Hope in Hard Places
Dr. Jim Denison
The Presbyterian lay minister Fred Rogers (“Mr. Rogers” to us) once quoted an anonymous scrawling on the bulletin board of the great Notre Dame cathedral in Paris: “The world tomorrow will belong to those who brought it the greatest hope.”
Counselors and psychologists have long known the truth of those words.
Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychologist and concentration camp survivor, documented the fact that those prisoners who believed in tomorrow best survived the horrors of today.
Survivors of POW camps in Vietnam reported that a compelling hope for the future was the primary force that kept many of them alive.
A mouse dropped in water will give up and drown in minutes. But if it is rescued, it will tread water for more than 20 hours the next time.
Austin pastor Gerald Mann saw his church grow from 60 to 4,000 in 14 years. His explanation: “I know three things people want when they come to church: they want help, they want home, and they want hope.”
Where do you have hope? It’s not a rhetorical question. What causes you to feel that your life has a future, a purpose, a reason to be? Do you have such a reason for hope? If you do, is it the right reason?
Avoid the dead ends of hope
I reread this week C. S. Lewis’s essay on “hope” in Mere Christianity, and it changed my sermon completely. Listen to this paragraph: “Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us…” (Mere Christianity 119).
We know there’s “something more” which has evaded us. What do we do about it?
Some of us live for tomorrow. We hope that the next job, the next girlfriend or boyfriend or spouse, or car or clothes or city will fill what is lacking. We put our hope in tomorrow, believing that it will somehow be better than today. But it never is.
So some of us settle for today. We give up our dreams of a better future, and settle into the present as we find it. We call ourselves “realists.” We decide that there is no such thing as real love, or purpose, or meaning in life. We’ll settle for what we can get with what we have.
And some of us escape the present. Medieval monastics retreated from the physical to concentrate on the spiritual. Simon Stylites lived nearly 40 years on the top of a pillar, 60 feet above the ground, refusing to come down. His example was widely applauded.
Others escape the present in less spiritual ways. Drug or alcohol abuse, sexual addictions, fixation on cults or the occult—anything to lessen the pain, the grief, the disappointment of hope abandoned.
In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Fantine is a young single mother without a job, a place to stay, or a way to support her child. If you’ve seen the musical, you’ll remember her haunting song, titled “I Dreamed a Dream:”
I had a dream in time gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving.
But her love has died, and she believes that her God is not forgiving. And so she ends,
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now from what it seemed
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.
Make earth like heaven
Perhaps not. Perhaps there’s a fourth option: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (v. 1). “Comfort” means to give hope and courage in the midst of despair. He repeats it twice for emphasis. Comfort “my people,” God’s creation made in his image, the Father’s children. “Says your God,” not a man but the King of the Kingdom.
Why? Because “her hard service has been completed.” “Hard service” refers to the punishment of imprisonment. The sins which led Judah into Babylonian captivity have now been punished, and she is released from slavery to return to her Promised Land. “Her sin has been paid for,” as has ours.
How? “A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert prepare the way for the Lord” (v. 3).
The one calling is the messenger sent to precede the king. In the ancient world, the visit of the Sovereign would require that all roads be improved, valleys filled in, mountains leveled, terrain cleared. “The red carpet” was rolled out. Then “the glory of the Lord” would be revealed.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all found this promise fulfilled when John the Baptizer announced the beginning of the public work of Jesus of Nazareth. And John even quoted the Baptist: “I am the voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord'” (John 1:23).
“Advent” is from the Latin for “to come.” At Jesus’ first “advent,” he kept God’s promise. His suffering death completed our hard service and paid for our sin. He brought us hope that our past could be forgotten and our future secured, that our lives could have meaning and joy again.
He brought us hope that our valleys of despair and discouragement will be raised up and leveled, that our mountains and hills of problems and pain will be made low, that our rough ground of hopelessness and loneliness will become level.
Because his name is Immanuel, “God with us,” there is hope in our hardest places, because there God is with us. He hurts with us, cries with us, comforts us, guides us, brings us through. In his will and word and worship, in his presence through prayer, in his Spirit’s power and encouragement, we find hope.
When will this hope be made complete? When “the glory of the Lord will be revealed” (v. 5). When Jesus returns. When the Second Advent comes. When life becomes life eternal, when earth becomes heaven, with night turns to day. When “there shall be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4). We have hope now, in the midst of our valleys and mountains, for God is with us. And we have hope for eternity, because one day time will be no more, and all will be glory.
In the meanwhile, as we wait between his first coming and his second, it is our work to live for heaven on earth. Listen to Lewis one last time: “…the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next…It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven, and you will get earth ‘thrown in’; aim at earth and you will get neither” (Mere Christianity 118).
Live for God’s glory on earth, and you will have all the help of heaven. Choose to meet the needs you find in God’s name and love, and you will have more opportunities than you can imagine. Turn your vocation, school, neighborhood, and family into your mission field where you will help people follow Jesus, and you will have more joy and satisfaction than earth can offer. Seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, and everything will be added to you (Matthew 6:33). This is the promise of God.
Don’t search for hope where it does not live. It is not in your next job or purchase or relationship. Don’t give up on hope for today, or seek to escape the present. Find your hope in the fact that the Child of Christmas never left the race he entered. His Spirit lives in you today. He will redeem every problem and pain you trust to him, level every valley and mountain you face, and guide you safely home. If your hope is in him.
Meanwhile, redeem this Advent season by living it for his Kingdom in heaven. Seek ways to share his hope, his joy, his help with the hurting and lonely hearts you meet. Ask God each day to make you his instrument of life-giving hope. Be John the Baptizer to your Jerusalem. Announce the coming of the Lord, until he returns. You will find no greater significance or joy than in giving the gift of Jesus, in this the season of his birth.
The Imitation of Christ, probably the most widely-read book in Christian history next to the Scriptures, was written by an unknown monk named Thomas from the town of Kempen, some seven centuries ago. His record of God’s word to him brings God’s word to us today:
“Do not be worn out by the labors which you have undertaken for My sake, and do not let tribulations ever cast you down. Instead, let My promise strengthen and comfort you under every circumstance. I am well able to reward you above all measure and degree. You shall not toil here long nor always be oppressed with griefs. A time will come when all labor and trouble will cease. Labor faithfully in My vineyard; I will be thy recompense. Life everlasting is worth all these conflicts, and greater than these….
“Lift your face therefore to heaven; behold I and all My saints with me—who in this world had great conflicts—are now comforted, now rejoicing, now secure, now at rest, and shall remain with Me everlastingly in the kingdom of My Father.”
As will we. This is the hope, and the promise, of God.