Today, on November 29th 2020, millions of Western Christians will be celebrating the start of a new church year on this first Sunday of Advent season. “Advent” (from the Latin) means simply “arrival”, and in the Western liturgical traditions this first Sunday is about hope and prophecy. Ministers and lay people will be reading from Isaiah, Psalms, and the Gospels. They will start preparing to celebrate the Arrival of Jesus Christ in anticipation of the hope of his second Arrival to redeem the world and raise the dead.

I've never really celebrated the season of Advent before, and that's not surprising from someone who grew up in a 'low-church' Protestant Christian sect. In those sects and denominations, mainstream Christian “tradition” is often criticised, usually by reference to customs or practices that are perceived as quaint, redundant, obsolete, or misguided. (Though in my experience, anyone declaiming the embedded customs and practices of other Christians is usually blind to their own embedded customs!) But when we talk about Christian “tradition” in an ecclesial or theological sense, what we’re really talking about are the ways in which a church community holds and enacts their beliefs: how they read, interpret, and apply the scriptures to their faith.

Every church has a tradition, a particular method and set of beliefs for practising their Christian discipleship. Even most ‘non-liturgical’ churches have some kind of customary liturgy, even if it isn’t formally agreed or written down. But in ‘high church’ liturgical Christian traditions, seasons like Advent represent a conscious effort to focus mind, spirit, faith, and worship on some crucial truths. It’s a chance to refocus our God-thought in specific ways. I think that’s a healthy spiritual practice.

I'm starting to really comprehend why so many Western Christians of my generation are leaving churches that are, broadly speaking, Evangelical and fundamentalist. In enacting Christian faith, those traditions place almost sole focus on assenting to intellectual propositions. What we might call 'spiritual practices', like observing Advent and other mainstream church holidays, simply don't fit the fundamentalist Evangelical paradigm of 'salvation by doctrine alone'.

Ironically, I've found that many of the spiritual practices of the mainstream church—the ones that I was taught to disdain—actually teach us to embody many of the beliefs that have always been at the core of my faith. I think I'll have more to say about this next week but, even though the language of embodiment is shunned by my tradition, the concept of embodiment is not completely absent. The Sunday memorial of breaking bread and drinking wine is not just a commemoration of Jesus’ last supper with his closest disciples before his judicial murder by crucifixion. In looking through this lens from the past we can see a different future, a future where we all are united with God (and with each other) in communion with our Lord Jesus. The Eucharist is a promise and an assurance combined, a reminder that:

In Christ our release is secured and our sins forgiven through the shedding of his blood... in accordance with the plan which [God] determined beforehand in Christ, to be put into effect when the time was ripe: namely, that the universe, everything in heaven and on earth, might be brought into a unity in Christ.

Ephesians 2:7a,9b-10

That's an embodied spiritual practice, whether or not it's explicitly recognised as one, and the commemoration of the birth of Jesus at Advent is similar. As Christians, we rejoice in the life of Jesus Christ now, but we see in it a new life to come. That's an expression of hope, and Christianity is supposed to be a faith of hope. But the advent of Jesus Christ calls us to treat hope as a concrete reality, not a source of empty platitudes. And hope - like reality - is often hard to live in.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t felt very hopeful these last few years. We’re all feeling things more acutely as we try to care for our neighbours and ourselves during a global pandemic, but it’s more than that. I often feel hopelessness for the times in which my children will grow up. So I appreciate the voice of the Psalmists, who frequently wrestle with this tension between the “now” and the “not yet”.

Hear us, Shepherd of Israel,
leading Joseph like a flock.
Shine forth, as you sit enthroned on the cherubim.
Leading Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh,
rouse your might and come to our rescue.
God, restore us,
and make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.

LORD God of Hosts, how long will you fume at your people’s prayer?
You have made sorrow their daily bread
and copious tears their drink.
You have made us an object of contempt to our neighbours,
and a laughing-stock to our enemies.
God of Hosts, restore us,
and make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.

You brought a vine from Egypt;
you drove out nations and planted it;
you cleared the ground for it,
so that it struck root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
and its branches were like those of mighty cedars.
It put out boughs all the way to the sea,
its shoots as far as the river.
Why have you broken down the vineyard wall
so that every passer-by can pluck its fruit?
The wild boar from the thicket gnaws it,
and wild creatures of the countryside feed on it.

God of Hosts, turn to us, we pray;
look down from heaven and see.
Tend this vine,
this stock which your right hand has planted.
May those who set it on fire and cut it down
perish before your angry look.
Let your hand rest on the one at your right side,
the one whom you have made strong for your service.
Then we shall not turn back from you;
grant us new life, and we shall invoke you by name.
LORD God of Hosts, restore us,
and make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.

Psalm 80

Hope is not blind, nor naive. The plaintive cry, “God, restore us, / and make your face shine on us, that we may be saved” is part of the psalmist’s acknowledgement that present suffering is real, no matter what the future holds. The psalmist looks to the king appointed by God ,”the one at your right side”, for that hope of restoration—but is also calling for God to “Tend this vine” and act now for the sake of God’s people.

The prophetic tradition of the Old Testament teaches us that the people of God are such because they follow in God’s way. If we expect God’s response to suffering, to “tend the vine”, then as we wait in hope we should expect to live by that hope as well. This is at the root of Paul’s appeal to the church in Corinth.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I am always thanking God for you. I thank him for his grace given to you in Christ Jesus; I thank him for all the enrichment that has come to you in Christ. You possess full knowledge and you can give full expression to it, because what we testified about Christ has been confirmed in your experience. There is indeed no single gift you lack, while you wait expectantly for our Lord Jesus Christ to reveal himself. He will keep you firm to the end, without reproach on the day of our Lord Jesus. It is God himself who called you to share in the life of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and God keeps faith.

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

While we wait in hope, “expectantly”, for the advent of our Lord, the apostle reminds us that we have already been called to share in the life that has already arrived. We have been given grace; we must show grace. The Christian hope is an active one, a concrete ‘doing’ hope not just an intellectual ‘being’ hope. It is not lightly that Paul begins this letter with a reminder of the grace shown to us: if you keep reading he proceeds with an appeal to the believers to act on that grace within the church and in the world.

Paul issues an appeal for a unity that recognises diversity. That's not contradictory, and we'll return to it next week, but Paul’s hope for his siblings is vested firmly in his confidence that, “By God’s act you are in Christ Jesus; God has made him our wisdom, and in him we have our righteousness, our holiness, our liberation” (1 Corinthians 1:30). If we cannot acknowledge the life of Jesus in one another, or even in ourselves, then where is our hope? The life of Jesus has already arrived once. How can we sustain our hope for its second arrival if we cannot live that life while we wait?

We must live by grace in a world that lacks grace, but we have the apostle’s confident assurance that, “There is indeed no single gift you lack”. This isn’t a ‘prosperity gospel’ of platitudes and false hope. We know that life is hard (for some more than others) and, as the rest of 1 Corinthians shows us, living by grace and living in community is hard too. It’s in our choices as a community that we show to our world what our concept of Christian “hope” looks like.

So let’s start this season of reflection and anticipation with new determination to “Tend the vine”.