Hope in Advent,
December 1st 2013
The Rev. Sunil Chandy
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
Mount Holly, NJ 08550
What do the following people have in common? Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Prophet Isaiah, John the Baptist, Mary Mother of Jesus, and Jesus Christ.
They all had a vision of hope for our world! And they held that vision even as they struggled to help achieve it.
In this season of Advent the operative word is…hope. The prophets spoke with hope in the coming Messiah. We hear of the hope of John the Baptist as he looked forward to the Messiah’s establishment of the Kingdom of God. We understand the hope of a young mother as she is found to be with child and she (Mary) echoes the hopeful idea of an oppressed people, that this child will be a testament to God’s promise to make the world well again! Hope is the word of this season.
It is a strange and wonderful four letter word.
Wikepedia tells us that Hope is the “feeling or act of looking forward to something with desire and reasonable confidence.” Hope is understood to be the opposite of despair. Despair is the feeling of gloom and depression, anguish and misery.
Wikipedia goes on to say, “that hope comes into play when our circumstances are dire, when things are not going well or at least there’s considerable uncertainty about how things will turn out; but, hope also opens us up…[and] removes the blinders of fear and despair which allows us to see the big picture.”
I like this idea of hope, but it reminds me of a wishful thinking in the face of really big problems. It is a belief in something without any basis of reality. This idea of hope is a western idea but it does have ancient origins. In Greek mythology there is a story about Zeus (the supreme deity) who is upset because humans have been given fire by Prometheus. And, in his fierce anger, he creates a beautiful box, within which he puts all manner of evils. In the box is misery, suffering, ignorance, fear, poverty, pain and the list goes on. He then gives the box to a curious young girl named Pandora. Pandora (representing curious humanity) is told not to open the box, but inevitably she opens it. When she does, out flies all the evil that besets humanity. Then, when fearful Pandora finally looks into the box to see what was left, she finds only frail hope remaining. It is this hope that accompanies Pandora as she faces the great evils of the world.
For where the Greeks and the secular people of the world blame the gods for our problems, this pale hope is wishful thinking against the great challenges of the world—a world believed by the Greeks to be one in which we humans are called to struggle against a cruel and merciless God. However, this idea of hope is different from Advent or Christian hope!
The Christian view of hope has a different perspective. God is not the source of our problems. Our view helps us to understand the reality that life is tough. It can be hard, dark and unyielding; but, we also understand that God comes to our broken world to give us hope. Hope is not an illusion or pie in the sky thinking. God gives us a way out of hell. This hope is based on the reality of our experience of God. Our hope helps us to double down as we deal with the challenges of our present because we have experienced God’s help and hope in our past. And we know the reality of a faithful God.
This is why the Psalmist cries out in Psalm 27:13, 14:
“I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord. Be strong! And let your heart take courage, yea wait for the Lord!”
The Psalmist can only say this because of the reality of his experience of God in his life.
In today’s Gospel lesson, John the Baptist is in prison and he is beginning to have doubts about his call. Did he make the right call about the young man Jesus? Is the work of his life gambled away as he places his hopes on Jesus? He sends messengers to ask Jesus a question filled with doubts: “Jesus, are you the one? The Messiah?” A message is sent back. “John, look at the reality before you. What do you see? The blind can see, the dead are being raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them! Have hope, John. God’s promise of the kingdom is a reality.”
John, in response, doubles down in prison, feeling free and joyful in the knowledge that his work has meaning. This is the same confidence of Nelson Mandela as he stays in a small prison for 27 years. It is also the same hope that helps him to unite a country that is fearful of racial divisions in their new post-apartheid world. It is the same courageous hope based on God’s reality and God’s guidance that led Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr.
But you might say the world is a darker place than it once was. Yesterday was the One-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and we are reminded that our world is filled with great violence. This past Friday, our country experienced another shooting at a Colorado High school. Some wonder where in this is hope. Also, we all know people who are suffering because of illness, divorce, or loss of a job. These folks also wonder about hope.
But Christian hope calls us to be encouraged in our hope. We double down in faith. We act in faith. We follow the guidance of God as we deal with the violence in our world. We act with compassion for those who suffer because we have experienced the reality of God’s compassion and love and how it helps transform the world.
My friends in Christ, during this Advent, may you be blessed with hope that gives you peace—not only now, but for all of eternity.
