So, what do you hope for? Depending on how full you’re feeling at the moment, after our Christmas breakfast, you may be hoping for a blanket and a cozy spot to curl up and take a nap. Whatever we hope for, our capacity to anticipate something good on the horizon, to envision something positive coming our way is one of the unique and special gifts of the human mind and spirit. We are all familiar with the feeling of hope—for some people, it is a constant companion. We might feel it as a lifting in our chest, a lightening of the heart. Perhaps when we’re feeling hopeful it’s easier to hold our heads up, to look toward a future that feels a little brighter than it once did.
When we have that feeling of looking forward, hope can take on a shaping and guiding role in our lives, inspiring us to try new things, giving us the courage to reach toward a new goal. It also gives us the belief we need so that we can keep going when challenges and obstacles come.
Research shows that we tend to hope for similar things, whether we’re optimistic or pessimistic by nature. It doesn’t matter what our gender, ethnicity, faith background, or age may be. We all hope for improvements in our well-being—less pain, better health, stronger self-discipline. We hope for love in our lives; we hope to have basic necessities, so we don’t live under a cloud of worry or lack. We also hope for peace—on a global scale and on a personal one; we hope for connection with others; and we hope for the freedom to do what we choose and be who we are. We may hope for forgiveness or reconciliation with those who are dear to us. These are just a few examples and you no doubt have many of your own. In fact, asking yourself what you hope for and then sitting and listening for a few quiet moments can be a wonderful reflection. For me, the answer is encouraging and inspiring and always takes me back to my connection with God.
When the Old Testament scripture we heard this morning was written, the people of Israel were hoping for a way out of the mess they were in. They expected to be attacked any moment by the Assyrian army. Into their fear, Isaiah 9:6 offers a great promise of deliverance: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Even though it’s a great promise, it’s not what they were expecting. They were hoping for a great warrior king who would defend them from the Assyrian armies; instead, they were given a hopeful promise of a far-off transformation, a new Godly life, rightly ordered, that will bring about a new approach to living–a government from the inside out, bringing love and light into the world and doing away with the cause for war.
That’s what this promised newborn child would eventually bring—not a nation-scale flexing of kingly might and a far-reaching strategic offense, but an inward change of the heart and soul—person by person by person. This pure light of love born into the world would ultimately help people live in a way that brings and sows peace.
This reminds me of the story in George Fox’s Journal where the commissioners of the armed forces came to him, wanting to make him a captain in the Commonwealth army. Fox said, “I told them I knew whence all wars arose, even from the lusts, according to James’ doctrine; and that I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.” Fox was telling them he couldn’t accept the commission because the light of God in him had transformed any fight that remained. He sought only to live true to the highest order of love he understood.
I can’t imagine what the people of Israel must have thought of the answer they received when they hoped for immediate intervention. What they really wanted was a super-hero to swoop in and keep them safe from the approaching Assyrians. Instead, Isaiah offers a long-term hope, a baby will be born to you—a tiny baby, which means it would be a generation or more until he had the maturity to choose and lead and teach. Ultimately, Isaiah promises, this child will bring about a whole new government, a way of looking at and navigating and responding to life from the light of God within. It must have sounded like an awfully far-off hope when they first heard it.
Time and scale can both present challenges to our hope. When the thing we’re hoping for it too far off in the future, we run the risk of getting discouraged or giving up completely. Similarly, when the thing we’re hoping for seems too huge, we can overlook all positive, little steps we’re taking each day—the things that might encourage us–and instead we focus on how unlikely it seems that we’ll ever get to where we want to go. It just feels too far, and we’ve lost touch with our progress.
This week I had a counseling session with someone who, after a long period of grief following the loss of his wife, has just started to play his guitar again. She had bought him the guitar and always wanted to hear him play, and for many months after her death he couldn’t touch it at all. But just a few of weeks ago he started taking lessons again. And this week, he talked about how discouraged he was feeling—there are so many scales, so many chords to learn, it all felt overwhelming and impossible. I encouraged him to look not at his far-off goal of playing guitar like Eric Clapton but to celebrate his small daily efforts and the improvements he hearing each time he sat down to play. He lightened a bit at that idea and when we finished our conversation he said he was looking forward to practicing again.
Lucretia Mott, the great Quaker suffragette and abolitionist, wrote in her 1848 speech, The Law of Progress, about the risk of believing that a future hopeful outcome will somehow occur if we ourselves are not taking any steps to make it happen. She writes, “Let us no longer be blinded by the dim theology that only in the far-seeing vision discovers a millennium, when violence shall no more be heard in the land…but let us behold it now, nigh at the door lending faith and confidence to our hopes, assuring us that even we ourselves shall be instrumental in proclaiming liberty to the captive.” Her point is about the immediate energy and action of hope, the idea that our actions today make more real—and realized—the hopeful thing we seek. It is her version of Fox’s “Christ has come to teach his people himself.” The hopeful goal is not something in a distant, far-off, perhaps eternal realm. Hope is present now. It is ours to act on. Christ is present now, ours to welcome, and hear, and respond to. That realization is the starting point for everything else.
The strength of our belief in the thing we’re hoping for is an important factor that keeps us moving toward that better outcome, whatever it might be. I’m thinking here of our New Testament story of the archangel Gabriel coming to Mary for the first time, telling her she was favored by God. She was perplexed by what he said to her and wondered what kind of greeting that was. Mary didn’t know that Gabriel was also the angel who had visited both Daniel and Ezekiel in the days of the Old Testament and that he had visited her cousin Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, just a few months before to foretell the unexpected birth of their son, who would one day be John the Baptist.
Gabriel tells Mary not to be afraid and explains God’s plan of peace for the world through the baby boy that she will bear. We can hear her trying to make sense of this impossible thing. “How can this be?” she asks, and Gabriel answers her questions and encourages her by telling her that Elizabeth is also going to have a son—which is a miracle in itself. He ends their conversation by saying, “For no word of God will ever fail.” That’s a solid, hopeful promise when you’ve just been given a life-changing word from God.
That moment is pivotal for Mary, but we don’t hear any struggle or question in her heart about whether to accept the role or not. Her words are simple, clear, and full of belief: “I am the Lord’s servant,” she says. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”
From that moment, Mary’s acceptance of the angel’s words to her and her sense of hope in what they offered sets the new course of a life much different from the one she had been anticipating. Her hope—for God’s presence, for the birth of her son, for a more peaceful world was strengthened daily by a thousand hopeful touches: encouragement from Elizabeth, dedication from Joseph, awe from the shepherds, gifts from the Magi, and words of prayer and wonder from countless teachers, rabbis, and followers across the coming years. Her hope would carry her through this life and beyond, one step, one divine experience, at a time.
You’ve probably heard this simple, clear poem written by Emily Dickinson. It’s about the resilient and never-ending presence of hope:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
Perhaps we can remember—this Christmas, and beyond—that hope clears our eyes and lifts our hearts in this exact moment, whatever we face. It’s okay to look with anticipation toward some far-away, future goal, but the real transformation hope offers comes from realizing that God is truly with us in our circumstance, whatever it may be. With just a moment’s remembering of that idea, our hope is reborn, our energy refreshed, and we see with new light that we are closer than we knew to the hopeful thing we seek.
- Isaiah 9:6
- Luke 1: 26-38