Advent is about expectation. This season on the church calendar is a month-long reminder that the God of the Bible comes to us, and that the God who reveals himself in Jesus is the God from whom we should always expect new things.
If anyone in the Bible knows this, it is the prophet Isaiah. His expectation of God’s arrival within great distress inspired these words about the arrival of a glorious figure in whom God is to be revealed:
Nonetheless, those who were in distress won’t be exhausted. At an earlier time, God cursed the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but later he glorified the way of the sea, the far side of the Jordan, and the Galilee of the nations.
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.
On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.
You have made the nation great;
you have increased its joy.
They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest,
as those who divide plunder rejoice.
As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them,
the staff on their shoulders,
and the rod of their oppressor.
Because every boot of the thundering warriors,
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned, fuel for the fire.
A child is born to us, a son is given to us,
and authority will be on his shoulders.
He will be named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.
There will be vast authority and endless peace
for David’s throne and for his kingdom,
establishing and sustaining it
with justice and righteousness
now and forever.
The zeal of the Lord of heavenly forces will do this. (9:1-7)
A couple of weeks ago, I had to take something to one my kids at her school. As I was waiting for her to come to the main office, I was told to sit in one of three chairs over by the counter. Two of the chairs were occupied: one on one side by a little boy and one on the other side by another little boy. I sat down in the empty chair between them, and we were sitting there just waiting so I tried to make conversation. After one attempt at chatting with them a little bit, one little boy said to me, “I want to hit you right now.” I said, “Well, that is not an uncommon emotion upon meeting me …” Well, let’s talk to the other little boy for a moment, I thought, so I turned the other way and that little boy said pointing past me, “That one’s crazy.” At least some of my confusion at this moment subsided when we had the “What are you in for?” conversation. I found out that these two boys were in business together, selling little football helmets during the school day. I don’t know who stole what from whom, but the relationship went sour between these two. I asked the boy who didn’t want to hit me, “So, do you think you can get out of this?” And he replied, “There’s no hope for that.” Chuckling, I responded, “You’ve been in trouble before, I haven’t you?”
I just happened to remember this little boy’s statement when I was in the middle of preparing this lesson on hope. I considered the fact that I haven’t met many young boys so adept at organized crime, but I have met plenty of people who when I asked them about their lives said to me, “There’s no hope for that.” “My marriage? Are you kidding me?” “My finances? There’s no hope for these things!” For many of us much of the time, life in its particulars just seems devoid of hope.
The Barna Group has surveyed nonbelievers on this question: If they could receive anything for Christmas, what would it be? The most common response? Joy. And when they asked one young man why he felt like he wasn’t going to receive joy in this world he said, “Because joy is a by-product of hope, and I have no hope.”
Some of the people you work with, play with, or even live with are like this young man. They do not have hope because they have not made the choice for it. I encourage you to choose hope this Advent season. You have this choice not because you have the ability to manufacture it out of nothing but because God has already secured for us real, authentic hope. The opportunity to expect God’s arrival has already been afforded to us. Isaiah, and the whole Bible for that matter, shows us that God living up to his promises is not the problem; the problem before us is our own choice to make his hope our journey.
The word “hope” has three primary meanings nowadays. First, it is used to denote a desire for something to come in the future. A child hopes that dad will come home to shoot basketball with her, for instance. Second, it is used to denote whatever it is that is desired in the future. In this way, this child’s hope is that dad will come home to shoot basketball with her. The third meaning of “hope” is the basis for our hopeful expectation. Therefore, the child expects dad’s arrival to shoot basketball because there are safe roads for him to drive his car home, and he has returned home many times before. We see, then, that “hope” as we use the word in our culture does not refer to just one thing, but has several overlapping components.
The problem is that inside the church and out, our hope is restrained within the confines of this worldly definition. It means that our hope, which could lead to joy, is based merely on what happened yesterday, or on mathematical-like evidence, or on empirical data, or even on best guesses!
This hope is really no hope at all. This counterfeit hope is nothing but betting the odds, whether against them or for them. This gambling cannot give birth to belief and to faith; it can only put us in conversation with the evidence and abandon us to the mercies of chance.