John the Baptist
Passage: Matthew 3 : 1-12 · Lectionary: Advent 2
A young man was taking a walk with his father. This was not a normal walk. The father had just suffered his third heart attack three weeks before. And according to the doctors, this father now had only a year to live if he didn’t have a heart transplant. But the older man wanted to make sure he told his son certain things just in case. As they walked, the father wheezed as his son listened very carefully, yet still remaining hopeful that his father would be alright…that everything would be alright.
The father had many things to tell the son—things like the will, how to help mom with the mortgage, make sure the bills are paid on time, don’t fight with his own brother and sister, make sure to do things on time, and to see that the garbage is placed in a certain way to avoid the crows and the wind from making a mess. There were many things. But he was tired and the words did not come out easily in between the fits of coughs and wheezing. He could feel that time was running out, so he closed saying, “Remember I love you and your mother, brother and sister. Remember to love them, even when you don’t want to. Remember to always pray to God, be humble and work hard and have faith that God will take care of everything.”
If you knew that you only had less than a year to live, what would you tell the people you loved or the community you loved? Would you be concerned about economics, politics, the weather, the size of your house, and the type of car you drive? Or would you only be concerned about those things that are absolutely essential?
John the Baptist was a prophet whose time was running out. He had a task to fulfill, but he had less than a year to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. He did not have time to mince words or to be polite in his preaching. But people nonetheless came out to see him. Scriptures hint that they were drawn to the way he dressed and ate and even to his fierce oratory.
He called the people of his time to prepare for the Advent of the Messiah by repenting, by sharing and by service. But his message is a message that we in the modern world must hear as well
Repentance in the time of John:
John spoke about repentance but it may seem to be an outdated practice. One of the towering marks of this age is the absence of guilt. Not many people would deny that fact. Some are pleased that guilt has been dethroned; others see it as a bad sign. But the absence of guilt in today’s society makes repentance talk difficult. For if there is no feeling of guilt, then the need for repentance is greatly minimized.
For many, the word repentance is a word that belongs to another time. One may imagine a stern Roman Catholic nun ready to wrap fingers with a ruler stick if we are not repentant; while, another, I am sure, may imagine ashes and mourners’ benches. But today, repentance is viewed as something that we do only if we get caught. Repentance is far more than simply blurting out, “I’m Sorry.” Biblical repentance is more concerned about starting over again. Starting with a second chance!
Biblically, repentance means “to turn around and go in another direction.” What John the Baptist wanted his audience to hear was: “Turn your life toward this one called Messiah.” This is not negative or down-faced. Rather, it breaks everything that holds us back from being the joyful, hopeful life God intended for us.
A parishioner once said after a sermon during Advent: “The problem with John the Baptist is that he takes all of the fun out of Christmas.” But I submit to you that it is John the Baptist who puts the joy back into Christmas. For he is the one who calls us to prepare for Christ by cleaning out our hearts and minds from the habits and pathways that lead us to troubled lives.
Repentance is the first step to doing that. But John also told his listeners to share. In Luke 3:10 we read where a crowd approached John and asked of him, “What shall we do then?” John responded, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; he who has food, let him do likewise.”
Sharing is so basically fundamental to our faith in the Advent Season. When we see someone giving sacrificially, our hearts are warmed. We know we are in the presence of something sacred and wonderful.
One of my favorite Christmas stories is O’Henry’s short story The Gift of The Magi. A poor young couple living in New York around the turn of the century didn’t have money to buy a gift for the other. So they each secretly went out and sold something of worth. He sold his prized pocket watch to get her a braid for her long hair. When he presented it to her she removed her scarf to reveal that she had had her clipped and sold to purchase a chain for his pocket watch. This true love story reminds us that it is not what you give that is important, but the sharing spirit of love in which it is given is.
In Advent we are called to be a sharing people. Not just at one special season of the year, but to live a life of sharing.
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”
The third part of John’s message was to serve. In Luke 3:12-14 we learn that tax collectors came to John to be baptized and said to him: “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more taxes than is appointed to you.” And soldiers also came and asked, “And what shall we do?” And he said, “Rob no more and do not make false accusations.”
In other words, whatever your role or task is in life, do it ethically to the best of your ability. If you are a tax collector, then be an honest tax collector. If you are a soldier, be a good soldier and not a cruel, corrupt one. You don’t have to be a missionary in a foreign land to serve God. You can serve God wherever you are, at home, in the market place, and in school. Serve God by doing the best that you can for God where you are.
