So Sunday is the first day of Advent. And the season of Advent is all about hope. There was a time when all the people who believed in charity and faith were in a rather poor position. They had been conquered by a people who saw kindness and mercy as a weakness. The "chosen" people who believed in a loving God who sustained them in times of tribulation were persecuted terribly. Many of these people chose to face horrible torture and death, rather than renounce their beliefs in the divine spirit of humankind. The only hope they had was in the promise that one day, a person would come to bring light into the world, someone who would release them from the bonds of perpetual slavery. And for these people, about two thousand years ago, that person came to them. That is what Advent is all about, a celebration of faith and hope.
And as we look at the story of this person's life, it's easy to get hung up in all the particulars and events that are mentioned in the story--or stories, since there are more than one version and each differs from the other to some degree. But it's not the specific happenings in the story that matter; it's the message, a message of love, faith, hope and service. It isn't a message about what you should do, or what you shouldn't do. It isn't about how you live, but about how you give. This person who came, this Jesus (Joshua in the Hebrew, which means one who saves) taught us that what matters most is how we treat one another. We were not to judge others. We were to be forgiving. We were to forget about revenge. He taught that life was about more than how much material stuff or money you had. It was about how much you gave to others.
Yesterday, I asked whether the world was really any better off since the coming of this man called Jesus. There were wars and poverty and sorrow before he arrived, and nothing seems to have changed since. There are still wars and terrible poverty, and cruelty, and intolerance. The difference is that now, we know there is another way, a better way. And while we still fight our wars, we acknowledge that wars are inherently bad, the worst ways of conflict resolution. Where once we used to believe that those in poverty must have been cursed by the gods, or victims of their own karma, now we reach out to try to help them. Before Jesus came, the days were dark. What he did was to bring a light into the world to show us that kindness is better than cruelty, giving is better than receiving, peace is better than conquest. This is how Jesus of Nazareth changed the world.
And although it is a cliché, we can say that all the armies and navies, all the kings and queens and world leaders, all the captains of industry and business, all the bankers, have not changed the world as much as this one son of a carpenter who lived two thousand years ago in a one horse town in the middle of a desert. Jesus did bring a light into the world. That is why Advent is celebrated by the lighting of candles, to symbolize that light in the darkness. That light is the light of hope. Yes, times are bad. But they will not always be so. This is the nature of the universe, the Tao. Dark will become light, the empty will become full, the low will become high, because this is the way of yin-yang, this is the grand ultimate, the Tai Chi. And so the bad times will get better because they have to get better. And if I have faith in this, then I have the hope that the bad times will not last forever, and if I do not live to see that, it does not matter. It does not matter because death is not something final. Energy is not destroyed, only transformed.
I have no idea of what may happen to me after I shuffle off this mortal coil. Various religions and holy books have their own opinions, but we have no solid proof. I only know that death is just a transition from reality to another and that when I take that terminal breath it will not be the end of me, or whatever it is that makes me who I am. And I am content to live and know that whatever it is that does happen will happen no matter what I believe or think about it. So I let go of those things I can never know. What is the point of dwelling on them? That is the ultimate message of Zen. You cannot know what you cannot know, so live, now. Why waste valuable time trying to figure out a puzzle when you will never know if you've the answer right or not? I know that if I live my life in harmony with the Tao, the universe, the divine, the whatever, I will continue on in some form or another, and even if I don't, there is nothing to be done about it. And in truth, if I spend my days worrying about my own mortality, then I put the emphasis of my thoughts on myself and the only way to live in harmony is to lose the self, so that it may be found more deeply.
I know that you bring about those things about which you think. If we dwell on the negative, then we attract the negative. If we dwell on the positive, we attract the positive. It's like the great rule of the unspeakable. If something bad can happen, as soon as you speak of it, it most certainly will. If you worry about being in debt, you will always be in debt. If, on the other hand, you think of obtaining the wherewithal to pay your debt, you will attract that. Instead of worrying about the war, we should be thinking about peace. When I used to worry that I would be alone forever, I was always alone, and my relationships always soured. Once I gave up thinking about being alone, I found the love of my life. That is faith. Think about what you want to happen and then act upon it, and it will be so.
When Jesus and his followers, and the other prophets in the Bible talked about the end of the world and the dire things that were to happen in those days, they were not trying to frighten us. They were trying to give us hope:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will die of fright
in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then they will see the Son of Man
coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
But when these signs begin to happen,
stand erect and raise your heads
because your redemption is at hand.
“Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy
from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life,
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.
For that day will assault everyone
who lives on the face of the earth.
Be vigilant at all times
and pray that you have the strength
to escape the tribulations that are imminent
and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke, Chapter 21)
Yes, times are going to be very bad. Yes, there will be times when it will seem that it would have been better not to have been born, but keep the faith. The times will change. We will get through this and there will be better times, if you hold on to hope. It's like going to the dentist. It isn't so much fun while you're in the chair, but you know that the dentist will be done eventually and when s/he is, you will be in better shape than when you first walked in. In the Book of Daniel, there is a story about how three of the prophet Daniel's friends were thrown into a fiery furnace because they refused to bow down to pagan idols. And the king noted that the three did not seem to be suitably terrified of their upcoming fate. He asked why they weren't frightened. Did they really think their God would save them? And they answered that maybe God would save them from that death, or maybe S/He wouldn't, but either way, there were free from the king.
There will come an end of the world as we know it someday, whether it comes in the form of a comet or meteor strike, or in some sort of plague, or climate change, or in a nuclear war. And who knows, maybe we will live to see it. And if we all go in some big ball of fire, then we can pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and say to ourselves, well, that was fun, what shall we play now? For the hope that Jesus, and Gautama, and Mohammed, and Moses, and Krishna all give us is that in those times of tribulation we should look to the skies, or within, and understand that God (or whatever you want to call that power) is with us, that we are a part of God and God is us. And what some fundamentalists don't understand is that we are a part of God whether we believe in God or not. Knowing this can give you great peace of mind and spirit, but it doesn't change anything. You could not be separated from God, even if you wanted to be. Any separation from God is pure illusion, and nothing more.
It all boils down to this simple message: everything is going to be okay. We can treat each other badly and use each other and be greedy and selfish, or we can take care of one another and cherish each other and have a good laugh. Either way, everything is going to be okay in the end. I just think that the latter path would be a lot more pleasant to travel than the former. And in the end, I feel a lot better about myself when I reach out to others, because any other path leaves me frightened and lonely.
And that is what we are celebrating for this next month. It is the beginning of the church year. It is the message of hope. It is the light in the darkness. It is the understanding that we are not alone, never have been alone, and never will be. It is the understanding that everything happens the way it is supposed to happen. It is the knowing that I am never forgotten, never lost. And it is the hope that you and I together can change the world, one person at a time, one kind act at a time. Jesus brought that light into the world. Our challenge is to continue to pass it along. Happy holidays everyone. Each one of you is the finest gift I could ever receive this Christmas season.