Hope from Despair: Sermon for December 3, 2023

The former Dean at both Wake Forest Divinity and Candler School of Theology, the late Dr. Gail O’Day, explained in a lecture that “Advent is a season in which time is measured not linearly as in the rest of the world, but cyclically as the church both re-imagines God’s already accomplished in-breaking into the world in the incarnation (and for us Christians, that’s in the birth of the Christ child) and the not yet complete triumph of God’s eschatological age (the prophesied return of Christ).” From the beginning of its practice in 5th century Europe, Advent had a dual focus and purpose – to prepare joyfully for the first coming of the incarnate Lord and to prepare penitently for the second coming and God’s impending judgment.[1] If that doesn’t give you a headache, you are a better Christian than I am. I can barely get the presents wrapped before St. Nick appears, and besides, I gave up confession for Lent 20 years ago.   My close Catholic friend sums it up like this: the Protestants wake up early and celebrate the joy, the eggnog, the presents, and the love, and the Catholics go to church at midnight agonizing over all our non-atoned for sins. Teamwork makes the dream work!

This morning’s Advent text (Isaiah and the gospel) bookend the Xian story. Christ is born as the figure that begins our salvation history because we’re all depraved and need saving. Then eventually, as we read in Mark— the mini-apocalypse–Christ comes again because we’re still depraved and need saving. That’s the quick version, but you get my point.

To “be on the watch, and waiting” simultaneously, as we read in this Advent text, attends to these two dimensions of God’s entry into the world.” In the manger, Peace amid the chaos; In the graveyard, Hope out of great despair. The main point is that God’s love is always redemptive, also on a cycle continually breaking into the despair of the human story with love, compassion, and forgiveness.

It is no coincidence that we enter this Advent season in 2023 from a place of grief and darkness. Yet, simultaneously, we are all ready to celebrate with JOY the HOPE we have sequestered somewhere in the pit of our bellies, under the painful headlines we read, between our breathlessness as one hostage is set free, another still captive to the sins of our ancient-present and shared story. It is a recycled narrative: one tethered to the hope of God’s eschatological promise— that one day all suffering will cease, and equally tied to the incarnate truth of this season— that amid our darkest, most profound moments of despair— the HOPE of God’s ever-present, indwelling, radical LOVE can shatter hate, cast out fear, align our hearts with the JOY before us our very eyes, and alight our “collective” path with the flames of abundant HOPE.

Adventus! Come, Lord Jesus!

Friends, Advent is an invitation to see our place in the world as the verb. HOPE is active, assertive, and alive with the power of the human story — Hope is the PTO dad who brings a bag of bagels to the teachers’ lounge, gets the good cream cheese, and brings real cream for the coffee. Hope is assertive. Hope is the generosity and kindness of the new friend who instantly enfolds you as one of her own when you move to a new city without family support. Hope is the foster Mom who always has more room in her heart & her home for one more child. Hope lives in the small gestures, acts of kindness too great for words, and the gentle encouragement that makes each new day much more accessible to face. Hope also shows up boldly amidst despair and unashamedly proclaims the radical and just message of God’s radical love. Hope is everything when you think about it. It’s the crux of friendship and the flame of love — anticipation and expectation- HOPE is the magic of waiting for something in which we believe wholeheartedly.

And without it, we tend to shrivel up and live small lives of scarcity, drawing lines in the sand, building fences, making judgments, and avoiding eye contact at the mailbox for fear of being drawn into a human encounter that demands from us a level of emotion beyond a raised eyebrow or a head nod. Just yesterday, we were a nation politically polarized by a 5×5 piece of cloth sewn with a needle and thread. Without hope, we choose to scorn that which is different. We choose hate bc it requires little from us. Without hope, we get caught up in the underbelly of our pain— and choose war, anger, hate, hostility, jealousy, bitterness, fear, grief —- these are easy choices when the lights go out; they are simpler to manage— and demand little imagination on our part— cutting off all opportunity for relationships to provide the healing we seek. When despair crowds out our hope, we feel alone and scared and lose sight of the road ahead, lit with the flames of abundance and possibility. We’ve all been there.

In this Advent season, it is my prayer that together, we not only choose to live hope actively: more joy, more friends & family gathered around, more eggnog, and more love, but that we also expand our circles, open our minds, our hearts, and our arms to invite, and include and make space for ALL at the table… and for some us, that includes ourselves. Make space for the hurting self that feels lost and isolated; make space to grieve and to heal, to share and to listen; make space for compassion to grow between you and the one you hurt or the one who hurt you. Advent can either be a 5th-century practice that scares the bejeezus out of our penitential hearts, or it can be a bridge for us to experience the abundance that comes when we choose hope in the face of despair.

With all this talk of HOPE and promise, it’s jolting to find Mark 13 as the kinneling for this Advent fire alit with the flames of possibility. Jesus’ words here greatly reflect the occurrences of the early Jewish-Roman war that occurred after Jesus’ death in 70 CE.[2] It’s no wonder the gospel writers included this passage as a nod to Jesus’ prophetic teachings. It makes sense that Jesus might have said these things as he lived during a time of Roman occupation, and the threat of violence was ever-present. But why This passage here, in the readings for the first Sunday of Advent? We were expecting a warm, cozy fireplace and eggnog b/c we’re good Christians.

