Congratulations, fearless reader, we have made it to the homestretch of the 2017 Advent blog!
Therefore, it’s time to tie up some loose ends. Over the last week we’ve been looking at how the hopes of God’s people were partially fulfilled, expanded upon, and then still unfulfilled by the first Christmas and through the life of Jesus. We ended this however by stating that we hope for:
Jesus’ return as king and the defeat of all other powers and authorities;
Jesus freeing God’s people to serve God alone,
God’s coming to earth and renewing all of creation and humanity to live in union with him.
Our discussion, however, still left us with plenty of questions. Today we will discuss three which are of great practical significance:
As individuals and a communities, how do we put these hopes into practice?
What are the greatest threats to our hope?
How do we sustain our hopes?
We’ll take these issues in order . . .
#1: Living as a sign of what’s to come.
Our hopes are meant to be lived. Faith is living as if our hopes were assured (Hebrews 11:1). So, how might we translate our three big hopes into our lives today? Well, in short, we are to live as a sign of what is to come. Since Jesus will be established in power, we go ahead and live as if he was. Since we will be freed entirely, we live without without fear or compromise. Since the world will be renewed, we behave in ways consistent with that renewal. In other words, we worship God, make peace, we forgive, we share, we struggle for justice, we seek to live in union and alignment with God, we care as well as possible for the parts of creation in our care, and we do all of this to point others at what is to come. NT Wright has suggested that we are to be “prototypes” of the new creation God is establishing. It’s not here yet, but we embrace it and show the world what it is today, of course with an invitation for them to join in. Again, this is our task as individuals and as communities of disciples.
#2: Suffering and Satisfaction: Two Big Threats
The most obvious threat to our ability to live in hope over the long-haul is suffering. Suffering, in the form of disease, failure, death, persecution and loss awaits all of us. It is simply part of life on this earth. Although we all know this our knowledge is rarely helpful when we are in distress or afraid or mourning. It is inevitable that when we move into suffering we will have moments when our hopes seem unimaginably distant, or even lost. We wonder where God is, why he would allow this to happen, and how we can trust in him after going through such pain. Clearly, these are times when our hopes our tested. However, suffering also purifies hopes. Superficial hopes cannot hold up under suffering; only hopes that our deeply rooted can survive. And if those roots survive the test of suffering, then they are nearly indestructible.
However, I believe that the threat of satisfaction is far more dangerous to hope than suffering is. Satisfaction says that you don’t need hope; you can satisfy your desires in the present. Satisfaction is an exchange of future hope for present comfort. It is a temptation to forget what really needs fixing (i.e. the suffering in the world) and be content with moments of sensory happiness. Theologian Walter Brueggemann puts it well when he talks about satisfaction as the offer to “be so well off that pain is not noticed and we can eat our way around it.” In other words, satisfaction does not actually meet a need, but numbs us to the pain that the need causes. Our lives and our world are broken and in desperate need of God, but rather than hold on to hope (which is hard and doesn’t solve the present pain) we choose to be entertained, stimulated or numbed to survive. And here is unfortunately a dark irony to Christmas: what is supposed to be a celebration of the hope that God’s coming gave (and gives) to us is, for many in our culture, an exercise in “satisfaction.” That is, we strive to be happy for a few days with new toys, lots of food and drink, and entertainment. None of those things are bad in themselves, yet if they are not checked then they can quickly displace our real hopes. (And it should be pointed out that our economic system is built upon people choosing satisfaction in the present over long term hope . . . but that’s a long post!)
#3: Storytelling Community
So how do we keep our hopes alive in a world full of suffering and amidst the ever-present offers of satisfaction? In short, we must be part of a “storytelling community.” First, and perhaps most obviously, we cannot make this journey of hope alone. I’ve already made this point in previous blogs so I won’t belabor it. I’ll simply say this: when we are suffering we need others to support us as we cling to hope. And when we’re offered satisfaction daily (as we are!) then we need others to hold us accountable.
However, it’s not enough just to have “community.” The community cannot remind us of our hopes and hold us accountable if it does not have a better story to offer us. Our community therefore must know and repeat the stories of others who have walked the way of hope, and of God’s faithfulness to them, in order to show us why we persevere in suffering and reject satisfaction. Furthermore, it must know the promises of how the story ends (what we’ve been discussing) and work to live into those promises today, so that we can get a taste of where God is leading us and recognize that it is far better than what the world offers.
Today I have but one hard question for us to meditate on: how in our lives do we seek satisfaction instead of holding on to hope? I take it for granted that the vast majority of us (certainly including myself!) are making this exchange, and the first step to dealing with the problem is to name it. So… may you name these things with courage and in hope for something greater!