(photo credit: http://www.annieink.com/)
This year, my family and I are doing a Jesse tree for Advent. The Jesse tree begins with creation and works its way towards the birth of Christ. Typically, I hear this heralded as a way to teach the “true story of Christmas” in a very adversarial way. But the power of “the true story of Christmas” is one of hope. It chronicles the story of humans continually getting in their own way, and God continuing to redeem, restore, and move the story forward.
I need those reminders. Not only of the times in the Bible that God comes through for humans, but the times in my own life when God comes through. Because reminding myself of those times are what gives me hope. I look at the messes I have made, and the darkness I have experienced and I realize: I am still here. I am breathing. And those things have shaped me and move me forward. It gives me hope.
Hope is like a muscle. When we reflect on the times God came through, or was present in difficult times, or how God used difficult times to birth something new, our hope muscle gets a little stronger. Advent is a time where we build our hope muscle.
Hope is the crux of Advent. And just like there are two Advents we reflect on, there are two kinds of hope. There is the hope for the second coming – the hope of what is beyond this life. And there is the hope that is available here and now.
The first kind of hope is incredibly important. I have seen people close to death who look it right and the eye and say: I’m going to be just fine. This hope provides comfort when we lose loved ones. It provides comfort when we look at what a mess the world is and can do nothing but simply say: Lord, come quickly.
But sometimes we talk about hope only in terms of what comes after this life. What Advent teaches us is hope is also about this life. Hope is not detached from my day-in-day-out experience. Hope is available and present here and now.
Advent takes us through the stories leading up to Jesus’ birth, so Advent explores the time when we are waiting, hoping, and expecting something to happen, but it hasn’t happened yet. And since it hasn’t happened, we aren’t quite sure what it will look like. It is a time of mystery and uncertainty. But hope is found within the uncertainty. We know enough about the promise to be hopeful, but we haven’t yet arrived. In Advent, we wait and we reflect.
We want to jump through the uncertainty. We want to jump to Jesus’ birth, skim his life and the cross, and then go straight to the resurrection. But to do so misses some of the fundamental elements of the human experience. Advent asks us to slow down and not jump immediately to the incarnation. In Advent, we are asked to sit with an unwed, pregnant mother who has to travel during her last weeks of pregnancy, gives birth in a barn and whose homeland will soon have a genocide, forcing her and her family to become refugees.
In the dark moments, in my uncertainty and confusion, I am given hope. Hope that somehow, God is in this.
When I stop trying to force away all of my uncertainty, darkness, hurt, and confusion I am then able to accept it, and find out that God is right there with me. In fact, God never left. God has always been there, and wants to use this time to birth something new.
The problem is not that there is suffering, hurt, pain, and uncertainty in life. These are unavoidable, no matter how much of our lives we pour into trying to avoid them. The problem is the amount of power we give to them. When we give our hurt, doubt, confusion, and discomfort MORE power than is necessary, they begin to control us. They begin to be all we can see. Hope allows us to feel the pain and hurt and confusion, but without the overwhelming anxiety and despair that often accompanies it.
Hope is to live without closure or resolution, yet be content; to trust Jesus is here and working and moving and comforting.
But getting to this point is a process. The more we go through difficulty and we accept it rather than resist it, our hope muscle gets a little stronger. We begin to look for God in the darkness and confusion rather than run from it. But we need training to do this. Because, let’s be honest, when I am hurting, suffering and confused, a theological discussion on the nature of suffering doesn’t do me a lot of good.
Advent gives us the space to think about how God not only is in our discomfort and uncertainty, but to reflect on the ways God has shown up so many times before. Advent is training for the real experiences of life. It is building our hope muscle so when real uncertainty and confusion hit, I am better prepared to wait and to trust the process. Rather than spending our lives fighting against the uncertainty and confusion, we learn to sit in it and accept it, because it is there we find God.
In Advent, we hope because we trust that death leads to life. Which sounds crazy. But so does God coming to earth as a baby. So we trust the process, we wait, and we hope.