Joyful Hope

Sunday 11th December 2005
Year B, The Third Sunday of Advent
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Isaiah 61:1-2; 6:10-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8; 1:19-28

This morning at Holy Trinity we lit the third Advent candle but instead of its being purple, it was pink. This is Gaudete Sunday, the day of hopeful joy which this year, because Christmas Day is on a Sunday, falls precisely half way through Advent. But the joyful hope I mentioned is not only concerned with the birth of Jesus, it refers to the coming again of Jesus when His Kingdom will be established forever. And it is this second kind of hope I want to talk about today.

When St. Paul and the synoptic Evangelists were writing, they were convinced that Jesus would come again in a matter of days, weeks, or months. They were convinced that their adult life span would embrace the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit and the Second coming; they were convinced that the coming of the Holy Spirit was quite specifically to give them the resources to get ready for the second coming. For them, the earthquakes and the social disintegration, the division of the sheep from the goats, was an ever present reality which explains to some extent why new adherents flocked to Christianity. There has always been a large element in religion of filing your insurance policy just in case there really is a danger that you will end up with the goats; and the early church was no doubt substantially boosted by such people. We really must be careful not to idolise the early church and, by implication, under value the church of today.

This perfectly understandable concern in later life with what will happen when we die partly explains why congregations in the main are made up of older people; it isn't cynicism, it's just the natural arc of life: at 20 you don't believe you are ever going to die; at forty you know that you will but it is still a long way off; at sixty it is still a long way off, much further now than it used to be, but the joke about being middle aged is beginning to wear a bit thin. For us all there is a sense of being able to take our time, to sort ourselves out spiritually while we live in reasonable physical comfort. Many of us are so complacent that we put off making a will until it is too late. This is so different from the reality of the early Church when the end of time was an almost life arresting phenomenon such as that which we experience when a major crisis overtakes us, making it impossible to deal with the idea of the future. When a loved one is seriously ill or we are waiting for the result of a life changing examination, all we can do is live from day to day.

And because it is difficult to sustain high octane spirituality when its immediate relevance is not obvious, the churches are not as full as they were. Science tells us that the physical earth is not going to end tomorrow, although it looks as though our greed will bring it to an end prematurely; and science has also ensured that we are far less likely to die suddenly of starvation or plague; even cancer is being steadily brought under control; so that leaves the vague statistical possibility of the car crash.

No, the churches are not as full as they used to be, but instead of being a fearful church, a church filing its insurance policy with the almighty, we are an affirming church. Almost everybody who comes to church today is a volunteer for Christ who comes prepared to give. To paraphrase John Kennedy, we are nowadays as concerned with what we can do for Jesus as with what Jesus can do for us. We now have a much healthier Church life because we have begun to understand that God wants us to love him through our relationship with Jesus rather than being frightened of Him.

This is why we should approach today, the day of joyful hope, with a sense of familiarity and wonder, rather than seeing it as a strange aberration. If we continue in our daily lives, individually and corporately, in church and out of it, to affirm, to develop a two-way, loving relationship with Jesus, then we will be much better equipped to understand the message of joyful hope.

It is easy to be suspicious of charismatics who seem to spend all their time in church enjoying themselves; but they have a point. We are rightly sorry for our sins and we realise that it is our sinfulness that nails Jesus to the Cross but, having said that, we do not spend enough time thinking about the Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. One reason why there are not more affirming Christians is that we still find it difficult to transform ourselves from judging and scolding to loving and laughing. We are currently divided as a Church because we stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the primacy of love over judgment; instead of developing our loving relationship with Jesus we dissect what He says as if He was a social commentator or a politician. We even go so far as to think that when Jesus said we were to love everybody and bring them into His fold He didn't really mean it; what He really meant was that we should set a really tough entrance exam for everybody but ourselves. Who are we to set such an exam? And who are we then to exempt ourselves?

One of the aspects of the Church that I have really noticed lately is how complicated it is: so many books; so many customs; so many rules; so many sins; so many bossy people; so many people who know better. In our pride we have made Church into a game with rules from the massively threatening to the entrappingly trivial.

Now it is my personal belief that there is a fundamental balance to be struck between hierarchy on the one hand and loving on the other and that the balance we strike depends on how much we trust people. It is my personal experience that everybody is better than they think they are and that people do much better when they are loved than when they are bound by rules; love brings about self rule which is the only rule that counts.

So today, on this day of joyful hope, I want us to pray for the growth of an affirming church based on love; I want us to pray for the courage to be free, to live in God's world of love and Grace, for the courage to dispense with the mass of human scaffolding which we think the church needs in order to stay standing. Today, as we look forward to the coming of the Kingdom, to the time when we will be at one with Jesus, let us remember why we can live in joyful hope. It is simply because Jesus loves us without limit and, therefore, if we love Him to our limit, our hope will be justified.