My good friend Dr. Eric Smith explains, “We tend to think of Advent as a season of light, expectation, waiting, and above all, hope. But hope does not come in a sanitary sealed container. Hope is the remainder of despair, and it comes from the suffering that the world seems to have in full supply.”[3]

It’s a bitter start to a jolly season, but we should wrap our heads around it now. Because the truth is, this apocalyptic lection has legs—-Hope is most certainly more evident when despair encroaches; we find abundance in the desert, a glimmer of shining light in the valley of dry bones. This metaphor— “Hope as a remainder of despair”[4] can be a powerful anchor for us this Advent season as we try to meander this tragic, beautiful, messy journey together…with wars most visible across our shores—yes. Still, we are called to “watch & wait” because we know that not every battle is fought with grenades and guns. That at every turn, the evils that seek to devour our light are scheming in the dark, some paved by the greed of Wall Street, others in plain sight gaming & gambling for votes over the bodies of black and brown children, women, and trans humans, exploiting the pain our beloved neighbors and Tri-Faith partners for  gain. Church, if we are to be Advent people, We must live HOPE as a verb, waiting and watching. We must be alert if we are to be light for a world living in despair.

“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light.”

You see, Advent begins in the darkness, in the silence and echoing calls of those in mourning, longing for hope out of despair for a God who will break through the cloud and shrouds of darkness only to emerge atop the clouds with great power and glory- championing salvation history. If only we believed in literal interpretations of our sacred texts, we all long for a savior sometimes.  Advent begins in the silence of the womb and ends with a world littered with empty tombs—- from life to death and then life again.

Out of our despair, hope lives.

Despair looks and feels different to all of us: it can be due to the loss of a loved one, a critical diagnosis that changes the course of our lives, a bad day that threatens to convince us we aren’t worthy of love, loss of a job, economic travesty, a mental illness that rages against the sanity of our souls, despair can be fleeting or it can be the defining factor in our lived experience.

Eli Weisel shared with the world, out of unspeakable despair,

“I am pessimistic,” he said, “because I don’t trust history. But at the same time, I am optimistic. Out of despair, one creates. What else can one do?
“I know, and I speak from experience, that even amid darkness, it is possible to create light and share warmth with one another; that even on the edge of the abyss, it is possible to dream exalted dreams of compassion; that it is possible to be free and strengthen the ideals of freedom, even within prison walls; that even in exile, friendship becomes an anchor.”[5]

Many of us find that hearing others share from places of despair lends our souls the courage to find our HOPE, sometimes hidden in the shadows. Hope to me is the closeness I experience when the Spirit overwhelms me with the power of her presence. Hope promises that we aren’t alone and that joy is on the horizon.

I was scheduled for back-to-back evening church meetings from 5:30 to 8:00 pm on Tuesday this week. Such earnest, hardworking church leaders! That meant I had to leave my house at about 5 pm and missed dinner with the family. This happens occasionally, but not often, especially not recently, as we have been transitioning from our life in North Carolina to Omaha — to a new “rental house, new school, new friends, new restaurants & grocery store, and now another “new permanent house..” Sitting around the dinner table has been one of our stabilizing moments when we chat about all these changes and listen to how our kids are experiencing these changes uniquely— moving can be traumatic for children, so we try to give them space to share and feel.

When I left church that night, I called Shannon to tell her I was on the way. She said Quinn was having a hard time. She had been “waiting and watching…” for me out the window for over an hour with puppy dog tears in her eyes. She was missing her mommy. All is well, of course, and I snuggled her. We talked and told stories, and she had a lovely, peaceful night’s sleep.

The following day, I heard Sage and Quinn talking about it. Quinn said,

“Mommy has another meeting this week.”
Sage responded, “I know.”
“But it’s only one meeting, not two,” she said.
“I know,” Sage replied, and then he asked her, “Why did you stare out the window for so long when you knew she wasn’t coming until later? Did you know she was going to be gone for another hour?
“Yes,” Quinn responded, out of her despair… But I hoped she would miss me too, which would make her come.”


Friends, hope is fueled by our love in times of grief, fear, and sadness. We dig deep and find God’s love within us, which fuels our faith- in one another, ourselves, and the whole human story. That’s why we don’t give up; when the darkness looms when the stars seem to be falling from the sky— when the master leaves the house – as in the parable- we lean into our faith story, and we choose to live our HOPE, actively, assertively, relentlessly. Because without it, it can be hard to see in the dark.

May the hope we know in Christ be a light for us this Advent season. Come, O Come,

Emmanuel, God Is with us. Amen.

[1] Reeves, R. & Ryan Reeves is Associate Professors of Historical Theology at Gordon Connell Theological Seminary. (2016, Nov. 28). The History of Advent. The Gospel Coalition.
[2] Jacobsen, D.S. (2020, November 11). Commentary on Mark 13:24-37. Working Preacher from Luther Seminary.
[3] Smith, E.C. (n.d.) A Lover’s Quarrel. Eric. C. Smith. Substack.
[4] ibid.
[5] Kakutani, M. (1981, April 7). Wiesel, No Answers, Only Questions. The New York Times.