When the Roman Empire finally crumbled in the latter half of the fifth century, western Europe was plunged into an era which has been widely referred to as the Dark Ages. Life in the Dark Ages has been described with three brief adjectives: nasty, brutish, and short. We like to think that we have made a great deal of progress since the Dark Ages, but I wonder whether the essential core of human experience is really all that different. You don’t have to do anything more than pick up a newspaper to be reminded that life, for a great many people, is still nasty and brutish. Disease and depravity and disappointment abound, at home and abroad. And, although we’re living longer, life still seems short. The older I get, the shorter it seems. Way too short to fulfill all the hopes and dreams that the human spirit is capable of conceiving; way too short to repair all the regrets that human behavior is capable of producing. It’s called by many names: alienation, soul-sorrow, existential angst. The New Testament calls it the “power of sin and death.”
Whatever you call it, though, it’s a universal human experience. Our “default” condition, that which we naturally slip into in the absence of any other intention, is one of radical doubt and fear which is both personal and cosmic. We are doubtful and fearful about our own personal existence in particular, and the universe in general. We want to know—when all the dust settles, will there be justice on the earth? Will wickedness be punished and righteousness be rewarded?
Whether we’re aware of it or not, these are the really deep questions. They bother us. They are the ultimate source of that low-grade anxiety that every man, woman, and child carries around twenty-four hours a day. This anxiety has consequences. They’re all around us. Among them are depression, denial, dysfunction, destruction, death, and despair.
Let’s take those one at a time.
There seems to be a virtual epidemic of it. I wish I could go back in time about 25 years and buy stock in some of the pharmaceutical companies that have marketed anti-depressants. If I had, I would be taking more exotic vacations than has been my custom!
Our culture is descending more and more into godlessness—or, I should say, the denial of the true and living God who has revealed himself in history in exchange for a number of lesser gods who reveal themselves only in our desires and imaginations. This is a denial of reality itself.
Only recently are social scientists beginning to document what Bible students and theologians could have told them decades ago, and that is that no-fault divorce as an easy way out of marital and family dysfunction is inflicting incalculable damage on generations of the children of those families. But dysfunction is not limited to the domestic scene. Our political and social fabric is also unravelling before our eyes; Americans are more polarized than ever before.
The century we left behind only a decade ago may indeed be remembered as the true “dark ages.” It was the most violent in the history of the human race.
There were more victims of war, political repression, and crime, both organized and casual, than at any other time. When art and literature depict the future, it is more often than not a grim, apocalyptic picture that is painted.
The late Pope John Paul coined the phrase “culture of death” to describe the prevailing viewpoint in the western world. Life seems increasingly cheap, at both ends now, perhaps in the middle not too far from now. Whatever your politics are with respect to abortion or assisted suicide, the sheer number of abortions being performed, and an ever more casual attitude toward assisted suicide, have got to be alarming. We are indeed a culture of death.
Despair is loss of hope, and for this reason, is the ultimate sin, the summation of all the deadly sins. Despair is radical unfaith, throwing in the towel, surrendering to alienation, normalizing the sub-normal. Pride is the source of all sin, and despair is the culmination of all sin. What pride starts, despair finishes. And it’s all around us.
What then can we say in the face of all this anxiety? What can we say in the face of depression, denial, dysfunction, destruction, death, and despair? If we are stunned into silence in the face of so great a mystery, thank God that St Paul, at least, is not. Listen to his words, handed down to us through the fifteenth chapter of his epistle to the Romans:
“...whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and encouragement of the scriptures, we might have hope.”
That we might have hope. Hope is the opposite of despair. And what does Paul suggest is the medium of this hope? The encouragement of the scriptures, which were written in former days for our instruction. Before the most recent round of Prayer Book revision, the “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” collect that most of us are familiar with, and which we used three Sundays ago, was appointed for today, the Second Sunday of Advent, and it was chosen specifically in the light of this epistle reading from Romans. The first step in combating the cosmic anxiety of this age is to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the encouragement that is ours in the words of holy scripture.
In particular, the lectionary readings appointed for the season of Advent are especially helpful. We hear in them an invitation to abundant hope. Even passages like today’s gospel, which sound somewhat harsh on first hearing, are filled with hope if we read between the lines. Yes, John the Baptist is speaking words of judgement, words of warning. But in words of warning, there is marvelous hope. There is yet room for repentance, room to change behavior. When the “low fuel” signal comes on in my car, that’s a word of warning, an invitation to repentance. I know that I’ve got only about fifty miles before I run out of gas, and that I can’t just keep on driving indefinitely. I’ve got to change my behavior or suffer the consequences. I am grateful for that warning. Before such technology, I did run out of gas from time to time. Since then, I don’t. It’s a source of encouragement, a reason for hope!
St Paul concludes this selection from Romans with words of blessing:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the holy spirit you may abound in hope.
It’s important to remember the distinction between wishing and hoping. When I wish for something, it may be pure fantasy, highly unlikely if not impossible. For example, I wish that I might win the lottery, but I don’t hope that I do, because it’s highly unlikely that I will. Hope, on the other hand, is grounded in a solid foundation. I hope that I will get through the rest of this sermon, and the rest of this liturgy, without any major mishaps. I don’t know that I will, because any number of things could happen at any moment. But I hope that I will, and my hope is founded on such things as prior experience in similar situations, and a conviction that God is glorified when he is worshiped decently and in order.
Well, all of our hope as Christians is founded on the amazing historical reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from from the dead. From that fact flows all of our hope—hope that all the private wounds of my inmost spirit will be healed, hope that sins which I have confessed and repented of are forgiven and put away as far as the east is from the west, hope that relationships in my life which have been marred and soured by failure on my part and the part of others will be restored and strengthened, hope that the physical and emotional ailments which can be so discouraging and crippling are not the last word in our lives and in God’s plans for us, hope that the poor will not remain poor forever, hope that violence and war will themselves be put to death, hope that injustice and fear and oppression and hatred will be banished from the universe.
The scriptures, once again, give us a glimpse, a sneak preview, of this glorious vision in the wonderful scene described by the prophet Isaiah:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed together; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the the adder’s den.
Try finding that on the Nature Channel!
The hope that is ours, the encouragement that is ours, on this Second Sunday of Advent, calls us to live in the light of God’s truth, to agree with God rather than our own limited experience and intuition, to choose courage and responsibility rather than denial and dysfunction, to choose peace over violence and destruction, to choose life over the culture of death, to choose faith over doubt and despair. Having received in our hearts a down payment on Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom, we are able to lead lives filled with purpose, peace, and joy.
Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.