“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.” – Isaiah 9.2
There are certain times in life where you hear a phrase spoken that makes you lean in. Maybe a friend shares something that catches your attention. Maybe a speaker hits you hard with a point you felt was directed right at you. It could even be when you’re watching Netflix and your reaction is “Oh, snap! This is about to get good!”
We lean in, but why? There is a sense of anticipation. You don’t want to miss what happens next. This prophecy from Isaiah does this for me. The entirety of the people of Israel were locked in this dismal way of doing things. The law was impossible to follow, and their only respite was offering sacrifices to push back the punishment of breaking said impossible law. King David even acknowledges this openly in a prayer before the entire nation.
“We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were all our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope.” – 1 Chronicles 29.15
He says, we have no true connection to you. We’re stuck walking around in the dark, just hoping to not stub our toes. It’s a hopeless situation. So when Isaiah comes along and says that the people walking in darkness will see a great light, that should cause the nation to lean in. What? Light is coming? There’s a way out? This is what we call hope.
The word most often translated “hope” in the bible is a Greek word, elpís. It simply means “to anticipate” or “welcome” (in the same way that a welcome mat at your door tells visitors “we’ve been expecting you”). An accurate translation of this word hope is “an expectation of what is certain”.
What was it that that Isaiah said was bringing hope? What was the light he referred to? Well, many of us are familiar with the next few verses. Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. The light- the hope- was Jesus.
Those in darkness, a light is coming. We have a promise from God. And we have an opportunity to wait with eager expectation knowing that this thing that has been promised will come. Therein is the certainty. Because for hope to have any chance of having a lasting effect, we have to understand that this isn’t wishful thinking that we’re talking about.
All too often, our “hopes” are little more than whimsical wishes from hearts that don’t fully understand the magnitude of the glory of God. Because of this, we replace true hope with superficial desires. I hope I get an A on this test. I hope I get a new iPhone. I hope I find a girlfriend/boyfriend. All decent desires? Certainly. But are they promises? No, and yet we get all bent out of shape when God doesn’t pull through. As if He is supposed to be bending the knee to us instead of the other way around.
This idea of hope- true hope- is one that I cling to fervently. You see, I struggle mightily with depression. It rears its ugly head from time to time, and it’s something I’ve had to deal with for over 20 years. From my perspective, there’s simply something off about this world. It’s not quite right. For Stranger Things fans, our current reality feels to me like the Upside Down. There’s a shadow hanging over the world. We all feel it. Few of us choose to acknowledge it. And there are many days where I feel like screaming from the top of my lungs, “Jesus there’s absolutely no reason for me to be here right now- just bring me home!”
Ultimately, that’s the issue for me. This world isn’t home. It’s a poor facsimile of something that can only be approximated. It’s biting into an apple knowing full well that the mixture of sweet and tang should flow in equal proportions from the cool, juicy flesh, but finding only dryness and something that tastes vaguely apple flavored. It’s an apple, I guess. But it’s not the real thing. This is the 24/7 world I experience. Nothing comes quite close enough to sate the appetite for the eternal- for something real.
And what happens to me then is that I begin to lose hope. I start to allow the darkness to consume me. Like David, my days on earth begin to be like a shadow. But I know my problem. It’s always the same.
My hope is no longer in things of value, but in attempting to make this world something that it’s not. This life is not heaven. The closest it will ever come is giving us the slightest hint of things to come. Paul puts it this way:
“Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.)” -Romans 8:20-25
Paul says that even creation is longing for the day when we can be free from this world. And that the Holy Spirit gives us just the slightest glimpse of what is to come. So then, in what do we find our hope? What is there to be in eager expectation of something that is certain to happen?
Here, Paul says we eagerly wait for the day that we are fully welcomed as the children of God, complete with our new bodies. Everywhere in the New Testament, we see that the emphasis is on the hope of something eternal. And it makes complete sense if you understand the context. Facing persecution from both the Jews and the Romans at this point, there was very little in the life of the early church believer that was worth holding onto. Persecuted, chased down, run out of town, houses and families burned, or forced into the gladiator arena. And that’s assuming you even stayed alive long enough to experience those things. In this life, there was absolutely no hope for many of them. And yet, there is this thread of excitement- of eager anticipation- in the things we see and hear from the early church. Is it in the birth or death of Jesus?
