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.