Present Hope

Sunday 15th November 2009
Year B, The Second Sunday before Advent
St John The Baptist, Clayton
Daniel 12:1-3
Mark 13:1-8

We are not, as a race of creatures, very comfortable with the present. Unlike animals which are almost entirely taken up with survival through action in the present, we look back with sentimental fondness and forward with fear more often than excitement; but the present often seems so caught between the past and the future that we live our lives in a perpetual state of head turning. We are not at rest. Of course, there are rare moments of exception that prove this rule: the rapture of love, the birth of a baby, the glory of a sunset, a Eureka moment which something clicks that we have been struggling with for years, the intake of breath as a goal is scored, and the sharp pain of bereavement; these are the moments when we feel fully human in our joy, in our intellect and in our grief.

And there are other instances, too, when we can live comfortably in the present. We build routines so that we know where we are: we go to certain places at certain times and we know who and what we will find when we get there. If you think about our culture, we occasionally generate a massive new idea which changes our outlook, but most of the time our culture provides slight variants on a routine, different enough to excite interest, identical enough not to threaten. So, for example, quiz shows, soap operas, light fiction, fashion and cooking are all examples of slight variations on well known themes.

In our lives, then, of modest ambitions and achievements, we recognise moments of instant feeling and perception; and we also construct ways of living within ourselves through routine. But there is always something knocking at the door: we are vaguely aware of the rantings of distant dictators, the impenetrable movements of global capital, the ominous melting of glaciers; we are aware that things are changing over which we have no control, that things will never be the same again and, out of this uncertainty there grows a fear of the unknown. Behind that, at a more personal level of consciousness, we might spend most of our time thinking about ourselves and our lives in a rather mundane way, but we are aware of the awkward questions in Beethoven, Dostoyevsky or Picasso; people who ask difficult questions and stir up uncomfortable emotions, people who just won't go away; and we are shaken to ask ourselves why we are here. And that question leads, naturally, to what came before and, even more fascinatingly, what will come after us.

There are two ways of handling the "last things" problem exemplified in today's readings. Daniel, the great seer, is a prophet whose sacred imagination takes on a massive horizon. Being a prophet, he is the voice of God talking to God's people. I don't know how many of you have read the second half of the Book of Daniel but for me it is an impenetrable mixture of forecasting and fantasy most of which, ultimately, is redundant because it is too equivocal about the future. But there are intimations of life after death which were picked up by subsequent generations of Jews so that, by the time of Jesus, Daniel seems to have been almost as popular as Isaiah; and it was that kind of scriptural background which led to the Pharisaic belief in the resurrection of the body and the general, rather hazy Jewish belief in the Messiah, although the two ideas were never systematically linked.

In Mark's gospel, we are back with the terrible restlessness of the uncertain. The Disciples are no longer content simply to be with Jesus, to live the moment. They recognise his greatness but they also see that a crisis is about to break over their heads which will have nasty consequences.  Jesus, at the very least, will be taken from them; it has taken a long time for them to grasp this but, at last, the shekel has dropped; but, then, as they think for longer, particularly the 'inner cabinet' of Peter, Andrew, James and John, there is an emerging recognition that the followers of Jesus might be swept up in the crisis; what then?

So here we have two Questions: what will happen to the Disciples if Jesus is killed? And what will happen to the Disciples if they are killed? Well, we know the answer to the first question. Through the incarnational perception which they received from the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Disciples came to found the Church of Christ on earth and, according to tradition, they all died in witness of their saviour. As to the second question, Paul and the Evangelists thought that the Resurrection of Jesus foreshadowed the imminent end of the world and the establishment of the eternal kingdom. This accounts for the bias in Paul and the Synoptic Gospels in favour of getting ready for the ultimate eschatological event whereas, two generations later, the Evangelist John was providing solid food for a much longer spiritual journey.

And what of us, children of the Resurrection, with two thousand years of Christianity behind us? What do we think about the 'last things'? Of course, I can't speak for each of us, but let me outline some attitudes which, I think, are widely held:

The resolution of these dilemmas, insofar as there is a resolution, is in our consideration of the Christian virtue of hope. We have a reasonable grasp of faith and charity but hope often eludes us. Hope is the virtue which allows us to put ourselves entirely into the hands of God. Of course we do need to have faith in our Creator, our Redeemer and our Sanctifier; and of course we need to affirm that faith in the unconditional charity of the imitator of Christ; but we do those things for themselves because that is why we were made. We were made to worship the Creator, imitate the Redeemer and be the vessels of the Holy Spirit, of God in us; and, in performing these three creaturely tasks we are establishing God's Kingdom on earth. Our earthly home is not an ante chamber to heaven where we pass our time as best we might, this place, God's creation, is the theatre in which we play our parts as creatures as a necessary part of acting out God's love in us before we are, ultimately, enfolded back into that love.

Hope's answer to our desperate craving for certainty, to our indefatigable search for answers, to our chronic nervousness, is that, if we live in the present moment, every moment of our lives, dedicating each moment to establishing God's Kingdom on earth, we will have done what we were created to do. We are, in spite of our nostalgia and our fear, to live in the present. Our best hope is not in yesterday, nor tomorrow, it is in what we are and what we do today.