Fear and Hope – A Sermon for Advent Sunday
29/XI/15 Advent I 10.00, All Saints’, Mudeford – Year C
FEAR & HOPE
Reflections on the facing fear, living in hope, and the response to the Parish bombings.
Jeremiah 33:14-16; I Thess 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36
Lord, open your Word to our hearts this Advent, and our hearts to your Word always. AMEN.
In our three-year cycle of readings, today we begin year C, the year of Luke’s Gospel – so we’ll be focussing on Luke for much of the year. And we begin this new Church’s Year with a wonderful passage from chapter 21 – very well-chosen for the beginning of Advent.
As we heard the Gospel, we should have picked up the number of imperatives, urging us to look upwards and outwards. Jesus says: ‘Stand up…, raise your heads…; look at the fig tree…; be on your guard…; be alert…’
We shall hear these themes a number of times this year, as Luke’s Gospel is particularly keen on urging us to look for the signs of the times, to try to see what is going on in the world around is, in our own society, to see what God is doing in our own lives.
This has always been important, and never more so than in our own time when so much is changing in the world and in the Church.
We are always called to a larger vision, to a wider concern for the world, to a deeper understanding of what God is doing in our own lives, in our Church, in our own part of the world. And that means that we have to be more open to change than has been the case in previous generations – the ground is shifting rapidly under our feet, and we have to move to new ground if we are not to be swept away!
And listening to the signs of the times – what the pMAP process called ‘Triple Listening’: listening to God, listening to each other, listening to the wider community – that triple listening to the signs of the times is at the heart of the pMAP process, and at the heart of the Gospel. The more we listen, the more we learn, and the more we learn, the better able we are to respond to God’s call.
So, let’s return to the passage from Luke’s Gospel we heard a few moments ago. It’s a very striking, and a very challenging passage, as we begin this season of Advent. Jesus says that ‘people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world…’ [Lk 21:26]; but he goes on to say, ‘Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’ [v. 28]. People will faint with fear, but you should have hope. Fear and hope.
And two other things have made me ponder about fear and hope – one has been the wave of terrorist bombings across the world, in Mali, Syria, Nigeria, the plane over Egypt and, of course, in Paris. It has been the Paris attack which has affected us most personally, as it is so near to home – but we shouldn’t forget all of those who died in the other places I have mentioned as well. All of those attacks have made me think about fear.
And a wonderful book I am reading in the gym at the moment – I always have a ‘gym book’ on the go, for when I am toiling away on the cycling machine! My current ‘Gym Book’ is A Tour of Bones, written by Denise Inge, the wife of the Bishop of Worcester – I’ll explain why that is relevant in a moment – and that is a book that has made me reflect on hope and fear.
So, what do we really fear? What is it in our own lives that fulfils Jesus words, ‘people will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world’? It might be illness, or being left alone; it might be death or that we think that the country is being overrun by immigrants; it might be fear of something happening to someone else – a child, a parent, a partner. There are all sorts of fears that lurk beneath the surface of our consciousness, sometimes leaping out at us at unexpected moments, sometimes just rumbling away in the backs of our minds.
What do we do with all of this fear? How do we shine the light of the Gospel into the darkest corners of our minds, where it can banish the fears which haunt us? Not an easy thing to do, I think.
Denise Inge’s book, A Tour of Bones, is subtitled: ‘facing fear and looking for life’. The fact that she is the wife of the Bishop of Worcester is relevant, because the Bishop’s House is built above a Charnel, a repository for the bones of those who have died. The house was originally mediaeval, and was later re-built on the same foot-print as the older structure. And in the cellar, under a piece of carpet, through a hatch in the floor, the Charnel is still there.
