Monthly Archives: November 2007

HOPE – First Sunday of Advent

One of my all-time favorite roadside signs marks the entrance to the Guntersville, Alabama municipal airport. The asphalt runway is only 3,360 feet long. Plans are in progress for extending the runway to 5,500 feet. Small corporate jets and general aviation airplanes are all the airport will accommodate. The sign, however, is inspiring. Alongside the expected words, Guntersville Airport, is a graphic, the unmistakable profile of a Boeing 747! Underneath the 747 and the airport name is the inscription, “Sign Donated by Guntersville Optimist Club.” Perhaps the club should be renamed the Overly-Optimists Club! It brings to my mind the line from the song about the ant and the rubber tree plant: “He had high hopes, he had high, apple-pie-in-the-sky hopes.”

Hope begins the Advent season, the time of great expectation and preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas. Hope will find its expression in the other themes of Advent, peace, joy, and love. But hope for the coming of Christ soars beyond the wishful-thinking and unfounded optimism of that airport sign.

Any child – or any of us who retain happy, childlike expectations for the gifts of Christmas – will be full of optimism and wishful thinking this time of year. We look forward eagerly to someone fulfilling our ardent wishes. Many people keep sharply attuned for any clues that a significant other will get them what they want for Christmas. Because our wishes mostly have been fulfilled before, we may look forward positively for a repeat performance this year.

These sentiments fall within the confines of optimism or wishful thinking. They do not rise to the powerful vitality of hope. We know that hope lives in a strong neighborhood. Paul places hope in his trinity of constants, along with faith and love (1 Corinthians 13:13) Hope is far more than an ephemeral, maybe-maybe-not anticipation. Hope is a weighty reality. Hebrews 11:1 says, ” Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1 KJV) Hope has qualities of substance and hard evidence. We have assurance of faithful hope directed toward God, especially in our expectations of Jesus Christ, since the object of our hope is rooted in God, not ourselves or anyone else. Rather than remaining mired in the circumstances that immediately surround us, or longing for some improvement just beyond the horizon, the hope that comes from trusting Jesus draws on the trustworthiness of Almighty God. We look forward to the ” hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began.” (Titus 1:2 KJV) Henri Nouwen, one of the most powerful writers about Christian spirituality in the 20th century, once was asked, “Are you an optimist?” Nouwen, who lived an ministered in a community for developmentally disabled persons, replied, “No, not naturally, but that isn’t important. I live in hope, not optimism.” Hope infuses believers with a vision of what God has in store for life and all eternity, through faith in Jesus Christ.

A striking example of the power of hope to change the world is shared by Jim Wallace, founder of Sojourners, a Christian advocate for peace and social justice. He says that apartheid was brought down in South Africa, not by anxious hand-wringing, or by optimistic good thoughts, not by guns and violence, but by hope. In the face of unspeakable racial injustice, South African people of faith – blacks and whites – began to pray together. As a sign of their hope that one day the evil of apartheid would be overcome, they lit candles and placed them in their windows so that their neighbors, the government and the whole world would see their belief. Sure enough, their government did see. The South African white-ruled government passed a law making it illegal – a politically subversive act – for anyone to light a candle and put it in their window. It was seen as a crime, as serious as owning and flaunting a gun. The irony of this wasn’t missed by the children. At the height of the struggle against apartheid, the children of Soweto had a joke: “Our government,” they said, “is afraid of lit candles!” The white-ruled government had reason to fear the candles of hope. Eventually those burning candles, and the prayer and hope behind them, brought change to South Africa. Morally shamed by its own people, the government conceded that apartheid was wrong and dismantled it without a war, defeated by hope.

We renew our hope for the coming of God’s Messiah during this Advent season. During dark days of religious uncertainty, after Jerusalem had been devastated by Babylon’s armies, Jeremiah nevertheless spoke of the power of hope in God’s salvation:

The reason I can find hope is that I keep this one thing in mind: {22} the Lord’s mercy. We were not completely wiped out. His compassion is never limited. {23} It is new every morning. His faithfulness is great. {24} My soul can say, “The LORD is my lot . That is why I find hope in him.” {25} The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to anyone who seeks help from him. {26} “It is good to continue to hope and wait silently for the LORD to save us. (Lamentations 3:21-26 GWT)

In another time of political domination by a foreign power (Rome), Matthew applied God’s word of hope through the prophet Isaiah to Jesus: “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations…. {21} In his name the nations will put their hope.” (Matthew 12:18, 21 NIV) Jesus’ ministry during his first Advent, and the promise of his second Advent as he returns to usher his followers into eternal life give us hope that has power to change the world.

As you celebrate this Advent, you may light the candles on an Advent wreath. The first candle is traditionally the candle of hope. Light it this year as a subversive act against the powers of sin, staking your life on the certainty of God’s promises fulfilled in Jesus. That’s not mere optimism or wishful thinking, but hope that is sure and settled. You have God’s word on it.