The Hope of Advent
The Hope of Advent
Hope has become a holiday buzzword. Tis the season of hope. Kids are hoping for all the toys they’re seeing on commercials. You’re hoping that your family gathering doesn’t get too awkward when uncle so-and-so starts talking politics. Maybe this has been a rough year, emotionally, financially, physically, and you’re hoping that 2019 will be different. We hope all year long, and I don't know if it’s because the word hope is used so frequently during this season, but for some reason we seem to stop and contemplate hope more this time of year.
Hope is something that is inherently human. Every human who’s ever lived has clung to something. Every religion has their version of eternal life that fuels their piety. Even the atheistic naturalist hopes for a better world for future generations when they’re dead and gone.
As we begin a new church year and the celebration of advent together, we always begin with hope. Advent is a season of anticipation. We annually train our hearts to anticipate, long for, the adventus, the coming, of the Lord Jesus Christ. And that longing is synonymous with hope. As Christians we believe that hope is temporal. Hope did not always exist and it won’t last forever. Hope is a gift that God gives us now as we wait.
There was a time when hope did not exist. The Bible tells us that God created all things and that his creation was very good (Gen 1.31). Adam and Eve lived in the garden and walked in sinless submission to their creator. There was no hope in the beginning for there was nothing to hope for. The Bible also tells us that hope wont last forever. A day will come when the entire world will be set to rights and everything sad will be untrue. In that day there will be nothing to hope for, for hope will be realized. Hope has an expiration date.
But we live in the time of hope. Ever since Adam sinned in the garden, eating of the tree, we have needed hope. And hope is what God gave us. He promised Adam that he would right the wrong of Adam’s sin. In Genesis 3.15 God promised that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. He promised the first man that there would be a second man; he gave him hope. Since that day God’s people have held out hope. The story of God’s people throughout the OT is a story of longing and anticipation; it’s a story of hope. As Israel made sacrifice after sacrifice, their hope was that one day the sacrifices would end. As Israel was exiled from the Promised Land, their hope was that they would one day have final rest. After the temple was destroyed, their hope was that one day God would dwell with them.
The longing and anticipation that God’s people have always felt is summarized in our text this morning. Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. Since the garden, humanity has felt a collective sickness of heart. We were created to be right with God and we have fallen short. This heart sickness is vividly described in Psalm 13. Listen to these words:
To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David.
1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
5 But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
How long O Lord? That’s where we find ourselves this morning. That is the question we force upon ourselves every advent season.
For thousands of years the people of God lived with sick hearts, but the first advent changed everything. The incarnation is when hope arrived in person. Jesus Christ is the desire fulfilled. He is our desire because we were created to desire him. God made us in such a way that we only find our greatest satisfaction in Christ. Because we’re all born in sin, we all have this inherent hope. We all long for wholeness or completeness. We long for meaning and peace. This hope is only satisfied in Christ. He is our desire fulfilled. The Lutheran hymnal has a version of “O Come Emmanuel” that has a verse that goes like this:
“Oh, come, Desire of nations bind in one the hearts of all mankind; Oh, bid our sad divisions cease, and be yourself our King of Peace. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel!”
Jesus is not only our desire, but he is a tree of life. This language is all too familiar to us. The tree of life evokes images of Eden where things were so right, but then went so wrong. The tree of life stood in the middle of the garden next to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This is the tree that was prohibited. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that these two trees represented the center of man’s existence – life and limit. In order to live in right relationship with God we must recognize that he gives us life, and he gives us limit. Adam sinned when he trespassed his limit. And when the first man was sent east of Eden he was cut off from the tree of life (Gen 3.22). This was God’s grace because he didn’t want his people to live forever in their sin.
So when the Bible says that our desire fulfilled is a tree of life he’s saying that we will again have Emmanuel, God with us. It is a promise that God will dwell with us again. When our desire – hope – is fulfilled it will bring us back to the tree of life. The second Adam will bring us back into the garden.
This is what happened on that first Christmas night all those years ago. When the baby was born of the virgin. It was the advent of hope. He was coming to fulfill our desire, to bring us back to the tree of life. Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. Jesus didn’t come to give you everything you want. He didn’t come to take away illness, physical suffering, poverty; he didn’t come to make you rich, or to guarantee that you’ll never have a bad day. Jesus did come to fulfill the desire, that heart sickness that we have because of our sin. Jesus lived, died, and resurrected so that we could be brought back to God. We believe in the forgiveness of sins.
The church historically spoke of three senses of advent. The first is that which I just mentioned, the first coming of the Lord Jesus. He came to live righteousness and die for sin. He came to resurrect and inaugurate the new creation. The third sense of advent is that which we anticipate now. It’s the heart sickness that we feel as our final hope is deferred. We eagerly await the day when Jesus will return to make all things new. This will be the final advent. When Jesus returns, it will be the end of hope. We will not have to defer our hope because he will be with us in person. Satan, sin, and death will be no more. Look at Revelation 22.1-5:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
But the church has always spoken of one more sense of advent – Adventus sanctificationis: the presence of Christ in Word and sacrament. This morning Christ comes to us in the Word and at the table. As the gospel is preached and remembered, the Spirit uses these means of grace to sanctify the church and redeem the lost. Maybe you’re here this morning and this is the first time anyone has ever put words to the heart sickness you feel. You’ve got that innately human desire to be whole; to have peace, but you didn’t know how to reconcile it. Come to Jesus. Transfer your trust to the Son of God who took on flesh for you. In Christ alone will the desire of your heart be fulfilled. He alone is the tree of life; he is the life and limit that God has given us. He is our hope.
Advent and Christmas begin every church year, but they do not exist in and of themselves. The baby in the manger elicits rejoicing from angels not simply because he was born, but because he was born to die. Tim Keller says, “Easter proves that Xmas was real.” Adam had the tree of life and sinned, but Jesus goes to the tree of death without sin. Jesus took our heart sickness on himself as he hung on the tree. Jesus fulfilled the desire of God, not my will, but yours be done. As we enter this advent season, whether you’re in a season of rejoicing or suffering, as you live with a sick heart, let us remember, Jesus came to save us from our sins, Jesus is coming again to make all things new, and Jesus comes every week in the Word and sacrament. As the great advent hymn declares, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”