Text: Mark 13:24-37
Once every eight weeks, I would make the early morning drive up US-1, turn right on Hwy 98 and head toward the town of Wake Forest. At Southeastern Seminary, I would follow 98 to the right, circle around the campus, take the first right onto North College Street and make my way to 326 North College Street. No matter how hot or cold it was outside Donna Steely and her dog, Gus, would be out back anticipating my arrival. In the summer months, they would be strolling through Donna’s lush garden. In the springtime they would be inspecting the beautiful flowers. And in the early fall, they would be picking the figs off the fig tree.
There was no better way to begin a day than eating Donna Steely’s fig preserves spread over one of her warm homemade blueberry muffins. Every bite was perfect in taste and texture. With each yearly batch of fig preserves she made, depending on the crop, I would be sent home with one or two jars of the sweetness. And I would make those jars last all year long, mostly by hiding them in the back of the refrigerator.
Donna and I would sit at her kitchen table, savoring our breakfast, which sometimes included a soft boiled egg along with the preserves and muffins, and we would talk about our lives, the church, and the state of the world. We savored our time and conversation as much as we did the food we were eating—never in a rush to finish either. And Gus remained patience with us, knowing that at the end of breakfast he would be allowed a small morsel of any leftovers. It was in those conversations sitting at the kitchen table that Donna and I would share our worries as well as our hopes. We visited time past, when I had Dr. Steely for church history at Southeastern; and the good old days of Southeastern Seminary. I listened as Donna talked about how the untimely death of her husband had shaken her world. I learned of Donna’s life—what was important to her and the things she enjoyed. We mulled over things happening at Pullen—and she was always concerned about her fellow Pullenites who were experiencing illness and in the hospital. She would inquire about my life with great compassion and care. And inevitably, before our time ended, Donna would, in her proper yet deeply personal way say to me, “My Dear Nancy, I pray for you daily and hope the very best for you.
When I read our gospel reading for this first Sunday of Advent, and the instruction to learn from the fig tree, I thought of the lessons I learned from my mornings with Donna Steely eating fig preserves and blueberry muffins. I learned:
- Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication – homemade fig preserves and blueberry muffins
- I learned from Gus that a patient dog can make you feel like you are in the presence of something or someone holy
- Having someone who loves you tell you they are praying for you in times of struggle can make a difference
- It is important to ask the people you love what is important to them
- There is nothing stronger than the bond of faith
- And, I learned, two people sharing the stories of their lives with one another is the deepest well from which to draw strength and hope
Donna would say, “I hope the very best for you.” As we begin our Advent journey, we ask the question: What does it mean to sustain hope in these, our times?
Mark, chapter 13, opens a window from which to view this question of sustaining hope. “The entire thirteenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel presents a stream of thought that offers inconsistent messages. One popular proposal holds that Mark stitched this chapter together from two “apocalyptic tracts” that originally sounded competing themes.” (Mark Powell, New Testament professor Lutheran Theological Seminary) If you read Mark 13:1-2, 8, 14-22, and 24-30 the text flows smoothly, warning Christians to prepare for an imminent apocalypse. But if you read the alternating verses of Mark 13, Mark 13:3-7, 9-13, 21-23, and 32-37 again, the text flows smoothly, but it offers counsel of another sort: believers need to dig in, stay faithful, and prepare for the long haul.”
New Testament scholar, Mark Powell, writes of these inconsistencies: “The theory is that [the gospel writer] had these two tracts in his possession and, rather than choose between them, decided to weave them together into the composite text we now possess. In any case (since that’s only a theory), the text we now have does alternate between these paradoxical messages, as though Jesus (or the evangelist) cannot make up his mind: is the end at hand, or not? The key verses that strikes many readers as a necessary conclusion are Mark 13:22-23: we need to live as though the end is at hand and we need to dig-in for the long haul because the eschatological timetable is known only to God.”
Biblical hope seems to be like that: as close to us as our fingers tips and yet, beyond our reach at any given time. As are most things mystical and spiritual, hope, is both within us and beyond us. Think about this story we are entering into this morning and will follow for the next four weeks. Hope is so close: Mary nurtures hope in her womb, Joseph is visited by hope in a dream, the angels have hope on their lips; but before the actual advent of hope there will be miles of road to travel on foot and donkey, the holy couple will face housing insecurity and immigrant bans, things will look hopeless when it comes time to deliver with no room in the safe and accessible healthcare facilities to ensure a safe delivery. Hope is so close and yet, it feels so out of reach.
