What is hope in your life? For some, hope is the first candle to be lit when the power goes out in the storm. Hope is the first day you wake up and can breathe again after an awful cold. And hope is that percentage you do have of beating the cancer.
Hope is that COVID will be beat in the coming days or weeks. Hope is the faint line on that stick when you’ve been struggling to get pregnant. It’s the first ray of sunshine through your window after a tearful, difficult night.
Hope is hearing the words, “He’s going to be OK.” Hope is the flicker of maybe, just maybe.Hope is the fuel of faith and dreams. And hope is what we celebrate on this first Sunday of Advent.
Advent is actually a season of hope. The word advent means “coming” or “arrival,” and the season is marked by expectation, waiting, anticipation, and longing. It’s a season that links the past, present, and future.
Advent offers us the opportunity to share in the ancient longing for the coming of the Messiah, to celebrate his birth, and to be alert for his second coming. Advent looks back in celebration at the hope fulfilled in Jesus Christ’s first coming, while at the same time looking forward in hopeful and eager anticipation to the coming of Christ’s kingdom when he returns for his people. During Advent we wait for both – it’s an active, assured, and hopeful waiting.
Now, the Christmas season always seems busy doesn’t it? Even with COVID lockdowns we’re busy. But in a season often marked by frenzied busyness, Advent is an opportunity to set aside time to prepare our hearts and help us place our focus on a far greater story than our own – the story of God’s redeeming love for our world.
And it’s a season of digging deep into the reality of what it means that God sent his Son into the world to be Immanuel. Immanuel is a word that means, “God with Us”.
That means then that it’s a season of expectation and preparation, with an opportunity to align ourselves with God’s presence more than just the hectic season of presents. So, wherever you are on your own spiritual journey, I invite you into this season. It’s a time that allows for questions and struggle as we take time to prepare our hearts for Christ’s coming.
In the darkness, in the pain, in the chaos, he comes. And he makes a way and he brings us hope. God with us means hope. That’s the way God has been working throughout history. You see, back in the beginning, in the way God intended this creation, he walked freely and openly with Adam and Eve. He was with us, and humanity enjoyed wholeness and intimacy with God.
But you know the story. Adam and Eve chose sin. Separation divided God and humans. As a result, the brokenness of our world that we know far too well is the ongoing reality.
But do you realize that ever since, God has been working toward restoration and healing and wholeness for us and all he has made? This is the overarching story of the Bible. Throughout the scriptures, we can see God making a way and giving and reminding his people of the hope that he is still at work. We see it in God’s covenant with Abraham, then called Abram: “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:3
When God encountered Jacob at Bethel, he renewed that covenant and reinforced the hope rooted in his faithfulness: “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” – Genesis 28:15
But much time passed, years and generations and centuries, and we humans are an impatient breed, aren’t we? Stand in line at McDonalds for more than five minutes and we think we’re living with a bunch of barbarians.
Culturally, we Canadians don’t seem to understand the concept of delayed gratification, do we? We want everything now without waiting for it. Which is why so many, experience so much stress with credit cards maxed out and bankruptcies common place. Fast food delivered quickly is the norm and we want it faster so we call uber eats or skip the dishes.
And a child in the car heading to vacation is the worst! When we’d go on vacation as a child, I’m sure I drove my dad crazy by asking repeatedly, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” But we’re not the only people in history who lived impatiently. “Are we there yet?” was the cry of the ancient Israelite people too.
From the times of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to David, Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the many other prophets, there was a cyclical repeating of history, with devotion to God one time and neglect of God the next. There was prosperity and there was recession, feast and literal famine, pleasure and pain.
But through it all, there was a deep and ongoing longing for God to fulfill his covenant and his promise of a Messiah, who would come to make everything right. And in their hearts, they would impatiently ask, Is he here yet? This wasn’t just a happy idea that drifted in and out of the Israelites’ consciousness and culture – this was a deep hope, their deepest hope, that sustained them and encouraged them and spurred them on, especially through thousands of years of uncertain waiting.
And in the midst of that long journey of hope, the prophet Isaiah became a voice of hope. Seven hundred years before Jesus, Isaiah gave us beautiful words that ring with hope for the coming Messiah. Listen to some of these. Isaiah 7:14 says, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel”
And Isaiah 9:1-2, “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honour Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan – The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned”
A little later in the same chapter, Isaiah wrote, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this” – Isaiah 9:6-7
Can you imagine living in an ancient world, well before the time of tiktok, or FB or Television, or YouTube and even before written information became common place, and hearing a message like that? Can you imagine the hope that would spring up in the hearts of the people?
Did Isaiah understand all of these messages and promises? On some level, yes, but on others, probably not. He sure didn’t know God’s time line for when it all would happen and when the Messiah would come.
Perhaps Isaiah thought it would be in his lifetime, or maybe he somehow knew that God’s work stretched for generations and generations. Either way, Isaiah was filled with hope, and God’s promises fueled him and his people to continue to hope for years and even centuries.
In Luke 1, we see a priest named Zechariah who would have been well acquainted with the words and prophecies of Isaiah. And he would have most certainly held deep longings for the Messiah who had been promised. Zechariah was one of those who would have asked, “Is he here yet?” That’s because he had a hope for the future.
One day Zechariah was serving God in the Temple since his priestly division was on duty that week. There were twenty-four priestly divisions who would each serve in the temple only twice a year for one week each time. And as was the custom of the priests, a member of their order was chosen by lot to enter the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place in the temple, and burn the incense.
