Signs of Hope
Isaiah 64: 1-9; Mark 13: 24-37
God of Hope, you lead us from fear and despair into your land of promise. In this Advent season, we turn to you for hope in the midst of our challenges. As we remember the birth of the child Jesus and prepare in hope for the coming of Christ among us, we commit our lives anew to working with you for peace on earth. Amen.
Last Sunday, thousands turned out to welcome Santa Claus in downtown
. It was “Occupy Toronto” of a festive sort, as thousands of Santa fans of all ages took over the downtown streets. This, Toronto ’s largest Santa Claus Parade, always signals the beginning of the secular holiday season in our city. Canada
Well, as Christians, we start this season differently. For us, this is the season of Advent, a time of preparation for Christ’s coming—both in remembrance of the birth of the child Jesus and in expectation of the coming of Christ among us. For us, it is hard to imagine the Christmas season without the celebration of Advent. On each of the four Sundays of Advent, we focus on a different aspect of our personal and communal preparation for Christmas. The theme for the first Sunday in Advent is hope.
It has been said that hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all; as long as matters are really hopeful, hope is mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength. Today’s passages from Isaiah and Mark tell us that this is the case.
A time of national chaos frames the prophecy in Isaiah. The temple in
Jerusalem has been destroyed and many of the people of Judah taken into exile in . The prophet appeals directly to God to come down and save the people. Calamity has come because the people have turned from God’s way. Yet, the prophet reminds them, God is the creator. God has awesome power, and has done great deeds in the past. God is their only hope. Babylon
The Gospel of Mark was written at a time when the young Christian communities were undergoing persecution, probably between 65 and 75 of the Christian Era. The
temple was destroyed in the year 70, CE, and there was great suffering at the hands of the Romans at this time. Mark reminds these first readers of the gospel, and us, that God is very near. We must keep awake for we do not know when God will come to save us. Jerusalem
Last Wednesday morning, I attended the East End Mission Developer Steering Team meeting. As you may know, the East End project was initiated by the Presbytery a few years ago to support the ministries of the eleven
congregations in this neighbourhood. At the meeting there was a brief report of how the eleven congregations were doing these days: Dentonia Park United has sold its building and is moving to Hope United. Beach United is moving out of its building for a year while renovations take place. Cosburn United and Presteign Woodbine United have relatively new ministers and are redefining what it means to be church in their communities. Three are in the midst of JNAC processes. Three are facing significant financial and attendance problems. The conclusion was: none of the congregations is in good shape. It sounded hopeless. United Church
On the other hand, also last week, I was so pleased when I opened an envelope containing the result of our congregation’s responses to the United Church Identity Survey which was conducted last May. The overall results are now available on the
website. A total of close to 7,500 people from the 22o pastoral charges across United Church Canada participated in the survey, the largest in history. The average response rate is 36%. Guess our response rate. Twenty-four of us did it. It means ours is almost double the average. Congratulations! United Church
The purpose of the research was to build a portrait of our identity, values, and beliefs as the people of The United Church of Canada. The survey result will help to set the stage for planning, priority setting, and decision-making for the 41st General Council in August 2012.
Let me share with you some of the findings from this survey. We
people are deeply committed to our church and to our faith. We are engaged and committed. Although we are not evangelists in the sense that we try to increase our numbers by “converting” people, surprisingly two-thirds report that we have talked about our faith to a non-churchgoer! We say that attending worship services and making financial gifts are fundamental to our faith. We all put a high value on a church that is welcoming and supportive, where faith is translated into action, and where belief is not a matter of dogma but rather a journey of questioning, debate, doubt, and ongoing discovery. United Church
Moreover, there is significant attachment to the denomination itself—as well as hopefulness about what the church and its people might be able to accomplish in the world. When asked about our views on renewal of The United Church of Canada in the 21st century, most opt for a prophetic role for the national church.
What to make of the age of
people? Many of us may be older, but we are in the full bloom of mature adulthood. We are at a point in our lives when we are able to truly step outside ourselves and attend to the needs of others - in other words, actively live out that commitment to community and social justice that is so central to our faith. In short, we represent a “community of broken but hopeful believers...a church with a purpose,” as our Song of Faith puts it. United Church
The survey results strongly suggest that there is hope within ourselves as a church. Here is a little piece of good news. At the East End Mission Developer Steering Team meeting, I was surprised that our Food Bank programme was not widely known to other neighbouring congregations. For example, Cosburn United has always sent their White Gifts to an agency in the west, not knowing ours at all. I was pleased when the Rev. Linda Petrides, their minister, a member of the Steering Team, promised to support our programme, by collecting food items we need and passing their White Gifts on to us starting this year. I have already sent her information about our programmes including the Drop-in and Community Dinner. Indeed, there is hope when we work together as church.
Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, writes: “Hope means more than just hanging on. It is the conscious decision to see the world in a different way than most others see it. To hope is to look through the eyes of faith to a future not determined by the oppressive circumstances of the present. To hope is to know that the present reality will not have the last word. It is to know that God rules.”
We are called to be ready at all times to live out this hope, filled with expectancy for its fulfillment. Advent is about waiting and preparing with hope. The people of
waited with hope for the birth of the promised Messiah and the coming of justice and peace among them. Today we still wait and work for this promised peace on earth with expectancy and hope. Sharing the bread and wine today, let us celebrate our hope for Christ’s coming among us. Amen. Israel