Jeremiah 29:11 – “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Today is the first Sunday in Advent. Advent begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve. Each Sunday is accompanied by a theme: usually, Hope, Peace, Joy, Love, preparation, faith, Prophets, Angels, Shepherds, and Magi. The order of these themes is dictated by our denomination. Despite how we were raised, there is no set order.
Although I was raised Presbyterian, Episcopalians and Lutherans use the order of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Catholics use that order, as well. Methodist use Peace, Hope, Joy, and Love. Some Baptists use Hope, Love, Joy, Peace, while others use the most common Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Since we are a non-denominational church, and not bound by anyone’s Advent protocol, I am going to use Hope, Peace, Love, and Joy, just to be the dissident that I am. So today we celebrate and focus on Hope.
I want to begin with a quick differentiation between faith and hope. Although the two words can be, and are used interchangeably, there is a difference. To be simple, faith refers to trust, and looks back into the past for a promise or dependable behavior. It sometimes is used in a sense of ‘loyalty.’ Hope looks forward in anticipation, and is sometimes used in the sense of ‘optimism.’ For instance, Mom promises to take little Billy to the zoo tomorrow. Little Billy believes he will get to the zoo because he has faith in his mother’s words and knows from experience that she can be trusted. At the same time, Billy is filled with irrepressible joy and bounces up and down in the hope of going to the zoo.
The two words are related. Hope is the earnest anticipation that comes with believing something good and is a confident expectation that naturally stems from faith. Hope is a peaceful assurance that something that hasn’t happened yet will indeed happen. Hope must involve something that is as yet unseen: “Hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have,” so we are asked in Romans 8:24.
Faith and hope are complementary. Faith is grounded in the reality of the past; hope is looking to the reality of the future. Without faith, there is no hope, and without hope there is no true faith. Christians are people of faith and hope. Titus 1:2 says: We have “the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time”. So although this first Sunday is about Hope, it also involves Faith.
I want to look at an aspect of hope that we don’t always recognize. Everything in this life is a risk, and we always have two choices: Take the risk and expect results or don’t take a risk and expect nothing. There comes a point in our lives when Spirit whispers to our hearts, “Stop procrastinating!” I don’t know if there is an idiom that says this, but there should be: Hope for the best and let God do the rest. God uses us when we are willing to get out of our comfort zone. He uses people who are willing to take risks.
But many times, when we say, “I’m hoping for the best,” we are really not looking forward with optimistic, positive anticipation, as the definition mandates. Often, we utter those words when we believe the opposite is going to happen. We pretend to put on a determined face, but our minds and hearts are anticipating horrible results. Although our words are whimpers of hope, we are really feeling despair, worry, concern, and fear.
We are all facing some kind of risk: either in relationships, family, business, job, a life decision, or a medical risk. Nearly every decision we make involves some level of risk. What we must be absolutely clear about is that God is always with us, no matter what we are facing, and Spirit is there to help. We will be called to step out in faith, and we must remember that God is bigger than any challenge. “I know the plans I have for you … plans to prosper you, help you, comfort you, guide you, give you hope and a future.”
Our ego is not our friend when it comes to risk. If we have much to gain with a risk, our ego will argue against the decision. If we have more to gain by not moving forward, our ego is there to prod us into action. “Oh, Patrick … just do that dangerous drug just once. Nothing is going to happen. Look, everyone else is doing it. It’s got to be OK.” “Just cheat on your taxes; go ahead. The amount of money you save is well worth the risk of getting audited.”
The ego is good at leveraging ‘risk versus benefit.’ But clearly, there is not much wisdom shared by the ego. On the other side of risk is Hope. Spirit whispers, “Patrick, just do your taxes with as much honesty and accuracy as you can. Whatever the balance due, pay it, and feel good about what you have done. Honesty builds abundant reserves of character, far more valuable than money.”
When we face this kind of decision, we must do what is right and hope that all things will work out for our benefit. And I mean ‘hope’, an optimistic anticipation of God’s Good coming our way. Hope for the best, and let God do the rest. We are told in Romans 8:24-25 - “For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.” “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God….”
It is easy to stay safe and avoid risk. Our ego will tell us, “You can’t get hurt if you avoid everyone. Don’t engage, stay a hermit. No one can hurt you then.” But behind those thoughts of fear come other thoughts: “Great things never come from comfort zones. Better an oops than a what-if.” When we recoil from risk, we miss out on witnessing the power of God moving through us. We miss out on seeing God at work. We miss out on blessings. If you think about it, it is riskier not to take risks.
Worrying and being afraid doesn’t change a thing; it just stops us from getting what we desire. One of the most painful things in this world is living with regret. You don’t want to say to yourself, “I wish I would have taken a chance.” We will never know if we never try.
Important to remember is that God accomplishes His work through us. We are important to God, just as God is important to us. Christ will guide us toward certain behaviors, people, circumstances, opportunities, and responsibilities. When Christ asks us to do something, let us look with hope toward the adventure. Christ is just using us, our hands, and hearts, and lives. We don’t need to wonder if we have the ‘right stuff.” If we have been asked or guided, then we are the one Christ needs, not anyone else. Face the test, hope for the best, let God do the rest.
Our hope in the season of Advent is to look with expectation and anticipation for the reawakening of Christ in our hearts, minds, and lives. Is it risky to change the way we think and behave, and step out of the common and into the uncommon? Yes. Is it risky to venture from our well-established habits and into the newness of Spirit? Yes. People may question us if we stop behaving like our ‘old self”. But if we keep reaching out, in courage, faith, and hope, to new relationships, new jobs, new circumstances, new opportunities, we will be making connections through our God-connected self. It is risky, even frightening. But when we don’t take risks we are settling for nothing; we have closed the door on the good plans God has in store.
Matthew 25:22-26 teaches this: “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So, I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So, you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?”
The servant did not act with hope, but fear, and the Master was angry. So, Patrick, are you saying that God wants us to just go out there and take risks?” And I say, “Well, yeah… kinda…” When it comes to taking risks, we can either lose or we can gain. There is a time to take a risk and there is a time not to take a risk. It is dangerous to try to force God to work in our activity instead of us being involved in His activity. The choices we make must be based in wisdom and discernment. Sometimes the risk that God tells us to make is protecting us from something in the future. Sometimes the risk is going to be beneficial to others. Always remember, God knows best. But if it is fear that is preventing us from making a choice, we must be suspicious that the ego is influencing us. Nelson Mandela recognized this when he said, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” It is better to go forward in hope and make a mess for God. He’ll clean it up.
Sure, risk can be daunting, even paralyzing. But as long as we are willing to move into prayer in search of the gentle nudges that it is God's will for us, and we know it will honor Him, God has our backs and He will turn great trials and risks into wonderful rewards. As Martin Luther King Jr. taught, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” He also said, “Carve a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.”
Proverbs 3:5-6 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
Perhaps Hebrews 13:6 says it best. "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What will man do to me?"
So, it is my prayer that we spend some time this week on developing hope – refusing to play the role of a hopeless victim, and instead, building hope in ourselves, our endeavors, and for our affairs. I pray that we create hope for our families and look expectantly toward the good things they will experience. Let us establish Hope for others we know and love, Hope for our nation and the world, and Hope for the blessings that the reborn Christ brings to us – the love, joy, peace, courage, strength, health, abundance, wisdom, discernment, and tolerance.