For much of our lives, we live in the space between feeling imminent hope—glimpses of hope—and the hope that comes in the long haul of life—deferred hope. We get glimpses of hope only to have them dimmed by the realities of our world’s suffering and pain and despair, and our own suffering and pain and despair. And it is this reality that makes the question of sustaining hope all the more relevant. How does our faith invite us to think about hope in a way that sustains hope through all of life’s highs and lows?
We begin by recalling first a time of despair in the life of our biblical ancestors—a time in their lives when all hope was lost. Of that time, Walter Brueggemann writes:
“When the destruction of Jerusalem was fully processed and had sunk in, the texture of Israel’s faith was abruptly and profoundly changed—emotionally, politically, and theologically. Emotionally, Israel arrived at a deep sense of loss, so deep that the denial provided by an ideology of exceptionalism was broken open…Politically, the end of the Jerusalem establishment as a source of power was now acknowledged. There would be no ‘next king.’ The temple was empty! Israel now had to live on terms other than its own…Theologically, Israel had now to struggle with evidence that YHWH no longer honored the chosenness of Jerusalem, king, temple, or city. The erstwhile deep confidence, expressed liturgically, ensuring chosenness and YHWH’s attentive fidelity to Israel was now evidently in great question.”
Brueggemann’s words define that time in Israel’s life when a generation of Israelites drew close to despair. How could they not? Everything about their world and religious life had shifted and all the certitudes that they had counted on were negated. It was in the midst of such despair that they learned of a kind of hope that is not rooted in chosenness, or in the fidelity of a God who promises no suffering, or in a hope built on the possession of power and control. They learned instead of a hope that knows how to offer prayers of lament; of a hope that is known sometimes only through the absence of God; of a hope that refuses to look away from the suffering and pain and despair of the world. They sustained a hope that saw them through theological tensions and cognitive dissonance. They sustained a hope that invited them into the discomfort of easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships. They sustained a hope that invited them into anger at injustice, oppression, and the exploitation of people—injustice carried out in the middle of the night by congressmen and women who pass tax bills that give a break to the wealthy and burden the poor. They sustained a hope that invited them to shed tears for those who suffer from pain, and rejection, and starvation, and war.
So how did our spiritual ancestors sustain this kind of hope? And how will we sustain such hope today? Brueggemann says it best. Our spiritual mothers and fathers sustained hope by understanding hope:
- As a tenacious act of imagination. It is given to us in dreams, oracles, narratives, and songs, rooted in absolute authority concerning divine purpose.
- They understood hope as an act of playful imagination with ill-defined and open images that suggest without clarity.
- They looked for hope that is given to us in an imaginative way, because it is out beyond what we know.
- And they sustained hope by understanding it as an audacious claim, said to be the very word of God, the word that “will stand forever”, the word that will “accomplish that which I propose”, a word that is “in your mouth a fire”, that cannot be held in. (Quoted and adapted from Brueggemann)
I leave you with my own practice of sustaining hope. First, I live with an awareness that the possibility of hope is always close to me—as the gospel writer testified, it is imminent; and I live in the awareness that hope is beyond me. Hope summons out beyond the known to what is lost. Hope is the long haul, the big picture, the assurance of things not seen, the newness not yet in hand. I sustain hope by living into this theological tension.
Second, I live in the awareness that my presence and my actions may represent hope to someone else. If we truly believe in the incarnation, then we are the embodiment of hope in our world. Knowing that I might represent hope to someone else allows me, in Brueggemann’s words, to look for hope that may be given to me in a way that I otherwise might not have been able to imagine—in a group therapy session, through the loyalty of a beloved pet, in a hug from a stranger that shares my life story, in a resistance movement that makes space for voices that are marginalized. Hope is summoned out beyond the known to what is lost and into the newness that is not yet at hand. We sustain hope when we live as though we are hope incarnate.
And last, my own practice of sustaining hope is, in Brueggemann’s words and that of the prophets before him, the audacious claim that God is with us in all of life, that justice-love stands steadfast in the midst of the world’s suffering, and that nothing can separate us from God’s love. And so, as Roger Crook writes in our history book, “We will not be a people who despair of the future but a people whose heritage offers hope.”
In these days of Advent, I invite you to find a friend with whom to share some fig preserves, homemade muffins, and a kind of hope that does not disappoint.