When I was little, Christmas hope was all about the Christmas presents. Sure, I enjoyed singing the Christmas songs at church and I had heard Linus recite the true meaning of Christmas, but it was hard for anything else to outshine the hope that came with wrapped gifts and the arrival of Santa Claus.
One might think this is something we get over. That as we grow up we would understand and be moved by the more weighty significance of a celebration like Christmas. As adults shouldn’t we suddenly realize that possessions are just a temporary and short-lived source of joy? Or that even the best parties and family gatherings will soon be one more memory from the past.
But now I am not so sure. I still find it very easy to place my hope in lots of things that are temporary and fleeting. Seven or eight years ago I remember spending hours researching new TV’s to find the one with the best picture, features, and price. I probably spent an equal amount of time then convincing my wife as to why we needed a 46” HDTV with built-in apps when as she put it “our old TV was working just fine.” Of course now those seven or eight years later, that once-new TV in our living room hardly merits a second thought. It is treated more like a tool than a treasure these days. (And haven’t you seen the new curved 4K OLED’s at Best Buy? Sandi, I think I heard our two-year old asking Santa for one of those.)
And it certainly isn’t just objects that fade or let us down. We experience the decay of hope with every holiday, every highly anticipated vacation, every job change or promotion, and every election season. Most things don’t live up to our expectations, those that do eventually end or become routine.
Larry McMurtry explored this theme is his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel Lonesome Dove. At one point retired Texas Ranger Augustus McCrae considers his ne’er-do-well companion Jake Spoon who has become the idol of a younger cowboy and the promised deliverer of a young woman in town who longs for San Francisco. McCrae, contemplating all the expectations placed upon Jake’s shoulder’s thinks to himself “Jake is too leaky of a vessel to hold so much hope. But then, all vessels leak to some degree.”
And that about sums up our experience in this world. All vessels leak to some degree. No matter what we hope in, or plan for, or work for, it seems that everything will fall short of our ideal. I have been thinking about this quite a bit in connection to the violence experienced in so many parts of the world right now, and the subsequent debate on how to respond. No matter what we do, what laws we draw up, what restrictions we put in place, or what military actions we may take, we can never be sure. It is painful to realize, but there are no certainties.
Maybe those types of emotions are exactly what the seasons of Advent and Christmas are really all about – finding a reason for hope once again. It is striking to me that so much of our lives and decisions are based on probabilities. If I take this job it will likely give me satisfaction, if I invest my money for retirement in this way I should have enough to live on, if I buy this car I think it will last and do what I need.
But for the believer, Advent is not about probabilities, but promises. It is a chance to once again look into the promises of old and see how God for hundreds of years laid out a plan of salvation for his people. Then, Christmas is promises realized. It is the fulfilment of hope, and for those who saw this new savior there was no doubting that he was enough. Enough to right the wrongs of our world, enough to give peace to those longing, enough to provide forgiveness to the seemingly unforgivable. As Simeon said in the Temple, “now let thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation…”
Advent is also a season where we are reminded of promises yet to come. We know salvation is here and now, but we long for the great culmination, the grand finale, the day that God chooses to gather all things unto himself and let them loose again into a great new beginning. A new heaven and new earth free from the pain of sin.
Until then, as we hope in promises not-yet fulfilled, it can be hard to live in this broken world. In our dark days we may wonder if God really cares, and if so, then where is he now?
But thinking about that, I am reminded of an old married couple. Maybe you have been to a wedding or banquet where they invited all the couples out onto the floor. The DJ counts down the number of years… 20 years married, 40 years married, 60… and eventually there is only one couple left still dancing. On occasion, you can tell as they hold one another that they carry with them all the scars, pain, and challenges that many years will bring, yet they are still deeply in love. To hear them tell their story, their secret, they explain that it is not the good times that made them strong, but drawing together during the hardships of this life. Even in many other disappointments, deep hope comes from the promise of one another’s presence, always there, no matter what.
That is what we are promised. Even stronger than a wedding vow, our God has shown us time again that he is with us, that he is enough. The sort of hope that this inspires, in my experience, is not loud and boisterous like a child with presents on Christmas morning, but it is steady and it is certain. As Hebrews 11 tells us “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”