Advent: Season of Hope

November 22nd, 2011

A Most Wonderful Time

The season is changing. As many of us are cleaning up from Thanksgiving dinner, shoppers will be looking for bargains in stores that can't wait for the traditional Black Friday start to the Christmas shopping season. Malls and downtowns around the country are already decked out with holiday decorations. Christmas music proclaiming this the most wonderful time of the year can be heard on public-address systems and radios. Santa Claus is listening to eager children share their wish lists. Holiday-themed movies are in theaters, and Christmas specials are on television.

The church is changing seasons as well. We have now moved on from Ordinary Time. This week is the first Sunday of Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas. The worship space may look different, with an Advent wreath, paraments in purple or blue, or perhap seven a Chrismon tree. Choirs are practicing music for upcoming Christmas worship services. Scripture lessons proclaim God’s promise of a Messiah. The season’s activities convey hope and joy.

Hope and Joy in the Midst of Gloom?

As the church and the world around us prepare to celebrate the good news of great joy that Jesus Christ was born, some people are not feeling very joyful. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that three quarters of those surveyed believe the country is seriously off-track, and almost everyone perceives that the economy is in dire circumstances. Just one third of respondents said they believe the economy has begun to recover, a significantly lower percentage than those who saw evidence of economic recovery during President Obama’s first year in office. Two thirds said they doubt they will be able to maintain their standard of living.

The current gloom is not just economic. The poll indicates that most Americans are also gloomy about the country’s political life. A vast majority—eight in ten—are not satisfied with the way the federal government is working, and nearly a third are angry about the situation. While the dissatisfaction cuts across party lines, poll respondents are divided about who is to blame for the current mess. Democrats blame Republicans; and Republicans blame the President, a Democrat. And while people of both parties agree that the economy is the most important issue facing the country, they do not agree on the solution. Most Democrats believe the best way to improve the economy is with government spending to stimulate job creation; most Republicans believe that the best solution is to cut the federal deficit. Steve Schmidt, who was a strategist on Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008, says the 2012 election “will be very much the opposite of the hope-and-change theme of four years ago.” How does the hope of Advent help us when politics and the economy make us worry about the future?

A Prayer for God’s Presence

The people of Judah would have wished that their troubles were limited to a sluggish economy and political squabbling. The outlook for Judah was bleak. Their nation had been defeated in a fierce war with the Babylonians. The conquering Babylonians all but destroyed Judah: They tore down most of the houses and businesses in Jerusalem and much of the rest of the country, laid waste to most of the farms and vineyards, and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. The destruction of Judah was not limited to physical devastation. The Babylonians forced many people to move hundreds of miles away to live in exile in Babylon. The Babylonians purposely exiled the leaders of Judah: scholars, religious leaders, government officials, and more who were considered the brightest and best. Those who were left behind had no one to lead them; and those who were taken away faced a grim future as exiles in a foreign land.

What future did the people of Judah have? Some people were ready to give up. They were convinced that there was no hope. They were also convinced that God no longer cared for them. After all, God did not come to their rescue in their time of need; and the Temple, which was considered to be the very house of God, was in ruins.

While the situation seemed hopeless to some, others had faith that there was hope, no matter how grim their prospects seemed. They had faith in God. The prayer in Isaiah 64:1-4 expresses passion, longing, and desperation: “If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!” The prophet remembered other times when God “accomplished wonders.” Just as God had come down to save in the past, the prophet prayed that God would do so again.

But why would God save them? The prophet was realistic in his appeal. He knew that the people of Judah had not always been faithful.They had not always lived as God’s people. The truth is they had failed. The prophet acknowledges in Isaiah 64:5-9 that the people had sinned. In fact, many religious leaders at the time were convinced that the reason the people of Judah were in such a predicament was because they had brought the disaster on themselves by failing to live as God’s people. Isaiah understood that God would not save them because they were so good. Instead, he prayed that God would come to them and save them even though their good works were unclean. The prophet also prayed that God would do more than merely defeat Judah’s enemies and free them from exile. He also prayed that God would forgive them. He prayed that God, like a potter, would mold and transform them.

Advent Hope

If we face up to how our lives really are, we will admit that we have much in common with the people of Judah. We are not always faithful. We do not always live as God’s people. We fail. We sin. During Advent, we remember our need for Jesus to come into our lives today.

Centuries after the Exile, early Christians understood that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophet’s hope for God to “tear open the heavens and come down.” Today, Christians believe that Jesus is God incarnate, God in human form, who came to live and love as one of us. In Jesus Christ, God comes to us to free us from the exile of being separated from God, from other people, and from our own true selves. During Advent, we remember that Jesus came as a baby born in Bethlehem to inaugurate the reign of God and that he will come again.

When we look at the world around us, we recognize that although the reign of God has already begun with Jesus’ first coming, that reign is not yet fully realized here on earth. We live in a time of “already” but “not yet.” While we can catch glimpses of the reign of God, there is still much in our world that is not as it should be. During Advent, we remember Jesus’ promise of his future coming, also known as the Second Coming, when the reign of God will come in its fullness.

As we remember that we are living in a time of “already” but “not yet,” we also remember that as we wait for Jesus’ future coming, we do not wait idly. Christians are to live as though the reign of God were already here in its fullness. We are to live by the values of God’s reign. After all, God is our potter. When God molds us, as a potter shapes clay, we are transformed. In short, we can follow Jesus, loving God with all that we are and all that we have and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. When we live hope-filled lives, we proclaim that hope with our words and our actions. In fact, we may find that one of the ways God brings hope to the world is through us.

Christians are a people of hope, even in a time of widespread despair. We know that no matter how bleak the world around us may seem, God is tearing open the heavens and coming to us. We hope for more than an economic recovery and an end to partisan bickering. Even when the unemployed find work and our political leaders work together, we continue to live in a broken world. The Christian hope is that Jesus Christ was born and will come again—now as well as in the fullness of God’s reign—to transform our individual lives and our world.

This article is part of FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs. The complete study guide accompanying this article can be purchased here.

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