I am doing a topical series of sermons for Advent entitled Treasures from the Prayerbook. Here are some excerpts from this Sunday's sermon on the Christian Hope:
What I usually assign to the Advent wreath are the 4 themes of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. The candle symbolizing the Christian hope is the candle that is lit this morning on the Advent Wreath.
There are several items-treasures if you will, in the Book of Common Prayer that I could direct you to that has the theme of hope. There are psalms; there are collect prayers; there are some canticles, the entire funeral service is very hope filled. But more basic than that is the definition of what we as Episcopalians mean when we say the Christian hope.
Some Christians would define the Christian hope as nothing more than the hope that we'll all be with Jesus one day in heaven in the sweet by and by, as the old gospel hymn goes. Some Christians would define the Christian hope as some formula-some mathematical-like equation or precise incantation- by which we can assure ourselves that if we just say the right words or believe all the right things then we are magically saved or justified or are part of "THE Church with a capital C."
But the Prayerbook Treasure I would point you for all of us to ponder this first week in the season of Advent is in the very last section of the Catechism on page 861.
While you are turning there, let me say that the Catechism itself begins on page 845 and talks about all sorts of things from human nature to the sacraments to the 3 persons of the Trinity. But of all the things that it could end on from how to "be saved" to how we define mission, the section that it ends with is The Christian Hope.
That was intentional on the part of the people who originally put it together so that the last thing people have in their minds when they read over the catechism and study it is not some esoteric doctrine of the Trinity or some scholastic proof how God exists or how we're the "true church" or whatever. It is, in fact, the Christian hope that is the last thing discussed.
The prayerbook defines the Christian hope is this way:
Q: What is the Christian Hope?
A: The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God's purpose for the world.
That's beautifully succinct, is it not? A lot of Advent themes in that defintion, particularly in waiting for Christ.
But, notice what all is missing in that definition. It does not say anything about when you die you go straight to heaven to be with Jesus because you're saved. It doesn't say anything about the hope being that Jesus will return one day so that sinners and evil doers will get their comeuppance in the end.
To look at it another way, in ancient times, sailing the high seas was a perilous undertaking. Even the largest ships were tiny, slow, and awkwardly built by today's standards. And yet these ships sailed about the Mediterranean, into the Atlantic, along the edges of modern Spain, and even into what we now know as Northern Europe. The greatest danger in those days was unexpected bad weather at sea.
Huge waves and violent wind could crush these small vessels, overturn them, or driving them straight onto a rocky shore. Countless numbers of ships perished at sea, and with them many lives. Everyone knew of the dangers of sea travel; If you traveled, you took your life into your own hands; that was just the way of things. We see that in Scripture quite a bit in the story of Jonah and the Whale, Jesus in the Boat on the Sea of Galilee, and particularly to St. Paul in the Book of Acts, he's getting shipwrecked all the time.
That was the reason early Christian writers so often used nautical metaphors when discussing the Church. The Church was often described as an "Ark of Salvation" and everyone knew exactly what the referenced in that the sea was the ultimate in hazardous traveling.
Like ships, human beings need anchors. Some people's lives are "all sail and no anchor." Times change, and some people are blown in every which direction by the whims of reason. Some people never have an anchor and so never find a place of refuge in the storm of life. At the end of it all, such people look back and see that they have spent the whole of their lives chasing intangible dreams or ideals; they look back and survey a life that is a field what-might-have-beens.
By way of contrast, we possesses an anchor of Christian hope, an anchor which holds firm and prevents shipwreck and which instills confidence in the future, a strong sense of duty, and a sobriety when dealing with strange and passing fads of body and mind that try to rob us of the dignity of every human being.
Hope is one of the three Christian virtues, the other two being faith and love. St Paul talks about that at some length. Hope requires constant attention just as an anchor on a ship rusts in the salty conditions of the sea, so too will our anchor of Christian hope deteriorate in the corrosive atmosphere of the world in which we find ourselves if we neglect it.
For this first Sunday of Advent and the first Sunday of the entire Church year, I would urge you to ponder that definition of what we believe is the Christian Hope.
Strengthen hope through prayer and strengthen it through the reading of spiritual works like the Bible and other spiritual works. (Chicken Soup for the Soul doesn't count.)
Strengthen hope by actively remembering to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life.
Strengthen hope by looking toward the coming of Christ in his glory.
And most of all, strengthen hope by doing whatever is in your power to help God towards the completion of His purpose for the world.
Donating time, money, and treasure to various social causes is easy to do at this time of year because of the Christmas spirit. But remember this throughout the coming year.
All these strengthen our Christian hope, our anchor when times and troubles arise, when the twinkle of Christmas lights have been boxed up for the year and we face a long cold winter.
May the God of all Hope bless us in the coming year, and give you grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.