The Daily Offices

The Daily Offices from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, (Canada 1962), including daily Bible readings and occasional sermons from the Cathedral of the Annunication of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ottawa

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


“When ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand.” (Luke 21.31)

In both today’s Collect and Epistle there is one word, other than “Scriptures” (this being Bible Sunday), that might attract our attention. It appears once in the Collect and four times in the Epistle. Another clue? It appears Quinquagesima Sunday in the Epistle reading, but rarely is it the focus of sermons that day, as the other two theological virtues, faith and charity, that accompany it in 1 Cor. 13 most often take centre stage.

Yes, hope. This season of Advent, by its nature of anticipation, is a season of hope. At the beginning of today’s Epistle passage, and in reference to the Old Testament, St. Paul says, “that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” And towards the end, “There shall be a root of Jesse, And He that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles, In Him shall the Gentiles hope,” followed by his concluding thought, “Now the God of all hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

What do we mean by hope? Over the course of the centuries, certainly no less here in the west where we have so many “things,” hope, whether used as a noun or a verb, in popular usage has taken on altered shades of meaning against that which St. Paul meant. People say that they hope for something, when in actual fact more appropriate words would be wish, crave, lust etc. “I hope that the Ottawa Senators win the Stanley Cup.” “I hope that I get this or that for Christmas.” “I hope that I will win the lottery.” Having taken on this idea of some sort of vague wishfulness, it is perhaps not surprising that even many Christians have lost their way when it comes to hope.

This was brought home powerfully this past week when the mother of close friends of my wife and me, died. She had already had a very close brush with death four years ago with a brain aneurysm. Lately, we had been praying for her, as cancer had invaded her body. She was 86 years old, and, all things considered, her death was not particularly sudden. Nevertheless, she was deservedly much loved, and in the midst of weeping with those who weep, it was disconcerting in an alarming sort of way how at least some of her offspring and their spouses reacted. For them, perhaps because hope is a vague, wishful sort of thing, there was a terribly finality to mum’s death. As often is manifested with those who see no hope beyond this life, one of the apparent sentiments was anger. Anger that mum had died, and then defensiveness against the inevitable day of their own death.

By the time of the funeral on Thursday, there was greater calm; however, the ragged emotions still remained. I was speaking briefly with the son who lives in our neighbourhood and with whom Barb and I are closest. He freely admitted that their abundant and open turmoil was all based on the uncertainty of what happens after this life. The day prior to the funeral, Barb was somewhat rudely rebuffed when she attempted to offer the comfort that mum was in a better place where there was no more pain. Now, just after the funeral, in so many words he said, “Without a long lecture, I just want someone to tell me in two words or less that what happens after we die … that there is some sort of guarantee … that it really is better for mum now.” I replied, taking his plea literally, “It is.”

While the other members of his family, including his now deceased mum, were regular churchgoers, and appeared to be dealing with mum’s graduation somewhat better, our neighbours have not been all that regular. Perhaps that is why they have lost sight of the meaning of the word “hope” as it relates to the fate of our souls. Perhaps providentially, I had already begun this sermon, focusing on hope, before I was even aware of his mother’s death.

Hope, as any regular churchgoer should know, in the classical, Biblical sense is something quite different than vague, wishful thinking. Whether we consider it in Old Testament terms, or post-Incarnation, there is a common thread with even the watered down modern feeling that we’ve already considered. And that is that hope, even in the theological sense also speaks of desire, of expectation. However, the major distinguishing feature in the theological sense is that the desire, the expectation is based on confidence or trust. Confidence that God would keep His promise to send the Messiah – and He did. Trust in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ as the gate of everlasting life – which we accept, but the struggle that our neighbours are experiencing.

I suspect that we were all already aware of the nature of the theological virtue of hope – that we trust God to keep His promises. But do we all understand what is the object of our hope? The quick answer, and certainly the one that would provide most comfort to our mourners, is salvation, or, everlasting life. And that is fair enough, in terms of the desire for future good, based on a reasonable expectation and trust in God. But, frankly, that is a limited, some might even say, self-centred understanding of Christian hope – the “what’s in it for me approach.”

