Texts: Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36
“Hope” is one of those funny words. In our common usage, it most often means something we’d like to see happen but don’t expect, like “I hope the rain holds off until I can get to my car.” Or we use it for things that are of little consequence, like “I hope you have a good day.” Frequently, the word “hope” can be accompanied by a sense of futility and helplessness, like “I hope the tumor is benign” or “I hope surgery goes well.” In most cases, when we use the word “hope” we could just as easily substitute the word “wish:” “I wish the rain would stop,” “I wish you a good day,” “I wish the prognosis were better.”
So to help illustrate, here’s a little story about a church in a city called Thessaloniki. Thessaloniki is a large city in the region of Macedonia; the next stop for Paul and Silas on their missionary journey after Philippi. When they arrived, they went to the synagogue and started preaching and, in time, had a small congregation of some Jews but mostly Gentiles.
The other members of the synagogue, however, were quite upset with Paul and Silas and their message, and gathered a large mob. They set the whole city in an uproar and dragged members of the congregation before the authorities, accusing Paul and Silas of sowing chaos and even treason against the emperor.
It got so bad that the church in Thessaloniki had to sneak Paul and Silas out of the city in the middle of the night. They went on to a town called Berea, but when they heard that he was there, the Jews from Thessaloniki followed them and stirred up another mob, so that the Bereans had to sneak Paul out of Berea, as well. (Acts 17)
Because Paul had to leave before he was ready, he had no idea how the church in Thessaloniki would fare without him. With so much animosity towards Paul and his message, and with the social pressure from their peers to conform to the old Greek and Roman ways they were used to, Paul probably expected the congregation to fall apart and dissolve. Everything he had been working to give them—the stories, the rituals, and the community—were all new to the mostly Gentile congregation. How long would it take for them to decide that life was easier before Paul and Silas showed up, to go back to their old habits and idols?
Paul tried several times to return to Thessaloniki with no success. His ongoing travels, distance, and the animosity of the local authorities all kept Paul from coming back. Months turned into years with no news of what had become of that burgeoning Christian community. He worried about them as a mother might worry about her son stationed in a war zone across the globe.
This is the reason for the intense joy Paul expresses in his letter to the Thessalonians. He is surprised and delighted to find the church still alive and even thriving. The success of this half-formed community, isolated as it was and under pressure from all sides, has given him hope. When Paul had begun, he was the teacher and they were the students; now they are now teaching him through their witness about the work that God has given him to do. Their success is a reminder to Paul—and to us—that though we may plant the seeds, it is God who makes them to grow.
And so, in his letter, Paul offers them a vision of hope, as well. He writes about how dearly he hopes to see them again. This is not a statement of wish, but of commitment; that he is going to keep doing whatever he can to return to them. He knows that he may not be successful, but that will not dissuade him because he knows that, if nothing else, they will be reunited “at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” His prediction is not just about Paul’s hope to see his friends again, it a promise to the Thessalonians that, even in their isolation and in the midst of their persecution, they are not alone; that the days are surely coming when they will be gathered with the whole Church on earth and in heaven to witness the return of Christ.
Paul’s letter gives us a sense of what Christian hope is and what it means for us. It’s not an excuse to sit on our hands or a cheap cliché to take our minds off of whatever frightens or worries us. Instead, hope is what keeps us going, what encourages and strengthens us for the tasks ahead of us. Karl Marx famously called religion, “the opiate of the masses.” I can only assume that when he said that, he was imagining people enveloped in the kind of hazy stupor of an opium den. He saw religion as means of keeping people docile and obedient with visions of some post-mortem reward.
I actually believe Marx is correct in calling religion the “opiate of the masses,” but for a different reason. Rather than the opium smoked in flophouses or the narcotics to which people become addicted, religion is like the morphine in a wilderness first aid kit. Imagine you’re hiking alone in the mountains when you fall and break your ankle. It hurts too much to move, but you know if you stay put, you’ll die. You also know that if you can make it back to civilization, you can get home and get treatment. The little syringe of morphine allows you to work through the pain to splint the injury and hike out to safety. That’s what religion—what Christian hope—offers us: not an imaginary escape from the injustice of the world, but the ability to move forward through that pain to a better future.
If all our hope is only the anemic kind of wish-making that Marx thought it to be, then it really is little more than opium, a malicious fallacy to distract us from what is happening around us. But if our hope is not in what happens after we escape this world, if our hope is instead in what God is still doing in and for this world, then it is true Christian hope—hope that allows us to stare down the powers and principalities of this world, the forces of evil and injustice, even death itself and to move boldly forward towards God’s promised vision of the healing of all creation.
This is the hope to which we are directed in Advent. In this season of waiting and preparation we are oriented once again towards the promised coming of Christ to establish peace and justice in the world. This is our hope: that Jesus will come again. It is not a feeble wish that we do not actually expect to be fulfilled; it is a hope that is profound and intense, a hope that is tangible. We hope with a hope that we can see and smell and taste; with a hope that is sweet and fluffy, a hope that warms our throats and our hearts, a hope that fills our mouths and our stomachs, a hope that sticks to our ribs, that fills us up and gives us strength for our journey. Christian hope cannot be scared off by disaster or tribulation; it cannot be snuffed out by persecution; it cannot be contained by a stone tomb. Our hope is alive. Our hope is active. Our hope is for the days that are surely coming when God will fulfill the promise to bring peace and justice on the earth.