A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
Hope Is Not Found in a Sword or a Lord or He with the Biggest Roar
December 11, 2005
Advent 3 1 Thess 5:16-24 John 1:6-8, 19-28
Aslan arrived in Auckland on Friday. C.S. Lewis' fantasy story The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has been digitally and wonderfully enhanced bringing all those well-known characters to life.
Earlier in the week our letterbox was the recipient of Christian advertising about the new movie - large glossy things, including sermons on a CD. Invariably these promotional Christians locate hope in the character of Aslan, the talking lion. He with the big mane and bigger roar has Christic associations, not least in his dying and coming to life again.
Yet, I wonder whether they've got it wrong. Sure old Clive (Jack to his friends) was not of my theological hue, but I'm not sure he was of theirs either. I wonder whether hope was not, first and foremost, in the hearts of the little ones. People like the young child Lucy who bravely walked beyond the limits of the wardrobe into Narnia and then allowed her sense of goodness to guide her; or like Mr Tumnus who dared to speak of what shouldn't be spoken.
It is tempting in Advent to locate hope somewhere supernatural. That God will come out of the skies incarnated (incarcerated?) as a mighty Saviour or a powerful Lord with his legions of mythical creatures to battle the forces of darkness and despair and free us from the grip of all that is evil. That God will come as a Lion of Judah, a Messiah, and a liberator.
It is tempting to believe that we can do nothing; that the forces that oppress us are too powerful to overcome; and that our protest will be puny, and severely punished. Religious authorities often use this feeling of defeat as evidence of our alleged sin and general unworthiness.
Yet the message of the Gospels is that God in Jesus turns this thinking upside-down. Hope is not found in a sword or a Lord or he with the biggest roar. Hope is rather found amongst those ordinary people who believe in goodness, risk loving, are kind to the different, and are politically threatening to those in the oppression business. Simple stuff.
Hope is not off the planet. It is among us. Sure, sometimes we need help in finding it, believing it, and doing it, but it is here. Just as God is here and has always been. I want to tell you now one of the great stories of Christian hope . Listen for where hope comes from – and what that might tell us about where we should look. Listen for how hope transforms despair – and what that might tell us about how we should live. Most of all let the story have its way with you – for your imagination is the playground of the sacred.
Once upon a time there was a famous monastery that had fallen on very hard times. Formerly, its buildings were filled with young monks and its big church resounded with the singing of the chant, but now it was deserted. People no longer came there to be nourished by prayer. A handful of old monks shuffled through the cloisters and praised God with heavy hearts. Clearly it was a dying order.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. "The rabbi is walking in the woods," they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. "I know how it is," he exclaimed. "The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore." So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. "It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years," the abbot said, "but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?"
"No, I am sorry," the rabbi responded. "I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is among you."
When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, "Well what did the rabbi say?" "He couldn't help," the abbot answered. "We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving --it was something cryptic-- was that the Messiah is one of us. I don't know what he meant."
In the days and weeks and months that followed the old monks pondered this and wondered. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that's the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a good and holy man. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But you never know? Then there's Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. Yet he somehow is always there when you need him. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn't mean me. He couldn't possibly have meant me. I'm just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did?
As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off-chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off-chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
As time went by a gentle, whole-hearted human quality was present in the monastery, which was hard to describe but easy to notice. They lived with one another as people who had finally found something, but they prayed together as people who were always looking for something. Occasional visitors found themselves deeply moved by the life of these monks. Before long, people were coming from far and wide to be nourished by the prayer life of the monks, and young folk were asking, once again, to become part of the community.
In those days the rabbi no longer walked in the woods, and his hut had fallen into ruins.
May the hope we seek this Advent be this sort:
Hope that listens to wisdom beyond the borders of its own
Hope that arises out of respect for one another
Hope that finds the Messiah not off the planet but within each of us.