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Isaiah 11: 1-10
11 And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:
2 And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord;
3 And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears:
4 But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth: with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.
5 And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.
6 The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
7 And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice' den.
9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.
10 And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious.
I was looking on the internet for ideas about Advent - and I came across an article entitled "Can we sing Christmas Carols during Advent?"
The writer recounted how at his church on the first Sunday of Advent the first hymn was 'Joy to the World, the Lord has come' - and how he simply couldn't sing it because it seemed somehow a betrayal of what Advent stands for, a period of preparation, with a looking forward but not yet feeling, a journey that is moving towards joy, but is still full of hope and longing for something in the future. I wonder what the writer would make of Advent at St Brides which is full of carol services which anticipate the joys of Christmas.
Now there are good reasons why we do what we do here at St Brides, but the writer has a point. If we anticipate Christmas too much we are in danger of devaluing it, and of overlooking the discipline of prayerful anticipation, of the hope and expectation expressed in the hymn 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.'
Advent is the season of hope, and without hope, without some sense that this is not all there is, that God will come in the future and restore all things, we have no larger narrative in which to place our lives in this uncertain and troubled world.
Do you remember the great Lisbon earthquake? The answer is no, because it happened on All Saints Day in 175, when over 100,000 people were killed by a massive earthquake followed by a tsunami and subsequent devastating fires. It was a cataclysmic event, so you may well have read about it, because it made people rethink their benignly optimistic view of the world. Voltaire in his novel Candide (1759) mercilessly satirised the poplar optimism of the day - the idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and showed how, in the light of events like the Lisbon earthquake, that was a naïve and untenable position.
Whether you are an optimist or a pessimist is to a degree a matter of temperament, but it is interesting to trace the history of optimism - from a high-point in the early 18th century through Victorian cultural pessimism brought on by the industrial revolution, by Darwinian science and continental biblical criticism - on to the massive disillusion brought on by the First World War, the rise of the 'sins' of the 20th century - totalitarianism, existentialism, nihilism, and the modern contemporary struggle to cope with Islamist terrorism, environmental threats, and the worst economic crisis for over 100 years.
We are rather less prone today then our predecessors were to think that we are living in the best of all possible worlds. We have become disillusioned and cynical about utopias, about optimism, and even about the virtue of hope. Hope in a theologically serious sense seems to have disappeared as a topic of public discourse in Anglo-American society. But, for the Christian, hope is a fundamental concept.
Our OT reading from Isaiah II is all about the hopes people had in the 8th Century BC for a better world, and in particular for a special person who would change that world - a hope which Christians believe has been fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, if we're looking for someone who personifies the virtue and importance of hope.
Surely a modern icon of hope triumphing over adversity is the towering figure of Nelson Mandela who died on Thursday - someone sustained by the hope of winning the struggle against apartheid and building a racially mixed and integrated society. Mandela exemplified the dignity and the power of hope.
Hope is one of the major Advent themes - hope of a coming Saviour, hope of life beyond death, hope of a Second Coming when Gods Kingdom shall be fully established.
Advent therefore is about anticipation and longing for something better in the midst of the stark reality of a world dominated by oppression and injustice, the world in which we all live. Hope is an act of faith in the future, based not on naïve optimism but rooted in the reality of Christ's resurrection, and the belief that the resurrection is the first fruits of a new and better way of being which can be lived and worked out in this life and this world, but which finds its ultimate fulfilment beyond this world in God's eternal Kingdom - the new heaven and the new earth which we read about in the Book of Revelation.
Can we sing Christmas carols during Advent? Well, of course we can, and in terms of our ministry it's important that we do, so long as we spend a little time meditating on our Advent hope, remembering that while faith helps us to find our path in life, it is hope that keeps us on that path and helps us look to the future with expectation and confidence. Amen.