When considering any virtue, we should ask what is the end or purpose of a virtue, what is its motive, and Who is its author. In the case of hope, the end, the motive, the author is not just salvation or everlasting life, but, God Himself. He is the object of our hope. When we come to that understanding, we realize that hope is confined to this life. It has no place in heaven, where its object, the Beatific Vision, God Himself, has been attained. A perhaps alarming corollary is that neither does hope have any place in hell.

The sober understanding of that reality should also provide us with a necessary sanity check against becoming too presumptuous. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church completes its article on hope in stating, “Hope, being confidence in God’s goodness tempered by fear of His justice, is opposed to both despair and presumption.” That statement is so powerfully succinct that perhaps we should unravel it a bit to ensure that we all grasp its meaning. Yes, our hope is based on God’s promises to us, but we must always keep in mind, certainly based no less on the repeated episodes contained in the pages of the Old Testament, that He is a just judge, and He must be true to His nature. And there’s something else where we’ve lost pretty completely the proper understanding of justice. Today, we very often confuse leniency with justice. Justice means that the rule maker, the judge, will carry out pre-established promises without wavering, because then that judge would not be true to the nature of the promises. In Old Testament terms, think of how often God told the Israelites, “do this and it will go well for you; do the opposite, and things will not go well.” And how often did the Israelites do the opposite? Far too many people have concluded that, because God did not intervene on behalf of the disobedient Israelites that His Old Testament manifestation was that of a vengeful sheriff. In actual fact, and especially when we recognize that His instructions to “do this” were morally right and proper, He was simply being just in keeping His promises. As often as not, it’s not so much that He punished the Israelites, but that He left them to their own devices and desires. And, also as often as not, there was a component of presumption on the part of the Israelites, “We are God’s chosen people; things can’t possibly go wrong for us, no matter what we do.” - enter, yet once again the Philistines, the Amorites, the Babylonians, the Chaldeans. That, of course, the Old Testament, was written for our learning, to read, mark and inwardly digest.

“Hope, being confidence in God’s goodness tempered by fear of His justice, is opposed to both despair and presumption.” Perhaps too, the solemn acknowledgement of His justice explains the choice of Gospel reading for today. In His rather dramatic and even frightening account of the ruination of the world, is not Jesus perhaps making it clear that this hope of ours is not a matter of displaced humanistic optimism or worldly expectation? Is He not telling us that it is in the devastation of the world, in the destruction of all worldly hopes and expectations, that our salvation appears to us? “And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh.”

When taken on its own, this speech of Jesus generally is interpreted as a prophecy about the end of time, and all down the centuries there have been preachers who have sought to discern the signs of the end in their own day. After all, “this generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled.” Well, it is, of course, a prophecy about the future, about the end of time; but is it not perhaps a mistake to read it only in that way? It also has a reference to the present. It is a comment about the world in which we live, and about the way in which we live in it, here and now. It is in fact a supremely relevant and devastating criticism of our own worldliness, our worldly hopes and expectations.

The point is this: for every one of us individually, this world, and the things of this world must pass away, not just in some hazy, remote and unimaginable future, but right now. They are passing things; that is their very nature. No cleverness, no vague wishful thinking, no advanced technology can make them anything other than transitory things. Are they the ground of our hope, or is God?

I was reminded in this of yet another quotation from John Baillie’s Diary of Private Prayer. He states, “A wise woman once said, ‘He asks too much to whom God is not sufficient’.” In attempting to find the source of that quotation, the wise woman, I came up empty. But I did discover perhaps the longer quotation from which it was derived. In the early 19th century, in his comments on the Psalms, specifically in regard to the beginning of V.57 of Ps. 119, “Thou art my portion, O Lord,” Thomas Le Blanc said, “He is an exceedingly covetous fellow to whom God is not sufficient; and he is an exceeding fool to whom the world is sufficient. For God is all inexhaustible treasury of all riches, sufficing innumerable men; while the world has mere trifles and fascinations to offer, and leads the soul into deep and sorrowful poverty.”

“When ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand.”

“Our hope is in God?” Our hope is God.