BIBLE READINGS: Romans 15:4 -13; Matthew 3: 1-12
One of the main themes of Advent is Hope. In Romans 15:13 we hear the words of Paul: “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.”
We know that faith, hope and love will last forever (I Corinthians 13), but if the greatest of these is love, the most overlooked has been hope. Hope is one of the most crucial attitudes we need to foster in a world which reinforces hope-less messages day after day. By far the highest cause of death among teenagers in the western world is suicide – a stark reminder of the hopelessness that has gripped a generation who, of all people, we would expect to be full of hope. Why is it that children, in their 3rd and 4th grades, have hopes of being firemen, nurses, astronauts etc., and five years later will answer the question. “What do you want to do when you leave school?” with a sullen, “Dunno”?
And it’s not just young people. A loss of hope seems to be everywhere in our western society. As scientific discoveries increase the potential for improving the quality of life for all people, the number of hungry and homeless people in the world increases annually. Wars still rage. The incidence of depression increases. Even the great victories we celebrate don’t seem to last. It really doesn’t look like humanity is able to solve its most basic problems, let alone those which carry a degree of complexity.
A Google search on the word “hope” will bring up many interesting sites. There is an interesting story a few years ago about an online publication called Hope Magazine. While there are some great stories archived on the site, there wasn’t a great deal of hope generated by the message which greets the visitor to the web site’s home page: “We regret to announce that Hope Magazine has ceased publication, effective with the November/December 2004 issue.” There’s not even any hope for a magazine about hope! What a tragic symbol of hopelessness!
There’s not a great deal of cause for optimism around us. But optimism and hope are not the same things. There is a sense in which optimism is superficial. It would seem to be linked to external evidence that things are going to improve. In the absence of such evidence, optimism fails. Hope, on the other hand, does not take its cue from signs of a positive future in the world around us. Hope goes deeper. It takes its cue from God.
Optimism can be misplaced: There were once a pair of identical twins. They were alike in every way but one. One was a complete optimist who always looked on the bright side of things. The other was an utter pessimist, who constantly complained and only ever saw the down side in every situation.
The parents were so worried about the boy’s extremes of optimism and pessimism that they took them to a child psychiatrist, who suggested an idea. “On their next birthday, put the boys in separate rooms to get their presents. Give your pessimist son as many wonderful presents as you can. Spend up big and wrap everything up expensively. And give the optimist a box of manure.”
It seemed a fairly extreme thing to do, but the parents were desperate. So they decided to take the psychiatrist’s advice. When the twin’s birthday came they had bought lots of wonderful presents for their pessimistic son and placed them in a separate room: the most expensive, top of the range bike; the newest game console with the latest games; brand name running shoes and t-shirts; and a top of the range skate board.
In another room the parents placed a box of horse manure for their optimistic son.
And then they let the boys into the appropriate room to get their presents.
Hopefully listening at the door, they heard their pessimistic son complaining, “I’ll probably crash and break my leg on this skateboard; I’ll never get the hang of the gears on this bike; I bet I won’t be able to play these video games; these shoes probably aren’t ‘in’ anymore; and I bet I’ll spill something on this T-shirt the first time I wear it!”
Disappointed, the parents crept to the door of the second room where their optimistic son had been given nothing but a box of horse manure. To their utter amazement they heard squeals of delight and anticipation coming from inside the room. Opening the door, they found the boy excitedly throwing manure into the air, yahooing at the top of his voice.
“This is fantastic!” He cried out. “Where there’s this much manure, there’s just gotta be a pony!”
This kind of Pollyanna style, blind optimism is not the hope spoken of in scripture. Cornell West says of the difference between hope and optimism - “Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there’s enough evidence to say it looks pretty good out there, things are gonna be better… hope looks at the evidence and says, ‘it don’t look good at all.’ But we’re gonna make a leap of faith, go beyond the evidence, to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic action, always against odds, no guarantee whatsoever, that’s hope.”
Vaclav Havel said: “Either we have hope within us or we don’t. It is a dimension of the soul and is not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not… a willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.” Hope is not the anticipation of a future reward, of things turning out for the better. It is what we have when there is no assurance that such things will happen!
