Hope and Risk — A Nathan Kirkpatrick Sermon for Advent II

Sermon offered by The Rev. Nathan Kirkpatrick, Transitional Deacon at the Advocate, Advent II, 2015

Do you know the work of the Episcopal novelist Madeleine L’Engle? She’s most famous for her book A Wrinkle in Time, but many of her other works are just as good. She has one book about the connections between faith and the arts called Walking on Water that I cannot commend to you highly enough.

In one of her books, The Irrational Season, she is discussing the discernment a couple must do to enter into the commitment of the covenant of marriage, and she writes this: “Ultimately there comes a time when a decision must be made. Ultimately two people who love each other must ask themselves how much they hope for as their love grows and deepens, and how much risk they are willing to take.” And then she says, “It is indeed a fearful gamble.”

The decision to risk love is to plumb the depths of our longing and to test our tolerance for risk. It is to hope deeply that this other person might care for and about us the way we need and want; it is to hope that, no matter our past, this other person might behold in us something beautiful and see in us a future. To love is to hope, and if we’re not willing to hope, then there’s no way we can love.

And to love is to risk. It is to give of ourselves regardless of our past, regardless of our histories and our hurts, beyond our histories and our hurts. In fact, it is to open ourselves up to hurt, to make ourselves vulnerable to another person. Where there’s no risk and no vulnerability, there can be no trust. And where’s there’s no trust, there can be no love. So, if we’re not willing to risk, then there’s no way we can love. 

According to Madeleine L’Engle, love puts before us these two questions: How much are we willing to hope for, and how much or ourselves are we willing to risk that our hope would be fulfilled? These are not new questions, and these are not just the questions of couples discerning love or commitment or marriage. These questions belong to the whole human family and are renewed in every generation.

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To me, these are also the questions that come when Scripture says “and the word of the Lord came.” Often times, when we hear that scriptural phrase the word of the Lord came to Isaiah or Jeremiah orJonah, we tend to believe that it comes with a lot of periods and exclamation marks. That it comes as a declaration; that it comes with a certain finality, as if an angel drops something the size of a phone book and says, “there.” But, this Advent, I would invite us to think that, when the word of the Lord comes, it comes with question marks. That the word of the Lord comes and begins a dynamic dialogue that echoes with Madeleine L’Engle’s questions. 

So, in the third chapter of St Luke’s Gospel, when we read that the word of the Lord comes to John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, what if we hear that as: 

John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, how much are you willing to hope for? And how much of yourself are you willing to risk to make it so?

John, are you willing to hope that this is the time when God will come to God’s people? When the Dream of God will draw near in flesh and blood? That earth will be filled with heaven? John, are you willing to hope that this is the season when the promise of the past will be made good, when the vision of the prophets and hopes of the people will be realized, when the promise of the future will be made sure? Are you willing to hope it? How did we pray it last week? Are you willing, John, to believe that “now in the time of this mortal life … Jesus Christ [will come] to visit us in great humility”? 

How much do you hope for, John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth? And John, how much are you willing to risk to take to make it so? Because if this is going to happen, then this may require more of you than you are ready, than you are prepared, than you believe you are capable of giving to make it so, so how much are you, John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, willing to risk?

Did you notice at the beginning of our reading we heard these words?

When, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

On the one hand, this is just St Luke’s way of dating this little encounter between John and the word of the Lord. On the other hand, though, it is also a reminder that, when those seven people seemed to hold all the power in the world, the word of the Lord came to a lone guy in the wilderness eating locusts and wild honey and wearing animal skins, asking what he hoped for and if he was willing to risk to make it so, asking if he was willing to announce the time when the power structure that kept those seven in place was being turned upside down. See, when John quotes Isaiah, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness,” we can hear that as “the voice of a person crying in the wilderness” or we can hear that as “the voice of ONE crying in the wilderness.” 

John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, how much risk are you willing to take for the hope that you have? John, son of Zechariah, are you willing to risk yourself to ready the world for the Advent of God? Are you willing to risk judgment and confusion — are you willing to risk your life itself — that the word might come in your midst?

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Advocates, in the seventh year of the presidency of Barack Obama, in the third year of the governorship of Pat McCrory, in the first month of the presiding episcopate of Michael Curry, Advocates, in Advent, the word of God now comes to us and asks us the same two questions. What do you hope for and how much risk will you take to make it so?

Last week, David Wantland challenged us to cultivate an Advent discipline of outrage, and I think he is spot on. But, this week, I want to note that outrage is born of hope — frustrated hope, disappointed hope, to be sure — but hope nonetheless. You don’t get outraged about things you don’t want to be different. Outrage is born of longing. 

See, this is part of the perniciousness of cynicism, that wearing down of the soul until it hopes and longs for nothing, lest it be disappointed again. 

For us to tap our outrage is for us to touch our hope, to renew our longing for what only God in Jesus Christ will do.

So, what do you hope? 

Do you hope that this is the season when the peaks of prejudice and the high hills of hatred will be leveled into love? Do you hope that those who know too well the valleys of oppression and poverty and heartbreak and despair might be raised up to level ground? Do you hope that the rough places of relationships might be smoothed by reconciliation? Are you willing to hope that the crook and the crooked might be straightened by justice and inspired to integrity? Do you hope that this is the season when the weapons that haunt our streets and wage our wars will be turned into harmless farm tools? 

And if you hope it, then what of yourself are you willing to risk to make it so? What of yourself are you willing to give over to God so that you might be a part of this new thing coming into our midst? You will need the courage of the teenage mother who is carrying the infant God for the sake of the world. You will need the resolve of the wilderness walker who comes to prepare the way.

There comes a time when a decision must be made, when we, Advent people that we are, must ask ourselves how much we hope for and how much risk we are willing to take. 

It is a fearful gamble to hope and to risk.

It is a fearful gamble called love. It is a fearful gamble called faith.