Sun, Dec 02, 2018

Hoping for or Hoping in?


Christmas is nothing if not a time for tradition.

Indeed, without those traditions well, it’s just not Christmas!

Some of those traditions, however, make very little sense.

So many of us still tuck into our roast turkey with all of the trimmings––

and our plum pudding with custard––

even though it’s the middle of summer.

On one level, we sort of know why we do that.

There’s something deeply cultural about it;

something that goes to our roots and origins––

at least, for those of us from Anglo-Saxon backgrounds.

Of course, some people now opt for more sensible fare––

like fish on the barbecue or seafood.

And while that makes climactic and gastronomic sense, it begs the question, ‘why’?

What fundamental connection does that have with Christmas?

It’s a developing tradition that seemingly lacks any social, cultural, or religious roots…

or any sense of symbolism or significance.

And then there are other Christmas traditions that we maintain…

without always knowing why we do so.

Take, for example, the humble Christmas tree.

Notwithstanding the increasing prevalence of plastic imitations…

the origins of the Christmas tree probably stem from ancient roots––

evergreen trees being symbols of eternal life.

It’s more modern use stems from Germany, around the time of the Reformation.

According to one legend, it was Martin Luther who––

walking home one Christmas eve––

was taken with the beauty of the stars twinkling through the fir trees…

and wanted his children to appreciate that beauty.

So he brought a fir tree into his house…

and added candles to it––

in place of stars––

as a reminder that Jesus is the light of the world.

But how many people actually realise that?

How many people even think of that as they put up their trees?


Today, we begin the season of Advent.

For most of us, that means preparing for Christmas.

For most of us, this is when the busyness begins:

the get-togethers…

the card-writing…

the gift shopping…

the tree decorating…

the food stockpiling.

It’s a period of preparation and anticipation until––

at least for many of us––

we get to Christmas day… 

and, in effect, we look back––

we look back to earlier times, via inherited traditions;

we look back to the first Christmas and the birth of Jesus…

and all that it meant and all that it means.

But, historically speaking, that wasn’t always the case.

The Advent season was a time when early Christians remembered Jesus’ birth…

but as an anticipation of his coming to them again;

that is, as an anticipation of what has often been called the ‘Second Coming’.

And we see that reflected in the lectionary readings for Advent––

not least in this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians:

“May the Lord… so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”

This letter is the earliest document that we have within the New Testament.

And in it, Paul––

like many of his contemporaries––

expected that Jesus would return soon…

and certainly within his own life-time.

That hope…

that expectation…

was borne out of their experience––

an experience of suffering and stress.

The small church at Thessalonica endured oppression and persecution…

because they had chosen to follow Christ…

and turned their backs on the gods of their city and their nation.

As a result they would have been abused––

shunned by their family, neighbours, and friends;

their businesses would have been boycotted;

they would have suffered repeated threats,

if not actual physical violence.

Under those circumstances, it was, perhaps, understandable…

that they expected Jesus to return…

to vindicate them…

to set things right.

Their hope––

their expectation of his return––

was borne out of their suffering and stress.

It was also borne of a smaller, simpler world.

Of course, their hopes, their expectations, were not realised.

All of which constrains us, in the twenty-first century, to ask…

will Jesus come again?

And that begs a number of questions. 




Marcus Borg responds that: 

“It is difficult to imagine what it means to affirm that the second coming of Jesus will occur on a future date as an event in space and time”.

Because the more that we try to imagine it––

in its detail––

the more unimaginable that it becomes.

Rather, Borg suggests, when the earliest Christians affirmed that Jesus would come again…

“It was an expression of their conviction that what had begun in Jesus would be completed”.

In symbolic and mythological terms, it was simply a desire––

an affirmation––

that Jesus would complete what he had begun;

that God’s intention for creation would be fulfilled.

So often, however, the problem is that when we contemplate the future––

and when we speak of hope––

we confuse ends and means;

we confuse content and intent.

The problem is that we hopeforsomething, in particular…

rather than we hope in something.

Or, to put it more specifically––

we hope for something rather than hope in someone.

As the theologian, Jürgen Moltmann puts it: 

“Christian hope doesn’t talk about the future per seand all by itself, as an empty end towards which possible changes steer. It starts from a particular historical reality”.

That is, hope proceeds from the reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…

and it “announces the future of that reality”––

indeed, “the Christian doctrine of hope talks about Jesus Christ and his future”.


Hope, then, isn’t wishful thinking about some specific outcome.

Hope is living fully in the present…

embracing the struggles…

but seeing those struggles from the perspective of what is to come.

Hope is allowing the reality of the future to influence or to shape the present.

Hope is daring to see the future that God intends and striving to see it realised now.

Even more than that, as Moltmann asserts:

“Christian expectation of the future has nothing whatsoever to do with the end, whether it be the end of this life, the end of history, or the end of the world. Christian expectation is about the beginning: the beginning of true life, the beginning of God’s kingdom, and the beginning of the new creation of all things into their enduring form”.

Ultimately, that is what Advent points us towards.

Advent points us towards new life…

new beginnings…

a new world.

Advent points us towards the future consummation of all things;

the completion of the work that began in Jesus Christ;

the renewal and restoration of the whole creation;

the coming reign of God’s peace, justice, love and joy.

Advent calls us to allow the reality of God’s future to shape our present.

Advent calls us to realise God’s future–– 

here and now.

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