and die and are born. And all these projects also help protect our human neighbors from flooding.
So—that tree that Job talks about, that’s so close to death? It’s waiting patiently for the scent of water, so it can sprout again, and flourish, and we wait and anticipate the fruit and shade it can still give us. But the Holy Spirit reminds us that we who are the tree’s neighbors have hands and legs and buckets and faucets.
Hope is not just about waiting patiently to be rescued from drought and all the other evils we live with. Hope moves us to take action to help the unhoused, exiles, refugees, hungry children and adults, men without clean socks. It also motivates us to talk to our neighbors about our common concerns, to stand in long lines to elect people of integrity—which we in Washington State don’t have to do, and then to encourage those we’ve elected to work on the roots of these problems.
Vaclav Havel, the poet who became the first president of the Czech Republic after communism ended there, said: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
Hope lets us know that what we do in our lives really does contribute in some way to the betterment of the world. It keeps us asking, “What are the consequences of my action? How will this change the world for the better in some way, large or small?” It also helps us make meaning out of our suffering. It’s the hope of healing and a renewed and better life, that helps us endure chemotherapy, radiation, major surgery. And we can live through poverty, racism, homophobia, dictatorships, even genocide, knowing that our acts of resistance will help insure that there actually will be seven generations more. Hope means that every small or large thing that we do to end these evils makes it a little easier for those who will come after us.
Another meme says this:
People speak of hope as if it is this delicate, ephemeral thing made of whispers and spider’s webs. It’s not. Hope has dirt on her face, blood on her knuckles, the grit of the cobblestones in her hair, and she just spat out a tooth as she rises for another go.
Hope keeps us working for peace. Meighan talked last week about a future in which we beat swords into plowshares and convert weapons factories into workshops where we make art or bridges or homes for unhoused people. The election in Georgia this week will help determine whether that future is brought nearer.
Hope keeps joy alive in the darkest of times. In the worst time of COVID, it was our hope for a vaccine and an end to the pandemic that kept us isolating and wearing masks. Even then, we found ways to connect with each other, to share music and laughter and empathy, because we knew that this fearful time would eventually evolve into something new. And it is hope that keeps us moving and working to ensure that all beings will prosper in that new world.
Hope lets us dare to love. We hope for a future together, hope for our children to grow up to be healthy and wise, hope that those we love will have all they need.
May the hope that Advent symbolizes remind you that everything you do has meaning, and impacts the world you hope to see–a world of peace, and joy, and love.