John was a great man who lived a short life and he preached an Advent message that is still important for us to listen and follow as we also prepare for the Advent of Christ in our lives. May we live understanding Advent hope as we repent, share and serve the world.
December 24th 2013
The Gift of God
The Rev. Sunil Chandy
Given at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church
Mount Holly NJ 08550
This is a season of gifts and gift giving. It is a joyful season in which we remember the people in our lives who are important to us. But sometimes getting the right gift can be hard, can’t it? Some of us (I mean to say I) am sometimes clueless. I remember one Christmas, the first Christmas after I got my first job as a pharmacist. I decided to give my mother a gift for all the hard work she went through in raising me up. And for most of you who know me, you know that was not easy.
I decided my gift for my mother would be expensive, it would be colossal. It would be something that she needed, something that would tell her that among all her children, I was very special. I went to the stores. Each gift didn’t seem to be right. Each seemed also to get more and more expensive. I didn’t know what to get her. So I decided to get this really nice card and wrote, “Mom I love you so much and let’s go shopping together one day and get you something special.” Now my brother and sister had their gifts wrapped. And she loved unwrapping their gifts, but she was really waiting for mine. I gave her the envelope with the card, but she seemed a bit disappointed. I encouraged her to look in. She rushed to open it, and without reading the card she looked for something inside, even holding the card upside down waiting to have something fall from the envelope. When she didn’t find anything other than the writing, man was she upset! She started to tear up, then I started to tear up…even though I said, “Mom, look at the words.” The end of the story is eventually I rushed out to the ATM and gave another gift. In my family, this happened now over 20 years ago and I still have not lived that down with my siblings and mother.
Christmas is hard for some folks. Gift giving is hard, partly because we feel we must get the perfect gift, the best gift. And for us, living in our time, the best gift is usually the most expensive. I don’t know about you, but I sometimes get seduced into thinking this way. I get lost in the thought that contentment is linked somehow to what I have in the material world, even though we all know that this is far from the truth.
There was a man who overheard a lady saying, “Oh, if I only had fifty dollars I would be perfectly content.”
He thought about that for a few moments. If the lady only had fifty dollars she would be content. He thought to himself, “Well, I can help her out.” So he walked up to her and handed her a fifty dollar bill with his best wishes. She was surprised and grateful. She really appreciated his gift. But, as he walked away, he heard her mumble under her breath, “Why on earth didn’t I say one hundred dollars?”
The poor woman received an unexpected gift from a stranger who saw her, understood her suffering, and responded in love and kindness; but, instead of being grateful, she looked at what she didn’t have and was unhappy.
I am sorry to say there are many people this Christmas season who are in that same boat. For many, in this over-marketed world, Christmas is a reminder not of their wealth or joy in God…but of their discontent.
But there is a way out of feeling discontent this Christmas. The path is found as we focus on that small family on their trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem as told in the story of Christ’s birth. We understand through their story that life is filled with challenges. We are reminded of the arduous journey made by foot by both the very pregnant Mary and worrisome Joseph. We are told that they had difficulty in finding a place to stay once in Bethlehem, but eventually they found shelter in a manger in a cave.
But we also imagine that, in the midst of all the chaos and danger they faced, there is a moment after the birth in which they understood the child is a gift from God. From this gift they understood that God fulfills promises to those who have faith. It must have helped them to realize again that the greatest gift of all is that God, Immanuel, loves us so deeply that he is willing to come into our world to give us hope. As we look on to this young couple this Christmas Eve, we are reminded that hope is worth more than what money can give. It is this hope that gives us courage to look past all we don’t have and to remember gratefully the gifts that we do have.
I would like to share with you a gift that was given to me by my mother, the woman who first loved me and sacrificed much for me. It is this Bible, which was first my Father’s Bible. It is old. It has underlined passages, notes written in the margins. In the inside front cover there are the birthdates of my brother, sister and me. It is special to me because it reminds me of my father’s faith, his hope in the words that gave his life meaning. It also reminds me of my faith and my hope.
Does the gift matter? Yes, but not in the way as expensive gifts. This Bible will continue to fade, but it is reminds me of a greater gift—the deep love of my parents for their children. It also reminds me of the faith my parents had in God. It is not an expensive gift but it is a gift I cherish.
My friends when you receive and give gifts this Christmas from your loved ones, remember with gratefulness the love that inspires the gift giving. Let the gifts also remind you to be grateful for the relationships. Let this Christmas remind you to enjoy and give praise to God for all that you already have in your lives.
God bless you.