If you had asked me when I first became a Christian, moving from atheism to Christianity, what THE Christian hope was…I’d probably have said something along the lines of “heaven.” Jesus died on the cross for me, so that when I die I’ll go to heaven. As Charlotte my wife likes to recount, when we first started dating, I was often quoted as saying such things as “I think only the right Baptists are going to heaven” and other things like “this world is not my home.”
See, I had met the grace of God in the muck of a legalistic tradition, a tradition that taught me all the right words and gave me all the right answers.
So at odds with my introduction to faith, a few summers back I went on a pilgrimage to India…the land of openness and difference. Landing first in the Western capitalist landscape of Hong Kong, I decided everything was up for grabs. The question I needed answered for myself was…
so what am I hoping for, what do I place my hope in? Do I believe in Jesus so I can go to heaven? So I can be a nice or good person? Do I believe in Jesus because I was born in the USA had no other choice?
Certainly my earlier faith had outlined it simply enough: Believe in Jesus, get to heaven. My hope was not of this world. But this was no longer enough.
The final book in our sacred Scriptures, the Book of Revelation may be the most popular book in all of the Bible…at least, the most popular to misinterpret and misread. Certainly much of my own shortsighted hope, my fire insurance Jesus, came from a different emphases found in Revelation.
Revelation I was taught, gives us a picture of what the last days, the end times will be like. Ultimately the picture I was given was one of separation: people like me and with my beliefs on the inside, those without my beliefs on the outside.
Here is where hope is often confused. We oftentimes confuse hope, with anticipation. We’ve all anticipated something: anticipation means an expectation within the realm of possibilities, anticipating what we can already see and know, what we can enact and bring about. Anticipation- centers on our human activity, and because of that anticipation often reflects human belief.
“God created man in his image and then man returned the favor.” Reflected Voltaire.
Anticipation is the creation of God in our own image, created by our own expectations and wishes. Even in my early stages of faith, my anticipation of the afterlife was a wish to be free from the cares of this world and to be separated from all those I disliked: all the sinners, drinkers, smokers, etc.
But the Christian hope weaved throughout the narrative of Genesis to Revelation, is a radically different hope: the hope of resurrection.
Unlike expecting something within the realm of possibilities, within what I can do as a human…hope is something new, hope creates new possibilities within my realm because it relies on God’s coming to us.
Many have written off the historical possibility of Christ’s Resurrection or the idea that God came down as a baby as ill-logical…not fitting within the realm of rational possibilities.
But this misses the point of resurrection and incarnation: this is God’s action toward us, this is a new possibility in the realm of possibilities. And so we see in this final picture of Revelation, a restored creation, everything resurrected and made new. The hope laying not in some ethereal heaven, but the hope laying in God’s newly created world, where those whom Christ has died for gather to worship.
To be honest, I still struggle with this idea of hope at times. I remember standing in the halls of an amazing Hindu temple, irreverently gawking at statue after statue of Krishna, Ganesh, Ram, and many more in the form of their avatars: elephants, turtles, boars, and many more.
And while as an outsider I cannot pretend to value or understand the truth of Hinduism or any other culture or religion, I encountered God in the streets of India more than it’s majestic temples. I experienced God more in the lives of men and women who devoted their lives to serving the HIV positive, considered dalits and untouchables in that culture, and in the lives of the sisters at Mother Teresa’s home of the dying.
And the place I learned to see God among the untouchables, the experience that gave me eyes to see and ears to hear God among the cast out and nameless, was in the unique person of Jesus Christ. And while I consider the conversation of world religions, universalism, pluralism, truth, and God in many forms valuable, and there’s certainly not sufficient time to cover that subject tonight, I walked away from the land of difference and otherness with a fresh grasp on Resurrection: hope: the person of Jesus Christ.
So what I learned from the sisters who served the poor in the streets of Calcutta, what I’ve learned from people in our church that adopt and work with the homeless in our own city is that Christ died, as NT Wright likes to say:
To give - Hope for life before death, not life after death.
And this for me is what changes. What is Christian hope, what does it mean to put your hope in Christ.
It is significant that the author of revelation ties the new creation to the city of Jerusalem, and certainly this a metaphorical city pertaining not to the actual city, but rather it could be any city where God resides.
Aristotle once wrote that “people come together in the city to live; they remain there in order to live the good life.”
Hope is a learned activity, and the question is, who is teaching us? We find throughout the world cities that capture the imagination in their ability to transcend time and space, their ability to be more than national, but international. Cities like Hong Kong, London, New York, and possibly even Austin.
It’s now the cities that are informing rural youth how to live and dress, college students what to dream for and where to live. Billboards, flashing lights, and larger than life ads distract us into what to hope for…the good life.
Thus, we are taught the good life, lies in the realm of human possibilities, that we can act and achieve happiness if we live right, get the best education, reside in the best part of town, drive the newest car, own the newest device, wear the hippest clothes…hope becomes the anticipation of the good life.
The Christian season of Advent is a season pregnant with hope, as sacred and sacred as the virgin Mary. The Incarnation, God with us points us to the reality that God is active and working in the world and the Resurrection is teaching hope for the good life.
What will give the church, Christians the ability to resist the manipulation by the international city, in hopes of God’s resurrected city? The same thing that gave Mother Teresa and the many nameless sisters serving the nameless the ability to live in poverty, the same thing that gave Martin Luther King strength and endurance as he nonviolently worked toward racial reconciliation, and the same thing that gives people all throughout the world the ability to suffer for another’s sake: the hope of the good life.
To be able to dream and end when all will gather and worship God, when every person, no matter of color or creed will have enough to eat, have choices beyond menial tasks, and been given a place at the table of dignity- the good life of resurrection, the good life found in the counter-cultural Resurrection and Incarnation of God.
So while our cities of glitz and glamor, celebrity and wealth may capture our eyes…it’s the hope of new life for all, worshiping the true God that gives us the ability to here and now embrace an alternative future. For what we do now, whether painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, caring for the earth, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself- will last into God’s future.
So the invitation this Advent is to reflect resurrection, to work alongside God who is here and now in the midst of our busy lives, and bring the future hope into the present.