Today we’re starting on a new journey that will take us all the way in our church life to next Advent in December 2015. This is the first of many readings from Mark’s gospel that we will be hearing over the coming year and we’ll use it today to look at our theme of Advent Hope.
There’s an image that has haunted me for over thirty years. I first saw it when a young fellow student preached a sermon based on it, and although most of what he said I’ve now forgotten, the image and its message have lingered on in my mind. It may also be one of the most important images for us in our present age, striking a chord with many people including two of the most influential people of recent times.
There are two versions of the painting, created over a hundred years ago by the artist G.F. Watts, supposedly in a moment of anguish after the death of his adopted daughter, Blanche. The painting is called Hope. What you might expect would be a beautiful woman sitting on top of the world singing and playing a harp, laughing in the bright sunlight.
But what you get instead is this – a blind woman, her clothes torn and tattered in rags, her body scarred and bruised from some trauma. Her harp is almost completely destroyed. All that remains is one single string, with which she is trying to pluck out a sound.
So why has the image had such a profound impact?
The first of our influential figures attended a sermon in 1990, that was based on this painting. The message of that sermon was a simple one: that hope soars even through the reality of pain. In the painting, hardly visible above the blind woman’s head, are some notes of music that have broken through up into the heavens.
In spite of being in a world torn by war, in spite of being on a world destroyed by hate and decimated by distrust, in spite of being on a world where famine and greed are uneasy bed partners, the blind woman stills has the audacity to make music and praise God. The vertical dimension of her worship has balanced out what was going on in the horizontal dimension.
It was this message of the audacity of hope, even when everything around seems to be hopeless that had such a profound impact on the younger Barack Obama. It became the title of his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 and propelled him to prominence. It later became the title of his autobiographical book The Audacity of Hope. Whether or not you feel Obama has delivered on these ideas is another issue but it was the message of hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope that inspired so many at the time.
And it’s this audacity of hope that also drives the message of John the Baptist in our reading today. We encounter him as this striking and strange figure, dressed in camel hair and eating honey and wild locusts.
In some ways he dresses like the superheroes that are so popular at the moment in tv and film. I don’t know how many of these superheroes you recognize. They all tend to use strange and weird outfits to hide their true identity and to point to their superhero power – whether it’s a batlike agility, amazing archery skills or superfast speed.
John the Baptist uses his own outfit for a very different purpose. He identifies himself with the long line of prophets such as Isaiah, stretching back over seven hundred years that have been with the people of Israel through their darkest moments. He is pointing back to a time when the people of Israel were at their lowest ebb, exiled, homeless and seemingly abandoned by God. And now the people of Israel again find themselves at the mercy of the oppressors, this time the Roman rulers. John steps into this situation, pointing people to the hope that is to come: ‘After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.’ People have been waiting in hope for hundreds of year for a messiah to deliver them. It’s not surprising people come flocking from over the whole of Judean countryside to hear John’s message, perhaps travelling on foot from up to eighty miles away, to hear the voice calling out in the desert a message of hope.
Christians have been people of hope through some of the darkest times of history: not hopeful in some vague way that all will work out ok in the end, but in the ultimate transformation that God will bring to his whole creation, a future when all will be put right with humanity and with the world, when Christ comes again.
As the beautiful message of Revelation puts it: ‘God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’
It is a hope that God will renew and transform us, and that there is a future for our whole creation. And at the very centre of that hope is the figure of Jesus.
It is to Jesus that John the Baptist points and not to himself, as the hope for all people. It is Jesus who strides across history as the messiah who will bring hope for humanity, now and for the future.
For the first Christians, facing suffering and persecution, it was the hope of Christ’s second coming that they held onto closest. Do you know what is probably the earliest Christian prayer, after the Lord’s prayer? It’s a very simple one and in Hebrew in it’s only two words: Marana -tha, which means ‘Our Lord, come.; It’s also mentioned right at the end of the Bible, as the final prayer in Revelation:
‘He who testifies to these things says “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen, Come, Lord Jesus. Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.
But our hope of course is not just for the transformed creation that is to come.
The hope we have can transform us now to be agents of hope for our world.
And that’s where we come to the story of the second important person who was influenced by this painting of Hope.
In the bleak prison of Robben Island, a copy of this British painting of Hope decorated the walls of Nelson Mandela’s cell.
The MP Gordon Brown gave a moving speech shortly after Mandela’s death, about the impact of the man and of the painting and this is what he said:
‘The painting, entitled “Hope”, is about the boldness of a girl to believe that, even when blinded and even with a broken harp and only one string, she could still play music. Her and Mandela’s belief was that even in the most difficult and bleak of times, even when things seem hopeless, there could still be hope. We are mourning because as long as Mandela was alive we knew that even in the worst of disasters, amidst the most terrible of tragedies and conflict, there was someone there, standing between us and the elements, who represented goodness and nobility. And we are celebrating today because the lessons that we have learned from him will live on. He teaches us that indeed no injustice can last for ever. He teaches us that whenever good people of courage come together, there is infinite hope”.
And our faith in Jesus can sustain us now and can bring hope to our world in such need. We face a whole mountain of troubles for ourselves and for our world and at times these can seem impossible to overcome. But we also have a hope centred on the love of God in Jesus, that is for now and for the future.
As we prepare ourselves for Christmas, let’s remember this message of Advent Hope and pray about how we too can be the good people of courage and that together we can share this infinite hope.
Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.