Texts: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
It is hard, some days, to believe that this is true, but we still hope. We hope for a world in which the brokenhearted are bound up, in which the captives are released. We hope for the year of the LORD’s favor. We hope for a time when injustice and inequality will be no more, when peace will reign on earth, when love and mercy will outweigh hatred and conflict. That hope gives us strength; it helps us to be able to look beyond the terrors and troubles of our world to something bigger that God is doing, to something grander that God is bringing about. That hope invites us to imagine the great things that God has in store for us
Advent is God’s reminder to us of this promise. In the midst of all our busyness and preparation for the holidays, with all that is going on in the headlines, we step back from the voices pulling us in a million different directions to sit together to listen to the voice of God reminding us that this promise is true. The words of Isaiah and John the Baptist and others wash over us once again, calling us to patience, to hope, and to preparation.
This promise that God shares with us in Advent is special, because it not only tells us the truth of what God is doing, it also invites us into that truth. Isaiah proclaimed the restoration of Israel, and his hope in God’s deliverance caused others to join him in testifying to that hope. He foretold that they would raise up ruins and rebuild cities, and inspired by that hope they picked up shovels and got to work, dreaming of a day when their labor would be complete.
When John recognized that the Light of the World had come into the world, he testified to the light, and his testimony brought people in droves to be baptized while they waited for the promise to come true. In the same way, our hope in God’s approaching salvation incites us to be a part of it. The truth of God’s promise inspires us to imagine God’s restoration, and at the same time, that promise changes us; in hearing the truth, we become the truth of what God is doing in the world.
The end of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians is an example of how God’s truth changes us. 1st Thessalonians is probably the first letter of Paul that we have in the Bible, making it the oldest book of the New Testament. One of the primary reasons that prompted Paul to write this letter was the deep grief and anxiety felt by the church at Thessaloniki over the fact that members of their community were dying before Christ’s return. They believed that Jesus was due back any moment, and they were distraught that the dead might miss out on the new creation Jesus was going to establish. Paul reassures them that the dead in Christ will by no means be excluded from what God is going to do at Jesus’ return, and he follows up this reassurance with these final pieces of advice: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances…”
That might sound trite and empty to us, but, when Paul says “rejoice always,” he isn’t telling his listeners to deny the reality of their suffering and find the “silver linings.” He is encouraging them not to allow themselves to be broken by that suffering, to resist being overwhelmed by it so they can also recognize and celebrate the beauty and joy that they have as well and to continue to hope for and work for the fulfillment of God’s promise. When he says “give thanks in all circumstances,” he’s not telling them to be thankful for what hurts them, but to develop a capacity to recognize how God takes even our worst suffering and turns it around bring about new life and new hope through the power of resurrection.
In other words, Paul is encouraging the Thessalonians to recognize the truth—the truth of their grief and fear, but also the truth of their hope and joy. Life is both; to deny one or the other is to deceive ourselves into false hope or fatalistic misery. All around us there is a din of voices that are full of lies of both kinds as they distract us from the gospel; but this hope remains. In order to keep ourselves and our world focused on this hope, we have been invited to share this truth. We need to acknowledge the danger we are in and the damage we are doing to ourselves and others, but we are also reminded that Jesus is coming to make all things new.
During Advent, we take time to intentionally remember the truth of God’s promise. While stores and radio stations are already celebrating Christmas, we stubbornly wait for the holiday to come on its own time. We cultivate the patience and the preparation with which we must continually wait for the fulfillment of God’s promised reign. We remind one another—and ourselves—that, despite all evidence to the contrary, Jesus is about to return. In the face of doubts and hedging and second-guessing, we hold out hope for the promise of God that will change the whole world.
We hold onto this hope because we have already seen it at work. Jesus has already come into the world, bringing life and salvation. God has already begun to change this world, starting with us. The work is not yet finished, but we have this assurance that one day, it will be. Whatever else happens in the meantime, we can be assured of this.
This hope is contagious. Even as it promises a new future, it begins to bring about that future in and through us. Isaiah sees ruins and imagines a city; John looks for the light and testifies to it; the Thessalonians mourn their dead and wait for the resurrection. As we wait, and as we hope, we begin to see glimpses of God’s truth breaking through into our own.
We need this truth. It reminds us that what we can see and what is happening right now is not all there is: something greater is on the way; that someone greater is coming. Those who hoped for God’s promise, who believed in God’s truth, testified to it so that we might also have hope. As that hope inhabits and changes us, we, too, are invited to share that hope with the world around us, to remind God’s people that they have not been abandoned. The true light is still coming into the world. The devastations will be rebuilt, the ruined cities shall be repaired. The brokenhearted will be bound up and the captives released. The dead in Christ will be raised, and we have been called to testify to this hope. The one who calls us is faithful; the one who is coming into the world will do this.