Maybe it’s because hope can be such a fragile thing, sort of a “when you wish upon a star” kind of activity. It doesn’t require any active investment, any doing–certainly nothing difficult or, God forbid, sacrificial. It’s something like a vapor or a cloud that kind of, sort of looks like something else, if you look at it in just the right way. But of course with clouds it doesn’t last very long and those fleeting images are pretty much confined to the eye of the beholder.
Yet Paul, in writing to the Romans, emphasized “hope” in the way he connected God and Jesus Christ and the Gentiles along with the Jews:
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
The God of Hope. May we abound in hope. That’s certainly not a “don’t get your hopes up” kind of talk, now is it. We’re into the second week of Advent, which is not merely the “pre-Christmas season,” that month-long period when lights are hung on trees and, often, on the outside of houses. When church choirs schedule extra practices to get ready for the big day. (And for one week let’s just skip any talk about retail and online bargains.) Advent focuses on peace, hope, joy, and love. It’s really all quite preposterous, considering the condition of our society, our nation, and our world right now.
Advent hope is about God coming, and therefore we’re challenged to rediscover hope as a sure and certain foundation for our lives. For Paul and Isaiah and the Gospel writers, a hope that begins with God is indeed a certainty. But we live in an era marked by instant gratification, and that’s a problem for us because hope, at least this kind of God-connected hope, requires incompleteness. That kind of hope means to live with the certainty of unfulfilled desire. In Jesus Christ God is coming–in that is both the joy and the challenge of Advent.
Isaiah “saw” the coming of God, too, but not with eyes or ears or any other human sense. Chapter 11 is one in a series of chapters in which the prophet vacillates between the “mountain of hopeful expectation” and the “valley of judgmental despair.” Here in this week’s lectionary passage we get some fantastic, perhaps even surreal, imagery: wolves and lambs, leopards and baby goats, lions and calves–all with a little child leading them–and everybody and everything dwelling in peace. My cynical side is still thinking, “Well, don’t get your hopes up. That’s just impossible.”
Woody Allen probably spoke for us all (at least our inner, unrestrained selves) when he famously said that the lion and lamb may indeed lie down together but it’s doubtful the lamb will get much sleep. If nothing else it makes me wonder if Isaiah might have been crazy or sarcastic or whimsical. Certainly the imagery he presented was not something from the world we inhabit.
In any event, Isaiah’s hope is quite outrageous. It’s directly connected to the concept of righteousness, in other words, being in a right relationship with God.
The people to whom Isaiah directed his prophetic voice were filled with despair. A series of weak and failed kings had led directly to the impending doom by the Assyrian army. The end was near, even though some people still refused to believe God would let that happen to God’s “chosen.” Yet for all those with eyes to see, Judah couldn’t have been in any worse circumstances. Maybe that’s why hope stands out at that moment. And it’s why we should read Isaiah chapter 11 along with the earlier chapters. Otherwise we might miss the sheer outrageousness of this hope.
God’s passion, then as now, is salvation. While human eyes would see no farther than the hopelessness of the mess, God calls out, “Repent.” Repentance allows for the possibility of change and sacrificial change is an important component of hope.
It’s certainly worth noting that the same God who calls us (and the people of ancient Judah) to repent was once called on by Moses to repent. And God did just that! God simply doesn’t give up on creation, especially humankind, and holds out the very real hope and possibility of abundant life when all the usual signs point to death.
So naturally we find in the Bible startling imagery, of a shoot growing out of a lifeless stump, fruit from the roots of a felled tree, and a return to new paradise where animals live at peace. Natural predators are invited to dwell with their usual prey, enemies become honored guests. At the same time the poor and vulnerable need not fear, but can welcome their oppressors.
What the heck is going on with all this? Such an incredible, implausible, unbelievable hope is not only made possible but abounds–or as Paul would say, superabounds (he liked to say stuff like that)–all because of God’s righteousness and justice. And in the center of it all a little child comes forth to lead this peaceable kingdom. One can almost hear angels shouting the good news, “Fear not, for unto you is born….”