Hoping on God

Sermon Preached on Sunday, November 27, 2011

Superbowl Sunday offers America the high point in the advertising year. To be sure, a number of us, tune in for the football game, but even more, I suspect, are waiting to see the next Budweiser Clydesdale ad, a new hit from the eTrade baby, and, after last year’s game, are wondering if Volkswagen will be able to top their popular Darth Vader kid. But if Superbowl Sunday offers us the marketing high point, I’m convinced – this year more than ever before - that the days leading up to Black Friday and counting down the days until Christmas offer us some of the marketing low points. 

Coming in at number one this year are the eBay advertisements. The first that caught my attention is a father who is bored at his child’s school play and drifts off into a car-lover’s daydream culminating in his purchase of new chrome wheels from eBay’s website.  At which point, he jumps out of his seat, interrupts the performance, and yells, “Bought ‘em!”[1] As if this ad weren’t bad enough, another features a multi-generational family gathered and singing the Twelve Days of Christmas as they sit together around the family Christmas Tree.  But the ad quickly devolves when a member of the family who has clearly missed the point of Christmas – but has captured the essence of our culture’s me-first, gotta-have-it-now commercialism, joins in the song:

“five new tops. . . and I want to be very specific about this because last year I got some gifts that I wasn’t exactly feeling especially from you Uncle Dale were those acid wash jeans I just hope you all stuck to my list this year a new digital camera  or a nice white shoulder bag would be really ideal sorry to be so frank I just don’t need another needlepoint throw pillow aunt Carla. . . . four calling birds, three French hens . . . “

and then the eBay tagline: buy it now, buy it new.[2]

If ever you needed to hear that the church – that Christianity – is a counter-cultural movement then let this season of Advent make it very clear.  The countdown to Christmas is not about consumerism; it is not about sparkling lights, candles in windows, and the other pretty trappings we have come to associate with the days and weeks leading up to the 25th of December. One need only listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah, the psalmist, or the words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel this morning to know that the pretty trappings are just that – nothing more, nothing less.

Advent is a season of hope, a season of longing.  But I worry that we have begun to confuse hope with wishful thinking.  Eugene Peterson in his book, Living the Message offers this reflection on the difference between hope and wishful thinking:

“Wishing is something all of us do. It projects what we want or think we need into the future. Just because we wish for something good or holy we think it qualifies as hope. It does not. Wishing extends our egos into the future; hope desires what God is going to do – and we don’t yet know what that is.

Wishing grows out of our egos; hope grows out of our faith. Hope is oriented toward what God is doing; wishing is oriented toward what we are doing. Wishing has to do with what I want in things or people or God; hope has to do with what God wants in me and the world of things and people beyond me.

Wishing is our will projected into the future, and hope is God’s will coming out of the future. . .  Hope means being surprised, because we don’t know what is best for us or how our lives are going to be completed. To cultivate hope is to suppress wishing – to refuse to fantasize about what we want, but live in anticipation of what God is going to do next.”[3]

Our culture wants us to believe that hope and wishful thinking are one and the same – that our desire for, our wish for new chrome tires or for a new white shoulder bag will bring us closer to fulfillment.  But we know that this is not true. We know it because when we get that new bag, we immediately wish for the next item on our “must have” list.  This wish / fulfillment cycle does not work.  It does not work today and it did not work thousands of years ago when the prophet Isaiah cried out, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down. . . . Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever.”[4]  The psalmist adds voice to the prayer with this refrain: “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”  Show us your face, O God. Help us to see you here with us.  O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Emmanuel; it means, God with us.

These are the words of communities’ of faithful people calling out to God, lamenting the ways in which we have broken off relationship with God.   We are a people who routinely lose sight of God with us.  Jesus’ words in the Gospel - “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” – remind us to be ever-watchful, ever-alert, ever-open to experiencing God with us.

My friends, we have arrived at the first day of the new year in the Christian calendar.  The season of Advent is upon us and it begins with our “desperate need for forgiveness and the restoration of hope via a loving relationship with God.”[5]

“Come, O Christ, and dwell among us! Hear our cries, come set us free. Give us hope and faith and gladness. Show us what there yet can be.”[6]

This is the counter-cultural message of the Church. And, my brothers and sisters in Christ, we need be clear:  we need not reject the pretty trappings of the season. We need not say no to Christmas trees, candles in windows, festive parties, and gift exchanges.  But, amidst the celebrations, let our heartfelt focus and cry be clear: O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

[1] See the ad here (accessed on November 26, 2011).
[2] See the ad here (accessed on November 26, 2011).
[3] Eugene Peterson, Living the Message: Daily Help for Living the God-Centered Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 290-1
[4] Isaiah 64:1, 9.
[5] “Restore Us, O God,” Homiletics (November 2011), p. 38.
[6] Dean W. Nelson, "Signs of endings all around us," Wonder, Love, and Praise: A Supplement to The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 1997), 721.