Today, we begin a series called “The Promise.” It’s called “The Promise” because while we, the church, celebrate the four themes of Advent over the coming weeks, hope, peace, joy, and love, we’ll discover a God who keeps His promises of those four themes.
You know, it’s kind of sad, but each holiday we celebrate is barely over before we start to think and prepare for the next. The stores are really great at doing this, always 2-3 months ahead of each holiday. But I know there are some of you who began the countdown to the Christmas as soon as last year’s Christmas was over. You know the kind of people I am talking about. They keep their lights on their house year-round and pretend it’s because it’s too much work to put them up each year. The kind who play Christmas music all summer long. You are a dedicated group. I’ll give you that.
Most of us aren’t probably that extreme, but almost everyone can relate to the feeling of the anticipation of Christmas. I remember as a child making those paper ring chains. It was exciting, as each day lead up to Christmas you would break one of the rings until Christmas Eve finally arrived. It seemed as if those chains were a mile long, and each time you would break a link, two would grow in its place.
Oh, and the presents that would sit under the tree just begging for me to shake them and precisely weigh them to determine what on earth awaited me on Christmas Day. And trying to sleep on Christmas Eve? I remember sneaking to the top of our stairs with my sister trying to see what mom and dad were wrapping as we just couldn’t wait to see what we were going to get! But that is part of the magic of Christmas, isn’t it? The anticipation of the holiday is as enjoyable as the day itself.
The truth is, waiting isn’t easy. Yet waiting is at the very heart of the Advent season. The word Advent comes from the Latin word adventus means “the coming” or “the arrival.” For hundreds of years during these four weeks leading up to Christmas Day, people have celebrated both the birth of Jesus Christ in His first coming, and also the promise of His future arrival, the second coming.
At the center of our faith is the belief that when Jesus Christ was born in a manger, He started something beautiful and new right in the middle of our mess. Through His life, death, and resurrection, He would reconcile us back to God the way God intended our relationship to be in the first place. At His second arrival, He’ll restore the world to the way it was intended to be in the first place. But until then, with His first arrival came the four themes/promises of Advent: hope, peace, joy, and love. And, as we make our way toward Christmas Day together, we will be celebrating these powerful themes.
Today, we’re going to visit the theme of hope. Hope is a word we use often during the Christmas season. I hope this tree fits, I hope I get what I want for Christmas, I hope Grandma doesn’t burn the ham, or I hope it snows this year, when Christmas is over, I hope I can fit in my jeans. However, we have lost the depth of the theme of hope when our hopes are just wishful thinking about trivial things.
This is not Scripture’s understanding of the word hope. In the book of 1 Peter, Peter uses the word hope over and over and over again, and starts right off in chapter 1, where we are given a bit of a summary of this word.
1 Peter 1:13
13 So prepare your minds for action and exercise self-control. Set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.
Most of the time when we talk about hope, it is in terms of the future, but it also has a lot to do with the present. Peter uses the phrase “prepare your minds for action” which is translated literally to “gird up the loins of your mind.” This phrase comes from an ancient form of dress for men in the Middle East.
Men would wear a long outer shirt that went all the way down to their ankles. This made it pretty hard to move quickly or to respond to a treacherous situation. So, to “gird up your loins” meant you would literally grab up your long outer shirt and tuck it into your belt and be ready for action.
So, our hope is not just meant to be something that only impacts our future, but it should impact our present as well. Once we recognize that our future is shaped by the present, we should be fully prepared for whatever is to come, now and later. That’s what hope means.
POINT #1: HOPE IS A CERTAINTY ABOUT THE FUTURE, THAT IMPACTS THE PRESENT.
Our hope is not set in some unclear optimism for no reason. Hope is about living right now in the light of a future promise. This hope is about restructuring the way we look at the world, not as it is right now, but as it will be when Christ comes to set all things right.
Our hope started with specific moments in history. For example, the arrival of Jesus Christ as a baby and His life, His death, and His resurrection were all specific moments in history that set our faith. Almost every person in the Christmas story was full of hope about the fulfillment of a future promise – Jesus. Here’s the promise that they lived in hope for.
The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.
Who is that light? Jesus. The Old Testament holds many prophecies or promises about the coming of Jesus. Each one helped to sustain the Jewish people. And because they believed rescue was coming, it helped them live day-to-day in a world that was full of deep darkness. There was a light coming!
