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Hope and the Dark Background of Christmas

The theme of hope has been in the news recently.  In an interview outgoing First Lady Michelle Obama, lamenting what in her view is the loss of hope, said, “Hope is necessary.  It’s a necessary concept.”  Incoming President Donald Trump responded, “I’m telling you, we have tremendous hope.  And we have a tremendous promise and tremendous potential.”

Although both political figures rightly emphasize the importance of hope, they are terribly misguided about its nature.  The Christmas story in the Gospels reveals the true nature of hope and its power.

Citing Isaiah 40:3, Mark introduces his Gospel with John the Baptist who was “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (Mark 1:3).  The Lord, of course, is Jesus Christ, the savior of the world, but notice from where John proclaims his coming—“in the wilderness.”  Shortly thereafter Mark tells us the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan.  The wilderness or the desert alludes to Israel’s failure to trust God after the Exodus from Egypt.  Mark reminds all of us that hope comes in the midst of a world estranged from God and that cannot save itself.

The nativity narratives of Luke and Matthew vividly portray the dark background to the birth of Jesus.  Luke 2:1-8 informs us that the birth of Christ in Bethlehem came about because Caesar Augustus commanded that all the world be registered in order to pay taxes to support the Roman Empire.  In addition to this historical context of imperial oppression, Luke relates that Joseph and the pregnant Mary are forced to travel to Bethlehem for the registration and that there was no room for them in the inn.  As a result, Jesus spends his first nights in a manger.  We see that hope comes into a world of oppressive world powers and appears to be small and helpless against them.

Matthew’s narrative is even darker.  Probably a couple of years after the birth of Jesus, the wise men visit the holy family, worship Jesus, and give him gifts.  A beautiful story, but the dark background comes to the fore.  King Herod discovers that one is born who is to be king of the Jews.  In order to protect his power, he has all the male children under two in Bethlehem murdered.  Their mothers weep and will not be comforted.  Warned by a dream, the Holy Family has to flee to Egypt (Matthew 2).  Matthew will not allow us to be naïve concerning the world.  The powerful will commit any atrocity to maintain their power and those who suffer at their hands despair.  Is it any wonder that he includes Jesus’ haunting cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)?  Such is the strength of darkness that men can lose hope.  Even the Incarnate Son of God knew this.

So is the darkness stronger than the light?  Are all our hopes baseless?  The Christian faith responds with a resounding, “No!”  John asserts that in Christ “was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).

Nevertheless, we must understand clearly what hope is and what it is not.  It is not, Mrs. Obama, a concept.  Hope is a reality, indeed, a person, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).  To make hope into a concept is to trap it in human categories whose fatal political fruit are the oppressive and destructive forces of rigid utopian ideology, whether that of ancient Rome or any of the currently available poisons.

Nor, Mr. Trump, is hope about human potential, whether individual or national.  The gospel narratives all reveal that “men loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19).  Sadly, the human potential for evil is greater than for good.  We need hope to come from outside of us, even from outside our world, to deliver us from our wickedness.

What then is hope?  After telling the church at Rome that the whole creation is groaning in bondage to corruption, Paul writes, “Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24-25).  Hope pushes us beyond the visible and the present.  It does so because hope is based in the person of God and expresses faith in his promises through Jesus Christ.

God has not promised an end to suffering and oppression now.  He has promised it upon the return of Christ.  Such hope does not abandon us to despair in the present evil age; rather “we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2).  Furthermore this hope empowers us because we know “that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4).  The Christian hope is not an illusion either.  The risen Lord has conquered the powers of darkness; thus “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).

So while we do grieve that the prisoner has not yet been set free, the poor lack bread, the powers wreak havoc and destruction, we do not grieve as those without hope.  Therefore, Christians, in this Christmas season, year of our Lord 2016, I encourage you with the Apostle Paul’s words to remain “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” because God “gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:58).  Trust in him.  Merry Christmas!


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