I used to have a computer called ‘Advent’. It was rather slow and involved a lot of waiting about for things to download. It was well named and I learnt to live in hope. Today’s readings are about hope. It is to do with anticipation waiting and longing, looking to the future not with dread, despite 2 Peter’s dire warning, there is the hope for ‘a new heaven and a new earth where righteousness is at home’.
Such a hope has been the driving force for much of our history as human beings. It has fueled civilization and the need to progress from one state to another more improved set of circumstances. ‘It is going to get better’ has been the belief for millions in the West but that has not necessarily been the philosophy of all civilizations. The ancient Egyptians for instance did not want anything to change. A civilization that lasted for over two and a half thousand years did not think in terms of change at all. If fact their art hardly develops for centuries so content were they with the status quo and living in a stylized universe. Agrarian societies are resistant to change as they see a rhythm in the seasons, which needs to be repeated. It is only urban people that long for progress. I know, I have spent 30 years in the countryside!
Has this anything to do with Advent hope? I remember the film ‘Clockwise’ in which John Cleese as a control freak head master finds himself on a journey of self-discovery. He could cope with the disappointments but not with the idea that there may be some sort of hope. Hope for what? A better pension? A pension!? More free time? Peace and quiet? Whatever the longing, it has to do with a change and change involves risk. The new archbishop of York spoke about risk and change as he swept colourfully through the portals of York Minster. He wasn’t dressed in camel hair and a leather belt but he may well rouse the masses, prepare the way and make a few crooked paths a little straighter.
Our Old Testament reading takes us to the source of these words. They were first yelled out of Babylon as a rallying cry to the moribund exiles to return home. Spiritual motorways were to be constructed in the desert. It was time to shake off the sleep of being absent and time to return. The exiles would not be alone. Like the children of the Exodus they would return in the company of their God and their God was one who reigns and that is the origin of the phrase ‘good news’. Euangellion ‘Herald of good tidings’ is the first instance in scripture of this word which we translate ‘gospel’. What is the gospel message? It is the good news of God with us. How does this come about? When the people repent and are forgiven.
There is a lot about forgiveness in the papers today. In fact, even I was asked to write on the subject in today’s Sunday Times. The mother of Anthony Walker, the black teenager murdered by teenage racists, has forgiven her son’s attackers quoting the words of Christ on the cross, ’Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’ Suddenly this is a major topic of conversation as it was at the Exile when God spoke tenderly through his prophet that Jerusalem’s term had been served her sins forgiven. The Baptist too proclaims a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. Once this is heard properly then the people respond they go out to see this thing, they enter the wilderness and listen.
What we need today is clarity. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark speaks clearly of the good news in a language we can all understand. In fact Mark tells us that ‘the common people heard it gladly’ as it was told with a self authenticating authority ‘not like that of the scribes’. Read Mark. Learn and inwardly digest him. This gospel will be used during our Sunday services throughout the liturgical year. I can sell you a commentary on it which may help you. But at least have a go at reading it through in one session. You will be surprised at its power to fill you with hope.
If we long for justice, if we yearn for peace then we are engaging with the major theme of Advent which is ‘hope’. But how can this hope be realized? How can we effect the change which will bring about the proclamation of ‘good news’? Well, we need to be watchful and prayerful. That sharpens our perceptions and makes us ready for the coming of the kingdom. Our collect sums it up. It calls upon God to ‘come among us’ and stir us into action. It is sin that impedes us, the sin of despair and the sin of indolence that fears change and holds onto the familiar. If Moses and his people had been seduced by Egyptian complacency he would never have crossed the Red Sea. If the exiles had settled in Babylon then there would never have been an Old Testament hope. Had John the Baptist stayed in Qumran then there would never have been a baptism of repentance and if Jesus had stayed at the lathe then there would not have been a Gospel of hope. ‘O Lord raise up your power and come among us and with great power succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness we are grievously hindered in running the race that is set before us, your bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us..’