This newsletter is adapted from an advent sermon I preached last Sunday.
At Chico State, one of our most popular classes is The End of The World. It’s not hard to understand why. Students sense that today—at a very intuitive level—we are teetering on the brink. They see a political environment that is divided and toxic and that we who are older have left a planet that is choked by years of pollution and misuse. It can seem hopeless.
But I don’t think it’s just my students. If there’s one thing that I sense we’re missing as 2022 comes to a close, it’s this: hope. We are facing problems that we can’t fix, and we’re not sure we’re up to the task. We live in a hopeless time.
For Advent—a time dedicated to waiting for the birth of Jesus—Isaiah 9 is a great read. It’s spoken to a people who were lacking hope, much like we are today. And right in the midst comes this inbreaking of the good news. Here’s a key verse:
“For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders,
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6, NRSVUE
The Hope We Need
Isaiah 9 leads us to a particular kind of hope, and I can tell you what it’s not. It’s not unmoored optimism, a kind of “hope in hope” that repeats, “Every day—with hard enough work and a good attitude—things will get better and better.”
It’s also not the way we use the word when we really mean “I wish.” If I said to you, “I hope the 49ers win the Super Bowl this year,” that may or may not be true, but it’s something I’d like to happen. In fact, we wish for things that have a fairly low probability of occurring. A recent article offered this assessment as I pondered this wish, “The 49ers currently have the sixth-best odds to win the Super Bowl at 5.8 percent.” That is not the kind of hope I mean or the Bible points us toward.
Instead, we need hope grounded in God. I’m willing to call it theological hope. It’s the conviction that God is active when we don’t see it. It’s the promise that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 NIV).
Research on Hope
I wanted to see what psychological research finds and whether it does us good. In an article outlining various forms of hope (“What is Hope?”), one definition gets closest to theological hope: transcendent hope, which is “a stance of general hopefulness not tied to a specific outcome or goal; put simply, it is the hope that something good can happen.”
This survey of the research then lists some benefits of having hope. I’ll highlight three.
First, “individuals with high hope are more likely to view stressful situations as challenging rather than threatening, thereby reducing the intensity and hindering the proliferation of stress.”
Second, “Hope is a motivational factor that helps initiate and sustain action toward long-term goals, including the flexible management of obstacles that get in the way of goal attainment. High-hope individuals can conceptualize their goals clearly, establishing goals based on their own previous performances. In this way, hopeful individuals have greater control over how they will pursue goals and are intrinsically motivated to find multiple pathways to successful goal attainment.”
Third, simply put, “Hope is positively related to overall life satisfaction.”
We see that science tells us hope is good for us. It reminds us we are created to live hopeful lives.
But it strikes me that there’s one thing missing. We can’t just hope in hope (something that’s a characteristic American trait). Hope needs to be grounded, and that’s what makes theological hope so powerful.
- For the gradient of differences between hope and optimism, see this.
- Here’s a video of the sermon.
- This collection of articles and video offers insights into hope and optimism.
- Orbiter has a complete page on the topic of hope and optimism.
- Drew wrote on the science behind all this in “Hopeful Salutations“.
- Here’s an essay I wrote for the Huffington Post on the “awareness of divinity,” which could offer some tidbits for a sermon or an adult ed class.
What Our Hearts Long For
It seems that there are key aspects of Israel’s hope identified in Isaiah 9.
Eight centuries before Jesus was born, the Jewish people were longing for a king. This is what influential and insightful New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright states so brilliantly about Jesus in How God Became King. The longing for a great leader is ultimately fulfilled when God comes to us and establishes an everlasting kingdom.
As humans, we long for the nearness of God. As Matthew 1:18 refers to another text from Isaiah (7:14), “Look, the virgin shall become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” The very idea of the nearness of God is contained in this name Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” It is beautifully expressed in Augustine’s celebrated opening prayer from Confessions early in the fifth century, “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” It is carried forward through John Calvin, who spoke of the “awareness of divinity.”
God is with us—that’s the ground of theological hope.
I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating: in his book Cognitive Science, Justin Barrett uses the cognitive science of religion to argue that evolution has formed human beings so that we implicitly see purposes in events. In other words, we are predisposed toward teleology. “Evidence exists that people are prone to see the world as purposeful and intentionally ordered.” We are created with openness and a longing that there is a God present with us, guiding our lives and even human history.
This is the promise of Emmanuel, God with us, the essence of our great Advent hope.
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
Both Scripture and science concur that we are created for hope. As Christians, we have faith that God has come to this earth in Jesus (John 1:14) fulfilling our deepest longing. Since this is an Advent message, I do want to close by naming that there is a “now and not yet” in our hope. We have longing that a great Advent hymn says so beautifully:
“O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high,
And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.”
In this season, we sing, we pray, and we wait. We find hope, grounded in God’s goodness, that God is with us and that God is working toward the good. That hope sustains us even in a hopeless time.
May it be so. Amen.