Hollywood disaster films: before they begin, you know the ending. Every now and then I like to watch one, just to relax and not have to think. Not long ago there was one on TV called Dante’s Peak. The story was set in a very pretty but imaginary town in America. The main character is a scientist who studies volcanos. He comes to this small town to study the local volcano, called Dante’s Peak, which sits above the town.
He discovers that there are signs in the rocks that the volcano could erupt in the very near future. So he wants to call a town meeting to consider the possibility of evacuating the town’s people. But the local council doesn’t want to do that. The town’s economy depends on tourism; letting the world know that the volcano might erupt would stop the tourists coming and would ruin the economy. Jobs and profit are at stake.
So the townspeople don’t get an early warning to evacuate. Then the volcano erupts, and there is a great loss of life. But the volcano scientist and the lady mayor, his love interest, manage a very close and exciting escape. And of course they live happily ever after.
In the film the volcano scientist is a prophet. He sees the signs of the times, he sees the dangerous future written in the rocks; and he voices a warning, because he wants to save people from what might take place. He wants to save lives. Jesus performs that role in our gospel reading for today.
Today we begin to look forward to Christmas and the birth of Jesus. We have a unique way of doing this. We don’t begin as the world does, with a shopping spree. We look ahead to Christmas by listening and responding to the call of a prophet. Jesus is calling out a warning. He wants us to read the rocks, to observe the signs of the times. Out of his great love for us he wants us to be ready for what lies ahead, in our own life and in the world. He wants us to know there will be a rough ride ahead. But he also wants us to know that he is with us through his Spirit, and that he is going to return one day.
People without faith think this is a gloomy message before Christmas. It’s not jolly, it’s too serious. But they only hear half of what Jesus is saying. He wants us to be realistic about the state of the world and the state of our lives. There is no freedom or hope in escapism. In the run-up to Christmas the world is engaged in escapism. In the run-up to Christmas, which seems to start earlier every year, we spend mass amounts of energy and money trying to make ourselves happy. This just leads to stress, especially if we can’t afford to do it like everyone else.
Jesus’ message contains a promise. The promise is that in the catastrophic events which are yet to come, God’s gracious purposes are being worked out; the divine promises are being kept. Even though it may seem like the world and our lives are out of control, God gives his word of promise, so that we may not be drawn into despair or cynicism. And God’s word will not pass away, which is another promise.
As in much of the bible, what Jesus has to say is expressed in terms of the covenant. You know the words in our Great Thanksgiving: at the Last Supper Jesus said, ‘This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.’ A covenant is an agreement or contract. Jesus made this covenant new when he died on the cross.
On our side of this covenant we prepare for Jesus’ coming again. For his part he promises to return. The important thing for us is to watch that we don’t get bogged down in the cares and worries of this life. Because finally we are to stand before him when he returns as our judge.
Dietrich Bonheoffer was a Lutheran pastor who opposed what was happening in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s. The Nazis tried to silence him by putting him in prison, where he was eventually killed. At some point during that time, Bonheoffer wrote about the season of Advent. He said, ‘Advent is like sitting in a prison cell. One cannot do anything except hope, pray, and wait; deliverance must come from the outside.’
Advent says this: God is coming from the outside. God will carry his plans forward in spite of all appearances to the contrary. A future hope given by the creator of the world will not lead us away from life in the present. It will anchor us more firmly and faithfully within the world, precisely because this is the place where God’s rule begins.
There are good and reasonable hopes around us today. It is reasonable to hope that God has a bright future in mind for this parish. It is reasonable for us to hope in the latest medical research and treatments available, as God’s instruments for healing. It is reasonable to hope that the Labour government in Victoria will govern well for us over the next few years.
Some hopes can of course be unreasonable. It is unreasonable to expect that everything will always go the way we want it to. It is unreasonable to expect that our faith will shield us from the troubles and sorrows of this world. Jesus expressly taught that in this world we will have troubles. But he added, ‘Be of good cheer, because I have overcome the world.’
In the UK there is a big national weekly lottery. I used to tell my son Simon that I hoped to win the lottery. He would remind me what I had taught him, that the odds were stacked against me, especially because I never bought a ticket. I think there is a message in that somewhere. The message is that we need to commit ourselves to what we hope for, or there is not much value in it. We need to have courage and commit ourselves to a good future.
Julian of Norwich was a Christian mystic. A mystic is like a monk or a nun, someone who gives their life over completely to knowing God. Julian describes her spiritual life as letting go of vain sadness. Vain sadness is when we get stuck in being a sad person; we get pleasure in sadness because it has become a comforting habit. With our hope in God, we can let go of vain sadness. At some point this will necessarily include his desire that we come home to him, to be with him for ever.
God knows our world. He hears the cry, in every generation, of those who find faith in a good God impossible. They have been overwhelmed by the sorrows and tragedies around them. But ultimately, as Jesus has shown us on the cross, and in his risen life, it is goodness that triumphs. His work of redemption is being carried to completion even now, in your future, in my future, in this parish’s future, and in the world’s future. We have good reason to stand up, as Jesus says, and to hold our heads up with joy and hope.