The Hope of Advent
November 27, 2005
Fifty years ago, the British Christian pastor and writer, J. B. Phillips wrote an essay entitled “Ground for Hope.” He described a time 50 years prior as a time of “bouncing optimism.” I found this phrase curious for as I imagine the 1950’s–the time when J. B. Phillips was writing–I would imagine using the same description. The Leave It To Beaver Generation–surely there has never more been a time of bouncing optimism. Yet, as I read, I concluded that things hadn’t changed much from the time Phillips was writing to today. I concluded that Phillips must have overestimated the optimism of days gone by and that nearly every generation struggles with its unique set of anxieties and ills. We haven’t developed more problems in the intervening years just different ones. In the past fifty years, we have traded the enemy of communism for the enemy of terrorism, the threat of nuclear war for the threat of biological attack, the challenge of integration for the face of pluralism. Today we fear the possible breakout of a bird flu pandemic. In 1918-1919 the world witnessed a global flu pandemic that took the lives of between 20 and 40 million people. We watch the news and read the papers and we drown in the overwhelming flood of humanity’s ability to act inhumane and wonder if things have ever been this bad. Yet, every generation faces anxieties this includes the generations that gave to us holy scripture.
Whether we turn to the Bible for guidance or not depends a great deal on our outlook. While I am an advocate for Biblical hope, I recognize that Biblical hope is only one of a series of options. We can choose, as Phillips recognizes, wishful thinking. Wishful thinking sees the problems of today but feels powerless to respond. And so, we believe that some how God will simply whisk our problems away. We may also respond with unrealistic nostalgia–a naive view of the past that pretends we were somehow better, kinder, more Christian at some point in the past and if we could just get back there life would be good. The prevailing option however, in the face of our world’s complex problems seems to be atheistic analysis. By atheistic analysis I do not mean the analysis of atheists. Those who openly admit they do not believe in God and set out to prove that God does not exist do not concern me. I don’t encounter that many of them. What concerns me is what I see far too often–the functional atheism of professing Christians. How often do we set aside our beliefs about God in our discussions of politics, economics, psychology? Many Christians have decided that their faith works for nice pleasant occasions like weddings and funerals, Christmas and Easter traditions, but in the “real world” it’s of little value. When problem come their way it’s best to find the most applicable trend and the best wisdom of the age, than the most appropriate text and the wisdom of the ages.
Why is biblical hope superior to the other responses to the circumstances of the day? Again, J. B. Phillips writes that when we are reading scripture, “We are reading what was written by men at first-hand grips with realities, and it is astonishing and heartening to find how hopeful they are” (p. 47). Biblical hope provides the most constructive response to anxieties because it provides the one that affirms both our human abilities and limitations. Biblical hope points us to what we can do and points us beyond ourselves to the One who can do immeasurably more.
For now well over a hundred years, Biblical scholars have accepted the idea that Isaiah was written by two and perhaps three authors. Isaiah, the prophet of Jerusalem, composed chapters 1-39. Another prophet writing wrote chapters 40-55. A third prophet, or the second prophet in a different setting, wrote chapters 56-66. The three parts of Isaiah have always been edited together. They share common themes and theological outlooks. Nonetheless, the historic circumstances surrounding the author of our focal text are decidedly different from those of the early part of the book. Specifically, chapters 56-66 address those who returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity (see Ezra and Nehemiah). They now behold the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and God’s holy temple. The sight of the ruined temple provides the historical context for this prayer (Isaiah 63:18; 64:10-13). The prayer of Isaiah mixes contrition and confession, petition and hope. The contrition and confession comes as the prophet acknowledges how few call upon the name of the Lord or rely on God. The destruction of the temple and Jerusalem was understood by the prophet to be God’s punishment for sins. The petition and hope is expressed in the prophets desire for a rebuilt Jerusalem and temple. It is also in the desire to see vengeance served against God’s enemies–likely those who both destroyed the temple but also those who stand in the way of the temple’s reconstruction.
Isaiah’s prayer is an example of Biblical hope. Biblical Hope holds an honest vision of today’s circumstances along side an expectation that God will act for good. Correspondingly, it involves a commitment to align one’s self with the purposes of God. He prays, “Oh that you would rend open the heavens.” The word “apocalypse” literally means to uncover or reveal. We think of it as the end of the world but it is more accurately depicted in the sort of scene Isaiah imagines. Isaiah had heard the stories from his scriptures about God guiding his people to that place with a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. Isaiah knew how God had made promises to Abraham, commissioned Moses, empowered Joshua, preserved Ruth and ordained David. Isaiah knew if they had any hope at all, God would have to act on their behalf. “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 64:4, NRSV).
