To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” I thought it was an odd way to start a conversation, but I was in the middle of it now. A few months ago, I was at a non-profit business fair, manning a booth for our church and early learning center at the Manhattan Town Center. Of the very few people who actually stopped to chat with me, there was one man who sticks out in my memory. He walked up to the booth, stopped, and said, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” “Excuse me?” I responded. “Oh, I saw the name of your church is Hope and that’s the first thing that came to mind when I saw it.” Makes sense, I guess, in a brilliant moment of word association. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” is a famous line from Dante’s Inferno. In this fictitious story, Dante is given a tour of hell, and inscribed on the gate of hell, Dante saw the words, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Either this man I met in the mall had a decent grasp on 14th century Italian allegory, or more likely, he had his finger on the pulse of how most people feel when they hear the word “hope.”
What do you think of when you hear the word “hope”? Some common synonyms for hope are: anticipation, belief, expectation, optimism – all pretty intangible things, right? Here are some more synonyms I found for hope: castles in the air, fool’s paradise, pipe dream. In modern English parlance, it seems the word “hope” can have a variety of meanings, ranging from the vague and intangible to the impossible and downright absurd. So, what a thing to name a church! Some might say. Give me something I can touch and see and know for certain! Don’t fill me with empty optimism about castles in the sky! But before we grab our pitchforks and go and tear down our stone sign on Highway 24, let’s remember how the Bible talks about hope. There’s nothing wishy-washy about it. Our hopes aren’t pinned on blind optimism. Our hopes are anchored in the nail scarred hands of the Son of God who gives you a sure and certain hope, rooted in the promises of God. Hope is the theme for our Advent worship today, and Christ’s coming brings hope.
For the four weeks leading up to Christmas, we observe the season of Advent. Advent simply means, “Coming.” It’s during these weeks that we turn our attention to the threefold coming of Jesus – his first coming in the manger at Bethlehem; his second coming in the clouds on the Last Day; and his daily coming to us through his Word and Sacraments. It’s during these weeks that we focus on the Biblical definition of the word “hope.” Advent brings the Christian hope – hope that Christ will come again in glory; hope that everything that’s wrong with this world will be done away with; hope that the word and promise of our God stand forever.
That’s the hope that Jesus shares with us in our gospel lesson for today. But when I started reading the gospel to you earlier, did it sound abundantly hopeful? Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. Men will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.” An alliterative two word summary of what Jesus is describing? Cosmic cataclysm. The stars come unhinged, the sun fails, the oceans are drained, the entirety of the created order is upheaved. The very foundations of the earth are shaken. We really have no frame of reference to imagine experiencing this kind of chaos, which coincidentally is why apocalyptic movies about the end of days tend to be so popular. The world will look even more disturbed and disjointed than a Salvador Dali painting. Once brave and strong men will faint from terror. The signs will be clear. Jesus promises. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus gave even more signs – nation will rise against nation…there will be earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven. Do any of those sound familiar? Those signs were already happening while Jesus was speaking those words. Statistically speaking, America has been involved in some kind of war or conflict in 93% of the years of its existence. Worldwide, there has never been a year when nations didn’t rise against nations. In recorded history, there has never been a year without natural disasters. The signs of Jesus’ return are all around us, which means that at any moment, we could see what Jesus predicts in our gospel lesson today – the stars fall, the sun fails, and the oceans roar.
Jesus, why are you saying this stuff? Why would they choose this lesson for the first Sunday in Advent? Aren’t we supposed to be thinking about the coming of gentle Jesus, meek and mild? Where’s the Advent hope? In the midst of unimaginable upheaval, what does Jesus say? When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. These earth-shattering signs all accompany the most spectacular sign of all, one that no one can miss – At that time, they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Here is your hope. Jesus is coming back. Believers in Jesus can look forward to that Last Day, even with its cataclysmic calamities, because on that day, Jesus will return to bring his people home, giving us his victory over sin, death, and the power of the devil forever. Could that day be today? Only God knows.
So, in the meantime, Jesus tells us, “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of this life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap.” Jesus says this because Jesus knows us and he knows our struggle. Everything in the world has been humming along just like it always has, and so we’re tempted to think of Jesus’ second coming as something that couldn’t happen at any moment. When that happens, we start to lose hope in his promise, reasoning that if he hasn’t come yet, he’ll never come back. In these gray and latter days, what weighs you down? Where’s your hope? Too often, it’s not in the word and promise of Jesus. Too often, my definition of hope starts to mirror the world’s thesaurus – castles in the sky, a fool’s paradise, a pipe dream. It happens really easily that eternity takes a back seat to the temporary.
