If you are new to Advent, it’s based on an ancient Latin word. Ad is Latin for “to ”, and vent for “come.” At Advent, we remember God coming to us in Jesus. We look back to Jesus’ first coming and forward to his second. And we get in touch with the felt-experience of living in the in-between.
(Read Luke 1:26-38)
Now, turn to Luke 24. From the beginning of Luke’s Gospel to the end, from a story of what happened right before Jesus’ birth, to the story of what happened right after his death.
(Read Luke 24:13-27)
Note the detail of about seven miles, why is that in the text? Well, it could be because Bethlehem is also about seven miles from Jerusalem. Bethlehem is to the South; Emmaus is to the West. It could be a literary clue from Luke that we’re about to read a bookend story and it makes us think back to chapter 1.
The use of the word “downcast” is fitting. Jesus had just died, can you imagine the disappointment and disillusionment they are feeling?
Verse 12, tells us we had hoped that he was more than just a prophet; that he was also the Messiah, that he would throw off the yoke of the oppressor, the Romans, and save us.
‘We had Hoped … that He Was the One’
Can you relate to that feeling? We had hoped that COVID-19 would not spread. We had hoped that our business would make it through. We had hoped that we would keep our job. We had hoped that our nation would come together, rather than fracture apart. We had hoped that injustice would end in our generation. We had hoped that our marriage would last. We had hoped that our child would follow Jesus. We had hoped that we would find a spouse long before now. We had hoped for Christmas with our family.
The name for that feeling of let down and confusion and sadness is “disappointment.”
Today we come to the final theme of Advent: Hope. We tend to think of the opposite of hope as despair. And we think of the suicide rate in Oregon in 2020, or the uptick in clinical depression. For most people, the struggle is not with full on despair but down a notch, with disappointment.
I was listening to a group of sociologists recently who said the primary American emotion is disappointment. Part of that is what sociologists call “the myth of progress.” We Americans—particularly if you are from the middle class—expect life to be up and to the right. What my therapists calls “the gospel of upward mobility” which is the cause of a hidden trauma in American life.
Plus, in a secular view of things, suffering has no role in the meaning or purpose of life. So when we come up against a global pandemic, death, or unemployment, we have no meaning to assign to our pain.
Sociologists also use the formula “happiness = reality – expectations.” It’s ironic, but when you expect a life of ease and upward mobility, life is very hard, because it’s full of suffering and setback. But when you expect life to be hard, it’s very good!
2020 has been a very hard year. We can all relate to the lyric from Oh Holy Night: “the weary world rejoices.” At least to the weary part. The pain of 2020—and the secret gift of 2020—is that so many of the things that we have put our hope in have let us down.
We put our hope in the myth of progress. But very few of us feel up and to the right this December over last December. We put our hope in politics to solve the problem of the human condition; but D.C. is a mess. We put our hope in secular humanism to end injustice, in particular racial injustice, in our nation that goes back hundreds of years, but it cannot deliver on its promise. We put our hope in the church, but it turns out, we too are human and fragile.
Right now, our hope is set on a vaccine. Boris Johnson, in an interview from the UK, said, “This could, and I stress could, really be the salvation for humanity, these vaccines.” I know that’s a figure of speech, but it’s also a bit of a Freudian slip. While a vaccine can do much good, it cannot offer “salvation for humanity.”
A lot of us are feeling disappointment over 2020. I am, are you?
What if disappointment is a good thing? What if disappointment is an emotional signal from our body that our hope was set on the wrong object. After all, hope must have an object; it must have something or someone to attach itself to. What if disappointment comes with a gentle invitation from the Spirit to recenter our heart’s desire?
A synonym to disappointment is disillusionment, which we think of as a bad thing, but parse out the word: dis – illusionment. To be disillusioned is to be disavowed of our illusions. To face reality. That’s not all bad. Remember: the enemy’s specialty is illusion.
What if, when we feel disillusionment, rather than asking, “Why has God let me down?” We were to ask, “Where was I living in an illusion?” Now, I wish it was as simple as saying that as followers of Jesus our hope is in Jesus and he will never let us down. But let’s be honest: have you ever felt let down by God? I have. Even when our hope is in Jesus, we often relate to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus; we had hoped that Jesus would do this or that.
Note that Luke does not name the two disciples, most likely in a literary move designed to prompt the reader to imagine himself or herself as one of the two disciples. They are anonymous because they are me, they are you. We all come to a place in our road where we feel let down by Jesus.
