Any time I open up a magazine or newspaper that claims any religious affiliation, one thing I notice immediately is that the ads are very different than the ads in other publications. It’s not just the quality of the ads themselves, which are of a more, let’s say, variable quality, but just what those ads are advertising. The clothing ads in religious magazines seem to be from another time, sometime around A.D. 330. The ads for books tend to focus on what is in those books rather than what the cover art looks like. And then there are the travel ads. There are ads for trips to England and Portugal and even Moscow, much like other magazines. But most of the ads are for trips to the Holy Land. And religious travel ads don’t call trips trips; they call them pilgrimages, because on a trip you go somewhere to see something – on a pilgrimage, you go somewhere to live something.
This is the first weekend in Advent, which marks the end of one church year and the beginning of another, the end of one pilgrimage through the life of Christ and the beginning of another. Our pilgrimage begins, well, at the beginning, before the first Advent, the first coming of Christ. It’s hard for us to imagine a time before Jesus was known to us physically. But most of human history was played out before He walked the earth. Not that there was not hope of His coming: 750 years before that first Christmas Isaiah received the Word of the Lord, “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Isaiah was told of the improbable birth of a Son to a virgin, he was told of that Child’s wisdom and might, Isaiah was told to have, above all things, hope.
Hope. Former President Bill Clinton was lionized at the Democratic National Convention in 1992, when a short filmed called “The Man from Hope” was shown to the convention, a reference to his hometown of Hope, Arkansas. Whether or not you like Bill Clinton, you can’t do too much better than being the “Man from Hope.” We all want to have hope. Hope deferred makes the heart sick, King Solomon wrote, and in our present situation in our nation and in our church, so many of our hopes have been deferred. But what is hope? The skeptic or the shallow would say that hope is just wishful thinking, like hoping you will win the lottery or get that new Lexus for Christmas. But is there a different kind of hope? Or is hope really something else all together?
Hope, as the Bible understands it, is confident expectation of a future result, a firm assurance of something that has not yet come to pass. Hope rounds out the pair of faith and love; hope may even make it possible for sinful men to have faith and love. Hopelessness certainly leads to godlessness, violence, and despair. Knowing what hope is, that confident expectation, that assurance of things to come, is one thing. Knowing what we should hope for is another thing altogether.
St. Paul tells us that the Christian hope is the hope that creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. Isn’t that interesting, that the hope of the Christian is that all people, even all of creation, have something that we have already, at least in one sense, been given? If St. Paul is right, it means that Christians already enjoy the very thing that Isaiah longed for, we have already beheld the hope of history.
But history is not yet over, so hope continues, our pilgrimage continues. We wait patiently on the Lord Jesus as His Father waits patiently for us. If we were on a trip, it would be a long, strange trip. But instead we are on a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage through the life of Christ that begins with the hope of His first Advent and is fulfilled at His second Advent, that great Last Day. We are on a pilgrimage on which we not only see the wondrous things of God, but live them, hold them, even receive them bodily. Jesus told us in today’s Gospel that He will be coming back to us; that He is coming back to us to bring us the fulfillment of salvation, the fullness of that glorious freedom known only to the children of God. The pilgrimage to that great Day begins anew today. I hope you will join us.