We have begun the season that Christians across the world call Advent. It is a time when we celebrate, and think more carefully about, the coming of Jesus into the world. I hope to facilitate our thinking over the next four weeks by directing our attention to the four great themes of Advent.
What Is Hope?
The first theme that I would like to explore is the theme of hope. And the first thing that we need to say about it is that it is not at all what we imagine it to be. As many Christian authors have pointed out, hope is not wishful thinking. Nor, as N. T. Wright points out in his book Paul: A Biography is it optimism about current affairs or the immediate future. Both of these ideas can be suggested by the English word “hope,” but they do not capture what Christians (and their Jewish forbearers) mean by that term.
Of course, it is easier to define what hope is not than it is to define what hope is. It is difficult to speak of hope without speaking of its object, and our reflections on hope often bleed over into other Christian virtues (like joy, for example). Nevertheless, I think that we can say that hope is rooted in one’s confidence that there is more to this world than meets the eye, and it flowers into a confident expectation about the future. Or, to put the matter in more specifically Christian language, hope is the steadfast, even “dogged” (to use Wright’s word), conviction that God is alive and alert, just and kind, gracious and compassionate, and that God will act in accordance with His character to redeem both His creation and His people.
Hope in the First Century
Hope of this kind was in short supply in the first century of the present era, but one place that it could be found was in the communities of men and women that worshipped Israel’s God. For these people, the divine sphere was not populated by an almost endless era of capricious, self-absorbed deities that either cared far too much or not at all about human affairs. For them, there was only one God, and this God had graciously chosen Israel as His people.
That is not to say that these communities devoted to the worship of Israel’s God never experienced discouragement. They had known great hardships. Many of these hardships were a direct result of their unfaithfulness to God, but many more were a direct result of their honest attempts to be faithful. They could have simply thrown in the towel. But they did not. Why? Because they believed that God would come to their aid, that He would forgive their sin and heal their many wounds. More than that, they believed that God would vindicate those who had put their confidence in Him by extending His rule over the entire earth.
Hope in the Twenty-First Century
Hope can be difficult to come by in our century, as well. One look around our world will quickly explain why. In spite of, and sometimes because of, our scientific discoveries and technological advances, suffering and death still (apparently) reign. Injustice and cruelty can be found in every corner of our world, and although many live in comfort that would be outrageously luxurious by historical standards, many more still live on the brink of starvation.
We Christians have done little to help matters, and, one might argue, who could blame us. Wright contends that the good news proclaimed by Paul and others in the first century was not, first and foremost, a message about individual forgiveness and transformation. It was, in his view, certainly not a message about “going to heaven when we die.” It was a royal announcement. “Jesus is king, and he is extending God’s benevolent and transformative rule over the whole earth.”
If such a message seemed subversive in the first century, it seems downright foolish in the twenty-first century. “After all,” the skeptic might remark, “we have two thousand years of history to demonstrate that Jesus didn’t change a thing.” The world goes on killing and dying. Raping and manipulating, stealing and pillaging. And the church regularly joins in the sick and sadistic fun.
But the skeptics are wrong—both about the past and the future. Jesus did come, and it changed everything. Jesus will come again, and, once again, everything will be changed. Remember, hope is not naive optimism. It comes to the world with clear-eyed realism. After all, as Paul points out, “hope that is seen is not hope” (Romans 8:24). Hope acknowledges the brokenness of our world, but it also acknowledges the faithfulness of our God.
The Timeless Message of Hope
Whether one lives in first century Palestine, twenty-first century America, or somewhere in between, the message that God has given to us in Christ is the same. The problems we face are too big for us to solve. The burdens we bear are too heavy for us to carry. The evil we confront is too seductive for us to resist.
But there is hope. God sent His Son into the world to gain for us a forgiveness that we do not deserve. God sent His Son into the world to take off our slave-chains and to heal the wounds that they have caused. God sent His Son into the world to solve the problems of sin and death once and for all. And God will send His Son into the world again—this time, to bring to completion all that he began when he walked the dusty roads of Galilee, walked to his own execution, and walked out of a cold and lonely tomb.