First Sunday of Advent: Hope

(This is part of a set of daily Advent meditations I'll be posting. They're going up a day early so that you can use them, if you wish, for private reflection in this season of anticipation and preparation.)

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.
-Isaiah 61:1-3

Early in the gospel of Luke, Jesus is right on the brink of His public ministry. He has been baptized by John, been tempted in the desert, and crossed back into the promised land, faithful in the wilderness where Israel had faltered. Already having a reputation as a holy man, the newly returned Jesus is invited to read at synagogue. This was the text that was handed to Him, with the expectation he might give it some clever exegesis. Instead he reads the words of the prophet, rolls the scroll back up, and simply announces, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21b)
You can imagine the (anachronistic) drop of the mic.

This first Sunday of advent, the church has traditionally reflected on the theme of hope. “Hope” is one of those words we like, full of pleasant connotations. Yet it should be a challenging word, because hope always comes with an object. What is the thing we are hoping in?

Scripture is full of warnings against false hopes. “The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue.” (Psalm 33:17) “Put no trust in extortion; set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, set not your heart on them.” (Psalm 62:10) Indeed, false teachers and prophets are often viewed as hope-peddlers. “Thus says the LORD of hosts: 'Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD.'” (Jeremiah 23:16)

The point of this first Sunday is not to teach us some abstract virtue, extolling the goodness of “hopefulness.” Hope is not an end in itself. Rather, the purpose of this Sunday is to take that desire we have for hope and to direct it toward Jesus Christ, where our true hope lies.

What these verses claim is remarkable, and for Jesus to apply them to Himself is practically unthinkable. He is not simply claiming to share Isaiah's hope. He is claiming to fulfill it. He is saying that He has come to bring deliverance to the poor, freedom to the imprisoned, a reckoning of justice for all that is wrong in the world, and a final comfort for the grieving and brokenhearted. More than that, He is saying that by being here, by reading these words, that is beginning to take place. Jesus has brought deliverance and freedom and justice and peace.

Of course, that fulfillment isn't all at once. We all know, as we look at the world, that those evils are still at work. Jesus has not yet finally destroyed them, but He has defeated them in His cross and resurrection. He is driving them back as His Spirit moves in our world. When He returns, they will finally be destroyed. The definitive work of salvation has already been done – we are now simply waiting for it to run its full course.

This hope is far greater than what can be offered by the vain things we instead put our trust in. How can money, the fluctuating values of imaginary transactions, bring ultimate deliverance? How can politicians, with all their squabbling and power-grubbing, bring true freedom? How can any man, bent of heart as we all are, bring final justice? We hope in things that can never pay the checks they're writing.

Yet perhaps this is why we look to them. Because the hope Jesus offers is so big that it also demands something of us. It's there at the end of Isaiah 61:3 – God is working this salvation in a way that is ultimately for His glory as well as our good. If Jesus Christ is the means through which all of this flows, that means we can't keep any glory for ourselves. We can look at our money and say, “We earned that.” We can look at our leaders and say, “We elected them.” But when we look at Jesus, we find a hope that came from beyond us. We confront a hope won by God alone. There is no place in such a hope for our pride.

The hope we need can only be secured by One who demands all the hope we have. By applying these words to Himself, Jesus requires something of His hearers. It's the reason the reject Him: because they cannot have the hope He offers without finding that hope in Him. The same is true of us: the call to hope is a call to come to Christ. A call to acknowledge Him alone as worthy. To give Him the glory and honor and praise.

As this demand is fulfilled, though – as we trust in Jesus – we can begin to find our hopes fulfilled as well. God is at work in the world. Jesus is on the move. That movement of redemption that Isaiah promised and that Jesus accomplished catches us all up in its flow until, at the end, we find fulfilled even greater things than we could begin to imagine.

It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss—
This is true: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life;
It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction—
This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly.
It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word, and that war and destruction rule forever—
This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, his name shall be called wonderful councilor, mighty God, the Everlasting, the Prince of peace.
It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world—
This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the world....
So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.

-Daniel Berrigan, Advent Credo