Advent is the season in which we talk about hope. We talk about living in expectation. We talk about being prepared. The lectionary features verses like this one from Matthew: “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Chosen One is coming at an unexpected hour” (24:44).
I confess that I don’t feel ready. I feel frustrated. Our country has been at war for years, and there is no end in sight. Cruel killings have become commonplace in our consciousness—in Iraq, in Israel, in Palestine, in Darfur. And these are just the ones that make it to the front of our awareness and newspapers. We see on every side systemic violence against the Earth and all her creatures, against the poor on the streets of my neighborhood and around this country, and against the global poor through unjust trade policies.
Can you see why I am frustrated, saddened, depressed, and exhausted? And I know I am not alone. Not in this city, not in this country, not in this world. So here I am, not ready for Advent, not full of hope or expectancy.
In 2004 I attended a conference in Sweden called Tools for Peace. I went seeking possibility and the unexpected. There I heard Rabbi Eliyahu McLean, whose life work in Israel is bringing together Jews, Christians, and Muslims, both Palestinians and Israelis, for shared space and dialogue toward peace. He explained how his teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, never sought “the solution” to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but rather emphasized working for and establishing possibilities for peace in the midst of the ongoing conflict.
Entering into Advent, I am clinging to this notion of possibility. I am embracing it as a way of finding hope in the midst of the chaos of this world.
In the first chapter of Luke, Zechariah speaks of what the coming Messiah will mean: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (1:78-79). God’s incarnated presence in this hurting world brings us to the dawn of a new day when darkness will be interrupted by light and death will be interrupted by life. The light and life that is Jesus brings us to a new way of being and seeing—to this way of peace that Zechariah prophesies. This is our participation in the mystery of incarnation. This is the path of possibility. The light will not overcome the darkness immediately—rather a path exists for peace in the midst of war, for light in the midst of darkness.
In the gospel story of the shepherds visited by angels, possibility is found in the unexpected (Luke 2:8-20). Can you imagine being a shepherd startled from the half-sleep of the night watch and hearing what this first heavenly messenger had to say? The savior, a challenge to the empire of Caesar; the Messiah—the anointed, expected one—is finally here, and in the form of a baby, to be found in a manger no less.
Can you see these guys, probably young, turning to one another as soon as the glimmer from the last angel has left the night sky? In the dark they try to gauge the others’ doubt. “Maybe,” one of them says. “Maybe what those messengers said is true.” Silence, except for snickers. “No, he’s right,” says another, “maybe the time has actually come when things will change. The day we have been waiting for is actually here. Maybe.”
And so the shepherds wandered, some reluctantly, to a barn outside of the small town of Bethlehem where they find two strangers and a baby. They know that the possibility of all they had been hoping for, dreaming for, just might be lying there, a baby in a feeding trough, asleep. When they left, they could not contain themselves. Luke says they told everyone in sight, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard. These simple working men, boys even, were caught up in the possibility of newness, liberation, and peace that was all bound up in that Christ-child; they had to tell everybody:
Maybe he will grow up and do this. Maybe things will change in this desperate situation. Maybe our people will no longer be under the oppression of the Caesar. Maybe these lawmakers of the temple will finally have someone challenge them. Maybe he will spend his life with the sinners and the outcasts. Maybe people will be healed. Maybe the poor will be fed. Maybe God has entered into this world in the form of a powerless infant. Maybe.
We all know the stories of what this Christ-child did and said. Maybe became “truly, truly, I say unto you” as he taught the crowds and challenged the religious leaders. Possibility became reality as he healed the 10 lepers, raised Lazarus from death, and fed the multitudes with simple loaves and fish.
TWO THOUSAND YEARS later, we are still people who claim this infant Jesus as the beginning of our story. We call ourselves by his name, Christians—little anointed ones, children of the promise, if you will. By claiming this birth story, we name ourselves as the people of possibility.
When we don’t want to even pick up this morning’s newspaper, when confronted with yet another death toll, when angry with our fellow citizens—we claim that there still exists a possibility for understanding, a possibility for peace and reconciliation, a possibility that today, or maybe tomorrow, good news will triumph, change will happen.
When we see some of this darkness, violence, and apathy inside of ourselves and do battle with our responsibilities in this world—we claim that a possibility still exists for renewal, for light to enter into ourselves, a possibility that we can actually show love to others. There exists a possibility all around us and within each of us for incarnation to occur. The mystery and the glory of incarnation—as proclaimed by Zechariah and the shepherds—are that we will always confront it in the region of the unexpected.
Many sincere Christians, confronted with the pain and struggles of our world, respond by saying something like, “Jesus is the answer.” For some this can translate as Jesus is the only solution to life’s difficulties and questions. I would call this the language of certainty, and I admit that for me, right now, this language is hard to swallow and accept. The language of certainty has let me down. It has failed to restore hope in times of struggle.
While not foolishly seeking mere uncertainty, I choose to embrace the language of maybe. In the story of Jesus’ birth as well as his life, death, and resurrection, we see that maybe things will be radically different than we have experienced thus far.
Maybe people will be healed. Maybe the poor will be fed. Maybe all will be treated and loved as equals. Maybe peace will reign and wars will cease. This is the language of possibility.
Maybe Word will become flesh. Maybe God will become human, just like us. This is the language of incarnation.
Maybe the dead will rise again. Maybe the old will become new. This is the language of resurrection.
Maybe God will be revealed in the beggar, the prostitute, or even the politician we wrote off years ago. This is the language of the unexpected. This is the language of Advent.
In the midst of everything happening in this world, Christians still claim possibility; we still claim incarnation, resurrection, and the unexpected. Even now, this year in the United States of America, we still claim Advent. Because of this, we proclaim possibility; we speak the language of maybe; we try to live faithfully in the realm of what can be.
We live today and we look toward tomorrow with our eyes open. We join with Zechariah and the nameless shepherds in being hopeful for what is coming. We trust in the power of God and the desire of God for change in this world, and we confess Jesus to be at the center of that change and at the center of who we are.
Let us boldly speak the language of maybe—the maybe that awaits and expects incarnation.
Andrew J. Hoeksema was an organizer with Sojourners when this article, which is adapted from a sermon he delivered at a Sojourners/Call to Renewal chapel service in December 2004, appeared.