After some time of living in the house when her husband first became Bishop, they decided to have a look, and it was an uncomfortable experience – suddenly finding herself face-to-face with piles of mediaeval bones in the basement of the house where she is living. And that set Denise Inge on a journey to face her fear, and explore what charnels might be – and the journey took her all around the famous Charnel Houses of Europe. However, as she was writing the book, she was diagnosed with cancer, and in fact died last year, shortly after completing the book. So, as she explores her fear of the bones in the Charnel, she is also exploring her own fear of death – so you might think it would be quite a gloomy read. Far from it. It is a wonderful exploration of life and death, of the journey of her life, of how she faces her fear and lives the last months of her life.
It is a book which is full of hope, full of what Jesus describes as ‘raising your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’. At one point she writes about the difference between hope and optimism:
Hope is not the same thing as optimism. Optimism says that things will get better. Hope says that the good we envisage is the good we work towards. Optimism is largely passive: it is about waiting for what is better to come to you. Hope is active: it goes out and does. It falls and fails sometimes, but it is tenacious and unafraid… it will not let go of the notion that the good is real, and that we can find it [p.92].
This book raises a question for me: in a world of fear, in my own little world of fears, how can we live lives which are full of hope, and how can we offer hope to others?
We see all sorts of terrible things around us – child migrants drowning as they try to reach the safety of Europe; young people being killed and maimed by suicide bombers with terrible hatred in their hearts; families relying on foodbanks because they are not earning enough to live on; older people struggling to get the care they need to keep them in their homes – and so on – the list is endless. In the face of all of this suffering, where is the hope? How can we say, ‘Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near’?
There’s no easy answer to that question, but we do need to find one – each of us need to find one for ourselves. How do we explain the hope that is in us? How do we share the love and the life of Christ with those around us, and especially those for whom life is hard?
To quote Paul in Philippians [2:12], we need to ‘work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling’. We need to be able to give an account of the hope that is in us [I Pet 3:15].
And the basis of that hope is love – the love which God has poured into the world, the love which we experience for others and from others, the love which took Christ through the Cross to the resurrection life which he offers us all.
We’re not just talking about optimism here – ‘Oh, everything will be alright, it all works out in the end!’ No, we’re talking about hope – hope which is solidly grounded in God, in his promises, in his faithfulness, in his love. Hope is like putting your foot down in the mist, and finding it on a rock. Hope is based on Jesus’ promise: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away’ [Lk 24:33].
So, I recommend Denise Inge’s book to you – A Tour of Bones. But I want to finish with some words which you may have heard or read by Antoine Leiris, written three days after the Paris attacks, in which his wife died. They have a 17-month old son. He is someone who knows the reality of suffering, who is the victim of a black hatred which misguidedly thinks it is alright to take the lives of others for a twisted religious purpose. And yet, writing three days after his wife’s death, he could write one of the most hopeful passages I have read for a long time. As we reflect on Fear and Hope, how we face the one and live the other, I hope Antoine Leiris’ words will give us something to think about:
Friday night, you took an exceptional life – the love of my life, the mother of my son – but you will not have my hatred. I don’t know who you are and I don’t want to know, you are dead souls. If this God, for whom you kill blindly, made us in his image, every bullet in the body of my wife would have been one more wound in his heart.
So, no, I will not grant you the gift of my hatred. You’re asking for it, but responding to hatred with anger is falling victim to the same ignorance that has made you what you are. You want me to be scared, to view my countrymen with mistrust, to sacrifice my liberty for my security. You lost.
I saw her this morning. Finally, after nights and days of waiting. She was just as beautiful as when she left on Friday night, just as beautiful as when I fell hopelessly in love over 12 years ago. Of course I am devastated by this pain, I give you this little victory, but the pain will be short-lived. I know that she will be with us every day and that we will find ourselves again in this paradise of free love to which you have no access.
We are just two, my son and me, but we are stronger than all the armies in the world. I don’t have any more time to devote to you; I have to join Melvil who is waking up from his nap. He is barely 17-months-old. He will eat his meals as usual, and then we are going to play as usual, and for his whole life this little boy will threaten you by being happy and free. Because no, you will not have his hatred either.