Worship | Advent 1 | November 28

The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing.

Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859.

ADVENT 1 | Essentials: Hope, Peace, Joy, Love, Immanuel, Epiphany

Speaker: Mark Rupp

Texts: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36

Sermon text:

Sing a Song of Hope Once More

Some birds sing when the sun shines bright
Our praise is not for them
But the ones who sing in the dead of night,
We raise our cups to them…
Some flowers bloom where the green grass grows,
Our praise is not for them.
But the ones who bloom in the bitter snow,
We raise our cups to them.

These are lyrics from the final number of the musical Hadestown, which my husband and I had the opportunity to see a few weeks ago.  The show is a modernized retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.  Instead of togas and harps and Gods of the underworld, Hadestown presents the story through the lens of overworked and downtrodden railway workers, a struggling musician, climate change, and the struggle against a domineering industry magnate, who might as well be considered a God by the other characters.

The myth has been around for thousands of years, so I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler for me to say that the plot revolves around Orpheus’ attempt to rescue his beloved Eurydice from the underworld (or in the case of Hadestown, from the grips of a kind of proto-fascist form of capitalistic life where work and toil slowly strip away at who you are).  Orpheus is the son of a muse and his music has the power to bring the world around him back to life.  Armed only with a song, he marches into Hell to rescue his love. 

Through much of the story, Orpheus is painted as a naive youth whose music and demeanor contrasts with the overly dour setting and the more pragmatic characters that surround him.  Yet when he arrives in Hadestown, his music manages to awaken something within both the citizens of the town and its overlord, Hades, who relents and tells Orpheus that he may leave with Eurydice on the condition that she must follow behind him, out of sight.  If he fails to trust that she is there and turns back to look for her, she will be lost once more. 

Orpheus leads the way out from Hadestown, but as he goes, for one reason or another doubt begins to creep in.  With the exit in sight, those doubts overwhelm him and he turns back, only to catch a glimpse of Eurydice before she fades away back underground. 

It’s an old, old story, but it’s also a sad story.  Knowing the basics of the original myth, I was interested to see how this musical adaptation handled such a tragic ending.  Would they give Orpheus and Eurydice their happily ever after because that’s what an audience really wants?  Would it simply end in this tragically dark scene?  What is it about this myth that makes it worth retelling? 

I was relieved to find that the show doesn’t necessarily give a happily ever after that ties things up too nicely.  Those kinds of stories can be good, but they are hardly ever enduring or able to grab the imagination and invite you to find yourself in them.  Happily ever after probably feels like pure fantasy when compared with our real world that is far too dynamic for any kind of “ever after” that maintains an endless, unchanging, un-growing or un-transforming experience of happiness. 

Instead of changing the end of the myth, Hadestown simply begins to tell the story again.  It reaches its climax with Orpheus watching Eurydice fade away and almost before that moment can fully come to its end, the narrator character begins to sing a reprise of the same song that opened the show.  As he does so, the ensemble resets the stage back to that same opening scene where Orpheus meets Eurydice for the first time. 

As I watched this ending unfold into a very familiar beginning, I couldn’t help but think about the coming Advent season, which begins today.  The Season of Advent is the beginning of the Church’s liturgical year, and is meant to be a time of preparation separate from the coming Christmas season.  Each year when Advent rolls around, we always end up needing to remind ourselves that this time of preparation is just as meaningful and sacred as the joy-filled celebrations of the Christmas season. 

As the days get shorter, the stresses of the holidays increase, and the world’s problems continue to cause all sorts of anxieties, it is often a much needed reminder of the holy ground that is transition and preparation and waiting and hoping. 

And every year when Advent rolls around, we may also be surprised to remember that the scripture texts assigned to these first weeks come with an apocalyptic flair.  Rather than gospel passages that take us to the very beginning of the Jesus story, we jump right in toward the end with an adult Jesus prophesying about coming days of fear and foreboding, signs of distress across Creation, and exhortations to stay alert. 

We will eventually get to stories of angel messengers, promised pregnancies, shepherds abiding in their fields, and Mary singing her song, but for today we start here where the beginnings and endings of this story overlap and rhyme and remind us that this is an old, old story even as we tell it anew.

Our congregation has a beautiful practice of using the Sunday before Advent as our annual Thanksgiving gratitude Sunday.  If we were to follow the lectionary all the way through, however, we would have recognized last Sunday as Reign of Christ Sunday, which is, in some ways, the culmination of the liturgical year where the scriptures point toward visions of a time when Christ’s way of justice and peace is fully realized.  The texts for that Sunday often speak of a savior coming on a cloud, of God gathering up and protecting the righteous, and of fulfilled promises. 

Sounds familiar.

It is almost as if this first Sunday of Advent overlaps with the Reign of Christ Sunday, reminding us that not only is this an old, old story, but it is also a story whose endings and beginnings continue to defy tidy boxes.  The triumphant drum beats of the coming Kin-dom of God become the soft heartbeats of a child growing in the womb. 

