Whatever was written in former days, was written for our instruction;
that through endurance, and encouragement of the Scriptures,
we might have hope.
Advent is a season of hope – we have some natural hopes – the expectation of holidays, the celebration of Christmas with family or friends. But we also have supernatural hopes: that God has come to us in the flesh as a child to save us, and there is a renewed emphasis in this season on the hope of Jesus Second Coming in glory. This morning our readings speak about our hope.
What is hope?
I’ve been reading Joseph Pieper’s essay on hope [in Joseph Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, Ignatius Press, 1997]. He begins by describing the precondition for hope for the Christian: it is that we recognize ourselves to be pilgrims on a journey in this life, that “one of the basic concepts of every Christian rule of life” is that we are “on the way” towards becoming. [p. 91] To be “on the way” as a Christian is neither to despair of our existence and turn back towards the nothingness out which we have come to be [creatio ex nihilo] (which is what we turn towards when we turn to sin), nor is it to be certain that we have fulfillment already. Either of these ways of thinking and acting will undermine hope.
Our doubts and our anxieties “on the way” are not something to be worried about in themselves, they are an authentic expression of the reality of our being not yet there, of living as pilgrims and of having a certain freedom on that way.
Hope is the only proper response that corresponds to the situation of our existence as Christians of being “on the way”.
I suspect that if you are here this morning it is because you are not at a point of despair about of your existence nor do you see yourself as already having made it – we are here because we have hope. If you have a longing to become more than you are now, if you have a sense that you are not there yet but that such a striving is possible by grace, then you are living in hope.
Hope is – “the certain expectation of future glory.” [Dante’s Paradiso, Canto 25, 67] [e.g. Romans 2:6-7; 8:17-18; James 1:12; 2:5; 4:10; 5:7-8; 1 Peter 5:6, 10]
Hope is a gift from God that ennobles our nature to become by grace more that we can be by nature. It is not simply about attaining some earthly happiness, though that is something we might also expect along the way. [Matthew 6:25-33] With supernatural hope our stability, our rest, cannot be in any of these things which are passing – our job, our vocation, our wealth, our home, even our earthly loves and family – but we look for real change in our being – a real transformation of who we are into the likeness of Jesus Christ.
How do we get that hope?
It is a gift from above but it comes to us in simple ways.
St Paul says in this morning’s Epistle:
Whatever was written in former days, was written for our instruction; that through endurance, and encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope.
It is very easy in our daily circumstances to allow our minds to become totally absorbed by the concerns of our earthly existence. And there are voices everywhere that would have us look only to earthly ends. Our minds need the continual remembrance of the promises of God – of the hope of glory. We get these reminders as we are recalled continually to the higher things through a discipline of reading the Bible.
The Scriptures remind us to look to the ground of our hope of glory – “Christ in us.” [Col 1:27]
In Jesus Christ “dwells the fullness of the Godhead.” [Colossians 2:9] He is our ultimate example, of the embodiment of the supernatural life in humanity – Jesus is what we can look like, he is goodness incarnate. And he is beyond an example – “We are the body of that Head in whom that for which we hope is brought to fulfillment.” [Pieper, p. 106]
By our baptism, by our faith, we are joined mystically with this One and are being drawn to completion, to fulness of being, fulness of life. We are on our way and while we are on that way, with hope, we have “the certain expectation of future glory.” [Dante]
Pieper says “Prayer is the expression and proclamation of hope.”
You can see that hope is related to, in fact arises from, faith. Faith leads us to read God’s word, faith leads us to pray, we are reminded of our union with Jesus Christ, and hope springs up in us from above and keeps us looking and striving and seeking grace.
What are the obstacles to hope?
Pieper warns of obstacles to hope in the modern world – despair that there is any aim beyond this life and presumption that would suggest the work is done, that we are already there.
He summarizes Thomas Aquinas’ outlines of the ways that despair manifests itself – I recognized some of them in myself: a lack of courage for the great things that are proper to the nature of the Christian – we would rather withdraw than step forward into the fray; an accidie showing itself as excessive curiosity, interior restlessness, distraction, workaholism, a sluggish indifference towards the things necessary for salvation (torpor), a lack of courage towards the mystical opportunities open to humanity (pusillanimity), an irritable rebellion against those responsible for preventing self-forgetfulness (rancor), and malice – “a conscious inner choice and decision in favour evil that has its source in hatred for the divine in humanity”. [Pieper, Faith, Hope and Love, p. 120-121]
In the modern world presumption shows itself in two ways:
One is the Pelagian temptation – to think that man is able by his own effort to attain eternal life and the forgiveness of sins – I’m a good person, upright, decent, I do my duty, I’ll keep on with the way I am.
The second is a temptation in Protestantism, an overemphasis on our justification by faith, to the exclusion of sanctification, as if we have already attained the goal of our salvation.
In both cases there is no striving for deep transformation – again, a kind of staying on the surface as if the work is done, not recognizing the deep inner brokenness of our humanity after the Fall, my brokenness, nor does it recognize the true possibilities of greatness of soul shown to us by Jesus. [Pieper recognized the importance of humility and magnanimity together as virtues that counter presumption and that must accompany hope.]
These are the ways of thinking that can really sap us of hope. Maybe you see some of them in yourselves, I see some of them in me. Signs of forgetfulness of who we are as the children of God on a journey, called to glory.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus tells us about a coming apocalypse, and about his coming again in glory.
There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
It is a frightening vision of the end of times. The Bible teaches, and so the Church has always taught, that Christ will return to the earth. In the Nicene Creed we say, And he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Many other ages have wondered if it was their time. Many wonder if it is in our time. Whether it is in our time or in a thousand years from now we simply do not know, only the Father knows – but we are told, strangely, to hope for it, to pray for it, and to be ready for it!
Jesus says we can actually look to this judgement in hope. He tells us, to Straighten up and raise (our) heads! That is the hope, that is the confidence we are to have through our faith in Jesus Christ. No matter how bad things appear here in our midst, a greater world is being prepared, “straighten up and raise your heads, because your Redemption is drawing near.” We hold this hope mingled with a proper fear of God [see Pieper, pp.130-138], not despairing, nor being presumptuous, but working out our salvation in fear and trembling. [Philippians 2:12]
But there is another way to read today’s Gospel, to relate it not only to end times, but to the present. That Jesus comes to us now, daily, to judge all our worldly ways of thinking, our worldly hopes. When those worldly expectations that each of us have, fail us, we are to lift up our heads, and look to the eternal and heavenly hopes which Jesus shows us – Christ in us, the hope of glory, the promise of eternal life. Do you see how in that very movement of grace in our souls from transferring our hope from the worldly to the eternal is the drawing nearer of our redemption?
As one preacher has put it succinctly,
The Advent hope is an other-worldly hope. It looks towards a Saviour who has no worldly power, no worldly recommendation of any sort. It finds in the poor and helpless Infant of Bethlehem the eternal Word of God. It is the contradiction of all worldly hopes and expectations. The heavens and the earth pass away, they are passing away at every moment, but the Word of God does not pass away, and, as today’s Collect expresses it, in that Word we have the blessed hope of everlasting life. [Robert Crouse]