There’s an old man named Simeon within the pages of Scripture, a wonderful Advent character, who is a perfect example of someone who has oriented his entire life around a future promise given to him by God. Isaiah 9:2 would have been a centering prayer for Simeon.
After Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph took their newborn son to the temple to dedicate and consecrate baby Jesus to the Lord which was a traditional Jewish custom of the day. When they arrived at the temple, Simeon was there.
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
29 “Sovereign Lord, now let your servant die in peace, as you have promised. 30 I have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared for all people. 32 He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel!”
33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them, and he said to Mary, the baby’s mother, “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. 35 As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.”
Some traditions believe that Simeon may have been around 112 years old. According to Luke’s account, Simeon was promised that he would not die until he saw the Messiah in the flesh. His life would be spared until he set eyes on the Anointed One. Then by the prompting of the Spirit, Simeon is lead to the temple to be there when Jesus and His family arrived. When Simeon sees Jesus, he knows immediately who he is. He is overcome by joy and hope as he realizes that this is the One he has been waiting for, the one the world has been waiting for. Simeon takes the baby Jesus into his arms and recites this beautiful prayer. Can you even imagine what Simeon would have felt? To know that the thing he had hoped for so long had finally come.
Simeon, in his many years, had seen many painful times in Israel’s history. He saw the Romans conquer and occupy his people and his land. He saw a bloody civil war. He saw multiple revolutions by the Israelite people be crushed. Yet in the midst of these and other difficult moments in history, Simeon held out hope. He still believed that God was not done and had not quit on them. He believed the Messiah, the deliverer, was still on His way. And in Luke 2, Simeon stands at the temple holding the promised Messiah: the One through whom the world would be rescued.
POINT #2: HOPE IS BIRTHED OUT OF DEEP LONGINGS AND DESPERATE NEED
Simeon shows us that hope is birthed out of a deep longing and a desperate need for God’s presence and comfort. Luke tells us that Simeon was waiting at the temple for something very specific. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel. The word consolation means “encouragement” or “comfort.” This didn’t mean he was waiting for God’s pat on the back or a few nice words. This phrase was in reference to chapters in the book of Isaiah.
For hundreds of years, Israel had been defeated and destroyed by many different nations—the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and then currently the Romans. The book of Isaiah was written right in the middle of those difficult times. When these chapters were written and they pointed to a coming comfort through the Messiah that God would send, many would look around and be discouraged because that was not the situation at the time, that was not what they were seeing. But these were promises that one day things would change. So they could have hope, they could have comfort, and encouragement that God would come through.
The word that Luke uses for waiting in this passage is a Greek word that literally means to give access to one’s self—it’s the kind of waiting you do from the deepest parts of yourself—it’s a waiting that involves a sort of pain—an awareness of our deep need for something. In other words, this waiting hurts. Simeon’s hope—his expectancy—was birthed out of his awareness of his deep need for God’s comfort and healing.
During these weeks leading up to Christmas, I would encourage you to allow yourself to feel the deep need you have for God. Many of us, when we get a sense of our need, fill it with shopping, accomplishments, parties, denial, or substance abuse. Instead of leaning into our deepest need for God’s comfort and healing in our lives, we simply try to distract ourselves, and in the end, we actually miss the hope that is offered in Jesus Christ.
When we do this, we’re living, but we are not really alive. Instead, look around you, engage with the Advent season, and allow yourself to hope that your current circumstance that brings pain can be changed and restored by the arrival of Christ into our lives.
The ancient prayer of Advent is “Come, Lord Jesus, come.” In fact, some of the final words of the Bible in the book of Revelation are “Come, Lord Jesus, come.” How badly do you want that? How aware are you of your need for God’s comfort and God’s healing in your life?
Dietrich Bon-hoeffer says of Advent, “The only ones who can celebrate Advent are the people who carry restlessness around with them…whose souls give them no peace, who know that they are poor and incomplete, and who sense something of the greatness that is supposed to come.”
My hope is that this Advent season be different for you than ever before. Don’t just allow yourself to distract or self-soothe. Wrestle with your pain and come face-to-face with the brokenness of the world. It is only then that we can fully see the emptiness of our normal Christmas hustle and bustle. We have been settling for less than is available to us.
Hope is found in our deepest longing.
