We delivered Desmond to college this fall. As we crisscrossed the campus, side by side with other parents, lugging the carefully chosen belongings of our children up a flight or two or three to the dorm rooms, that would be their new homes…something stirred in me. Watching the young people meeting each other for the first time, seeing them wonder with each encounter, if this person would become a friend, or a dear friend, or even, as was practically the case for me, a life partner. Witnessing this stirred something in me.
It is such a radiant and exciting time. More than once I was verklempt as I witnessed this most hopeful time in my son’s life. Something stirred in me. Maybe you’ve been there as a parent, or a student, or part of a support team. What is this thing that plucks at our heart strings in such moments?
It’s the same feeling I had standing on the sidelines watching my daughter rip down the side of a soccer field, ball bouncing in front of her, as she careens her way toward the goal. Often, I’d get choked up watching her. Something would stir in me. And then I’d roar a shout of encouragement, as the ball, inevitably, blew by the goalie.
On this Second Sunday in Advent, I want to talk about that stirring, it has a name, the name is joy. Joy is the feeling that stirs, right in here, when we find ourselves standing, steadfast, within the field of vision of someone else’s hope; someone else’s expectations for their future. Joy stirring in here, when we glimpse someone’s hope out there. The hope of a college student. The hope of a soccer player.
And we participate in their hope with words of encouragement, (at least I do) even when we suspect that the hoped-for future is out of reach; even if we don’t believe they will make the World Cup team, even if we know the odds are insurmountable, we encourage because we know hope is not about a thing that will happen, hope is about joy produced in here, right here, right now when we witness someone living into a vision they have for their life.
It is in the witness that joy is stirred. Joy is that thing bubbling up in us as we stand there, steadfast, by the dorm room door, or in the bleachers, murmuring or shouting, as the case may be, words of encouragement into someone’s field of vision where their hope resides…out there, somewhere, in the future.
Here is the thing: You can’t see hope with your head turned; you can’t see hope looking backwards; hope can never be found in the rearview mirror; you can’t even find hope looking down at your feet, because you’ll never be standing on it… Hope can only be seen facing forward. There is no hope in the past. There is no hope in the present. Hope only exists out there, in the future.
So, in the Advent season we are reminded of how hope and joy collude; with hope being the vision for a desired future outcome held by one person, and joy being the resonant chord struck in the heart of another as they witness a hope pursued.
This is a season of hope.
This is a season of joy.
And John the Baptist is the prophet calling us to these states of being. He is sort of the jolly Old St. Nicholas of the Old Testament. (Am I right?) OK, maybe not; but I still maintain he is our prophet of hope. And you ask: “How can that be, preach?” He is not trying to build anything that lasts, no edifice, no systematic theology, no disciples, he doesn’t seem to be a family man; in fact, one might argue that John the Baptist’s message is the antithesis of hope, because it is laced with the fire of destruction. And you might be wondering –“Is it possible to gaze across a charred field and see hope?”
And I would maintain that not only is it possible, but it is necessary; fire is necessary to burn away the dross of misallocated hope. John the Baptist sets fire to hopes that distract. He turns us around, shouting, “Repent!” as the orienting action that faces us forward, heads up, gazing toward God’s future.
Which returns me to my son’s college campus this fall, and memories of my own freshman year. When I was 18, hope looked pretty materialistic. It looked like a future replete with things, and adventures, and success, and fame.
But over time, those hopes have gotten shaded by the routines and necessities of life; by the workaday world, by the management of a family, by the simple, yet relentless passage of time… And the next thing I knew, I wasn’t a US Senator, and I didn’t make the cut at Wimbledon, and I wasn’t even a millionaire…and I’m not the Presiding Bishop.
And yes, life is good. I am in a steady state of generalized equilibrium and happy with that, but is that joy? Maybe…but I suspect not. A life patterned on the same old same old, even if it is good, even if there is some fame, and resource produced; even if there are new things built, and new places seen, and new items bought, this is not joy nor is it hope attained.
True hope, as jolly-old John the Baptist tells us, is seen when fire clears our field of vision from the things of this world, so as to reveal the Holy Spirit. Or as Paul writes: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit hangs like a star in the night sky appearing outside the regular constellation of our routine; beckoning, blinking, pulsating in the distance, calling to our hearts, seeking our souls; guiding us to a new place, a surprising space, where the light of hope is ignited by a child born.
A child born always seems to open hearts to hope. It is just how we were made. And so, God came into the world as a child, born under a blinking star, radiating light into the world, attracting people to a place, a space, that is holy and sacred and can be accessed in here; access gained when we are steadfast, and people of encouragement. That is who Jesus was. Steadfast. A person of extraordinary encouragement. Remember he would say: “You will do greater things than even me. (John 14:12)” Come on, that is some encouragement!
But for us to give THAT kind of encouragement, that Jesus encouragement, we must burn off the dross of the things that blur and shade our field of vision; things that get in the way of our seeing the hope of Jesus who is guiding us forward step-by-step, toward hope for the world as God imagines it to be. Jesus is God’s hope for the world. Jesus is the encouragement. Jesus is steadfast. Jesus is the joy. And if that is the case, why should we waste our own breath with words of encouragement for lesser joys and lesser hopes?
And it’s quite simple; we are not judges of the world. We were not made to decide who can do what, where and when. We are just here to encourage, and let the person and the Holy Spirit do the rest. We are just here to be steadfast, present, walking as parents, partners, and friends along the way, to encourage, in a way that is genuinely devoid of judgment, and more so, that is spacious, so as to make room for the power of the Holy Spirit; and to point it out to a friend, a partner or a child when we see the Spirit activated in their life. To call out the star in the sky, hanging over their head with a cheer or a whisper.
And when we are doing this as we ought, we will feel a stirring in here, a stirring that happens when we are caught in the line of sight of someone else’s vision of their future. And the secondary benefit to us when this happens is Joy! Joy! Joy! Joy in here, right here right now. A joy that, at times, leaves us verklempt when we watch a kid play soccer or send a child off to college…shouting or murmuring words of encouragement to them, not because their dreams are our dreams, or their hopes our hopes; but because we know the Holy Spirit is beckoning to them like a new star, bright in the night sky.
And we know too, that someday, when life gets more routine, more workaday, maybe they will remember us as steadfast, and as people of encouragement. Maybe they will recall us as people who radiate joy from in here.
And maybe they will take measure of our lives and find that what we owned, and what we built, and what we achieved, and what we became known for didn’t account for the joy that radiated from our hearts. And maybe that will cause them to turn around, and heed our prophet of hope, and then let the fire of his vision burn off the dross that has barnacled it to their lives, so they can see Jesus… the hope and the joy of the world.