Wembley Downs Uniting Church
Current Sermons
The Hope of Advent (Karen Sloan) 7.12.2008
Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
As I said at the beginning of the service, I have just finished reading the autobiography of Dr Chris O`Brien. For those of you who don`t watch RPA on telly, he is one of this country`s leading head and neck cancer surgeons, who has worked almost his entire career at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. As part of the ongoing documentary we saw this man treat his patients with respect and warmth and watched how he performed incredibly difficult and demanding operations. Terribly in November 2006, at the age of 54 he was diagnosed with an aggressive and almost inevitably lethal form of brain cancer. Few sufferers survive past 12 months.

The autobiography traces his life`s ups and downs, but particularly focuses on this part of his journey. He speaks candidly about what it was like to be told you had a very virulent form of cancer that was incurable. That there was no hope for your surviving and no hope for your family. Let me read his view on this . . .
(Read page 7)

Hope is a very important characteristic to have and to share. Without it there is no optimism and no joy. Without hope it is hard to sustain effort. While Chris O`Brien is still with us, defying many of the predictions of an early death, his story is not about miraculous healing. It is about a state of mind and purpose, that can easily be removed. He certainly suffered from periods of dark depression, when all seemed loss and maybe there was no point in continuing the fight. But towards the end of the book he relates a conversation he had with a friend and fellow medical specialist that put things in perspective for him . . .

(Read page 274)

So you may be wondering why I am relating this story to you. In this sermon I was going to talk about all the crises we have had in the past year, particularly the economic crisis, how greed and commercialisation and the lack of regulation seems to be at the heart of the troubles. I was going to examine the systematic problems with an economic system that relies on spending to keep it afloat, without regard to those poor and marginalised. And I was going to talk about the real dangers of ignoring the environment and the effect that we, as humans, and we as First World consumers are having on the air, land, sea and other creatures that share this earth with us. How the environmental crisis is inextricably linked to the economic crisis, for both have greed at their core and how they are all linked to a lack of spiritual connection, both with each other and with the earth.

But I decided that this is not a time for an analysis of different economic systems, Neville is going to do that later.
This is advent, a time when we can pause, a time of anticipation and reflection. A time to renew our commitment to all that Jesus points us to. It is a time of forgiveness, of replenishment, and of hope. And there is much to hope about with the coming of Christ. For he sets before us the way of transformation, both as individuals and as a society.

Yet hope is a diminishing quality in our life today, even for people of faith.

In our community we are suffering from sensory overload, we see so much hatred and injustice, so much poverty and lack of love in the world that we allow ourselves to feel discouraged and disheartened. We are swamped with information. From just one paper last week I cut out 20 different stories about death and destruction, greed and corruption. No wonder our hope for something different, for a world of justice and peace fades. How can we believe in change that leads to a fairer or more peaceful world when all we see is the opposite? We are made to believe that it is hopeless situation. We are made to believe that change is impossible.

Let me read something from Kari Jo Verhulst, who is a writer for the Sojourners magazine.

`I sometimes wake at 3am with a start, jolted by the certainty that we had made God up. Given the dispassionate nature of the world, and the banality of our cruelty and self absorption, the idea of a loving, present God seemed overwhelmingly absurd, a feeling as sad as it was terrifying. Thus it has been a great and humbling relief to discover that I exist in the company of millennia of God lovers who also awaken to this dreadful sense of improbability. Those wiser than I, rabbis and poets, theologians and preachers, locate these midnight churnings squarely within the life of faith. I heard one say that if you are not convinced you are making it up at least a third of the time, you are spiritually dead. So, I now say to myself on nights like these, `This is what it is to be alive`.

So doubt and a feeling of hopelessness can come with living and engaging in our world. Yet at times when despair threatens to overwhelm us a light does slowly dawn, a truth appears out of the darkness that senses this doubt, this fear. There is faith and there is hope, a hope we believe is linked to the infinite goodness of an infinite God, who while transcending time and space is present in the world and in us.

This hope of God`s presence in times of struggle is reflected in the stories we read today from both the Old and New Testaments. These were also people of faith and hope, even in circumstances that did not warrant it.

The reading from Isaiah expresses the yearning of the Israelites to return from exile. In the wilderness God is preparing `the way of the Lord`, a path to home for those exiled in Babylon for 70 years. From the reading we can sense that even in times of terrible suffering and vulnerability the presence of the living God is a central part of the Israelites` faith. God is with his people, in speaking, breathing, feeding, comforting and forgiving. It is this presence that gives hope that all is not lost and forsaken.