In the face of evidence that would seem to dismiss an optimistic world view, we hear the words of Paul: “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.”
Paul did not write in a time of great optimism. His world was full of military takeovers, imprisonment and personal suffering – not all that different from our world today! Yet Paul saw beyond his circumstances to promises that defied the worst the world could do. Paul found the source of his hope in the Holy Spirit.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu tells a parable about a light bulb that shined so brightly and proudly, it eventually became convinced that its impressive achievement was due to its own merit and skill. One day the light bulb was taken out of the socket and placed on a table. Try as hard as it could, when it was disconnected from the source of its power, it could do nothing. If we are going to retain hope in a world where all the logical evidence suggests things are hopeless, we need to stay connected to the source of hope – God’s Spirit. To do so makes a prophetic statement. To remain hopeful, and model that hope day in, day out, is a challenge to all the powers of negativity and the prophets of doom and gloom. It offers hope to those who struggle against despair.
These four weeks of Advent are a time when hopes can be high. At least, people’s hopes seem to be generated by the season of peace, goodwill and approaching “Christmas cheer”. We’re hoping for fine (but not too hot) weather.
We have hopes for our Christmas Eve and Day services that they may be full to overflowing!;
for family get-togethers (“please, let everyone get on this year”);
for safe travel;
and for the gifts we place under the tree to be ‘just right’
Many a graduating High School student is hoping for good results and admission to university.
Maybe some of our hopes for the future will be translated into New Year’s resolutions where we will make a commitment to make our hopes happen. But some of these hopes are beyond our control. We can’t really influence someone else’s behaviour or their moods. We can’t control the weather. Those exam results are pretty much dependent on what has already been done, and we can’t go back and re-do them.
What are your hopes – not just for Christmas, but your broader hopes?
Michael Frost tells this story: Vienna, Europe, the period leading up to WW2. Three Jewish psychiatrists, two learned masters in the field, one the young apprentice.
The first master is a man named Sigmund Freud. He has spent years studying people, striving to understand what makes us tick. He’s reached the conclusion that the most basic drive in human beings is the drive for pleasure. It’s our need for pleasure that explains why we do what we do, how we live.
The second master is Alfred Adler. He too has spent years studying human behaviour. His studies have led him to disagree with Sigmund Freud. Adler is convinced the bottom line explanation for human behaviour is power. All of us grow up feeling inferior and powerless. Life is a drive to gain control, to feel we are important.
The third man is a young up-and-coming psychiatrist by the name of Victor Frankl. He hopes to follow in the footsteps of his mentors. But before his career gains any momentum there’s a hiccup – a little altercation called WW2. The Nazis invade and its dangerous for Jews. Freud and Adler are world renowned scholars and so manage to escape Europe before Hitler invades. Frankl is not so lucky. He is arrested and thrown into a Nazi concentration camp for four long years.
After the war is over, Frankl is released from the concentration camp and resumed his career. He reflects upon his time as a prisoner. He noticed something quite strange – the people who survived were not always the ones you’d expect. Many who were physically strong wasted away and died, while others, who were much more weak physically, grew strong and survived. Why? What was it that enabled them to hang on through a living hell?
Frankl reflected on the theories of his mentors. Freud’s pleasure principle couldn’t explain it. For four desperate and terrible years, the men in that camp knew only pain, suffering and degradation. Pleasure was not a word in their vocabulary. It wasn’t pleasure that kept them going.
What then of Adler’s theory about power being the basic human need? That didn’t fare well either. Frankl and his fellow Jews were completely powerless during their time in the concentration camps. Each day they stared down the barrel of a loaded gun, were treated like animals, felt jackboots on their faces. They had no power and no prospect of power.
Victor Frankl came up with his own theory. The difference between those who survived and those who perished was hope. Those who survived never gave up their belief that their lives had meaning, that, despite everything going on around them, it would one day end and they would live meaningful, purposeful lives.
What is the basic human drive? The one thing that gives life value? The ability to live with a sense of meaning. Not pleasure. Not power. Meaning.
Acknowledgements: Chris Lockley