One of the themes of Advent is hope. When we think of the Christmas story, many of us think of the promise of hope. But what if it is just a story? What if there is no real hope in this world? While I don’t believe that, there are many that do.
Think about some of the events that have taken place around our world. There was just a presidential election in the United States. While such a process is often long and painful, it should be a normal part of life that comes around every four years. And yet this one was different. You would expect that a large part of the population would be disappointed because their candidate lost, but something more happened this time. I read a number of articles indicating that after Trump was reported as winner that there was a huge spike in the calls to the suicide hotlines. Large numbers of people were considering suicide because the person they didn’t like was elected. That is not normal. What happened?
Think back to the election of Barack Obama. Obama ran on a platform of hope. He even wrote a book called the Audacity of Hope. People, who didn’t necessarily agree with his politics, saw in his election a glimpse of hope, a belief that something better was possible. Those same people have felt that their hopes have been dashed. People are living in fear of what their country might become. I have no interest in speculating on whether Trump will be a good or a bad president. I simply observe that those who put their hope in government have become disappointed. There is an increased culture of hopelessness.
We need to reflect on the kind of world that we live in. Is there any reason to have hope or should we just expect the worst and see if we might get pleasantly surprised?
The Christian message is one of hope. The Christmas message is one of hope. The birth and incarnation of Jesus Christ was the injection of hope into a hopeless world.
But what does that look like?
Hope From God
When we look at hope, we need to begin with situations that require hope. We can probably think of many experiences that are difficult and painful. But the Bible teaches the foundational need for the human race is reconciliation with God. That is not say other things are unimportant. Rather, much of what we experience that is negative stems from our separation with God. When we are not in right relationship with God, we are not in right relationship with others and we are not in right relationship with ourselves.
When Paul wrote to the church in Rome, he was dealing with a specific problem. The Gentile and Jewish Christians were fighting over who had the advantage when it came to God. Paul demolishes all of their arguments by insisting that we all start in the same place, that is estranged from God. Neither the Torah nor following own conscience is enough to fix the problem. The only answer is Jesus Christ.
It is through Jesus Christ that we are justified. Justification is just a fancy word for saying that we are declared not guilty. I have never been on trial for criminal charges, but I have been in court for family matters. When the judge decided in favour of what we were seeking, there was a tremendous relief. Being declared righteous by God is far greater.
Paul declares that we are at peace with God. Not just that we have the peace of God, but that we are at peace with God. Everything that had interfered with our relationship with God has been taken away by what Jesus did on the cross. This is our hope.
I have heard many testimonies of how people were living terrible lives and then called upon Jesus as their Lord and their lives were immediately transformed. For others, it takes some time in their relationship with God before their life begins to reflect their faith. I was not like either of those groups. Although I had made many bad choices from my mid-teens to my early-twenties, I had actually cleaned up my life before I surrendered to Christ. If you looked at my life before that July of 1992, you would have seen a young man who didn’t swear, didn’t drink, read the Bible and attended church regularly. If you looked at me a month later, you would have seen a young man who didn’t swear, didn’t drink, read the Bible and attended church regularly.
So what happened on that day in July? While I had been living like a Christian, I had kept things safely on the outside. That was the day that I made it personal. Since I had already cleaned up my life, what change took place? The change that took place is that I had a sense of hope for the first time in my life. There was a God that was real and who loved me, and I was in a right relationship with him. This gave me hope.
Hope From Life
There has been a problem with how the church has proclaimed the gospel. Too often the church has done what I just did. Telling a simple story of being hopeless, meeting Jesus and then being hopeful. That story is true, but it is only part of the bigger story.
Meeting Jesus should give us hope. But if we think that once we start following Jesus that we will have an easy life, we are naive. Problems will come our way, both the Old and New Testaments promise this.
The question we have to ask is, what do difficult events do to our hope? If our hope is that God will make our lives easy, we will lose hope. But if our hope is that God will neither leave us nor forsake us, our hope should not survive, but thrive.
Paul tells us in Romans that we can rejoice in our sufferings. We do not rejoice because suffering hurts. That’s just stupid. We can rejoice because of what comes out of our suffering. Suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character and character produces hope.
Have you ever tried to start exercising? It may have been walking, running, swimming or lifting weights. If you start that after a long period of inactivity, it is difficult. I remember starting running a number of years ago. I had a mantra that I would go over in my head: “I hate this, I hate this, I hate this.” When you start exercising, you can either focus on how difficult or unpleasant it is, or you can focus on what the future results will be.
That is what Paul is asking us to do. We do not rejoice in suffering itself, but what it will ultimately lead up to, and that is hope.
I am actively involved in apologetics, that is giving reasons for why I believe Christianity to be true. I believe that there are good rational reasons and God uses them. But I need to tell you that the greatest reason I have hope is because of what Paul tells us here. It has been through the most difficult times in life that my spiritual muscles have been built up and I have learned to trust God. I already had hope because I was a Christian, but the trials of life have magnified that hope many times over.
This is the first Sunday in Advent. We are preparing ourselves for the baby who will be born in a manger. That birth in a small town two thousand years ago was an explosion of hope. That baby grew to be a man who died on a cross. By that death, we have found peace with God and that has given us hope. That man rose on the third day and ascended to heaven. By the power of the Holy Spirit, that man travels with us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Our suffering goes through many stages, ultimately leading to a greater hope. Let us rejoice in our hope.