POINT #3: HOPE IS FOUND IN JESUS
In 1 Peter, we are told that our hope is not set in some kind of empty wishful thinking. This is great news, because if it was, then our hope ends in despair or disappointment. But our hope is set in Jesus Christ. Not our 401(k) plan, not some relationship, not a job, not some president, not even a good medical report. Our hope is in Jesus and His promised arrival in the future to restore all that is broken.
As you read through the New Testament, many people who come in contact with Jesus miss the significance of who He really is. Even though the writings in the Old Testament pointed to Him, the Jewish people still missed the Messiah when He arrived. But not Simeon. Simeon knew when he saw Jesus, even at just a month old, that he was the Anointed One who was promised to come and bring hope, peace, joy, and love.
So why did Simeon get it right when so many got it wrong?
In short…because people were looking for something Jesus wasn’t. Jesus wasn’t what most people were looking for in a Messiah. They wanted a political warrior King who would overthrow their oppressors and put them on top. They didn’t expect the Messiah to be a tiny baby would who would come and, instead of exerting His power, would give Himself up on a cross.
For the people who missed Jesus, it was because their hope was in THEIR specific expectations. Their expectations were all about what they wanted God to do, how they wanted Him to look, and for things to change in their favor. When Jesus failed to meet these expectations, they missed Him altogether.
When our hope is placed in anything other than the promises of God and the fulfillment of these promises in Jesus, we tend to settle for hope in lesser things. These things always fail and always lead to frustration. But you see, Simeon had a different hope.
This morning, in the midst of whatever you are going through, where do you find your hope? How you answer this question makes all the difference. Is your hope based on something you want God to do or is it based in God Himself?
It’s during this time of year, that the good of life and the bad of life are both exaggerated. This is the beauty and the dark side of the holidays. In no other time of the year are we more aware of the problems we can’t solve, the people we can’t control, and the expectations we can’t meet. There are problems that are decades in the making that you won’t be able to fix it overnight. There are people in your life whom you won’t be able to save during the holidays, and there are expectations that you will try so hard to meet for someone else in your family and you will never be able to do it.
But that’s not where your hope is.
There is a difference in being hopeful FOR something and being hopeful IN something. I encourage you this year to choose to face your deep longing and come to believe that there is one specific source from whom you can derive hope—and that is Jesus Christ.
During this Advent season, we don’t just idly wait and hope. In fact, when we sense our deep longing and know our source of hope, then we can live every moment believing the best is right before us. When we begin to embrace the anticipation and the expectation, we free ourselves up from the urgency of having to fix things now, and know that our God is working on it. The question is, how do we join Him in that work? It’s an active anticipation.
It’s like a couple who finds out they are pregnant. They have nine months to wait. It seems like it takes forever for this child to come. But then, they realized they have plenty to do to get prepared for the baby’s arrival. Paint the room, buy the clothes, babyproof the house, get some sleep.
When we have hope that Jesus is going to show up in our life, we find we have plenty to do too to join Him in His work.
While we wait on the Lord, what would set us up perfectly for when He arrives in our lives? For some of us, this means this season of Advent is perfect for forgiving someone, for seeking forgiveness, for pressing into God, for repenting of sin, for serving people, for loving others. We wait, but we actively wait by joining Him in His work in the world.
Remember, God always keeps His promises, even when He takes longer than we would like. But that promise gives us hope right here, right now. So recognize your deep longing, and choose to wait for Him, and while you wait with anticipation and the expectation, join Him in His work.
I want to close today by inviting all of you to join me in a prayer. When I say ‘All,’ say with me “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”
Thou Son of the Most High, Prince of Peace, be born again into our world. Wherever there is war in this world, wherever there is pain, wherever there is loneliness, wherever there is no hope, come, thou long-expected one, with healing in your wings.
All: Come, Lord Jesus, Come
Holy Child, whom the shepherds and the kings and the beasts adored, be born again. Wherever there is boredom, wherever there is fear of failure, wherever there is temptation too strong to resist, wherever there is bitterness of heart, come, though, blessed one, with healing in Thy wings.
All: Come, Lord Jesus, Come
Savior, be born in each of us who raises their face to your face, not knowing fully who we are or who you are, knowing only your love is beyond knowing and that no one else has the power to make us whole. Come, Lord Jesus, to each who longs for you even though they have forgotten your name. Come quickly.
Each one says: AMEN
(Prayer from Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner.)