I had a date with my daughter Emma Leigh recently to the Snowflake Ball. Before we left the house, a neighbor asked Emma Leigh and my wife, “Oh, is your dad going to get out there and dance the night away?” Like a choir in harmony they burst out “No!” and started laughing. Ok, fair enough. But, they weren’t aware that I had been practicing all week. Now I won’t say I danced the night away—in fact one song was basically me standing in the center while Emma Leigh danced around me—but I decided I needed to prove them wrong because they had bet with the odds. They expected me to practically not show up as a dancer, and that’s not hope! This is betting the odds—and things can always turn out differently can’t they?
We have many expectations based on any amount or quality of evidence, but so many of these expectations fail to reach the status of genuine, biblical hope. Isaiah’s expectation for the people of Israel reflects the depth of God’s hope, which is not restricted to any boundaries established by what has been, but is rather unleashed through the certainty of what will be.
Isaiah calls us to a deep, transformative hope that comes to life in you in spite of the world and your struggles within it. This hope comes from God himself, a gift with the face of his own Son who is coming into the world. The future that we face then promises everlasting peace, and justice, and righteousness (v. 7). Too good to be true, you think? Isaiah confronts your doubt with his concluding remark: “The zeal of the Lord of heavenly forces will do this.” (v. 7).
Welcome to the world of genuine hope. It transforms the way we see our present, and it alters the way we encounter our future from which our wonder-working God comes to us. If you choose to grasp onto our cultural view of hope, the danger is that you will miss a miracle. Isaiah’s miracle here is Jesus, who in spite of all contrary evidence, has come and is coming into this world and offering hope to every single one of us.
I watched the movie Amelia recently, which is about the pilot Amelia Earhart. I was struck with how close she actually came to finding Howland Island, the last place she attempted to guide her plane before her mysterious disappearance. This tiny target of only 450 acres within the Pacific Ocean was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. However, we know that Amelia got close to her destination because the island was picking up radio transmissions from her plane. The problem was that she couldn’t hear the transmissions from the island because she wasn’t familiar with the new radio technology. Little did she know that she needed only to turn one knob. Because of this, if Amelia’s plane crashed as believed, then this one small mistake led her death and the death of her navigator Fred Noonan.
Amelia Earhart, as skilled as she was, made mistakes. She even made what probably became a fatal mistake. The hope established in God and proclaimed by Isaiah says that no matter how good, he will take on the burdens of our brokenness, he will take on our strengths and our weaknesses; he will take on our defeats and our victories. This is the hope we want, and more importantly, this is the hope that we need. It’s not a hope that comes from us, but a hope that comes to us from the child arriving in Bethlehem.
When we make the choice for hope in Christ over what this world calls “hope,” there are four major repercussions. One, our lives as sinners are turned around in repentance. We live as the new people we are becoming, and we ditch the lifestyle of the old person we were apart from Jesus. Second, we gain sight in our moral blindness. We learn to distinguish with dexterity right from wrong. Third, we become part of a new family. We are joined with others who receive the gift of Christ, and anticipate with shared joy the coming blessings of God. And fourth, choosing hope means we choose eternity. The hope grounded in God is so real only because it lasts forever.
Visiting the retirement homes has been a real pleasure of mine over the past year. Recently I met this incredible young lady of 97. We talked for a little while, and she had been under the weather. Before I left, she grabbed my hand and pulled me close with impressive strength and she said to me, “Ok, pastor I want to know. Is heaven real? Because right now, I don’t need it to be just a hunch.” She was right—more so then she realized at the time. At absolutely no point in any of our lives do we need hope to be just a hunch. We need genuine hope; a hope that doesn’t have an expiration date but lasts into eternity; for from eternity God is coming to us and to eternity God is taking us.
I was having a bad week as I was preparing this lesson, really because of my own attitude. I was just grumpy. I was struggling not with anything major but with the daily difficulties that all of us face. The conversation I ultimately had with God about it went basically like this: As clearly as I’ve ever heard God speak to me he said, “Just be still.” And I think my response was “Well, why don’t you be still … and I’ll do whatever I need to do.” I was still grumpy, obviously. Then the Lord graciously placed a person in my path soon after that who had no idea about my current state of mind. He told me about his father, who has had ALS for over twenty years. Today his father communicates by blinking his eyes, but this man described his father as one of the happiest, most joyful people he knows. When that conversation concluded, I said, “I get it, Lord.” Our hope cannot be measured by the state of our bodies now, and it certainly cannot be measured by the state of any of our struggles now. “In this world you will have trouble,” says the Son given to us. “But take heart, for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).