This is why so many first century Jews rejected Jesus and refused to believe because Jesus let them down. He did not rally an army, he did not defeat Rome, he did not even campaign for lower taxes in the name of justice, in an era where some historians argue the tax rate was as high as 80-90% and the vast majority of Israel was living hand to mouth on their own land due to Rome’s oppression. Jesus came, and went, and Rome was still in power. Many rejected Jesus.
What we need—then and now—is what Paul in Romans 5 calls “a hope [that] does not disappoint us.”
Which raises the question: What exactly is hope? And how do we keep it alive in a year like 2020? And into the new year?
What Is Hope?
Well, first, we need to distinguish from how the word “hope” is used in America and how it’s used in Scripture.
In America, hope means a few things:
Wishful Thinking – I hope it’s sunny today! I hope it snows on Christmas! I hope I get an end of year bonus!
Positivity – A kind of optimism that the best is yet to come.
Statistics and Probability – “I’m hopeful that enough people will take the vaccine that I can go on vacation by June.”
None of that is bad, though some of it is based in fantasy, not reality. But it’s not the way hope is used in Scripture.
Here’s my working definition of hope in Scripture: The expectation of coming good based on the person and promises of God.
It’s a kind of emotional energy that’s based in the future, but is fuel for the present. Here’s Eugene Peterson:
Hope is not about the future; Hope is about the present … It obviously has to do with the future, but it’s a virtue which is cultivated in the present. It fills the present with energy. It connects the two comings of Jesus, so that we are now participate in them. We’re not just remembering the one and believing in the other; we are participating in … the continuity of the comings.
Meaning, hope, like Advent, is all about the “now and not-yet.”
All humans are hope-based creatures; unlike the animals, survival is not enough for us. We need hope that things will get better. As Martin Luther once said: “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.” The question is not, do you hope? But, what do you put your hope in?
What Do We Put Our Hope in?
As I said before, hope must have an object. As followers of Jesus, our hope is not based in a generic sense of optimism, nor is it in the stability of Western civilization or a rising standard of living; not that it’s bad to desire any of that—or even expect it at times—but all that can and will let us down. Our hope is in God.
But to say it’s “in God” is not enough, because it’s easy to import our own wishful thinking onto God. So, let me sketch out a biblical theology of hope in four parts. To say our hope is in God is to say four things.
Our Hope Is That: Jesus will Return to Make all Things New
That, in the language of Revelation, “he will wipe away every tear form their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21). Or in the language of Isaiah, “Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away” (Isa. 51). Or Paul: “The dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’”
Many in our generation have lost sight of the hope of the second coming; in what theologians call an “over-realized eschatology.” An emphasis on the now over the not-yet. Few Gen-X and below American Christians think on a regular basis about the hope of Jesus’ return. That is not a critique of other Christians and other churches but this Christian and this church!
Hope that does not look over the horizon to the life to come is not Christian hope at all. It’s more like secular humanism with a twist of Christianity. As Paul put it, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).
The writings of the NT are just saturated in the hope of Jesus’ return. If you read through the NT in the new year, and I would encourage you to, the hope of Jesus return is literally on every page. Unlike our secular world that has put its hope on politics, science, technology, a rising standard of living, human altruism, and even psychedelic mushrooms. Anything other than Jesus, or to use a common phrase “the kingdom without the king.”
As much as we laud and link arms with human effort to alleviate suffering, those things—as good as they are—cannot bring about the kingdom; humanity cannot self-save. We can’t save the world or even ourselves because we need to be saved from the world and ourselves. No politician, policy, app, gadget, pill, or substance can do that.
On a regular basis, people inject a kind of Messianic hope into a politician or medical breakthrough or whatever and in the end are let down. The gospel is that the government is on his shoulders, not ours. That Jesus is our Savior, and the bulk of our salvation is yet to come.
Our Hope Is That: In the Meantime, Jesus Is with Us in Our Suffering
That whatever comes, or does not come, we’re not alone. He is “Immanuel” or God with us. As John Wesley put it as he lay dying, “Best of all, God is with us.”
Do you believe that? That the best thing in life is that through Jesus and by the Spirit we have access to the Father. We get to participate in the inner life of the Trinity in the here and now. We get to wake up in the morning, and find a quiet place, and just look at God, looking at us, in love. And let his love heal us and set us free. And nothing – no suffering; pandemic; recession; loss of a job, dream, or a family member—can take away our access to the loving presence of God at the center of our being.
Our Hope Is That: Jesus will Use Our Suffering to Form Us into People of Love to Co-Rule with Him in the World to Come
The hope of Advent is not just about what happens when all our dreams come true, but when our worst nightmare comes true too. That even then, when your suffering is most acute, it’s not in vain.