Rather than the Reign of Christ being treated as a happily ever after that allows us to escape the cares of this world, the circular, overlapping nature of the lectionary reminds us that hope is something that needs to be reborn in us over and over again. 

As Joel mentioned earlier, our Advent worship services are focusing on the idea of essentials.  Whether it is essential workers, essential relationships, or essential basic needs, these last years of living with the pandemic have forced many of us to take a closer look at what the essentials of life truly are. 

And this morning, we name hope as one of these life essentials. 

It used to be that when I had to preach on scripture texts that contained all kinds of apocalyptic imagery, I thought the hard part would be getting people to identify with the relevance of things like strange signs in the sun and the seas, distress among the nations, people fainting from fear, or the power of heaven being shaken.  Now it almost feels like those sorts of things seem all too familiar and the hard part is knowing what to do with the images of the savior figure riding in on the clouds to make everything right. 

“The days are surely coming…” writes the author of Jeremiah, “…when justice and righteousness shall be executed.”  Many years later, the author of Luke writes that “there will be signs…” and “they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”  Many, many years later we today still wait and watch for signs of hope and long for justice and peace to reign. 

Maybe some of us feel like we are constantly in a kind of Advent space, somewhere between the promise and its fulfillment.  But that does not mean our hope is in vain because we know that these Advent spaces are just as sacred as whatever spaces lay before them and beyond them. 

Hope is essential. 

Theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote a very influential book in 1965 titled “Theology of Hope” in which he attempted to show that Christian theologies dealing with these kinds of apocalyptic texts would be better understood through the lens of theologies of hope.  Eschatology, which is a technical word meaning the study of final things, is often thought of in these kinds of apocalyptic, end times, and judgement sort of ways, but Moltmann argues for a turn toward hope as the paradigm through which we read these scriptures.  And, indeed, this turn toward hope probably gets closer to the actual meaning of the word apocalypse as an unveiling.

Moltmann writes, “Christian eschatology does not speak of the future as such. It sets out from a definite reality in history and announces the future of that reality, its future possibilities and its power over the future…Hope’s statements of promise anticipate the future. In the promises, the hidden future already announces itself and exerts its influence on the present through the hope it awakens.” 

Hope does not look toward some far-distant future that has no connection with the present.  Hope is not an escape.  Rather, hope arises out of the realities of the present and dares to imagine that a transformed present is possible.  What’s more, Moltmann would say that these courageous declarations of hope influence and awaken something within us and within our world that don’t just make us feel all warm and fuzzy but that pull us toward those possibilities.  

Hope is essential because it doesn’t just long for something better, it compels us toward that anticipated future. 

Jesus tells the crowd to pay attention to these signs of hope, no matter how small, even if they show up as simply a leaf beginning to bud.  When the world seems like its chaos is running out of control, he tells them to stand up and raise their heads, trusting that signs of redemption and hope can and will be found.  He urges them and us to stay alert that we do not allow our hearts to be weighted down by the lure of cynicism or a nihilistic view of life that has given up on the possibilities that hope envisions. 

Hope is essential, but that doesn’t mean it is easy.

Again, Moltmann becomes instructive in this regard.  He writes, “Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it.  Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.” 

I love that last sentence, and it bears repeating: The goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present. 

Hope is essential because it births new life in and through us over and over again. 

We begin Advent with a hope that echoes the grand promises of the Kin-dom of God and reverberates toward the heartbeats of new life.  We sing our songs of hope and tell our stories of promise over and over because, just like Orpheus, they are able to bring the world alive once more. 

The lyrics I quoted at the beginning of this sermon spoke of hope, but in the context of the show, they are sung not by Orpheus but by the ensemble that Orpheus has inspired with his song.  The songs of hope that we sing and the signs of promise that we point toward have the power to inspire not just ourselves but others who may, in turn, someday inspire us when we are in our hour of greatest need. 

This is why we sing these songs and tell these stories over and over again.  Hope is essential, and if we hold on wherever and however we can, we just might find that the story winds up a little closer to where we need it to be.

So this Advent, let us sing our songs of hope once more.  Let us sing a song of a world where refugees and immigrants are treated with justice and hospitality.  Let us tell our stories of a world where capital punishment no longer exists.  Let us write the poems and dance the dances and paint the pictures that give us visions of a world where no one is made to feel like they are alone. 

But more importantly, let us allow those visions of hope to pull us toward them, little by little.

And whether we ever reach anything that feels like a happily ever after or not, let us sing those songs over and over again because we know that hope is essential. 

And so, my wish for us is:

  • That we would not be afraid to sing our songs of hope even if the world might think us naive.
  • That we would remember that stories don’t need to have a happily ever after or fit into tidy boxes to be worth telling and retelling.
  • And finally, that we would each find space in the Advent weeks ahead to let some of the nonessentials of the season fall away so that we may lean into hope.