Sermon: Hope in a time of pandemic

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The First Sunday of Advent, 28th of November, 2021

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
Luke 21:25-36

Never in my lifetime has Advent felt more real. Normally the season of Advent feels a bit strange; society around us is singing carols and gathering in celebration, while we are talking about death and destruction and the last things. But this year readings of terror and warning and reassurance speak with more immediacy than they did when the world around us seemed safe and at peace. This year, we all need hope.

You will have seen the massive ‘freedom’ rallies that have been occurring around the country against vaccines, against vaccination mandates, against any continuing public health restrictions. What I found confusing when I first saw the protesters was that so many of them appeared to be, from my admittedly brief glances, well off. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that people from Australia’s lowest socioeconomic group were four times more likely to die from covid than those in the highest group. Even when adjusting for age, those who were poorest were 2.6 times more likely to die of COVID than Australia’s wealthiest. It would make sense if the poor were the people frustrated enough and scared enough by the experiences of the past two years to be protesting, but they do not seem to be the majority of the marchers.

When the arrival of Advent prompted me to start reflecting on the nature of hope and despair it began to make more sense. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr argued that despair came from a failed attempt to obtain security. It is when we discover that the things on which we relied, health, wealth, family, freedom, have failed to keep us safe that we despair. For many of us in the middle-class Western world, among the most privileged people in all of human history, covid19 has been a profound shock. We had lived with the illusion that we are in control; now we have been reminded that our lives and the lives of everyone we love are vulnerable and will end in death, and that death can come at any time. Our lives have been circumscribed in ways that they had never been before. We were not allowed to cross state or national borders. We could not choose for ourselves when and where we worked or socialised. We could not even gather physically for worship!

I suspect that many of the people now protesting for their ‘freedoms’ are the people Niebuhr described, the people who had put their faith in themselves, their health and their wealth, and then found that the pandemic still affected them. Some people have lives centred on what they have and what they can do. For them the restrictions of the last two years will have been intolerable. Enduring the public health restrictions has demanded a sense of community and a belief in the occasional necessity of self-sacrifice for the greater good, as well as an acceptance that some things are simply beyond our control. I suspect that it is the people without all that who are now marching for their individualist understanding of ‘freedoms’.

Many of us already knew, before the pandemic made it so overwhelmingly obvious, that we could not put our ultimate faith in ourselves and our possessions, whether our material goods or our health and strength. We might have discovered our creaturely vulnerability with an illness, or with the sudden, unexpected, or too-early death of someone we loved. It might have been through the breakdown of a marriage that we assumed would last into old age. It might have been because of a natural disaster that destroyed the home we had carefully built. For me, it was the diagnosis of a mental illness and the realisation that despite everything I have, the medication, and the access to a psychologist, and the support of family, and the careful sleep and exercise practices I pursue, sometimes my brain chemicals are just going to become unbalanced. We are all defenceless creatures and at some point most of us realise that.

It is in response to that realisation that today’s readings offer us hope. They recognise that we are constantly surrounded by the risk of danger and darkness. Jeremiah was prophesying about the horrors of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, the worst tragedy that had faced the people of Israel since their captivity in Egypt. He warned them, ‘O my poor people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only child, most bitter lamentation: for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us’ (Jeremiah 6:28) and he quoted the Lord: ‘Their widows became more numerous than the sand of the seas; I have brought against the mothers of youths a destroyer at noonday; I have made anguish and terror fall upon her suddenly’. (Jeremiah 15:8) In his last teachings before his death, Jesus warned his disciples that: ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.’ We may be living gently and well, but destruction can fall on us suddenly and unexpectedly: the bushfires of a black summer; the restrictions and fears of a deadly global pandemic. We cannot assume that we live in safety.

As we realise our vulnerability, we are offered reassurance. When we are tempted to despair, we are given hope. Jeremiah, amid warnings of destruction, also offers his people the ‘Small Book of Comfort’ from which today’s reading is taken. Jesus, when warning his disciples about the dangers to come, also commands them to stand up and raise their heads. We cannot rely on ourselves, our attributes or possessions, the safety of the world around us, but we can, always and forever, rely on God. ‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.’ ‘[W]hen you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near’. Dreams may be dashed and hopes crushed, but God’s steadfast love will last forever.

Christians took the messianic promises of prophets like Jeremiah as foretellings of Jesus. They then had to deal with the fact that his coming did not seem to have brought about justice and righteousness, the salvation of Judah and the safety of Jerusalem. Some commentators believe that when Jesus says in today’s gospel reading that, ‘Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place’ he was referring to the final destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Even if that was the case, by the time Luke was writing his gospel more than one generation had passed away and the Son of Man had not returned. The people for whom Luke wrote were living in the same situation that we are, waiting for the second coming of Christ, the Parousia, the day when God ‘shall execute justice and righteousness in the land’ and we will see God’s kingdom in all its fullness. Like us, they were living ‘between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring’, as our Basis of Union says. Like them, we need the reassurance that the kingdom of God is always near.

Brendan Byrne, who taught me New Testament at Theological College, writes of the Second Coming for which Advent prepares us

We retain the doctrine of the ‘Second Coming’ in our affirmations of faith, not because we literally believe – as fundamentalists do – that Jesus will one day appear as Son of Man on the clouds of heaven, but because we believe that the biblical assertions to that affect affirm the eventual triumph of God’s sovereignty in the universe and that all is provisional until that occurs. Wars and famines and earthquakes continue [we can add ‘pandemics’ to this list now]; those who work for justice and a more humane life for all members of the community are often overthrown, cast into prison and condemned … hence the centrality of this difficult discourse. … [T]he warning, the encouragement, the hope it seeks to communicate are addressed to us as much as to early generations of believers.[1]

This year, more than most years, we enter Advent needing the hope that it offers of a world made new in which there will be justice and righteousness in the land and the kingdom of God will come near. If we are tempted to despair, we are reassured that the paths of the Lord are faithfulness and steadfast love. As we live in the in-between time, between the time of Christ’s ascension and his coming again, we are called to walk those paths, lifting our souls to the One who is our God and our Saviour. Amen.

[1] Brendan Byrne, The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel, p. 166.

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