To clarify, I’m not a theological determinist; I don’t think everything happens for a reason (a lot of suffering is senseless); I don’t think that “God is in control” in the sense that he has a secret plan behind all evil in our life; I don’t think he “allows” evil; I think he allows free-willl. But all followers of Jesus, from across the theological spectrum, agree, that, wherever suffering comes from, it goes to good if we open it up to God.
If my reading of the NT is right, and the meaning of life is become a person of love; that life itself is a school of agape, where we learn, under Jesus’ tutelage, how to grow and mature into people of love, who have the character and capacity to co-rule over the kingdom with Jesus upon his return.
If love—as defined by Jesus, who said, “Greater love as no one than this, to lay down their life for their friends.”—is not tolerance (“You do you.”) or desire (“I love you” meaning “I want you” or “I want to have sex with you.”). If love is not even warm affection, though that’s part of it.
If love is to desire the good of another ahead of your own no matter the cost to yourself than that means that love is a form of self-giving. It’s the opposite of narcissism, which is why most of what we call romantic love isn’t love at all, it’s ego and lust. Love is giving up your seat on the bus, getting up in the middle of the night to comfort your child after a bad dream, or giving away your money to those in need. It’s self-giving. If that’s what love is, than all self-giving is a form of suffering; or to put it another way learning how to suffer well is learning how to love.
The primary way we become people of agape is by suffering, and not just suffering, but as Jean-Pierre De Caussade put it, “… in suffering lovingly, that is to say, with sweetness and consolation, those things that too often cause weariness and disgust … in this consists sanctity.”
That is our hope! Not that nothing bad will happen to us because we’re Christians; but that no matter what happens to us, we’re not alone, and Jesus will use it to form us into people of love and joy and peace and hope… that “all things work together for the good of those who are called.”
Our Hope Is That: Jesus will Bring Forward Good from that Future World into the Mess of this One
Our hope is not just for the life to come; it’s also for this life. Remember: the kingdom is now and not-yet. Jesus can and does bring forward good from the age to come, into “this present evil age,” from heaven to earth. N.T. Wright once defined heaven as the place where God is storing the earth’s future. God can and does bring forward a sneak peace of our coming life forever. Life is full of surprise goodness from God. Keep your eyes open! They are all around you; practice gratitude, take note of how much goodness is in already in your life.
That is our hope! That Jesus will return, we’re not alone, our suffering is not in vain, and good will come to us in this life and the next. The invitation of Advent is to set our hope back on Jesus. My teaching mentor Mike Erre said it this way:
Advent is not simply a season to await the coming of Christmas. Much less is it simply a reenactment of ancient hopes long ago fulfilled. It is a time to renew and enlarge our hopes, to tap into the deepest hopes of the human race for the age that is to come. And then to prepare a mystery visible only to the eyes of faith: the fact that in his humble birth so long ago, the coming age has begun.
There are times when, like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the emotional energy runs out of fuel. When life doesn’t make sense, when we are confused, scared, angry ,or upset. Advent is a time for a confused heart. A time for asking the hard questions and facing our dark emotions.
That’s one of the reasons that when the church calendar was put together, it was tied to the darkest time of year. Fleming Rutledge, in her work on Advent, writes:
Religious systems that ignore the dark side of life are fundamentally dishonest. … In Advent, we don’t pretend, as I once thought, that we are in the darkness before the birth of Christ. Rather, we take a good hard look at the darkness we are in now, facing and defining it honestly, so that we will understand with utmost clarity that our great and only hope is in Jesus’s final victorious coming.
I’m terrible at waiting in the dark for God. Terrible. I hate it. I hate trusting God; I’d rather have complete control over my life. When COVID hit, I became painfully aware of how weak my hope muscle was. That I am not a hopeful person.
I felt a prompt from the Spirit to do some research on hope. In that research, I came across the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament that said hope has three elements:
Expectation of the future
The patience of waiting
This is where hope, like joy, is more than just a feeling; or even an emotional energy; it’s a muscle we exercise, a virtue we develop, it’s a choice we make.
Let me close with this line from Romans 4 about Abraham, the icon of hope in the OT.
(Read Rom. 4:18-21)
Are you “against all hope” right now? In hope, believe in God, trust in God, wait for God, wait with God. May we have the faith of Abraham, to whom God made the promise that he would come to save and rescue the world, and the faith of Mary, to whom God fulfilled the promise that he would come to save and rescue the world, and who, in her time of waiting, said, “I am the Lord’s servant … may it be to me according to your word.”
I had hoped that COVID would be over by now … I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me according to your word.
I had hoped that my prayer would be answered yes … I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me according to your word.
I had hoped that the suffering would end … I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me according to your word.
And, as Paul said later in Romans, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13).