Hope: A Thrill of Hope
Are you a pessimist or an optimist? Is the glass of life half empty, or half full? My mom and I have gone back and forth about this a bit over the years. She’s wildly optimistic about most things, and sometimes I would say her optimism, her hopefulness borders on the irrational. If the weather forecast says there’s a 70% chance of a snowstorm coming, my mom will focus very seriously on that 30% chance that it is going to be a nice day after all. I, meanwhile, will begin adjusting my travel plans and making a backup plan for the day. My mom says I’m a pessimist, but I would argue that I’m simply a realist, trying to prepare for the thing that is most likely to happen, whether I like that thing or not. My mom, however, says she doesn’t want to be disappointed twice, both by thinking something bad is going to happen, and then by having the bad thing actually happen. She’d rather be hopeful, and enjoy her state of hopefulness, even if it doesn’t work out that way later on. How about you? Pessimist? Optimist? Realist? Are you a hopeful person?
Each week, our themes in worship – hope, peace, joy, and love – will be matched with a familiar snippet of a Christmas carol. This is lucky for you all, since I tend to be a stickler about singing Advent carols during Advent and Christmas carols when it is finally Christmas. But this year, we’re mixing it up a little, and using the familiar carols, along with the moving, more somber hymns of longing for Advent, to help us prepare for the season. This week, we’re thinking about hope, and what it means to be hopeful in this season of Advent, and our song snippet is “A Thrill of Hope,” taken from the classic “O Holy Night.” “O Holy Night” was written in 1843. In the town of Roquemaure in France, the church organ had recently been renovated, and the priest asked a local writer, Placide Cappeau, to write a Christmas poem. He wrote what we know as O Holy Night – “Cantique de Noël” (Song of Christmas) in French – and composer Adolphe Adam wrote the familiar lilting music. A few short years later, Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight wrote the English version of the text, much more a paraphrase than a translation.
But the phrase “thrill of hope” appears relatively unchanged in both French and English. In our familiar version we hear, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” The text tells us that the world was waiting, longing, pining for something, as it sat mired in sin and error. Perhaps you can relate to that feeling – when you know that your life is off track, when you know you’re going the wrong direction, when you know that you aren’t living either as you or as God wants you to live, when you know that life seems unfulfilling – you don’t relish staying where you are. You are longing, hoping, pining for some way to get out of the pit. This is the state of the whole world, waiting on God-in-the-flesh in Jesus Christ. And then – a thrill of hope. We’re weary, but rejoicing: morning is breaking, and light is canceling out the darkness. Advent is a season of hope. But I believe we’re called to something more than a passive hope, something more than a vague feeling, as we sit at the bottom of that pit, that something better might come along eventually. So what kind of hope are we meant to cultivate in this season?
Let’s look at our gospel text for today. Mark’s gospel sometimes seems like a surprising place to start when we’re beginning Advent. After all, we know that at Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, but when Mark begins, he skips any mention of how Jesus is born, and jumps straight to Jesus as a thirty-year old, embarking on the beginning of his ministry. Matthew and Luke are the gospels that treat us to the stories of angels and shepherds and Wise Men and mangers that we love, and even John’s gospel, with its image of a light in the darkness feels appropriately like a Christmas story. But Mark gives us nothing more than this at the start of his gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Boom. And he’s off and running.
But I love it. I love Mark’s gospel. He is so intent on making sure you know about Jesus and the good news Jesus brings that he can’t slow down long enough to give us more than what he considers the essentials. And Mark isn’t so much concerned with how Jesus was born as he is with the fact that Jesus is here, and we need to be ready, and we might want to do some self-reflection and some changing of our lives, changing our heart and minds because of Jesus’s presence.
So, as Mark opens his gospel, he centers us in words from Isaiah: God is sending a messenger who will prepare the way for the messiah, the voice of one who crying out in the wilderness, calling us to “Prepare the way of the Lord” and “Make straight” a path for God in the world. These may not be nativity words, but they are definitely Advent words. Prepare. Get ready. Someone is coming and we need to get ready.
John the Baptizer appears in the wilderness, calling people to repent, so that their sins might be forgiven. To repent means to change the direction of your life, to change the direction of your heart and mind, to get off the wrong-way road you were traveling on, and turn back to God. John tells people to do this – to repent – and they do. Mark says that people “from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” were coming to John, confessing their sins. John tells them: someone else is coming, and I’m just his servant. I’ve baptized you, cleansed you with water. He will cleanse you by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
John the Baptizer tells the people to get ready, help is on the way, and the people respond by getting to work at once, so that they are ready for this arrival of this hopeful good news that is coming. They’re repenting. Confessing. Being cleansed in baptismal waters. When Jesus arrives, they want to be ready for what is next, ready to live into the hope that John has given them.
How about you? Are you a hopeful person? What are you hoping for this season? How are you longing, pining for God to be at work in your life right now? And what are you doing because of that hope? Mark describes a whole people filled with expectation about this one that John was describing to them, but they didn’t just listen to John’s words and sit passively, waiting for Jesus to show up. They were filled with hope, and so they got busy. They were filled with hope, and so they started repenting now, not waiting for Jesus to arrive. They were hopeful, and so they let John cleanse their spirits as they confessed their sins, so that they would be ready to do whatever Jesus wanted them to do. They were full of hope, and their hope led them to act, because they had faith that their hope in God would not disappoint them.
I think how we hope is important. Sometimes we know why we’re hopeful, but we don’t let that hope spur us into action. Deep hope, built on faith and trust in God, is an active longing that starts working right away to embody and enact the very things for which we are hopeful. This summer I read a book called Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers: Prayer for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. In it, they write, “The longer we pray, the more we are sure of this: Prayer is not so much about convincing God to do what we want God to do as it is about convincing ourselves to do what God wants us to do.” That’s sort of how I think about hope: we hope for the possibility of God’s work in the world, and then we get to work as God’s laborers in the world, trusting that God will do what God promises, and getting started on our part as soon as possible.
So, as we begin this Advent season, what are you hoping for, when you think about God coming to us in-the-flesh? What is your Advent hope, and what are you going to do about it? Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove write: “Often when Christians talk about “eternal life,” we mean life after death. That’s not all bad. We’re both pretty excited about life after death (though neither one of us is in any rush to get there). But we’ve been asking together with our communities whether there is life before death. What we’re really looking for in our life together and in the church is what [1 Timothy] calls the “life that is truly life” … We have to stop promising people life after death when what we are all really asking is if there is life before death. And the good news is – there is. Eternal life begins now. It is living in the presence of God.” “What really excites us is the way our God stirs up the ruins, always eager to give new life. The world will not believe that the gospel is true because we struggle hard enough to save a sinking ship. The world will believe when we practice resurrection where we are because we know the joy of new life.”
This Advent, I’m hopeful – even if I still expect snow when the forecast tells me it is likely! I’m hopeful that Christ is continually born into our midst, continually reminding us that God is with us. I’m hopeful enough that I want to prepare my life, my heart again. Hopeful enough that I want to make sure that I’m going in God’s direction, not the wrong direction. And hopeful enough that instead of waiting passively, I’m going to wait actively, working to carry out the good news right now, because my hope is built on faith in God’s promises, which never disappoint us. We’re waiting, yes. But with a thrill of hope in our hearts, let’s get to work while we wait. Amen.