Well, no. Paul gives us the kicker- hope is not hope at all if it’s in something that has already happened or that we already have. Not a distinct point in history and factual event. There is no real hope in that. Scholars and historians, Christian or not, all agree that there was a man named Jesus, and that He was put to death on a cross. There’s nothing in there for me to hope for. And my hope can’t simply be in salvation, because that’s something I already have. My hope, then, must be in something I haven’t yet experienced. Or, more specifically, something that hasn’t yet occurred. So, what is it?
- To Titus, it was the hope of eternal life and Jesus appearing again in glory (Titus 1.2, 2.13, 3.7).
- To the Colossians, it was the confident hope of what God had reserved for them in heaven (Col 1.5).
- Paul says that his hope is in the resurrection of the dead and the fulfillment of God’s promise to his ancestors (Acts 23.6, 26.7).
- Jesus himself quotes Isaiah again by saying his own name would be the hope of all the world (Matt. 12.21).
If I want to experience true hope, it has to be in something promised, guaranteed, and yet to happen. My hope must be in the future promised to me of an eternal life in the presence of Jesus himself. And when I begin to look forward to the things promised, I find my outlook changes. The darkness subsides, and the light reigns. But I can’t allow myself to fall into the pit of forgetfulness. Paul tells the Romans that while we wait patiently for God’s promises to come true, the scriptures will give us hope and encouragement. (Romans 15.4) This is something I far too often forget. He says that doing this will invite the God of hope to “fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15.13)
This. This is what I want. Joy. Peace. To quiet my busy mind and be able to enjoy the blessings of this life while still eagerly anticipating the one to come. And to overflow with this hope- to have it bubbling over with abundance. It’s so hard, though, when I’m focused so much on myself and I fail to grasp the full picture. Jesus’ disciples experienced the same struggle after his death.
Dejected and devastated, some of them began to disperse after he was crucified. Two such disciples were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus, broken and sad. Jesus himself appears to them as they walk and he begins talking with them, asking why they were so sad. They reply, “You must be the only person in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard about all the things that have happened there the last few days.” If you’re looking for the definition of dramatic irony, here you go.
Oh, Jesus knew alright. He knew long before they did. He knew before the dawn of time what the plan was. But, lost in their sorrow, these men couldn’t even grasp the simple truth that their teacher and friend was walking right beside them. They continue, “We had hoped he was the Messiah who had come to rescue Israel. This all happened three days ago.” (Luke 24.21). Three days ago. Because depression focuses on the past. Hope screams “three days later”.
Imagine the sheer joy on their faces when Jesus finally reveals himself to them after all that discussion. See, the hope of even the name of Jesus is enough to shift the perspective from old to new, from past to future, and from death to life. Is such a hope even attainable? Peter seemed to think so.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” – 1 Peter. 1.3-4
Far too often, the one thing we can guarantee about the state of our individual “hope” is that it’s dead. We have none at all or feel like what little hope we had was killed by time, circumstances, or others. Maybe all three. But Peter says that our being born again provides us with a hope that is alive. What is our hope in? An inheritance that is being held just for each of us that can’t spoil or be destroyed. No matter what evil, terrible circumstances happen to us on this earth, this one thing can never be taken from us. It’s guaranteed. And that is something to rejoice in.
Which is why Peter goes on to say that this is why we are able to rejoice through persecution. That even the testing of our faith produces more honor and glory to the Father, and again, gives us reason to be hopeful. It’s in this vein that we later have the instruction from Peter that “if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it.” (1 Pet. 3.15)
People will not, as is usually mistakenly implied, ask about your faith outright. Faith is the acting out of what we believe. And people won’t ask about how much love you have or give. No, the thing that the world will notice is the overflow of hope you have. Faith addresses what you do. Love addresses how you do it. But hope- hope is why you do anything at all.
Do we act in a way that people see- and can even tangibly experience for themselves- the hope that is within us? Or do we have trouble finding the motivation to do much at all? Maybe we’ve lost sight of the hope of heaven. The hope of glory. The hope of salvation. This Christmas season, make it a point to refocus on the only thing of true value. Find your hope in the promise of an eternal future with an eternal savior, full of amazing gifts and delight and free from all the burdens and shadow of this world.
Step out of darkness and into the light.
“And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.” – 1 Cor. 15.19