In the reading from Mark, we also have a picture of hope emerging, this time when Jerusalem was under threat. John is announcing to his followers his belief in a person greater than him, who will come to proclaim good news for the world. He is being presented as a messenger who `prepares the way of the Lord` in the wilderness.
These readings present a continuity of faith for believers. The God in Jesus is already known in the actions of the past, seen in the world through the history of the Israelites, expressed in the yearnings and prophecy of Isaiah and revealed in John`s life and ministry. God`s presence is affirmed in our history.
But there is so much more to the story.

While the reading from Mark is at the beginning of the gospel we know that as we read further Jesus sees himself as the fulfilment of the hope Isaiah and John speak of.

He responds to John`s request from prison `are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another` by echoing Isaiah 35,
`Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.`
This is not a list of miracles but instead a picture of what the time of God`s salvation will be like.

From Mark`s reading there is also a strong sense of anticipation, of the hope of something new, of something incredible. For him Jesus offers the hope of a new world order, a new kingdom on earth, where love and justice are the key characteristics, rather than hatred and greed. When, in the reading, John calls all people from all levels of society to baptism he is calling his followers to place their allegiance with God, to turn away from sin and be transformed. They and we are part of the `something` new Mark senses.

This hope reflected in Mark, then, is not just a hope of comfort and rescue, but of transformation and renewal. A hope not just of God`s presence, but that God`s presence will change things. A hope grounded in reality rather than make believe, based on a responsibility to act with God. This is the hope Jesus offers us today. This is the hope the Christian church offers the world.

Marcus Borg writes in a small book called `The First Christmas` that there are two different understandings or eschatologies found in Christianity of how God will ultimately reconcile with the world. The first one is the `supernatural or interventionist eschatology`. In this one only God can bring in the new world order, by dramatic divine intervention. All we can do is wait, hope and pray for it. It is hope without action.

The second one is `collaborative eschatology`. Borg simply puts this as we are to participate with God in bringing about the world promised by Christians. Rather than wait for God to do it, we are to collaborate with God`s spirit in bringing change about. This is hope with action.

Borg also suggests there is a third option, letting go of eschatology all together. Some Christians do not see a connection between a transformed earth and the gospel. For them Christianity is only about individual salvation, whether in this life or in the life beyond death. They can see this world either as a pleasant place or a dreadful place, but they do not link Christian hope with a transformation of this world. This is a world with no hope.
Borg rejects the first and third and sits with me and many others here, with the second option, collaborative eschatology. I do not imagine God will bring about a perfect world through divine intervention suddenly in the future, since that involves believing in an all powerful interventionist God, something I don`t. But I also reject the idea that there is no hope of societal and individual transformation. This denies the presence of God in the world, a presence found in much of the bible, both Old and New Testament and in our own experiences.

Collaborative eschatology, affirms for Borg a two fold affirmation, which is revealed in Jesus, `We are to do it with God, but we cannot do it without God`. In other words God is the power within us to make change, both personal and societal. Our hope lies in helping to realise God`s passion, God`s dream for a transformed world that embraces love, justice and peace. This the way of Jesus. But it also lies in knowing that God will have the last say. God will continue working long after we have gone.

Chris O`Brien found out with his experience, which is where we started this sermon, fighting his cancer purely on medical grounds but without hope, was highly unlikely to succeed. However sitting around hoping for things to change, without attacking the cancer with the best treatment available to him, was not the answer either. Hope without action leads to despair. However action without hope does too!

We can choose to lose heart and hope about the world and ourselves, about the challenges and crises we face and the evil that surrounds us. Or we can go on believing that the God we find in Jesus is with us in the process of transformation and work towards something that at present is unseen and unheard. We can continue to act with God in whatever way we can, for we have `miles to go before we sleep`. This is the hope that we cling to, even at 3am, not a `make believe, wishful thinking` hope, but a hope of change that is centred on the blood and guts, pain and anguish of the real world and our place in it.

As people of faith this is what we confirm and celebrate today.

130 Calais Road, (crnr of Minibah Street)
Wembley Downs, Western Australia.
Phone 08 9245 2882

Ten kilometres northwest of Perth city centre,
set amongst the suburbs of City Beach, Churchlands,
Scarborough, Wembley Downs and Woodlands