Apparently, that meant then that any single priest might have only had one chance in their whole lifetime to actually enter the holy of holies to burn incense since only one priest was allowed in at a time. If anyone else, priest or commoner, not chosen and thus considered unworthy were to enter, the presence of the Lord would kill them instantly.
In this particular case, Zechariah must have thought he won the lottery because he was chosen through the casting of the lots. Casting lots was a method used by the Jews of the Old Testament and even by the Christian disciples prior to Pentecost to determine the will of God.
Lots could be sticks with markings or stones with symbols, or something similar, which were thrown into a small area and then the result was interpreted. Proverbs says, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” – Proverbs 16:33
So, even though Zechariah might have thought he got the luck of the draw, it’s important to remember that it was actually God who caused the lots to choose Zechariah because he was orchestrating something amazing.
Luke 1:11-22 tells us about this something amazing being orchestrated. In that passage we see that Zechariah was shocked when suddenly, out of the blue, God drops a megadose of hope into his world, not just for him, but also for the people of Israel. Problem was of course that Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, were old. Too old to have kids.
So, when Zechariah received this special angelic delivery, he was a little bit in shock, to say the least. And he couldn’t quite get over this part about him and his old wife having a child. “Who me? Uh, we’re old, God. That’s not possible”. As a result of Zechariah’s push back to the angelic message, God made sure he remained literally speechless until his son, John, was born.
This was certainly an inconvenience, but can you imagine the hope that sprang up within this couple and the people around them when they heard this news? The old prophecies are about to be fulfilled!
The one prophesied to come in the spirit of Elijah to prepare the way for the Messiah, is coming! God is moving to restore hope that he is still here – that the human expression of God with Us is still coming. Hope on earth at its deepest levels was alive again!
Maybe some of you are thinking, That’s all fine and dandy for those people thousands of years ago, but what about for us? What about for me? They weren’t fighting cancer. Their spouse wasn’t killed fighting in a war on the other side of the world – or didn’t walk out on them. They didn’t lose their job with no warning, with bills to pay and debts stacking up and kids expecting Christmas presents, not to mention meals on the table. And COVID wasn’t even a thing then.
But no matter what kind of problems and struggles you’re facing right now, no matter what kind of season of darkness and pain you are in, let me encourage you not to abandon hope.
Hope is still alive, even in our deepest pain and most hopeless circumstances. Hope is alive because God is with us. How can we know? How can we find that tiny spark of hope when we’re on the verge of giving up?
No matter what kind of circumstances we are facing, the first is that we can have a hope based on God’s word.
Hope Based on God’s Word
Part of the gift of God with Us is the written word that he has left us. These are his promises to his people – both long ago and today. They are beacons of hope. They are reminders that can penetrate our hearts and spirits and assure us that no matter what we are facing, no matter how bleak tomorrow looks, no matter how bad the pain, God will never leave us or forsake us. And nothing can separate us from him.
You are not alone. God with Us means that he always will be with us, and nothing – nothing – can take that away. Scripture is filled with stories and words and promises that can rekindle a supernatural hope within us.
As we move through Advent, let me encourage you to dig into the words of the Bible expectantly. Because God is with us, we can take hope that we are never alone, that he is always working in and among us, and that he isn’t done yet with his greatest and final work of healing.
The second way we can rekindle hope is to put our focus on God’s character – on who he is and promises to be.
Hope Based on God’s Character
In Mark 5 there’s a great story of hope. For twelve years, the woman in the story had been slowly bleeding to death. No one had been able to help her. Doctors had tried, but her condition had only grown worse. And this condition would have affected everything about her, every day of her life. Those of you with long-term illnesses can probably relate.
But she had heard about this Jesus – the stories, the miracles, the healings – and she believed. And because of that, hope awoke inside of her. And the hope of healing – of a new life, drove her to act.
And so, she did what she could just to get close enough to Jesus and reach out. And when she did, Jesus connected with her deeply and directly and intimately, as God with Us.
This is our God. This is his character. Jesus is God with Us, fulfilling Israel’s hope for the Messiah when he arrived that first Christmas. He fulfilled humanity’s hopes for victory over death when he was resurrected that first Easter. And one day he will ultimately fulfill all hope and complete God’s work of restoration for all creation when he returns.
‘Finally, the third way we can find and take hold of hope is by focusing on God’s faithfulness.
Hope Based on God’s Faithfulness
Let me ask you, how has God been at work in your life? You know those times when you had no doubt he was there and he was working. Maybe it’s been recently or maybe it’s been a long time ago. But you still remember that in those circumstances swirling around you, the presence of God’s Spirit was with you. But what does that have to do with hope? What do those memories have to do with the here and the now?
Listen to these words from Jeremiah found in Lamentations, a book most of us may not spend too much time reading. “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. – Lamentations 3:21-22
Jeremiah understood that there is hope in the future when we remember what God has done in the past. Hope grows and spreads like a living thing. It can dwindle and diminish and, yes, even die. But with nurture and care, it can be revived and flourish and multiply. And when we focus on gratitude because of what God has done in the past, it can renew and grow our hope today.
Even during these times of COVID restrictions, where many are not able to spend Christmas with loved ones. Where churches aren’t able to gather, where jobs have been lost. Even for those who have seen loved ones pass away and so only have memories of Christmas past, we still have a hope in the future. Recognizing and appreciating the good that God has shown us in the past will increase our hope for all he will do in the future.
Let me encourage you by reminding you, that no matter what the circumstances of life look like and no matter what we’re facing, know that God with us means Hope. And we can hope because his word tells us we can. And we can hope because God’s Character promises we can. And we can hope because God’s faithfulness guarantees we can.