Just what makes that little old ant
Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant
Anyone knows an ant, can’t
Move a rubber tree plant
But he’s got high hopes
Over the next few weeks I’m posting some reflections on how we can prepare ourselves for Christmas. This week our topic is ‘Hope’.
Humanity needs hope.
To hope is to be confident that there is someone or something that can overcome the problems and futility of the world we live in and make it better. It is to believe that this is not all that there is but both that there is another world that could be – a world without cancer and crying, without heartache and lying, a world of peace and not war, where there is no famine and our hearts are content – and that there is someone who can bring that about. This is necessarily spiritual – it looks to something beyond us that can deliver us and heal us, that can save us from the darkness that lurks within each of us.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that the philosopher Friederich Nietzsche who rejected the idea of God warned us ‘do not believe those who speak to you of extra terrestrial hopes!’ only to then conclude that hope itself was ‘the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.’ In other words, we might as well despair, because there is no one coming to help – there is no answer to the problems we face.
As a Spurs fan I can sympathise with Nietzsche; it is the hope that kills you.
Christianity rejects Nietzsche’s counsel of despair completely as contrary both to our experience of the world and God’s revelation to us.
We are programmed to hope and when we do not, we suffer enormously.  We cannot help it. Yet if our hope is to be well-founded, if it is to escape wishful thinking and become a confident assurance of something to come, we need to understand what the problem is that we believe needs to be overcome and what we believe needs to be done to fix it.
The Absence of Hope
Christians understand that the problems we face flow from the distance between humanity and God.
The reading I suggested from Isaiah is an extended meditation on the corruption that follows naturally when we are distant from God and a plea that God come to his people to heal them. Isaiah’s prayer is stark in its honesty about the consequences of that distance and the position that Israel found herself in. It holds a mirror up to our own lives. They often faced cruelty from others and in turn showed cruelty to each other. To use the language of Jesus, they lived in a world in which people do not love one another as they love themselves; they did not seek the good of others in everything but instead uses and abused them.
I can only speak from my own experience but I think Isaiah’s description is basically true of all of us.
We are capable of good; yet we do not always do it.
There are times when we are selfless and sense a call to look beyond ourselves; yet there are times when we are cruel and selfish.
It can be tempting to think that the problem is with another group of other people (Tories or Socialists, bigots or liberals, Jane down the road or Tim at work), who are the bad ones while we are entirely without blame. I understand that temptation but Isaiah will not allow us to go there.
We are all, he says, stained by the actions, thoughts and attitudes we do and cannot help doing.
Even the good that we do is tinged with unrighteousness. You can think of this theologically – if we are not acting from trust in God and for his glory then we are by definition acting apart from him and for the glory of another. Or we can think about it economically – we live in a world in which every single one of us benefits from injustices and perpetuates those injustices and we cannot escape from them. Or we can think socially – how often do we do what is good in part because we want the respect and applause of others?
This sin flows from our being distant from God and has the effect of re-affirming and deepening that separation.
Isaiah uses the picture of a leaf that is broken off the branch by the wind. The leaf inevitably, naturally withers and dies when it is removed from the tree. When we cut ourselves off from God the consequence is that we too wilt – we don’t have what we need to carry on living and so we die both physically and spiritually.
Christmas is About Hope
There is only one thing that can provide legitimate hope in this situation. We cannot reach back to God. So Isaiah prays that God would come down from heaven and be reunited with his people.
Our hope is that God will not hold himself back forever but come to us. This is message of hope at Christmas: we cut ourselves off from God and yet God has chosen to come to us.
When God comes to dwell with his people, the corruption and death, the injustice and iniquity, that Isaiah laments and that is at the heart of much that causes us despair is changed. Where we were formerly cut off from the thing that gave us life, now we have been put back on. It is as if the tree stooped down and picked up its leaf, brown, curling and dying and reattached it.
The coming of Jesus at Christmas marks the beginning of God’s reversal of all that Isaiah laments and offers us hope that it will not always be like this.
