St Andrew’s Anglican Church
Sunday 2 December
Jeremiah 33: 14-16
Psalm: 25: 1-10
1 Thessalonians 3: 9-13
Luke 21: 25-38
The Vital Grace of Waiting ©Sue Wilton
In 1931 Aldous Huxley penned a dystopian fiction called Brave New World. Somewhat later in 1949, George Orwell produced his powerful futuristic novel, 1984. Ever since these two visions of social calamity and a soulless future were published, people have been reading the signs of the times and noting where the trajectory of human progress seemed to be veering dangerously close to one or other of these bleak futures.
Since 1984 has come and gone, there were many who would say that Orwell’s predictions were out and that humankind would never fall prey to this kind of complete authoritarian regime. As a year 12 student studying 1984 in the year 1985, there was a sense of relief and a long breath out that humankind had
made it, dodging the terrible fate of Big Brother, thoughtcrimes, and room 101. Brave New World was always in a slightly different category. To many, Huxley’s vision of genetically modified citizens and class conditioning made for fascinating reading but a less pressing danger than the totalitarian state of Orwell’s imaginings. The point, however, which Huxley makes in the novel, is that “A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude.” Huxley has envisioned a world where pleasure, entertainment and distraction are always at hand to prevent the humans experiencing pain, disappointment or any kind of spiritual or existential crisis. We may have survived past 1984, but Huxley’s vision has a disturbingly familiar quality as we look at the way mass entertainment keeps society distracted and inattentive while the commodification continues of everything from well-being to relationships to identity.
Writers like Orwell and Huxley give us a great gift in stories that find new life in each generation, helping us to be alert to all that would rob us of our freedom and humanity. Similarly, when we come across disastrous sounding prophecies of the end times in Scripture, perhaps the most important thing to do is recognise that such apocalyptic texts were meant to speak to people in real time- not for some future destination- but in order that they may be encouraged to stay awake and alert to the world in which they lived. The readers of Luke’s Gospel were to open their eyes and lift up their heads in faith and trust in God, regardless of the cataclysmic events occurring around them.
Luke was written probably a decade or so after the cataclysmic events of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. It is in every degree likely that these terrible events were associated with the apocalyptic images like the shaking of the heavens. And little doubt too that the first believers fully expected Jesus to return in their lifetime, and that these horrific events were signs of the coming end.
There has not been an age yet in human history that has been free of upheaval and distress.
There have always been plagues, natural disasters, war and famine. Today the signs of the times are quite literally to be observed in the earth- with climate change and the pressure of our way of life posing a real threat to our future, and particularly to the future of some of the world’s most vulnerable communities. Some, like the citizens of the islands of Tuvalu, do not have the luxury of just reading about these signs, but have the seas levels lapping at their doorstep and projected ocean levels that would see their homeland submerged.
While this week we have young people raising their voices to bring attention to this issue, there are climate change doubters and there are many voices who would say that it is already too late- that the damage is done and our course is set. Other prophets of hopelessness point to violence and war among peoples of the earth and preach a doctrine of division and self-protection- every nation for themselves.
Today’s Gospel text helps us to steer a path away from despair, apathy and fearful self-interest. It does not deny that there will be dark and difficult times,
but tells us to stay awake, and, just like new leaves sprout on the fig tree, so too we should hold on to hope, trusting that God has new life for us, however dark the outlook of the world or our personal circumstances.
This morning we lit the flame of hope.
I think it is important to realise that hope is not a passive, pious, religious feeling.
Hope takes real courage. Because you see, the light of hope does not allow us to pretend we don’t see what is going on. By the light of hope, we see both the beauty and the madness of this world. Hope is the light by which we see more clearly, and we wait.
But waiting, is not passive either. Jesus tells us when we see these things, we are to “Stand up and lift up our heads.” The season of Advent reminds us that we are waiting- that we have been always waiting, perhaps, even when we did not know that we were… even when it was not clear what we were waiting for. An ancient Advent prayer supplies us with the words. “Give us grace,” it says, “that we may cast off the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light.” This grace of waiting, though, is not passive. We are not to be inactive, or victims or dependents as we wait. To wait in hope is to be alert and awake to the creeping darkness in the world, clothing ourselves in the light that we may bring Christ’s healing and hope to a waiting world.
But while the whole world may be waiting, the whole world is not awake. The Brave New World of Huxley’s vision may well be upon us with a population that is more distracted, entertained, sedated and satiated than ever before. I love the way Eugene Petersen translated verse 34 from today’s Gospel text;
But be on your guard. Don’t let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise…
“Parties and drinking and shopping” are a rather precise description of the activities that happen around us in this season. Jesus warns against such things that will dull our ability to be ready for God’s inbreaking of a different way to be in this world, the inbreaking of God’s kingdom. Now this is not to be the fun-police; a robust theology of grace recognises the place of pleasure in a well-rounded life. But what we must be is awake. Where pleasures keep us numbed, distracted and satiated with a life so much less than what is available to us by the Spirit, then we need to wake up. When we find our desires, our morals and our opinions co-opted by the consumer machinery of our day, we are not free. Waiting in hope is to actively resist the slow creep of cultural apathy and blindness, that we may be the means through which Christ comes into the world, bringing justice and peace. Part of our waiting is to allow the Spirit to capture our imagination and fire us with the possibilities for hope. Walter Brueggemann has said “The key pathology of our time, which seduces us all, is the reduction of the imagination so that we are too numbed, satiated and co-opted to do serious imaginative work.”
So this Advent, let us wait, but let us wait actively; resisting a self-absorbed, self-sufficient culture that robs us of our spiritual imagination to live into a different future. And let us wait not in a pious, religious way, but in a vital urgent way that takes seriously the truth that we carry within us the light of hope. Let us lift up our heads, stay awake, and wait for Christ by being as Christ in the world, as best as we know how. Let us wait with the world as it is, because God lives in us as we are, and let us light and re-light the candle of hope.