“Out of the depths I call to you, Lord! Lord, listen to my voice; let your ears be attentive to my cry for help. Lord, if you kept an account of iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that you may be revered. I wait for the Lord; I wait and put my hope in his word. I wait for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning–more than watchmen for the morning. Israel, put your hope in the Lord. For there is faithful love with the Lord, and with him is redemption in abundance. And he will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.” (CSB – That was the whole chapter :~)
We are now officially in the season of…Advent. Raise your hand if you thought I was going to say “Christmas.” While the retail industry may want us to believe we are in the season of Christmas and will be until December 24 at closing time (at which point we will enter the season of “Return-it-and-buy-something-more-expensive,” followed immediately by the season of “Buy-something-new-for-New-Year’s-before-your-annual-period-of-financial-good-sense-sets-in”), that’s not actually true. We are in the season of Advent. Advent means “arrival,” and in the season of Advent we are to be preparing for the arrival of the Christ child. With this in mind, all this month we are going to be reflecting together on how we can do just that. We’ll do this with the help of the four traditional Advent virtues of hope, peace, joy, and love. I hope you’ll come with me on this journey. I’m excited to get ready for Jesus with you.
It is both ironic and appropriate that we would begin our Advent journey by talking about hope. It is ironic because this has been a year in which many people have given up hoping…for anything. Oh, it started out well enough. January through mid-February or so were looking pretty promising. Then COVID crossed the ocean and started spreading. And spreading. And spreading. More than a quarter of a million deaths later, here we are. In the interim we’ve had race riots, political riots, anti-police riots, economic catastrophes, political disasters, natural disasters, travesties of freedom, and also all the normal troubles that come in any given year. For many folks “2020” has become a four-letter…er, number…word. So, sure, we might as well talk about hope, because what else are we going to talk about? Despair?
It is appropriate though for just that very reason: We need hope. We need hope more than we ever have. We are weary and burdened and just exhausted from trying to keep our heads above water. Treading water is a lot of work. You can perhaps do it for a while, but we’ve been trying to do it for nine months and some jerk keeps coming along and tying increasingly heavier weights to our toes. Not a few have simply given up and let themselves be pulled beneath the surface.
Yet what is hope? How does it work? Why do we have it if we do? What exactly is its object? Those are big questions. They are questions whose answers determine if our hoping is going to accomplish anything meaningful in our lives at all.
For many folks today, hope is little more than positive, wishful thinking. We achieve this hope by digging down deep and calling to mind some preferred future set of circumstances and let that rosy image give us a little encouragement to get through our day because, who knows, it could happen. But while that might be enough to get you through a challenging moment, in the midst of a season such as we are in now, it’s not enough. The more beat down we become, the harder it is to imagine something better than the mess we are facing.
Early on in the pandemic, John Krasinski produced a YouTube show called “Some Good News.” It was a fantastic, uplifting reflection on some good things that were happening around the country when bad news was rolling in faster than we could process it. That was in about month three of the mess. Now we’re entering month ten and the rate of new infections and hospitalizations are far worse than they were then. I haven’t seen anyone pipe in with rose colored glasses lately to tell us all of the good things that are going on right now. Hope of the wishful-thinking mold doesn’t last when the hard times prove stubborn.
Another alternative is for us to hope in a person. A few weeks ago many folks were hoping for the election of one candidate or the other. Some had their hopes realized, others dashed. In four more years, the same thing will happen again. Hope that rides on the waves like that doesn’t sustain us. It is a fickle friend that may lift our spirits, but may just as likely crush them into dust. Besides, people fail us. My guess is that you’ve been failed by a person. If you haven’t, just wait. It’ll come.
So then, what else can we do? How do we grab hold of a hope that will actually help us? In order for hope to be more helpful, it has to have more substance to it. In ancient Hebrew, there were two words that conveyed a sense of hope. Both of them appear in this passage. One, yakhal, conveyed a sense of waiting. Where you see the phrase “wait on the Lord,” you are seeing the word yakhal. The other word, qavah, also means to wait, but is related to the word for “cord,” and conveys a sense of tension like what you might put on a cord when you pull on the ends. In Psalm 130 here we also see qavah translated as “hope.”
The ancient Israelites were a people of hope. We see that in these words they would sing as they wound their way up the hillsides toward the temple in Jerusalem for worship. But their hope was not rooted in their circumstances. It was never merely wishful thinking–they had been beaten down far too many times for them to think they could rely on that. And they never placed it in a person. Instead, they centered their hope in something entirely more substantial than that: the character of God.
God is faithful. That’s a fundamental part of who He is. This faithfulness is something He had demonstrated to the people time and time again. Where kings and princes had failed them, God came through. He kept His promises. Always. He had shown Himself committed to their good no matter what their circumstances were like. They had learned they could trust in Him. And, when He promised them a future better than the present they were enduring, they knew beyond a shadow of doubt He would fulfill that promise. Oh, they may not live to see that fulfillment themselves, but it was a promise their future generations would enjoy. That was enough for them to keep going. The hard work of persevering they did then would pay off in spades for their children and their children and their children after them. So, they committed themselves to living in that direction regardless of the obstacles that rose to block their path along the way.
This is the kind of hope which can sustain us regardless of the shape our present circumstances may take. What we are hoping in is the character of the God who won’t change. He is faithful and just and loving and righteous and good. He keeps His promises. Always. And while for Israel He had promised a coming Messiah and redeemer, for us, we have the promise of the return of the King who will restore all things to their intended splendor.
As you move forward in this season of Advent, then, may you have hope. Real hope. Not wishful thinking or improperly placed positive belief, but a commitment to live in the direction of a restored heaven and earth where love is the law and justice flows like waters, where all things have been made new, and death and disease are gone forever regardless of how things appear here and now. May you trust in the character of the God who is good, who loves you perfectly, and who sent His Son so that you might have life that stretches long beyond anything you might know here and now.
Come back tomorrow, and we’ll dig a bit deeper into this hope that works where others fail.