- If God has come to us then we can be confident in the promise of life in the midst of death.
- If God has come to us then we can be confident in the promise of righteousness in the face of sin.
- If God has come to us then we can be confident in the promise of love in the midst of hate.
The birth of Jesus is the absolute proof of God’s determination and desire not to abandon us to corruption but rather redeem us and grant us life.
To put it another way, Christmas is the best, truest and firmest ground for hope that we can imagine because God has come to us. When we call the child Immanuel – God with us – we are saying ‘you, in all your weakness and helplessness – are the proof that God has not finished with this world and its people but still loves it and cares for it.
Our Final Hope
Christmas, then, is the foundation of our hope. But it is not hope’s completion. Christmas is not the final word on the story of God’s redemption of the world. This is what St Paul was referring to in the passage I suggested from Romans.
We have hope because Jesus came to us. Yet there is a sense in which the story is not complete. We long for more. We, along with all creation, long for the hope to be completed: for God and creation to dwell together fully and permanently, for every tear-stained eye to be dried and broken heart to be healed, for wars to cease and disease to be destroyed.
Christmas prompts us not just to look back at hope begun but to look forward to the time when hope is completed. Jesus came once to bring us hope and he will come again to complete it. Christian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, referred to this as eternal hope ‘which is never put to shame’ and means ‘at every moment always to hope all things’. It is to believe that anything and anyone, any situation and any problem, can be redeemed at the return of Christ.
Living as People of Hope
If this is true, then how can we live as people of hope?
First, let me ask if you have encountered Jesus and received the hope that he brings? To meet with God as a man is fundamentally to receive hope for the future if we will trust him and follow him. If you haven’t yet done that and you feel like you would like to then ask God to show himself to you this Christmas, resolve to trust him, to turn away from selfishness and sin, and to be baptised. You will receive the presence of God with you and in you and find a hope that cannot be taken away.
Second, even those of us who have already come to know Jesus can live as if we have not. I’m talking primarily about a sense of hopelessness. This is not what we are called to – we are called to live lives of hope.
Our lives should demonstrate that, however bad it seems, God is committed to our good, to redeeming us. Whatever situations we face, whether you are someone who despairs at the future of our country, or suffer unemployment or bereavement or frustration or failure, we should never lose hope.
Christians are not people of despair but of hope because we know the one person who can change the world, who can redeem our situations, who can keep us in any hardship. Who will even raise us from the dead.
This doesn’t mean that Christians will never suffer depression. I, myself, have gone through periods of depression and so have many of the great saints of history. When we do, we should recognise it and get help. But it does mean that our default position should not be cynical or negative, should not be harsh or hopeless. We should believe and trust that God will redeem and restore. This attitude of hope is cultivated through prayer, above all, and through fellowship and familiarity with Scripture.
Finally, we can then be people of hope for others. As we prepare for Christmas, we can resolve to be a cause of hope for others rather than for their despair. In our words and actions we can show them that the world can and will one day be redeemed by a God who loves it and came to be born as a part of it.
- Sunday 10th December, 10:30 am family worship.
- Sunday 17th December, 10:30 am, communion.
- Sunday 17th December, 5:30pm, family carol service.
- Sunday 24th December, 10:30am, communion.
- Sunday 24th December, 3:00pm, come and join in nativity.
- Monday 25th December, 10:00am, family Christmas celebration.
 High Hopes, Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, 1959.
 Thus Spake Zarathrustra, [1883-85] 2006: 6; and Human, All Too Human, 1878: s.71 cited in Bloeser, Claudia and Stahl, Titus, “Hope”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/hope/>
 Dr Stephen A. Diamond, ‘Clinical Despair: Science, Psychotherapy and Spirituality in the Treatment of Depression’ in Psychology Today, 4 March 2011 < https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evil-deeds/201103/clinical-despair-science-psychotherapy-and-spirituality-in-the-treatment > [accessed 30 November 2017]
 Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love  19995, p.260 and 249 cited in Bloeser,and Stahl.