If we are to emulate Isaiah’s Biblical hope, we also must cultivate an anticipation of a God who acts. Yet, we have a barrier here as the result of our expectations. The scientific world view says that when we encounter any phenomena we seek ways to explain, predict and control. How do we explain what takes place when grass converts sunlight, oxygen and water into cells? How do we explain what takes place when gas prices rise and fall? Once we’ve learned to explain things we learn to predict them. Meteorologists have their careers staked on their ability to predict. They look at trends and based on their understanding of those previous trends, they can suggest what the next day will be like. But our modern world view most wants control. We want to be able to eradicate diseases, persuade clients, sustain markets, and feed the population. Explain, predict, control is a great mantra for many things but it simply doesn’t apply to the activities of God. God’s actions cannot be explained. We do not know why God chooses to act at one point and not at another. Nor can we predict when God would act. I’d love to be able to give you a five day forecast on Sunday mornings. There should be a low tomorrow of mild disconnect from God and a high of scattered blessings. The blessings will begin to blow out of our area by Wednesday leaving us with cold speculation about the existence of God by Thursday. But God’s activities don’t work that way and even if they did, we could never control God. Biblical hope comes with no formulas; it comes with not plans. Since God’s activities do not fit into our world view’s template of explain, predict and control, many choose to relinquish faith.
Biblical hope however, focuses on the way God has acted in the past, on the nature of the promises made in scripture and affirms that such expectations can be placed before God in prayer. Knowing this makes Bible study of such crucial importance. By actually studying scripture we develop a sense of God’s character and a narrative of how God has chosen to act. People often do not turn to the Bible until they get in a bind and need quick answers. In the back of some Gideon’s Bibles, you know, it has a list of possible resources–if lonely read, page 455; if confused read, page 124, etc. But honestly the Bible doesn’t work that way. The wisdom of scripture comes through like the benefits of exercise–slowly at first but if we remain consistent it develops over time. If you have not committed to an intentional plan of Bible study, I hope you will. Isaiah is a great book to study in that regard. Occasionally I encounter people who describe their prayer life to me. A few times, people have said to me, “I don’t pray anymore. I don’t pray because it doesn’t work. I prayed for wealth [or whatever they prayed for] and I didn’t get it.” I’ve generally wanted to say in those moments, “What in the biblical story of faith made you believe that God would answer that prayer?” Isaiah rooted his prayer in the activities of God in this past.
Yet, Biblical hope also grounds itself in our need to align ourselves with God’s purposes. It is naive to think that God is here to serve our agenda. The problem with wishful thinking, unrealistic nostalgia and the functional atheism of today is that all of them are assertions of our rebellion. We want things our way and if God wants to fit into that agenda great but if not God can go back to heaven and play with the clouds and angels. Isaiah’s view of God isn’t so passive and fluffy. This God makes mountains shake and throws nations into chaos like burning twigs. This God crafts and molds people but doesn’t ask for our opinions or permission.
Ultimately, biblical faith reminds us that if we have any hope in this world it comes from repentance. Our hope comes from committing ourselves to doing God’s work.
It is in this conscious commitment to God’s plans that we find our response to all that causes us anxiety. Isaiah recognized that repentance was involved here.
The response to terrorism isn’t the war on terrorism but in missions of life. I have a college friend living in Malaysia who wondered if people from this church would be interested in a mission trip to his Island nation. I thought about all of the difficulties and challenges, the fears and anxieties that such a mission trip would create but I am reminded that if we want to experience God we may just have to visit God on the job. Our nation has been rocked this year by such destruction and damage. We cannot simply send our young people on a mission trip and call the work done. I pray that someone today will say we need at least one adult mission trip in 2006 to a location where God is calling us to participate in God’s work: it could be to God Samaritan Outreach Center in Los Fresnos, Texas to work with Filoberto Perrara, it could be Jackson, Mississippi or it could even be to Malaysia but we find our hope by aligning ourselves with God’s work in the world. Isaiah prayed to God, “You meet those who gladly do right.” Let’s be those people whom God meets.