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ADVENT HOPE (Advent 1: 2019)

Advent hope

Luke Veronis tells a deeply moving story of the Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union Solzhenitsyn spent many years in the prison camps of Siberia. Along with other prisoners he worked in the fields day after day, in rain and sun, during summer and winter. His life appeared to be nothing more than backbreaking labour and slow starvation. This intense suffering reduced him to a state of despair. On one particular day, the hopelessness of his situation became too much for him. He saw no reason to continue his struggle, no reason to keep on living. His life made no difference in the world. So he gave up. Laying his shovel on the ground, he slowly walked to a crude bench and sat down. He knew that at any moment a guard would order him to stand up, and when he failed to respond, the guard would beat him to death, probably with his own shovel. He had seen it happen to other prisoners. As he waited, head down, he felt a presence. Slowly he looked up and saw a skinny old prisoner squat down beside him. The man said nothing. Instead he used a stick to trace in the dirt the sign of the Cross. The man then got back up and returned to his work. As Solzhenitsyn stared at that Cross traced in the dirt, his entire perspective changed. He knew he was only one man against the all-powerful Soviet empire. Yet he knew there was something greater than the evil he saw in the prison camp, something greater than the Soviet Union. He knew that the hope for all people was represented by that simple Cross. Through the power of the Cross, anything was possible. Solzhenitsyn slowly rose to his feet, picked up his shovel, and went back to work. Outwardly, nothing had changed. Inside, he had received hope.

Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ, Isaiah prophesied that when the Messiah, God’s chosen one, was born he would come as a servant not as dictator, as one anointed by God, one who would restore a sense of justice in an unjust world, one who would treat others with compassion and kindness, one who would inspire hope in human hearts and lives (Isaiah 42:1-4). It was this prophecy that Jesus applied to himself in the course of his public ministry (Matthew 12:15-21) in declaring himself to be that promised Messiah. And it was this wonderful truth that Mary recognised following the angelic revelation that she was to be mother of this unique child (Luke 1:26-38) which (despite all the challenges and difficulties she would have to face in embracing God’s plan and purpose for her life) led to her gloriously positive response known as the ‘Magnificat’ (Luke 1:46-55) which epitomises the wonderful God-given hope already referred to.

Although our English word ‘hope’ has essentially positive connotations we have something of a tendency here in the UK to dwell on what has been called the ‘darker side’ of hope seeing it largely as ‘a cruel and bitter emotion’ that ‘more often than not lets you down at the last’. Perhaps this has something to do with our Britishness and the inclination to see ourselves as glass half empty (rather than glass half full) people. In contrast to this the Bible underlines and affirms the positive nature of hope. There are various Hebrew words for ‘hope’ in the Old Testament but all of them (including the word Isaiah uses in Isaiah 42:4) are indicative of a positive spirit of ‘trusting in, waiting for, looking for, expecting something beneficial in the future’. Equally, the Greek word for ‘hope’ (that Matthew uses here in Matthew 12:21) is indicative of ‘a favourable and confident expectation with regard to the unseen and the future; a happy anticipation of good’. Hence Martin Luther famously translates the phrase ‘the God of hope’ (Roman 15:13) as ‘the God of the guarantee’.

Hope (along with Peace, Joy, Love and Light) is one of the major themes that runs through Advent Season, the four weeks leading up to Christmas (an ancient tradition dating at least as far back as the 5th century) during which the Church seeks to prepare the hearts and minds of its people for the coming of God’s Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. The word ‘Advent’ means ‘to come’ and the Advent season focuses on remembering Christ’s first coming at Christmas, but also anticipating his Second Coming and soon return. In this Advent season I will be sharing a series of short reflections on these various themes represented by the five candles on the Advent Wreath, a fairly recent tradition in church history, first devised by a German Pastor back in 1839 in response to the children at the mission school who would ask every day, ‘Is it Christmas yet?’ His original Advent Wreath was made it out of an old cartwheel he had lying around and actually had twenty-eight candles – twenty-four small red candles around the rim interspersed with four larger white candles. The children lit a new candle each day to help them count the days until Christmas. The larger candles were lit on Sundays and the smaller candles on the days in between. As the tradition spread the smaller candles were discarded in favour of a wreath with just the four larger candles and a fifth candle in the centre, the four outside candles are lit on each successive Sunday of Advent while the centre candle is lit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. There are various interpretations of the candles but the most common scheme is where the first candle represents hope, the second candle peace, the third candle joy, the fourth candle love and the fifth and centre candle representing Christ the Light of the World (John 8:12). Even though the Advent Wreath is a fairly new tradition in church history, these themes of hope, peace, joy and love stretch all the way back to the first Christmas and beyond. They are deeply rooted in Scripture, and so it is very appropriate to take some time each Advent season to reflect on these various themes in light of Scripture and the Christmas story.

Advent begins with hope and hope, as we have seen, is an important theme relating to the coming of Christ.  Our world is in desperate need of hope. Many people today live without hope or have given up on hope. But Jesus Christ came at Christmas to bring us hope, indeed ‘the mere sound of his name will signal hope, even among far-off unbelievers’ (Matthew 12:21 The Message).

The Advent/Christmas season is a wonderful season for so many reasons, but one of the most important reasons is the hope Christ brings to hopeless, helpless people like you and me. As Paul was able to testify: ‘Here’s a word you can take to heart and depend on: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. I’m proof—Public Sinner Number One—of someone who could never have made it apart from sheer mercy. And now he shows me off—evidence of his endless patience—to those who are right on the edge of trusting him forever’ (1 Timothy 1:15,16 The Message). And the way Jesus made this possible for us was not primarily through the manger but through the Cross. The Incarnation is only one side of the coin – Christ’s Passion is the other side – and both sides are essential. This, of course, is why the old man’s tracing of the sign of the Cross in the dirt proved to be the catalyst of renewed hope for Alexander Solzhenitsyn. As one of the (many) great quotes from one of my favourite films, the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, says: ‘Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free!’

Through the love of God our Saviour,
all will be well.
Free and changeless is his favour,
all, all is well.
Precious is the blood that healed us,
perfect is the grace that sealed us,
strong the hand stretched forth to shield us,
all must be well.

Though we pass through tribulation,
all will be well.
Ours is such a full salvation,
all, all is well.
Happy, still in God confiding,
fruitful, if in Christ abiding,
holy, through the Spirit’s guiding,
all must be well.

We expect a bright tomorrow,
all will be well.
Faith can sing through days of sorrow,
‘All, all is well.’
On our Father’s love relying,
Jesus every need supplying,
in our living, in our dying,
all must be well.

~ Mary Bowley Peters (1813-56)

Jim Binney

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