It was 1942, still in the early days of World War II, and the Navy was conducting training exercises near New York City when something went terribly wrong. A Navy submarine was stuck on the bottom of the harbor. There was no electricity and the oxygen was quickly running out. The U.S. Navy sent a ship equipped with Navy divers to the spot on the surface, directly above the wounded submarine. A Navy diver went over the side of the ship to dangerous depths. It was one last attempt to rescue the sailors from this steel coffin, and it would ultimately be successful. But as the rescue began, all was fraught and fearsome, uncertain and urgent. As the metal boots of the diver landed on the exterior surface of the submarine, the trapped sailors heard the sound, but they moved to where they heard the sound, they moved together to where they thought the rescuer would be and in the darkness they tapped on the metal of their submarine in Morse code, “Is there any hope?” The diver on the outside, recognizing the message, signaled by tapping on the exterior of the sub, “Yes, there is hope.” (1)
The message of hope – whatever the form in which it comes to us – finds us like that, so often in places so often in places confining, smothering, overwhelming. We choke on our grief. We awake with our concerns. We struggle to breathe in the thinning air of human frailty and failings. The days grow darker, colder, more harsh, and it all just encroaches.
It’s why the season of Advent is so vital to us, for it reminds us of that truth we sing in the beloved carol perhaps so familiar to some of us, we repeat the words with more habit than thought, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met” in the birth of Jesus. Any sounds of hope are never far from the pressing realities of our fears.
“Do not fear” we hear repeatedly in Scripture, over 100 times, and many of them around the birth of Jesus because the great hope of Christ’s coming is for people who know what it is to be afraid. Christ comes to people who know hope and fear, both. These are the twin realities of our lives, so present at the birth of Jesus, and ever-present in our passage today
As if to emphasize the fragile and fearful situation to which the hope of Christ comes, on the first Sunday of Advent, the Lectionary usually finds Jesus in an apocalyptic mood. It’s the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of a brand new church year in our liturgical calendar, and yet our gospel text finds us not at the beginning, but at the end with Jesus proclaiming calamities and destruction. Jesus describes a time when, as he says in verse 26, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”
It’s hardly the holiday cheer we’re looking for today. And it wasn’t a festive moment in the life of Jesus. Jesus and his disciples have just arrived in Jerusalem, and his followers are wide-eyed over the activity of Passover week, busy streets, full shops, and of course the magnificent temple, large and imposing. They’ve entered into it, and earlier in chapter 21, before the point where our passage picks up, Jesus and the disciples have seen people bringing their offerings, including a widow who throws in two small coins, all she had to live on. Jesus begins talking about the disparity between this woman and all the others with their grand gifts, and that’s what sparks the words in our passage today, and this discussion of what will become of the temple, yes, but also the discussion of what will become of us.
This is the primary concern of any apocalyptic speech from Jesus – what will become of us, and of our world. “Apocalyptic” comes from a Greek word meaning “revealing,” and while it’s often seen as a prediction about the future, it’s even more a revelation about our lives today, the times in which we are living, and just how precarious and impermanent they are. So often we think of this world as though what is here shall forever be here. We think about life as though it is permanent and set. But Jesus says it’s precarious, it’s fragile, it’s moving along,
And to accentuate this, he points to the dramatic structure in front of them: the Temple. American novelist Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “To those who have trouble hearing, you shout, and for those who struggle to see, you draw large and startling figures.” (2) That’s what the apocalyptic does, and that’s precisely what Jesus does in his speech. He shouts. He draws startling figures. He uses every device at his disposal to grab the attention of all of us listeners.So he points to this temple which looks so fixed and permanent and stable and says, “It is passing away. There will come a day when it will not be here.”
Jesus’ words are frightful on one hand, acknowledging the hostilities and challenges so many know all too well. But even amidst this, Jesus is clear that while we are fearful and beset with change and challenge, God is with us in precisely those moments. Even if the world should fall apart, and if all of its structures should crumble, that is not a sign of God’s absence, Jesus claims. So we who know Jesus, and we disciples who know the God revealed in him, should take a particular posture, described in verse 28: “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
These words of Jesus are a dramatic reminder and urging for us to have hope amidst the reality of the fear that confines and chokes, and so often leaves us searching for hope.
