Rev. Don Beyers, Christ Church, Bolton
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“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” Isaiah 40:1
A number of commentators, both secular and religious, have noted, with some curious wonder I might add, as to the early appearance of Christmas trees and lights in and around people’s homes. While retailers have long tried to encourage early Christmas shopping, there was something different about people’s behaviour this year. One writer questioned people’s enthusiasm for bright lights and colourful trees while living in the midst of a pandemic. Where, he asked, does this hopeful spirit come from in such a time?
Indeed, where is this Christmas spirit coming from? After reading the article, I began to notice the early signs of Christmas in my own neighbourhood and throughout town. I saw more lights up on people’s trees and houses than in the past. Even though it was only mid-November, I caught glimpses of a few Christmas trees in people’s family rooms. I assumed at first that perhaps our early decorations were all but a way to dispel the darkness of current events, and to shine some light. I delighted in people’s early joy and set aside my usual fears that people have forgotten Advent.
We have an extraordinary ability to see glimmers of hope even when life events may make us feel otherwise. Don’t get me wrong — I know many of us struggle to find hope each day and feel the heavy weight of life’s burdens. Yet, even then, I’m often struck by people’s ability to find light in the darkness.
I’m often humbled and deeply moved while making pastoral visits because of this. It’s not uncommon for my heart to be transformed by God’s grace while visiting with a parishioner. I find my own cares and concerns fade away as I sit and pray with someone. Such was the case the other day when I had the good fortune to see our dear friend and fellow parishioner Dorothy Smith at the Davis Centre. I had wanted to see her for some time now and struggled to reach her whenever I called. Now that the Centre has welcomed me to make pastoral visits with the residents, I took advantage of the opportunity and met with Dorothy. And let me tell you, I experienced the hope and joy of God that day as I sat with Dorothy.
Despite living in a residence that is for the most part separated from the rest of the world and unable to see her family in person, Dorothy exuded a joy that simply was contagious. She knew what was needed to be done to ensure the wellbeing of all “her” residents as she calls them. As president of the residents’ association, Dorothy takes great care to support her community of friends. Determined to keep pressing forward with her duties and aware of the need to be attentive to the still, quiet presence of God, Dorothy embraces this time as a time to serve. In fact, she had to cut short our meeting, for there was much she needed to do. (As an aside, Dorothy wanted me to wish you all her greetings and love for you. She was interested and concerned about everyone’s wellbeing.)
I left the Davis Centre filled with joy. I also felt the need to truly be grateful for the good I experience in life and not focus on the more difficult aspects of life. Despite the seeming hiddenness of God, Dorothy could still could find him and knew God was still very much at work. Once again, I encountered inextinguishable flame of hope alive in another person’s heart.
My experience at the Davis Centre and reflections of the past week fit well with the Church’s seasons of Advent. While nature seems to fall into a deep slumber and our hearts wearied by further news of a pandemic and other crises around the world, the Church once again lifts up its head and awaits the coming of the Lord in glory. Reflecting on the wonder of the Church’s joyful anticipation of good news in the midst of apparent darkness, the 19th Century Anglican priest, John Keble questions the Church’s spirit in a poem he wrote for this Sunday:
Why then, in sad and wintry time,
Her heavens all dark with doubt and crime,
Why lifts the Church her drooping head,
As though her evil hour were fled?
Is she less wise than leaves of spring,
Or birds that cower with folded wing?
What sees she in this lowering sky
To tempt her meditative eye?
He responds, in the next stanza of the poem, that the Church lifts up its dropping head because she knows the saviour is near and certain hope in the love of God:
She has a charm, a word of fire,
A pledge of love that cannot tire;
By tempests, earthquakes, and by wars,
By rushing waves and falling stars,
By every sign her Lord foretold,
She sees the world is waxing old,
And through that last and direst storm
Descries by faith her Saviour’s form.
The Church’s hope, our hope, is not some naive, foolish, or wishful dream of a fantasy soon to be fulfilled, but a confident assurance in the Lord’s promise that he shall come again to wipe away every tear and sorrow. (Rev. 21:4) The trials and tribulations of our day are not the end for us. Rather, springing up in the midst of that suffering is new life. While to the world the horizon looks dark, the Christian sees the glimmering star leading to the Lord hidden in humble majesty.
Our confidence and conviction in the coming of the Lord is deeply rooted within the scriptures. The Lord speaks to the Prophet Isaiah and tells him to speak tenderly to the people of Jerusalem, “Comfort, O comfort my people.” (Is 40:1) God’s words of comfort come at a time when all of Jerusalem, Judea, and Israel were held in captivity by the Babylonians in a land entirely foreign to them. The people are surrounded by false gods, they’re separated from the faith they know, and they feel the pain of losing the promised land to a foreign oppressor. God’s words are spoken to a people who live in a very dark time. Isaiah shouts out with joy:
“See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” (Is. 40:10-11)
God’s words of hope must’ve been sweet balm for those held captive. Unlike the Second Book of Kings, an earlier Old Testament text, Isaiah doesn’t describe the exile. It was far too horrific for the people even to retells with words. Instead, the people can only recall God’s word of hope for them.
The hope of the people in the Old Testament extends into the New. Only now, the people’s long-awaited Messiah has come among them. So certain of God’s fulfillment of his promises in Jesus Christ, Mark makes plainly clear the good news of Jesus Christ. He need not weave a long tale, write-up a long genealogy, or wax philosophically as the other gospel writers do. Instead, he simply says “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) There is no doubt for Mark; he knows who Jesus is and states it as an obvious fact. Once again, we encounter certain hope.
Yet Mark’s hope is found not only in Jesus’ fulfillment of the Father’s promised liberation from sin and darkness, it is also grounded in a new beginning. His opening line echoes the creation narrative of Genesis and its telling of “In the Beginning.” The salvation found in Jesus Christ isn’t just about us being freed from bondage, it’s also about us being made into a new creation. What was once lost in the sin of Adam and Eve is now given to those born into new life by the waters of Baptism. Before the people can apprehend Jesus, they must die to their former selves and be made anew. Thus John the Baptist cries out in the desert: “prepare the way of the Lord!” Let go of all that holds you back from freely receiving the Lord of Life and open your eyes and ears to see and hear him coming in glory.
There is hope in these scripture lessons today. And when we ground ourselves in the Living God and in his promise to give us life and life to the full, we can only feel hopeful. Once again, as I’ve said so often before, we need to return to the Lord in prayer and study of the scriptures. When we do, we allow Christ to breath life into our mortal bodies and renew our sure and certain hope of new life. Grounded in the Lord, we gain new insight and see the glimmers of hope that frequently appear, assuring us that God’s great work of redemption is still unfolding.
This, I believe, is what inspires hope in people. I know the encounter with God is what gives hope to Dorothy and to countless women and men. I pray you will find it too. Amen.