An Advent message from my church in Ottawa [reproduced below; link to other messages here]. Reminded me of the first hand of friendship, kindness and acceptance they offered me that late summer morning, 3 years back. Our thoughtful study of God’s Word, and the honest fellowship we shared in the mornings before service. How special a refuge Ottawa was at that point in time. “He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.” – Ps 18:19
[Videoed sermon here, under “From despair to hope“]
“It starts with Despair.”
Text: Mark 13:24-37. First Sunday of Advent
Preached by Rev. James Murray at Dominion-Chalmers United Church, Nov 27 2011
A friend of mine likes to drop in and visit me. This friend always seems to like coming over this time of year. This friend will come and just hang out. Before very long, my friend will start saying things to me. Things like ‘you’re a loser’, or, ‘you’re such an idiot’. My friend is not very helpful. If I try and talk about my dreams, my friend will just say ‘that will never work’. Or my friend will say, ‘you know it’s going to fail and it will all be your fault.’ My friend’s name is Despair. Despair likes to move in to my house in November. This is such a grey season. When Despair moves in he eats all the chocolate in the house.
It doesn’t matter what I talk about. Despair has a negative comment about everything. Recently I’ve been quite impressed with the whole Occupy movement. People are starting to question some of our economic assumptions and what our governments have been focussing on. My friend likes to remind me that people will need to do much more than just hold a protest march if real change is going to happen.
My friend isn’t the only one who doubts if our society will be willing to change our behaviour that much. Even I know we are addicted to this affluent lifestyle of ours. I was having lunch with another minister I know and we got on to talking about the problem of global warming. This other minister says we’ll only change when we are finally forced to. To which I said, ‘What will it take? It is hard to get out of a car after it has run full speed into a brick wall. Isn’t it easier to get out of the car if you stop it before you’ve hit the wall?” The other minister replied “Our society keeps hoping someone is going to take away the brick wall for us in time.”
My friend Despair has been around for a very long time. Do you know Despair as well? Lots of us know him, all too well. Looking back, I think he even knew the prophet Isaiah very well. Many times Isaiah would meet this friend, and wonder what will it take, for people to change their ways. What will it take for them to see the enemy armies at the gate? What will it take for them to recognize the flaws in their society which causes so much injustice?
Does God have to rip open the heavens and come down here before we take our God-given responsibilities as stewards of God’s good earth and God’s good people seriously?
I’ve often wondered if my friend visited the writer of Mark’s gospel as well. Here we are in the most joyous season of the year, reading one of the darkest passages in Mark’s gospel. In it, Jesus says “After the suffering, the sun will be darkened, no light from the moon, and the stars will be falling from heaven.” Yup, sounds like my friend was hanging out with Mark. I’ve often wondered why Mark had such a dark take on things that he would share those particular words of Jesus. Surely Jesus had more positive things to say than that dark stuff.
One reason for Mark’s despair has to do with the timing of when he wrote it. Scholars believe he wrote his gospel around the time of Jerusalem’s capture by the Roman army. The new Emperor Vespasian demolished the city of Jerusalem when he finally took it. There wasn’t a single building left standing. The entire city population was taken into slavery. This was an unimaginable time of loss. Horrific suffering. Complete rejection. My friend Despair certainly was busy.
In the face of such a time of despair, Mark offers us a word of hope. Mark’s gospel boldly proclaims that it is exactly when we are in a time of loss, of suffering, and of rejection, it is precisely in such times of despair, that Jesus will come to us. Jesus will not wait for us to be having a sunny to wait to come to us. Jesus will not wait for us to be perfectly happy before seeking us out. When our world is coming crashing down around us, Jesus Christ will come to us. When we are in a dark time, Jesus, our other friend, our better friend, will come around. When Jesus comes to call, despair hits the road. When Jesus comes to call, he starts saying something different to us. Jesus tells us to have hope. For we are not alone. God is with us in these dark times. God is with us in the lonely times. God is with us in the hard times.
Jesus is showing us a way of light. His coming to us is the gift of the way of hope. To have Jesus in our lives is a real gift. As a result, the stories of his birth are much more than just a record of something which happened long ago. The stories of his birth also serve as a metaphor for our spiritual rebirth. In our darkness, a light can shine.
Even when despair comes around our door, the light of hope will also be present to guide us in a better way. It can be hard to admit that despair is part of our lives. We are encouraged to have a stiff upper lip. To be polite and not to rock the boat. It can be hard to admit that we hurt. That things are not as they should be. Or as they could be.
Depression and despair often exist because there is this gap between what is, and what things should be like. Sometimes our dreams are necessary and pragmatic needs which aren’t being met. Sometimes our dreams are fantastic stories we tell about ourselves which have no basis in reality. Our mental health depends upon our ability to tell the difference between the true stories and the fanciful ones. Spiritual maturity comes when we can tell the difference, and are willing to live our lives accordingly. Such spiritual maturity means we must give up on the fanciful dreams which are no longer helpful. It also means we are willing to do the hard work which is necessary for the real needs to be met.
Spiritual maturity means we are willing to say both Yes and No. We don’t get what we ultimately want by only doing the things we want to do. Quite often you have to forgo the things you do like in order to get the things you really need. While I really like cookies, I have to say no them if I want to control my weight. I can’t say yes to every cookie I see, even though I would really like to be able to do that. Spiritual maturity requires willpower and self-discipline. It requires us to be able to hear words of judgement about ourselves, and learn from them. The words of Isaiah and Mark are difficult words to hear. It requires great moral courage to be able to see these words applying to our context here today. It requires a deep trust in God’s goodness to let those words shake up how we are living our lives today.
In the midst of your despair, will you let God speak to you a word of hope?
Are you willing to let the spirit of Jesus be born in your life this day?