Last Sunday, 27th November, we started a new sermon series for Advent 2022. I introduced the key passage (Romans 15:13) that we will be unpacking over the four Sundays of advent. We then went on to think about the unique message of hope that we carry as Christians, in a world that is overrun with fear and despair.
"Christmas 1917 was just round the corner but with their son, Archie, missing in action and presumed dead; the Clikeman family had decided not to celebrate this year.
The postmaster of the small South Dakota town of Parker had a reputation. The townsfolk used to joke that whenever the mail train came into town, he would sit and read all the postcards before sending them out. On Christmas Eve 1917, the Clikeman family found out that these rumours were true.
The Clikeman's were grateful that the postmaster, instead of waiting for the rural mail to go out on Boxing Day, called the family home and told them that Archie had sent a postcard. The card confirmed that he was being held as a prisoner of war and that he'd written that he was well.
That Christmas, the Clikeman family celebrated like never before - their despair had given way to hope." *1
'I hope I can get there...', 'We're hoping it's good news...', 'I hope you have a great time'...
It seems that hope is a rare and fragile thing. Not many people would describe themselves as 'hopeful' at the moment, and anyone who is 'hoping' does so with fingers crossed whilst preparing for the worst. Mankind has an unrivalled capacity to believe for a better world, and then to start living in anticipation of its arrival - action inspired by hope is, to some degree, what makes us human.
Hope gives purpose and direction to life. That's why living in a 'hope vacuum' like the last few years has been so dehumanising for so many people. We need hope, without it we become like zombies, existing but not truly living. This kind of shadowy existence inevitably leads to fear and despair.
Another problem is the erosion of meaning. We often use the word 'hope' to express a lack of certainty. As in the sentence stems above, people talk about 'hope' as a vague desire or a whimsical dream. It's not certain, settled or sure. This is in stark contrast to the language of the biblical authors, who speak of hope as a 'guaranteed outcome', an 'unshakable inheritance' and a 'faithful promise'. To quote the Apostle Paul, 'hope does not disappoint'! (Romans 5:5)
The Economy of Hope...
There is an 'Economy of Hope' and we all trade in it. Many are unaware what they are in the market, but all of us make decisions and plans based on the expectation that 'hope' can be found and secured. We seek it in all sorts of ways - personal relationships, meaningful experiences, financial security or careful control; but these all fail to provide the hope we desire.
A doctor might prescribe you tablets to treat a disease. In taking those tablets your body breaks up the tablet, absorbs the active ingredient and releases the resulting byproducts. The side effects of the drug and its resulting byproducts have already been carefully considered by the doctor before they write the prescription. Those who seek hope have correctly diagnosed that it is the antidote to despair. However, substituting it with 'off-brand' or 'black market' hope is a bad idea and it has a longterm negative impact on us.
In the Bible, 'hope' is the overwhelming, and controlling, conviction that with Jesus the future is better and brighter than anything experienced without, or before Him. That's what Paul expresses in Rom 5:2; 5:5; 8:24-25; Eph 1:18; 4:4-6 and 1 Tim 1:1. In fact our hope is so intrinsically linked to Jesus, His sinless life, sacrificial death, bodily resurrection and promised return; that Jesus himself is identified as the embodiment of hope.
Overflowing with Hope...
In 'O, Little Town of Bethlehem' Phillips Brooks wrote the following lyrics;
"The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight" *2
In Bethlehem, as the newborn child was laid in the manger that first Christmas night, every despairing soul and every hoping heart looked on... 'Immanuel'... God is with us... The promised one is finally here! God has stepped into our world and whatever happens now, there can be only one champion - either despair will be crushed or hope is fallen.
The hope embodied by Christ is so complete that He rises from the grave - a place of absolute despair. And He ascends to the throne of heaven - in fulfilment of every promise. Romans 15:13 is the only place in scripture that the title 'God of Hope' is used. Yet as we have seen from Paul's writings, he regularly connects hope to the Godhead, and to Jesus particularly. As Paul writes to these persecuted christians who have every reason to despair - he instructed them, and he directs us, to trust in God and find the antidote to despair - overflowing hope!
Can you think of reasons why people might lose hope and despair? Have you ever lost hope?
How would you explain the biblical idea of hope to a friend?
What event marks Jesus out as the source of true hope? Why?
Should this impact the way journey through life? Does it?
Where are you tempted to look for 'counterfeit hope'?
*1 - A story from Parker, South Dakota - https://www.rd.com/list/christmas-miracles
*2 - O Little Town of Bethlehem - https://hymnary.org/text/o_little_town_of_bethlehem