Advent: Hope

gabriel-appears-to-mary

The season of Advent has begun; it’s the official new year of the church calendar. This year I’m honestly filled with anticipation and hope.

Last night in our home, we set up an Advent wreath of sorts. We shared with our boys the story behind the colorful setting. There are a few different ways people approach the meaning of the colored candles surrounding the central, white Advent candle. This year, I chose for them to represent four words of life: hope, love, peace, joy.

So last night we lit the candle of hope.

When I asked my two boys what the word hope meant, I was quite surprised with their answers. My middle said excitement; my oldest said waiting. I say “surprised” because hope is a word that’s difficult to define. We generally know what it “looks like,” but a concrete definition creates a challenge of sorts. Perhaps a picture paints a thousand words when defining words such as hope.

But I like those words: excitement and waiting.

It’s interesting when we look at the well-known verse of Isaiah 40:31:

but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.

Other translation begin with: but those who wait on the Lord…

Hope entails a sense of waiting. Sometimes we wait a short time; sometimes we wait a long time. But waiting is a part of life. God has clearly designed it that way. Our story from the beginning up until now highlights this reality.

Of course, in a sense, hope is a word that involves the idea of I’m not so sure.

I hope I get a raise.

I hope it doesn’t rain today.

I hope I make an A on that paper.

All of those statements speak of a desire, but an uncertain desire.

We’re told in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

In this use of parallelism (the ancient Jewish way of placing two ideas side by side in a statement), we read that faith initiates confidence, faith ignites assurance. And the phrase what we hope for is connected to what we do not see. Perhaps this layout will clarify.

A: Now faith is confidence
B: in what we hope for
A’: and assurance
B’: about what we do not see

Hope reminds us that we don’t see it (whatever it may be), therefore hope is to be enacted. And, as noted previously, in our frailty we aren’t always sure if what we hope for will come about.

Of course, faith is no concrete word either. I would say faith is ultimately centered upon trust in the faithfulness of God. We don’t think of Christ as having faith, for we see ourselves as the ones who put our faith in him. Rather we think of Christ as being faithful. But think of it this way – Christ was faith-ful, yes, which means he was full of faith. He actually did live full of faith, or a deep trust in the faithfulness of the Father.

Therefore, trust in the Father’s faithfulness (faith) stirs us to hold confidence in what we hope for; it initiates assurance in what we do not yet see. This isn’t about confidence in just any ol’ thing, as may come from extreme “name it and claim it” perspectives. Rather it’s an authentic, trusting confidence in what God has actually said and promised.

I don’t believe this means we won’t walk through seasons of doubt, or the valley, if you will. Lord knows I have been there, especially during the past few years. I always delineate between the certainty of faith and a type of rationalized, empirical certainty. Faith is living, not stagnant. We are not working with mathematical equations here, but real human beings in a real relationship with the Father. There is ebb and flow, some ups and downs, if not many ups and downs. Still, as Hebrews 11 says, faith [trusting in the Father’s faithfulness] carries a confidence and assurance. I imagine, and know, that grasping on to the Father’s faithfulness would create confidence.

I think the best way to see such faith working itself out is in a response similar to that of David in this ancient song:

But I have calmed and quieted myself,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content. (Ps 131:2)

And as we trust the Father, we find a confidence in what we hope for.

In the days of King Herod, God’s people had a long-standing hope in a messianic figure coming to liberate them from oppression, make all things right, take care of their sin. Yet, I’m sure that hope waned at times. Matter of fact, I’m fairly confident in it. Questions arose, pain was real, exile was still not completely undone from centuries before. The writers of the gospels pulled on the faithful promises of old to stir hope.

Remember what God said. It’s time. Let us together trust in his unfailing promises, his unwavering kindness which we have always known.

Out of a little town, Bethlehem, hope was being ignited. But it would call for the people of God to quietly trust – Be still and know that I am God. Those words come out of a song (Ps 46) about real turmoil in the real world. The Jews believed they faced real turmoil in their real world.

They needed hope to be stirred, even when things looked grim overall.

And that’s what Advent is about: hope.

They did not see God’s promised Messiah yet, but hope was real. The fire-lit embers were fading, but here comes a child in a small town, announced by angels, his work prophesied about in the song sung by his teenage mother. It all connected to an ancient story once upon a time.

We don’t see it yet, but hope is real. Even if the embers feel covered in ash, we turn the pages of the ancients’ story, we turn the pages of our own story (collectively and personally) and life is breathed upon the coals. The promise of God starts small, a mustard seed, as Jesus said. It’s announced as the word of God, sung in songs to God, prophesied by the people of God. It still connects to the ancient story once upon a time.

These three things remain: faith, hope and love.

They remain now, including hope. They will remain forever, even as other good things fade into the background.

May the Advent season breathe hope into our lives as we remember that God keeps his word, even if it may mean a longer season of waiting (“hoping”). May an authentic trust in the faithfulness of God (“faith”) be that which stirs our hope, our waiting for his word to come to fruition.

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