Robert's Letter for December / January
I am fairly certain I've said it before, well last month actually, but please bear with me. The simple fact is that late autumn is not my favourite time of year. As I write on a dreary, dull and drizzly day I can tell you that it makes me desire we were still in the warm bright days of summer. November is worse because the days are getting shorter and some days seem to have so little real light. Now December is here this is only eased by the knowledge that a little after the middle of the month we shall have turned the corner and the days will be getting longer. There is a sort of hope fulfilment at that point and the promise of lighter nights is slowly realised.
Of course December brings hope to the fore. There is still an excitement about preparing for Christmas. We are all big children after all and though it's not like it was when we were children, there is still much that we look forward to in joyful anticipation. Isn't that why we are taken in by all the adverts, why we want to get the decorations out as soon as possible? We say we're doing it for the little ones but truthfully we ourselves are trying to capture the magic of the season as well.
Then on into New Year, hope and aspiration strides forth into the beckoning future. Hopes and dreams abound. This year will be different; we'll put away all the drudge and decay and step forward into all that our hopes promise us. We are encouraged in this, no doubt, by the lengthening of the days and soon early promises of spring. Yes, we've got it all planned, it all lies open before us and yes, there's no stopping us now. The question is, are our hopes realistic?
The Bible talks about three things lasting forever. “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13v13). We talk about love a great deal and faith is not far behind, but I'm not sure that we talk a lot about hope. We might talk about the things we hope for but not very much about hope itself. It is though, a very important thing which we neglect at our peril.
The primary definition of hope in the dictionary is “a feeling of expectation and desire for something to happen.” It is also a matter of trust because as the writer to the Hebrews tells us, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11v1). So clearly hope gives rise to optimism and perhaps rather than being the least important of the three eternal qualities, it underpins them all. It is my belief that the normal natural way we are made means that we exhibit these qualities; there is a capacity in us all to be loving, believing and hopeful. Clearly this is born out proverbially, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” (Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man).
At the time of leaving Theological College I was required to read Leslie Newbigin's book, “The other side of 1984” a title chosen with George Orwell's book in mind. Newbigin had been a missionary in India from 1936. He referred to this in his book and how, when he returned to Britain in 1974, people had often asked him what the greatest difficulty he faced was in moving from India to England? His answer was “the disappearance of hope.” He comments that in India, despite often appalling conditions, there was always hope that circumstances would be improved but that in England it was difficult to find such hope, “apart from those whose lives are shaped by the Christian hope.”
I know that Newbigin wrote sometime ago, he died in 1998, but is there truth in what he says? I have not lived abroad but I know that in my visits to South Africa I've always been impressed by the sense of hope among the people I have shared with, which has not always been the case in Britain. In talking about hope with youngsters at JAM recently, it was hard to get from them any developed sense of hope for their future. Their focus seemed very much short term, like doing well in exams and such like.
I wonder if there is a problem here? I recall another occasion when Archbishop Kalistos Ware of the Orthodox Church came to Queens College to speak about The Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”). In the course of his lecture he said, “The loss of hope is the greatest sin.” Having worked in social work, I was fully aware of the truth of these words for many. The Bible also has a warning for us, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13v12) and perhaps worse; “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29v18 AV).
So then are you a person who has hope? If so, what is it that you hope for? Is it that your hope lies in the short term, holding on to what you have and celebrating the seasons as they pass but knowing you have to take the rough with the smooth. If so, Christmas will be a passing phase, as substantial as the glitter and gloss. New Year will come with fantastic dreams of great happenings that will begin to crumble the day after you make your resolutions. You might be better off than some, who in Garth Hewitt's words, “today is the only future for some for tomorrow is too far away”, but not much. Scripture again warns us '“Let us eat and drink” you say “for tomorrow we die!”' (Isaiah 22v13, 1 Corinthians 15v32).
Or maybe you share the Christian hope, one which we shall celebrate again this Christmas. In a strange way it does seem remarkably absurd that our hope lies in a baby. What can a baby do? Well not a lot really, one definition I've heard for a baby was “something that makes a lot of noise and smells at both ends”. On the other hand, the birth of every baby is the cause for celebration of new life and hope no matter what the circumstances. The birth of Jesus was full of problems and difficulties, but his life bears witness to a great hope. Jesus was revealed as Lord of life and presents us with this new sense of hope.
I suppose it depends where you take the story. Is it put away in boxes until the next Christmas season or do you travel with the baby and the journey that will bring us salvation? It is the whole life of Jesus that calls us into hope and perhaps principally by his defeat of death. Indeed the strange thing is that we take this hope into ourselves, “Christ in you, the Hope of Glory,” (Colossians 1v27) and so real is this hope that it becomes the source of stability in a world of difficulties. “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” (Hebrews 6v19...)
So look at the bigger picture, set your heart fully on the hope that God gives you in Jesus Christ. That child born in Bethlehem is the foundation stone of our hope. As we prepare to celebrate His birth, let the Advent season shape your thinking and look forward to the promised return of Jesus as Lord and Saviour. This is the great hope that sustains us in our pilgrimage of faith.
May the Lord richly bless you.