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Our Blessed Hope

By Michael Roop

A bleak feeling surrounded the days leading up to the first Christmas. Humanity languished in its sin. Israel’s temple had been rebuilt, or at least a version of the old, grand building. The sacrifices resumed, and all the rituals, but no glory cloud. God wasn’t there. A dark and unending night covered the world. Where could we turn?

Which makes one of my favorite lines from a Christmas song such a poignant summary of Jesus’ birth:

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

The newborn cries and angelic songs of that first Christmas provided a thrill. The world had “pined” in sin and error since Genesis 3. What’s more, God had not spoken through a prophet for 400 years. Let that sink in! Generations of men and women lived and died waiting for the Messiah, or even just some little sign from God that He hadn’t given up entirely.

That doesn’t sound like a situation that engenders hope. Maybe for many, even those faithfully and patiently waiting for a Savior, hope had taken a foolish feel, the bitter taste of presumption that lingers long in the mouth. Maybe that’s why the message of the angels - “Unto you is born this day a Savior, the Messiah Lord!” - brought such a thrill.

A Look at Hope
As a lifelong Cubs fan, I am well acquainted with the word “hope,” though not always in the positive or reasonable sense of the word. Hope is longing for a desired outcome. You might hope your team wins a championship or a risky business move pays off; you might hope a disease can be cured or pain can be relieved; you might hope a candidate gets elected, you might hope you pass the test, finally get pregnant, receive the job offer or pay the bills.

But the common thread in each display of hope is an inability to guarantee the desired outcome. We long, yearn, consider, meditate, crave, hunger, ache, but we cannot coerce, control or assure the outcome we so ardently desire.

The result can be a roller coaster of gathering evidence and updating predictions, like hurricane hunters constantly updating the forecasted track with new data every few hours. Each game makes the championship more or less likely, each new symptom makes healing more or less assured, each comment makes the expectation of reconciliation more or less reasonable.

All of this is really just an attempt to grapple with our lack of control in a situation where our desired outcome is not guaranteed. This is the Apostle Paul’s line of thought in his letter to the church in Rome: “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (8:24-25).

Hope is longing for something we cannot see, an outcome that will bring resolution to our restless souls.

Why Do We Hope?
I whether the common experience of hope, of longing for a desired outcome, isn’t one facet of eternity put into our hearts (Eccl. 3:11). Think of it with me: why do we long for a better day? Why do we dare to expect that tomorrow, or next year or the next generation, will somehow surpass this one? What is the innate impulse to hope?

If our world is only natural and our bodies are only molecules that move until they don’t, perhaps there is an evolutionary benefit. The most cynical among us will look at Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning as proof - those who are biologically predisposed to hope survive to procreate and pass on their genes.

But a gut feeling tells us the human inclination to hope goes deeper than our biology, doesn’t it? Hope is one of the most resilient human experiences, as is its evil twin, despair. Both have a power to abide despite all external evidence. Both hold the power of life - to grasp it in its fullness or destroy it. Both can galvanize people across all dividing lines.

Hope and despair are our responses to a world we cannot control. They are the ways we might make sense of hevel (Eccl 1:1), of the frustrating, unpredictable, enigmatic experience of reality. Of a creation that groans in the futility of a world not as it should be.

Unmatched Hope
To me, Christianity is unmatched in its explanatory power. It makes sense of these intuitions and experiences we have about the world. Take the Apostle Paul for instance. His explanation of our groaning, our longing for a better outcome, brings words to our experience.

In Paul’s mind (guided by the Holy Spirit), this longing we feel as Christians has to do with a temporary mismatch between the renewal of our spirits and bodies that are still wasting away (2 Cor. 4:16-18). Our bodies and our spirits were not designed to be at odds with one another, so in this state of anticipation, we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23).

The groaning of our anticipation joins the chorus of all creation (Rom. 8:22) that longs for a reality in which all things are new. When someone struggles with hope, they might express that struggle by using the phrase, “It’s hard for me to imagine a reality in which this goes well.”

So what is the reality we long for? Jesus used a word to name that reality: kingdom. It is the kingdom of God, or kingdom of heaven, in which all things will be made new, in which all sources of temptation will be removed, in which disease, death, mourning and pain will pass away with the old order (Rev. 21:4). It is in the existence of this kingdom, and its future fullness, that we place our hope.

And the irony is that the very dissonance that defines our season of anticipation is the tool that God uses to build hope in us. Listen to Paul in Romans: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…” (5:3-4).

The connection is obvious once stated so clearly: the more we experience a world not as it ought to be, the more we long for the world to be as it ought to be. In other words, the more we long for the kingdom.

Where Shall We Look?
So where can we go looking for evidence that our hope in such an outcome is reasonable? Are we blindly hoping for something that is technically possible, though extremely unlikely? Or something that has equal chances of happening or not? Or something that could very likely happen, but we’ll just have to wait and see?

The New Testament is rife with evidence that the kingdom of God will one day come in its fullness. Jesus’ resurrection makes a strong case, since He is called “the firstfruits” of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20-23). We can also look to the presence of the Holy Spirit among us, which Paul tells us is a downpayment of the kingdom (Eph. 1:1) and the reason our hope will not be put to shame (Rom. 5:5). Then, of course, there is the fact that God cannot lie (Tit. 1:2), and therefore His numerous promises of restoration are to be trusted completely.

But perhaps the most obvious evidence of the kingdom’s future appearance is the first appearance of Jesus. Look at the connection made for us by the author of Hebrews:

But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Heb. 9:26-28).

The first appearing of Christ guarantees the second. What He started He will finish. And the result will be the kingdom in its fullness, the redemption of our bodies, the fullness of our adoption, the marriage supper of the Lamb.

This Sunday, we will start an Advent sermon series that will spend less time looking back than looking forward. As we consider the first coming of Jesus, the advent of hope, peace, love and joy, we will look forward to the fullness of those themes that will be ours when He returns.

After all, the crown of righteousness, as Paul said, is laid up for “all who have loved [Jesus’] appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8). May such a love be found growing in us this Advent season.