Jesus doesn’t just warn us against “obvious” sins like drunkenness or outright unbelief. Did you catch that? “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with…the anxieties of life.” Who’s my biggest enemy when I try to live my life right now with an eye on my Savior’s eternal promises? Who’s the enemy? The devil…but a close second is me! Instead of focusing my attention and hope on the eternal promises of my Savior, the tyranny of the urgent drives me away from watchfulness in the Word, Sacrament, and prayer. Employment, while a blessing from God, consumes me and my thoughts, even when I’m not there – much to the detriment of my family and my worship life. Entertainment, while a good gift from God, makes me its slave so that my Bible gathers dust and the road from my house to worship isn’t so well-worn, because I’ve got other things to do on the weekend. Possessions, something to be thankful for, threaten to bury us as we build bigger and bigger barns to store our temporary trifles and push aside the eternal gospel. We might try to disguise it 1,000 different ways – call it growing my nest egg; tell yourself you just want the kids to have opportunities you didn’t – dress it up any way you want, it doesn’t change the fact that at its root, this is a disproportionate love. I love the gifts more than the Giver. I want, I love, and I long for the here and now, never mind what Jesus says about the then and there.
It makes some sense why Jesus would talk about being weighed down with…the anxieties of this life, because so many think that this life is all there is. But Jesus knew better, and so he was weighed down - not by employment or entertainment or everyday life. Jesus was weighed down, carrying your sin and mine. For every time you’ve taken your eyes off the reality that Jesus is coming back and this world is coming to an end, Jesus kept a laser focus on your salvation. Unblinking, unflinching, he set his face like flint to the middle cross on Calvary where he’d be crushed by the wrath of a holy God, for you. This is your joy. This is your rock solid hope: Jesus is coming again. We don’t need to run around like the sky is falling (even though, on the Last Day it will), because Jesus already came once before. He came to be our brother and bear our sin. And right now? We live with a foot in two worlds, as it were – living in this temporary world with our sure and certain hope in the heaven that waits. Right now, as we wait for that joyous day of his return, Jesus hasn’t left us alone. He’s given us his Word.
Some people might hear that and think, “Sounds about as useful as a castle-in-the-sky kind of hope,” but listen to what Jesus says. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” No matter what happens in this world, no matter what comes at the end of it all, when the earth and sky are completely destroyed, there is something that lasts forever. Christ’s word of promise…and he’s given it to you right now! Do you see how that changes our perspective? My focus doesn’t have to be two inches in front of my face. The gospel removes the blinders of my purely human existence! When I was a new driver, my brother let me drive his 1980 Pontiac Bonneville, which was so big it looked like a living room on wheels, and kind of drove like it, too. As a new driver my vision was myopic. My focus was about ten feet in front of the car, which as you know is no way to maneuver an automobile that’s the size of a small aircraft carrier. I was swerving, constantly adjusting, looking right in front of me, and had a death grip on the steering wheel. But then I learned: look up. Look ahead, and see the big picture. Jesus shows us the end of all things – why? So that we’ll live with our heads in the clouds, completely oblivious to what’s going on around us? Well, no. Jesus shows us the “not yet” in order to give us hope in the “right now.” When our focus is entirely earthly, our hope runs dangerously thin, because hope in anything of this world is nothing more than a fool’s paradise, a pipe dream. But our hope is in the word of our God, which never passes away.
So when you feel alone in the world, remember the word that never passes away – no one can snatch you out of my hand. When you feel defeated and anxious, remember the word that never passes away – Thanks be to God, he gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! When your guilt overwhelms you and the weight of your sin threatens to crush you into eternal despair, remember the word that never passes away – take heart, your sins are forgiven. Even though the very foundations of the earth will give way; the celestial bodies that have charted the course of time since creation will fall; even amid wars, earthquakes, and famine one thing stands firm throughout eternity – the word and promise of God – fulfilled in Christ, your hope. Hope is not a vague impossibility. Hope is a person, once dead, alive again, and coming back for you.
Jesus is coming again, so watch! Watch with undivided attention, because the signs are all around you. Jesus is coming again, so watch! Watch with unceasing prayer, because the one who began a good work within you will carry it onto completion. Through his gospel, he promises to strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God. Jesus is coming again, so watch! Watch with unparalleled joy, because your Jesus is coming to take you to be with him forever. Lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near! Join in prayer with the Church of all ages, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus! In your grace, in your power, and in your glory!”
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.