The season of Advent seems to have evolved in Arles, in southern France during the middle of the sixth century. It began as a period of anything from nineteen to forty days as a preparation for remembering and celebrating the birth of Jesus at Christmas. (The Church’s year used to begin on Christmas Eve, so these weeks of preparation also marked the end of the old year). Quite quickly, however, Advent began to develop a character all its own with special readings, psalms, themes and so forth. It became a season of hope and of judgement.
Looking forward as it does to the birth of the Anointed One, our Messiah, Advent was developed along two main lines or themes. One was of excited looking forward to the remembrance of the birth of the Anointed One, the Christ, who came to deliver all his people from suffering, oppression. The other was the obverse of that hope, the prospect that this Anointed One will and is returning to expose all wrongdoing and injustice and to establish God’s rule. In the same moment, therefore, we anticipate a time when all wickedness, unloving behaviour, abuse, exploitation, self-seeking, neglect of the poor and disadvantaged, will be exposed: and we have to consider how we are likely to be assessed when those judgements are made.
Many of you will be familiar with that oft-quoted Chinese aphorism: “be careful what you wish for” – and its rider, “it might just happen.” That could be a more appropriate motif for the Advent calendar than the dross on offer in our shops.
Our Old Testament reading this morning is a case in point. The king of Israel (not named here, but perhaps king Ahab) sees his territory annexed by the king of Aram (Jordan on today’s maps) and wants to seize it back. He looked to his southern neighbour, king Jehosaphat of Judah, a much smaller power, and asked for military and political support to go against Aram. Jehosaphat was a willing ally in the cause. “Alright,” he said, “this is a good or sufficient cause, but let’s check it out with our God first.” He learned that Israel’s prophets were – all but one – urging on their king. However, Ahab (if it was he) knew full well that there is always God’s awkward squad in the person of a prophet who won’t be bamboozled into pretending that the prevailing cultural norm is the same thing as the will of God.
It appears that obstinate Micaiah (not to be confused with the major prophet Micah) was ready to tease his king by echoing the party line. (As so often in the Hebrew Bible, we have to pay attention to names. Micaiah’s name is a question: the question is, Who is like Yah/G-d?) The king, however, was not stupid enough to be fooled by Micaiah’s teasing. “No, tell it to me straight” he demanded, and that is what Micaiah did – and paid for it in prison. He had dashed his king’s hope and instead declared the will of God. He told the king that the plan was one of pursuing the king’s own hopes rather than God’s will, and that he should instead place his hope in God’s will. (If you read on, you will read the sorry tale of how Micaiah was justified in his expectation about Ahab’s death when he went against God).
In our second reading, St Paul took up a similar theme. He was a man driven by hope – faith, hope and love, those three, he wrote. The greatest was love, of course, but the hope was precisely that people would discover and respond to the love of God. If I had to put into a single sentence Paul’s fundamental message it is this: all of God’s children are called together into the experience of God’s love, and that alone gives hope to the world. No division of Jew or gentile, of slave or free person, male or female – nothing in the whole created order – can separate us from the love of God who calls us to be united in one family under God. It would not distort Paul’s vision if we were to add a few of our own divides that need uniting. How about Christian and Muslim, rich and poor, Third World and First World, gay and straight, black and white……? That is, of course, the message we have recently heard through the news media from Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin. To all of those affronts to our humanity, we can be confident that Paul would still write the blessing with which our second reading closed: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Some of you, I know, read the Bible regularly. If you are not one of those people but want to learn more, you could do worse than read some of Paul’s letters. If you do that, you will see how fundamental is this theme of hope in God. It is not some woolly optimism that it will all come out in the wash. Paul’s is a much more hard-nosed commitment, whereby he put his shirt on the conviction that God has spoken, does not lie to us and will deliver on God’s promises – come hell, come high water. And, like the prophecies of old, there are two sides to that hope. Our Messiah, God’s Anointed One, the Christ has been born into our world; and now calls us to respond to God’s love, to accept our place as God’s children. A time will come, indeed times keep coming, when we have to choose, to decide: God’s will and God’s way, or someone else’s or our own.