Hope in the Tension

What a season of anticipation can teach us in 2020

Tonight at our family dinner table we light the first of the five candles wrapped in evergreen on our centerpiece. The flickering flame seems so real, so tangible, in contrast to corporate worship over Zoom earlier. The candle of hope.

The flame is so small.

The promises of God really all hang on something as small and fragile and seemingly insignificant as an infant?
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It's barely 5 p.m. and darkness is descending through the windows, a picture of the gloominess I feel. The house is a mess, and my to-do list is only half-done. My motivation disappeared sometime after the kids' morning math meltdown. Facebook friends are arguing over masks and stay-home orders and elections. I need to make the call on whether student ministry will meet in person next week: is the value of it worth the risk? Another friend tested positive for COVID, a colleague's parents are in the ICU, and someone is asking for prayer for safe travels to a funeral in the midst of the pandemic. The weight of all this feels oppressive.

When I look outward, 2020 sure doesn't speak hope to my soul. I'm more likely to resonate with Isaiah 8:22: “Then they will look toward the earth and see only distress and darkness and fearful gloom.” There's certainly distress and fear and gloom to go around, between skyrocketing pandemic numbers, burned out medical workers and teachers (and parents and pastors), divisive politics, racial injustices, and fear of deadly repercussions to all of this.

And then there's this little flickering candle flame. Hope.

The prophecy

Abruptly, Isaiah moves from the doom of chapter 8 to this joyous announcement in chapter 9: “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress.” No more gloom? After prophecies of war and destruction and death (still yet to be fulfilled), now he proclaims,

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder. For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.”

Isaiah 9:1-5

I wonder how the ancient Israelites must have heard that. Did it sound too good to be true? Isaiah had just told the Israelites to prepare to be carried off into exile or killed. He'd talked about being thrust into utter darkness. Now there's a picture of burdens lifted and shattered, of a celebratory bonfire where armor is burned because there's no need for it. A vision of people rejoicing in freedom and abundance.

Is this really against the backdrop of exile, war, rebellion, and defeat? Is real, joyful hope plausible in such times? What changed?

“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 9:6-7

Did the promise of a baby Savior seem to a people about to go into exile like this tiny candle flame feels in the descending darkness—so small, flickering, easily snuffed? The promises of God really all hang on something as small and fragile and seemingly insignificant as an infant?

But our hope is in something far more sturdy: in the person of Jesus and the unchanging character of God.
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The most wonderful time of the year

Advent is my favorite time of year. I love the striking incongruity of such hope against a backdrop of such gloom. It's almost like a comedy bursting upon a tragedy. Yes, exile. Yes, destruction. Yes, darkness. (Yes, pandemic, even.) But rejoice in hope! A baby is coming to save us all.

The Israelites were called to joy and faith not because exile was going to be avoided (it wasn't) but because God was faithful, and the future hope He was guaranteeing sounded just crazy enough to require a settled trust in the character of God to do what He says He will do despite appearances.

The first Christmas wasn't much different. An unwed pregnancy. An inconvenient taxation trip. A dirty stable. Herod's murder of the Bethlehem boys. But good news of great joy! A baby.

This year has brought upheaval and uncertainty, and depending on your circumstances, perhaps grief or fear as well. There's certainly a general weariness. But that's exactly the reason we need Advent. We need to allow ourselves to sit with the grief, the fear, the unknowing—to see the darkness around us for what it is—and then look with faith to the little candle flame that calls us to hope. It's not a hope in a vaccine, in schools re-opening, in church as normal, in staying healthy. The circumstances may or may not turn out how we'd like. But our hope is in something far more sturdy: in the person of Jesus and the unchanging character of God.

Either way, it's a confident expectation in something sure to come, an assured trust that the promises of God can be clung to, whatever my world looks like today, because He is eternal, He is good, and He is trustworthy.
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There's a light that the darkness can't overcome. There's a life that isn't snuffed by death. There's a joy that even the deepest grief can't eclipse. And there's a hope we can cling to no matter what the next year brings.

A tense embrace

I appreciate that one of the Hebrew words for hope, qavah, which literally means to wait, comes from the word for a cord. It's a picture of tension, as a taut rope is pulled almost to the breaking point. But the tension itself is full of anticipation. Something's about to happen. Hope is the waiting in the midst of tension. Maybe the tension feels like a drawn bowstring, victorious arrow ready to be shot forth any moment. Or maybe it's a white-knuckle grip on a rope as you dangle over the cliff edge, waiting for rescue. Either way, it's a confident expectation in something sure to come, an assured trust that the promises of God can be clung to, whatever my world looks like today, because He is eternal, He is good, and He is trustworthy. Hope.

Advent, like hope, means waiting. For my kids, the weeks before Christmas can feel really long. It's hard to wait to find out what will be wrapped under the tree Christmas morning. But the waiting and anticipation is valuable. The anticipation in the midst of the tension, the confident expectation of what feels slow but is sure to come, is an annual reminder of our eternal hope. Our Heavenly Father knows there are times our trusting wait—our clinging hope—seems like it's taking far too long, but in light of eternity it's flying by, and redemption is as certain as Christmas.

This Advent, embrace the waiting. Hold the tension. Light the candle and watch that little flame flicker. There may be a darkness, a weightiness, this year, but the cord that is connected to the character of God is one you can hang your life on. And that's reason to hope.

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