“Hope is a dangerous thing in a place like this,” so says Otis “Red “Redding to Andy Dufrane from within Shawshank Prison. These are words we can echo in our lives, whatever the place in which we find ourselves. For we all know such places. We all know what it is to wait, to search, to wonder.
This season of Advent waiting brings to mind the wisdom of Theodore Geisel, better known as Theodore Seuss Geisel, or “Dr. Seuss,” who in his beloved book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go includes that description of that place so many have known: “The Waiting Place…”
Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come,
or a plane to go or the mail to come,
or the rain to go or the phone to ring,
or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.
I read this to my children, but I know it’s about me, too. It’s about all of us, who are so often just waiting. We all know this waiting place, which is why the call of Jesus, and work of Advent is not just to wait, but to wait in a particular way: as those who yet hope that we will see what we have not seen yet; those that believe that we will know, in this world, the coming of a Messiah; those that that will begin to live as though Jesus really is born in our midst; those who know that there is a light that all the darkness has yet to overcome.
For to hear Jesus tell is, it’s not the calamities that pose our greatest threat. It’s not the collapse of a temple or any outward structure of our faith. It’s not the distress among others or the roaring of the sea. It’s not even the startling truth that all of this is impermanent and fragile. No, the greatest threat to destroy us is our fear, and what happens to us if we start to live our lives by it’s cues, and allow it to smother us, confine us, choke out our breath, put out the light.
This was the situation facing Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders, back in the early 2000s. Career mission workers in the Middle East, in 2003 they were ministering to a small Christian population in the West Bank. Amidst all the tragedy and conflict around them, they were seeking to stand up, to raise their heads, to believe that redemption was drawing near.
It was Easter, and among Christians in the Middle East, Easter is celebrated with the tradition that on Holy Saturday – the day before Orthodox Easter – the Greek Orthodox Patriarch enters the tomb of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and emerges with the holy fire, which is then passed among the faithful. With shouts of “Christ is risen!” the flame is spread to churches all over Israel and Palestine.
But with the occupation in 2003, it was impossible to orchestrate this, given checkpoints and borders. So Marthame Sanders devised a plan. As he tells it, he borrowed a car from the Catholics, some lanterns from the Orthodox Christians, a robe from an Anglican priest in this wonderful ecumenical undercover mission. And then he started his mission to go and get the light from the church. He was stopped, searched, but finally able to get to Jerusalem, to get the fire from the Patriarch as tradition dictated. Then he had to take the flame back through all the checkpoints. Again he was searched, car taken apart, and even an M-16 nervously wielded about around him at one point. But, finally, he was let through. When he arrived back home, he was greeted by a large crowd, and so at midnight, this joyful throng of resurrected people traveled from church to church, bringing the light of Christ to the Orthodox, the Melkite, the Catholic, and the Anglican communities.
Marthame’s reflections on that day are the very heart of this day’s Gospel text, and the heart of the good news here at the start of Advent, that hope is always stronger than despair, and so we can raise our heads.
He writes, “Everyone agreed that the arrival of the Holy Fire this year paled in comparison to the celebrations of brighter days, but it was the biggest event in years. The days are still dark here. The economy is destroyed. The roads are closed. Conflict is ever-present. But for a brief moment, the Christians in the northern West Bank were reconnected with the miracle of Christ – the miracle of incarnation, the miracle of hope.” (3)
Everyone is just waiting. For the pain to go, or the light to come, or waiting for something that will make a difference. Everyone is just waiting.
But in the crowd, there are some who stand up, who raise their heads, who look for the kingdom coming not only on a horizon but even amidst their very lives, and who can hear a message that redemption is yet drawing near.
It’s small. When you look for it you can hardly see its flicker, like the holy flame hidden from all that would snuff it out. It’s hard to make it out sometimes, like morse code on a ceiling steadily tapping through as you bend your ear. It’s soft, you have to listen for it, soft like the cry of a baby that pierces the Bethlehem night.
So this Advent we move together to where we can hear the truth again that “Yes, there is hope.”
- Bill Self, “Is There Any Hope,” Day 1, April 8, 2007
- Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer & His Country”
- Susan Andrew, “A God’s Eye View,” Day 1, November 29, 2003