Hope is a word we use all the time, yet its meaning is a bit elusive as is hope itself. I was recently thinking back of things I have hoped for over the years. There were the simple hopes, like Christmas coming sooner. The first Christmas hope I remember that came to fruition was a Tonka Firetruck (which I still have). As I reached adolescence, my hopes moved beyond firetrucks. I had hoped to be nominated to the Air Force Academy (which did happen) and to be selected (which didn’t happen).

Moving into my 20s, I hoped (beyond hopes) that I might be privileged with a beautiful wife (which certainly happened). As we raised a family, my hopes turned more external, more God-influenced. I hoped that our kids would grow into adulthood as Christ-followers (which has happened). With prayer at the center, that hope was accompanied by doing the hard work necessary to not screw it up. The wishful thinking of our younger years doesn’t serve us well in adulthood nor as Christ-followers, leaving us to wonder, “What is hope, anyway?”

The dictionary definition of hope suggests wishful thinking, a desire for something good to happen. While Biblical hope certainly includes a desire for something good to happen, it is much more than that. We discover that a variety of Hebrew words are often translated into the single English word “hope.” An aggregation of the various Hebrew words provides us with a description of hope that includes, “to trust in, wait for, look for, or desire something or someone; or to expect something beneficial in the future.”

Notice that Biblical hope implies trust. And the focus of that trust is Yahweh, the Lord God – on who he is and what he has done. We western Christians struggle to trust and hope in God simply for who he is. We tend to focus of our hope and trust on what he can do for us (here we think of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism). In Scripture, on the other hand, we see hope and trust focused on God himself…

  • Psalm 25:2-3 (NIV) – I trust in you; do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me.  No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame… The Hebrew word here implies not only hope and trust but also security.
  • Psalm 33:22 (a mix of ESV & AMP) – Let your steadfast love [hesed], O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope [placed our confidence] in you. Notice that trust (confidence) is placed on God and his character, his covenant love for his people.
  • Jeremiah 14:22 (AMP) – Are there any among the idols of the nations who can send rain?  Or can the heavens [of their own will] give showers?  Is it not You, O Lord our God?  Therefore we will wait and hope [confidently] in You, for You are the one who has made all these things [the heavens and the rain]. Again, the bracketed confidence implies trust.

Biblical hope also holds an element of waiting, which we see in the Amplified translation of Jeremiah 14:22, above. One of our go-to passages that speaks of waiting is Isaiah 40:31they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. The word ‘wait’ could easily be translated as hope. Read the passage with hope inserted: they who hope in the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. It comes to life!

The origin of the Hebrew term in the Isaiah passage suggests a twisting, stretching, and tension during the time of waiting and hoping. Ah, we do not want to hear that! We want hope to be positive, not twisting, stretching, or causing tension. We want a quick sprint that leads to soaring like eagles. We aren’t interested in a marathon. It doesn’t fit our western Christian thinking or culture.

But life has changed, hasn’t it? We are actually living out Isaiah 40:31. We may be in a marathon without an established finish line. We are experiencing twisting, stretching, and tension from all sides. And we wait in hope. Our ability to navigate these days is fully dependent on that which we place our hope as we wait. Are we hoping and waiting for this to get over, for improved circumstances? Or do we settle in for a marathon, placing our hope, trust, and confidence in the one true God as we wait?

Likely we waffle between the two and thus a cause of much tension. God is well aware of our waffling and wants to hold us, not scold us! I recall Jesus not scolding the father of a son desperately in need of healing: “The father of the boy cried out [with a desperate, piercing cry], saying, ‘I do believe [trust]; help [me overcome] my unbelief [lack of trust].'” (Mark 9:24) God, we believe! Help us in our unbelief!

We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit! (Romans 5:3-5, The Message)

Advent (or, Parousia)

This past Sunday, December 1, was the first Sunday of the Western Christian tradition of Advent.* My experience with the season of Advent is limited to more recent years of worshiping at churches with “mainline” denominational influence. Friends who worship in non-denominational settings are often less familiar with Advent and may not observe the tradition.

No matter our traditions, as a minimum most of us understand Advent to be a time of looking forward to and anticipating the birth of Christ. But how do we anticipate something that took place a couple thousand years ago? (This is the type of question typical of young people trying to reconcile tradition and present reality.) Therefore, it might be helpful to examine Advent in order to gain a better understanding the season and its value.

The dictionary defines “advent” as the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event (as in “the advent of cheesy Hallmark Christmas movies?”). The “Advent” of the Christian calendar is derived from the Latin word adventus which means “coming, arrival, or visit.” Scholars think adventus is a translation of the Greek word parousia. Parousia is a word that is usually connected to the second coming of Christ. At the Care Center where my mom resides, the Eucharist is celebrated during weekly chapel, administered by an Anglican priest. The Anglican words of institution are, “Christ has died, Christ is risen; Christ will come again. Parousia.

But this is the 21st century. How was parousia used a couple thousand years ago in the days leading up to Jesus’ birth? The Jewish historian, Josephus, sometimes used parousia when speaking of YHWH coming to rescue Israel. For many years prior to Jesus’ birth, the Israelites had been longing for YHWH’s intervention as they suffered under the domination of other empires, this time under Roman dominance. He was their hope – their scriptures (our Old Testament) were laced with longing and hope (some examples: Psalm 25, Psalm 42, Psalm 130, Isaiah 40, Lamentations 3).

Josephus wrote his Jewish history in Greek and thus the usage of parousia. However, Greek was not the language of the Israelites. Their scriptures were written in Hebrew. So, what did parousia mean in a non-Jewish, non-religious context? The term was used when a high ranking official made a visit to a subject state. If Queen Elizabeth were to visit that Falkland Islands, a British territory, the Falkland inhabitants would experience royal presence. The ancient Greek word for royal presence is parousia.

God must be frustrated with Christmas songs that sanitize and domesticate Jesus’ birth. I think of Away in the Manger, depicting a cute little, perfect baby who doesn’t even cry. What the shepherds witnessed that night in the manger was royal presence, parousia. And to be sure parousia had political implications! Emperors are usually not open to sharing their kingdom with others. The significance of parousia was not lost on the puppet king, Herod. When he discovered the possible whereabouts of the baby Jesus, he dispatched troops to slaughter baby boys, hoping to snuff out a potential rival.

We must remember that Christ has died and Christ has risen. And though we certainly look forward to a second coming, we don’t want to forget that he is alive and well on planet earth. The message of the early believers was that Jesus is King and Caesar is not. The message today is that Jesus is King and _________ is not (fill in the blank). We are blessed with royal presence. May we not take for granted parousia. May we learn to live as people in the presence of royalty! **

* The tradition of Eastern Orthodox Christians is the celebration of the 40-day Nativity Fast as they prepare for Christmas.

** Old Christmas hymn writers understood this. We can see references to the birth of a king in many of the familiar carols (e.g., Joy to the World, O Come All Ye Faithful, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear).