Isaiah 9:5-7, NIV, printed below
As winter begins, the evergreens of traditional Advent decorations remind us that spring is not far. The four candles, representing Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace, are both literal and symbolic lights in the darkness.
Hope in a Broken World
Advent is a time of tension, between awareness of our broken, fallen world and our knowledge of Christ’s victory and return. Scholars, deeply familiar with paradox and nuance in their daily work, ought to know this tension more than most. So many academic careers are based on absence and shortcomings:
- The lack of effective treatments for deadly diseases
- Our ignorance of basic laws of the universe
- Failures in human communication and compassion
- Lost opportunities due to correctable problems
Even more, their careers themselves too often reflect the brokenness of the world. A few years ago, David Ng calculated how long his PhD in biochemistry would have taken if every experiment had worked. His answer? Six months. In reality, it took him five years. Many ESN members have struggled to find productive work, gone to school or taken positions far from their spouses, and found themselves forced to choose between career goals and their Christian convictions.
If that were the end of it, however, scholars would live dreary, depressing lives. But the scholarly life is based fundamentally on hope:
- Hope for a cure
- Hope for understanding
- Hope for successful experiments
- Hope for funding, strong interviews, and tenure
In March, Stanford professor Andrei Linde was surprised by Chao-Lin Kuo with the news that experimental results had confirmed his theory of cosmic inflation.
Inside the house, the scientists pop open a bottle of champagne. Linde says that he had no idea who would be at the door. His wife thought it must be a delivery and asked if he’d ordered anything. “Yeah,” he says now, “I ordered it thirty years ago. Finally it arrived.”
Of course, science being science, one experiment’s results are not definitive proof, as Linde himself notes in the video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlfIVEy_YOA). His joy, like ours, is not yet complete.
Expectation and Fulfillment
Many in Israel expected the Messiah to set all things right, immediately, in concrete and highly visible ways: overthrowing the Roman occupation, restoring the purity of Temple worship, unifying the nation under his righteous leadership. Reading Isaiah, it’s clear where they got this idea:
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:5-7)
Jesus fulfilled the prophet’s words, but in an unexpected way, in a way that would indeed give his followers peace, but also require them to continue to wait and watch. He didn’t relieve suffering or establish justice in the way that a king or caesar would have. The Romans, after all, brought peace every where they went – the Pax Romana, brutally enforced by the Roman legions as they continually expanded the empire. Jesus brought a peace like leaven, which worked its way through the people, expanding the kingdom as it went. It continues to work its way into our hearts and communities today.
Today, we live in the pause between the Messiah’s first coming and his second coming. Advent heightens our awareness of the tension of this pause. Simply mentioning Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love can heighten their absence. Because of the first coming, we know that Jesus has broken into the world and conquered death through his crucifixion and resurrection. Because we still await his second coming – and with it, New Jerusalem, the New Heaven and Earth – we encounter daily the suffering of the world.
In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright discusses the concept of building for the kingdom, which is a way of living out the truth of Jesus’ resurrection while living toward our own:
What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself—will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it…). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.
The lives of Christian scholars – all Christians, really – ought to be marked by building for the kingdom. This is a time of year when we can reflect on both fulfilled hope and unfulfilled expectation, to rejoice in God’s completed work and to pray for the work to be advanced even further.
Questions for Reflection
Read slowly through Isaiah 9:1-7. How does the prophet speak to the need for justice and mercy in our world today? Where do you see God at work in these areas?
How have you seen God fulfill your expectations? What hopes do you still have?
What comfort does Jesus provide in our broken world?
God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God of the prophets and poets, God of Mary and Elizabeth, fill us with joy during this season of Advent. Allow us to be light to our neighbors during the dark of the year. May our hope in Christ grow stronger in the coming year, and may we find new opportunities to build for the kingdom. In the name of Christ we pray, amen.
Image courtesy of Hans at Pixabay.