What is hope?

I remember a friend — intelligent, thoughtful, deeply spiritual — who claimed that to hope was to be delusional. Hoping, to him, was a distraction, a pointless waste of time — like fantasizing. To hope was to be ‘faking it’, to be unreal, to be in denial of the harsh realities of life.

I begged to differ with him, especially as I would at this time of year — the Advent season — which is my favourite of all liturgical themes: waiting for the Lord, hoping, anticipating the ‘almost there but not yet’. During Advent, we commit to a kind of “imperfect fulfillment” (Richard Rohr) — this keeps us open to a future created by God, rather than ourselves.

My friend may nevertheless have a point to his objection about hope, if having hope means we demand satisfaction of one another — on our own terms. If having hope means we demand that our anxiety or troubles be taken away — on our own terms. If having hope means we demand a resolution and completion of history — on our own terms.

Our Christian faith has understood the ‘coming of the Lord Jesus’ in not just one, not even just two, but at least three ways: Not only is this time of year dedicated to waiting for the time at Christmas (December 25) when we celebrate that first coming of baby Jesus born into the historical world of 1st century Palestine over two thousand years ago; not only do we, at this time of year especially, and as many of the assigned scripture readings suggest — including the Gospel for today — the Second Coming of Jesus at the end of time. But we also affirm in Advent our faith in the living Jesus who comes to us NOW — today, every day, whenever we celebrate the Sacrament of the Table, whenever we greet another as if we were encountering Jesus in all our expressions of love, forgiveness and service.

Hoping, in this sense, is not just about yearning for a better future whose circumstances are easier, more comfortable and without the suffering of the present. The point of faith, hope and love is not to somehow realize an absence of the difficult challenges we may currently face; it is not daydreaming or fantasizing. But it is to recognize in the present moment, and in our very selves — ‘as is’ — the grace and divine Presence.

It is to live in patience and trust without closure, without resolution — and be content, even happy, because we know the one who makes all things right, in the end.

This experience of grace often comes as a gift, when we least expect it, when we aren’t ‘trying too hard’ and when we learn to accept in ourselves and in the world — today — all the paradoxes, inconsistencies and ambiguities of modern life.

Remember, what were some of Jesus’ last words spoken from the Cross? “It is finished” (John 19:30). It is completed. It is accomplished. In Jesus’ life, death and resurrection — all was accomplished that needed to be accomplished for all time — for our salvation, for our health and wholeness, for our eternal life.

It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Tag! Now, you’re it!” Our task, our vision, our dreams would be better served when we approach ‘moving forward’ from an attitude of abundance and “all-is-already-completed” rather than from an attitude of scarcity and “things-should-be-better-before-anything-good-can-happen”. After all, and the truth is: the problem has already been solved.

The lesson, I believe, from the Gospel today (Mark 13:24-27) comes from an image right in the centre of the text: Focus on the fig tree. As Jesus says, and whose question is implied: What will you focus on? Will you focus on the fear, uncertainty, the pain and the suffering which is so much a part of our lives? (which presumes that we are the masters of our own destiny) Or, will you focus on the tender branch of the fig tree, watching as it puts forth, in its own time, fresh, new leaves?

When we focus on the life around us — what is positive, what is good, what is growth and transformation and the NEW thing — then we will know, says Jesus, that summer is near, that God is near — right at the gates! God is already with us! Without needing to deny nor gloss over the “momentary affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Because the problem has already been solved.

Vivid images and visions in the bible — such as what we receive in today’s Gospel — are applied to new situations in our world today. The point is not to use these texts to predict specific events in the future. Rather, we look to see God’s mighty acts in the past as a way of understanding how we can respond to our present circumstances, dark as they may be (Lillian Daniel, “Feasting on the Word – Advent Companion”, eds. Bartlett & Taylor, WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.64).

This requires from us a different kind of waiting, rather than fantasizing or daydreaming about some utopia in the future. Some waiting is passive. But there is also active waiting. “A fisherman finds it burdensome to wait for spring to arrive because it is a passive waiting. Once he is fishing, however, he does not find it a burden to wait for the trout to rise to his fly because it is an active kind of waiting, full of expectation.

“At the pool of his favourite trout stream his waiting is filled with accomplishing all the many things he must do, all injected with an active sense of anticipation because he never knows when the trout may appear” (Martin Copenhaver, ibid., p.70-71). His focus is on each task he must do presently in the boat, in order to best position himself whenever the fish may bite.

Hope is for now. Right now. Not yesterday. Not tomorrow. The promise of God that undergirds this hope is not that all the problems will go away, down the line. Nor complaining about something that happened in the past, as if doing that would somehow distract us from taking responsibility for the present circumstances of our lives. This is the false hope of which, I believe, my friend spoke.

The promise of God to come again, and again, and again, is that we will grow to discover Jesus even though things may be going to hell all around us, even though we will suffer and die. The promise of God’s grace in Jesus coming into our hearts is that we will be able to recognize the Christ child in all of life’s troubling moments.

So, stop, and take a good look around you. Jesus is being born in your heart and in the world any time, soon.

This is true hope.

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About raspberryman

I am a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, serving a parish in Ottawa Ontario. I am a husband, father, and admirer of the Ottawa Valley. I enjoy beaches, sunsets and waterways. I like to write, reflect theologically and meditate in the Christian tradition.
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