Ken Dodd once told the joke that goes;
‘How do you make God laugh?’
‘You tell him your plans!’
This year has been, for many of us, a time of cancelled, disrupted or abandoned plans. Things we expected and planned for have had to be stopped, and even plans made long ahead have just not been possible after all. And it’s not been entirely a laughing matter…
Advent Sunday is a day when we say that we are waiting to see what will happen, when we recognise that we do not know what God’s plans are. We don’t know when the day of the Lord will come, or when Jesus will be fully present in a way he isn’t quite now… As the Gospels put it – we don’t know the time or the hour. If you’re like me, someone who likes to be organised, to know how long any journey will take and have the route mapped out in advance, if you like to feel in control and know what your aims are and what would count as failure or success and all of that, then it’s hard to learn that whatever plans we make they might come to nothing and that the end of the story might be quite different from what we’d imagined. The world, and God, has a different way.
In the reading from Isaiah we find a prophet who has the nerve to tell God that perhaps God might try something different to shake up his people, that a really good sign and a bit of divine action might really do the trick. How about a different plan – how about this better one?
‘Why did you not tear asunder the heavens and come down, that when you appeared, the mountains might shake, that fire might blaze? Then would your name be known to your adversaries, and nations would tremble before you!’
And in the Gospel reading we have a passage that certainly seems to know what the plan is. Heaven and earth are going to pass away, the Son of Man will come with great power and glory – and all this will happen within this generation. ‘The present generation will live to see it all’. God has a plan – and it’s going to happen any moment.
But of course it didn’t. The first generation of Christians are long since dead and buried and there have been many generations of us to follow after them. God never did tear asunder the heavens and come down, even if Isaiah believed God might. And Jesus has not come back on clouds of glory.
The Church was actually born in a kind of crisis of hope, in a time when the plans came to nothing. So perhaps this Coronavirus season is not so strange for us after all. We might think that crises like this one are our speciality. And perhaps Christians have learned that far from destroying us, they rejuvenate us – they are the source of our life. If we are in a crisis at the moment – well, we are not alone, and Christians have been here before. There’s a wonderful Roman Catholic theologian who says that crises are our ‘specialitie de la maison’.
We can indeed look back to a time when the Church was born from two great crises, two great disappointments, times when the future collapsed. The first one happened when the disciples went up with Jesus to Jerusalem that last time. We don’t know exactly what they hoped for, but it was something like the rescue of Israel from the Romans or perhaps a wonderful renewal of faith among all the Jews. Think of Palm Sunday and the hopes shouted into the air that day. Remember those two disciples on the Emmaus road, who said, ‘We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’. We had hoped. But then, after the resuurection of Jesus, the disciples seemed to have pinned their hopes very quickly onto another plan for the future. All will soon be well, because Jesus is coming back in glory at any moment. God has a new plan, and it will be even better than the last one! Whatever we suffer now it will be put right when Jesus comes to gather his chosen from the four winds – and even the celestial powers will be shaken. But Jesus did not come. Once more – hopes came to nothing. The first Christians lost a sense of anything certain to say about the future. But it was in these moments of loss that the Christian faith was actually truly born.
Vaclav Havel, playwright and once President of the Czech republic, once 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.’
This is the kind of hope that the Church found, in those moments when the old kind of hope was lost. This is the kind of hope that says that love, goodness, truth, joy, sacrifice – all these things do make sense – and that they will go on making sense no matter what happens or how things turn out. Hope is not the belief that there will be a happy ending to our story, but it is the counter to the belief that the stories of our lives are absurd nonsense. The Christian hope is that our lives have meaning, no matter what happens to us. This is the Christian hope. It is not based on the confidence that God will have the last word, not even the confidence that goodness will turn out to be stronger than evil – but it is the confidence that God is real and that goodness is more true than evil even if it doesn’t win. Christian hope is then very different from the kind of hope that we learn about in the world.
When I was growing up in the 1960s there was plenty of what you might call optimism about. The world did seem to be getting better. And in lots of ways it was. We were prospering, there was more freedom, anyone could be educated, someone had walked on the moon, and we all wanted to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. Now the world does not feel so much like that. We have lost the sense that things are improving and that we can simply be optimistic. But Christians do then have something to say to a world in which hope of that kind has collapsed.
Our faith has been forged out of times of this kind of collapse of hope. Our hope does not lie in counting the days until Jesus comes again. It lies somewhere else. Christian hope is found in the present and it is found when Christians live lives that allow things like love, forgiveness and creativity to have meaning in a world that often seems bent on destruction and violence.
But let me find some examples of where the possibility of hope has been made evident in our world very recently. There have been a number of stories that have helped us all find a sense of hope again, when we’ve found ourselves saying ‘the world could be different… it could beat to a different rhythm..’… There’s Marcus Rashford, a talented young man who refused to forget the challenges of being poor and black in Britain today and who has provided a picture of what kind of a nation ours might yet be. There was the last survivor of the camp at Treblinka, telling Robert Rinder on TV how he isn’t angry or filled with hate. And there are many of you, who somehow find it possible to find joy and thankfulness even on a hospital ward or in days of isolation.
Christianity was born at the moment when the hopes that God might intervene and just change the world from above collapsed. But it was born among people who decided that the world needed to change anyway and that it was worth belonging to the people who set their faces to change it or to stand for a better world no matter what. I remember a minister I once knew who spoke passionately at a Synod meeting saying that Christianity amounted to having the courage to say ‘You can crucify me if you like, but I will never stop longing for a better world and working for it too!’
This is what Christian hope is like, and it is revealed when hope resting on a certain kind of future has collapsed. This kind of hope we can find now – and we do not have to wait. Hope means daring to let God’s truth and love break through now, even when now is pretty dire. Emily Dickenson in one of her poems wrote that
Hope is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul
and sings the tune without words.
and never stops – at all.
Real hope keeps singing, even when the future collapses, because it rests not on things turning out well, not on God having the last word, not on us ‘winning in the end’ – but it rests on things that remain true and full of meaning no matter what happens in the present or at any time. This kind of hope does not collapse with the future. It is this kind of hope that Christians have been given and which the world needs.
In our own little bit of Christendom, in the United Reformed Church, you might say that we have had or are having our own crisis of hope. We had hoped to be the first step towards the unity of the Church – we had hoped that by now there would be one united Church in Britain encompassing many of the mainstream churches if not all of them. We had certainly hoped that the Church would be a strong, vibrant sign of unity and peace for the world. Parts of this hope have collapsed. The whole Church now lives with the loss of the future it once imagined. But our mistake was perhaps to imagine a strong future for ourselves, when after all the church has always been born and born again out of the loss of the future. Our hope now lies in the present, as those who carry the sign of Christ with us, the one who suffered and died rather than fight to win, the one who offered his broken body to his disciples, the one who said to the world, ‘You can crucify me if you like, but I will rise in love for you’.
This Advent then – I think the Church should let go of some kinds of plans for the future, especially plans that look like ambitious and imperious dreams. God will only laugh at those! Our calling is to bring hope in the present, to believe that even if Christianity is no longer popular or powerful in the world it will always be true, and to refuse to let go of the real hope which goes on believing that love, joy and sacrifice are always right and that God is with us. Amen.