Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:18-25, NRSV)
In 1983 it was Cabbage Patch Kids. Near riots occurred at stores which ran short on inventory as millions of parents became suddenly more-than-willing to pay extra money for a doll simply because it came with its own adoption certificate. In 1984, 23 million people received a Trivial Pursuit game for Christmas. Soon after many of them realized just how much useless information they actually did know.
Anybody pay good money for one of these in 1985? A cassette tape in Teddy Ruxpin’s back made his mouth move as he told his adventures to an audience of millions of slightly creeped-out children. In 1995 people paid boatloads of money for this fad collector’s item. Five years later you could buy three Beanie Babies for a quarter at just about any garage sale in town.
In 1996 Walmart clerk Robert Waller in New Brunswick found himself in the middle of Elmo-mania one December night when 300 eager customers trampled him in pursuit of that season’s hottest toy. He later reported, “I was pulled under, trampled – the crotch was yanked out of my brand-new jeans. I was kicked with a white Adidas before I became unconscious.” When it was all said and done, he’d suffered a pulled hamstring, injuries to his back and jaw, a broken rib and a concussion. And all the while Tickle Me Elmo just giggled hysterically.
Nearly every kid in America knows what it’s like to wait agonizingly for that one Christmas toy you just cannot live without. Once again this year visions of sugarplums of all shapes and sizes will keep children lying awake in their beds as they dream of how much better life will be Christmas morning when they will at last hold that long-wished-for toy in their hands.
Advent, this season just before Christmas which begins today, is a season of waiting. The word Advent is from a Latin word that means “coming”. When the early church first used it to refer to this season, however, I doubt they meant it to refer to the coming of new toys under the tree on Christmas morning.
In all fairness, children aren’t the only ones who are waiting for something to come these days. As we get older, of course, it isn’t the gifts under the tree that we long for so much in life. The sugarplums dancing in our dreams often become, with age, costlier and even harder to obtain. Some of us wait for the right man or the right woman to come into our lives, a soul mate who will finally make life complete. Some of us wait for the day when we will finally be healthy again, free from pain and full of energy. Others of us wait for the day all our work and investments will pay off, the day we can at last retire and rest and savor life.
Maybe you wait for your children to find their way, or for a day when you’ll finally have enough money, or a time when your career will bring the fulfillment you always hoped it would. What are you waiting for this Advent season? Somehow I doubt it’s something that will fit under the Christmas tree. And if and when you get what you’re waiting for, are you certain that it will complete your life as you imagine that it might. Plenty of children realize by New Year’s Day that the sugarplums they imagined would make them the happiest children on earth didn’t quite deliver as advertised. Something all-too-similar too often happens with our adult sugarplums as well.
There are two types of waiting in this world. Sometimes we wait for things we wish would come. Other times we wait for things we know will come. Think of it this way. There’s a big difference between waiting for the sun to come up and waiting for the sun to come out. If you’re a bride and you plan an outdoor wedding in Sacramento for the 1st of June, you are praying for a clear, sunny day, a strong possibility that time of year in Sacramento but by no means an absolute certainty. In that scenario, no bride worries that her afternoon wedding on June 1st in Sacramento will be in the dark. She knows the sun will come up that day. She likely does worry, however, that her wedding might be ruined by rain. Not even the best meteorologist in the world can guarantee, months out, that the sun will definitely come out that day.
The first kind of waiting is wishful thinking. You really want something, or want something to turn out a certain way, but you have no guarantees. Statistics and history may be on your side, but you still can’t be absolutely certain. So you hedge your bets. You go with the safe alternative. You play the odds. You do everything in your power to see it come to pass. But because you can’t be certain, there is often a sense of underlying worry or stress. And the bigger the thing wished for the more anxious we become. If you’re not guaranteed that the sun will come out on your wedding day, the worry might very well keep you up at night. If you’re not guaranteed that your child will recover from her illness, the worry might send you into despair. Many, many people, including I’m sure many of us, live lives full of anxiety and stress because we are waiting for things we wish for, but which are not guaranteed.
The second kind of waiting is very, very different from the first. The second kind of waiting is hope. Hope is not wishful thinking. We use the word that way some times, but when you see hope used in the Bible it’s never used that way. Hope, at least Christian hope, is not wishing for the sun to come out. Hope, instead, is knowing that the sun will come up. What this means is that people who wait with hope wait in quite a different way than people who wait with wishful thinking.
The passage we just read from Romans 8 is one of the great passages about hope in the Bible. Paul is writing here to people like us in the church who need to be reminded of the hope that we have. He begins this section of his letter by making a comparison. He writes, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” In the day when he wrote, Jewish thought divided time into two sections – the present age and the age to come. The present age was a time of sin, and death, and decay, a time when the world was far from the world God once created it to be. The age to come, however, an age often referred to in scripture as the Day of the Lord, was a time when the broken world would be shaken at its foundations and, out of the rubble, would emerge a new and wholly renovated world. The prophet Isaiah spoke of this day of the Lord’s favor as a time when the oppressed would receive good news, the brokenhearted would be bound up, those in bondage would be set free, ones who grieve would find gladness, the faint of heart would hear praise, and a devastated world would finally and forever flourish.
This past week many of us have watched the difficult scene in Ferguson, Missouri, continue to unfold. Now, I’m certain that those of us in this room have differing perspectives on who is to blame and whether or not justice was served in this incident. That being said, I trust that all of us in this room could at least agree that the pictures on our screens from Ferguson and elsewhere around our nation make clear that we live in an age of deep-seated brokenness. When some people want to kill police officers, and other people believe they have been shown that their lives simply don’t matter, and communities are reduced to rubble because of senseless rioting, people of Christian faith must at least agree that there is much in our world that is a long way off from the world we believe God has intended.
H.G. Wells once wrote, “Man, who began in a cave behind a windbreak, will end in the disease soaked ruins of a slum.” H.G. Wells was clearly a man who had no hope. Apparently he didn’t even have wishful thinking. This hopeless view of the age to come has no place in the community of those who claim to follow Christ. We do not believe that the world will ultimately end in the disease soaked ruins of a slum. In fact, as Paul reminds us, we are to believe that the sufferings of this present age will one day be seen as nothing in light of the age that is to come in the Day of the Lord. That is our hope, and it not something we wish will come but something we know will come.
In this same passage Paul says that creation waits for this day to come like an expectant mother waits for her baby to be born. Now, I’ve never given birth to a child but I’ve watched it happen twice, up close. When our oldest, Isabel, was born my wife was in labor for an entire day. As I sat with her over those hours I got the distinct impression that she was experiencing varying levels of discomfort. I’ve always been perceptive that way, really sensing when others are feeling pain. Even so, as my wife experienced more physical pain than she had ever before experienced before, I doubt she ever once wondered if it would all be worth it in the end. When Isabel was born and the nurse laid her on Esther’s chest, I guarantee you that she knew that it had been, in fact, incredibly worth it. And this is Paul’s point. Whatever present suffering we endure will in no way be worth comparing to the glory which will be revealed. When this is your hope, amazing levels of present suffering can be endured.
Paul goes on to say in verse 23 that as we, along with the rest of creation, anticipate the age when God will restore the world, we wait in possession of the “first fruits of the Spirit.” First fruits are simply the first taste of the harvest, the first grapes off the vine or the first apples off the tree. They are a small sampling of the abundance that is to come. What Paul is saying here is that in the community of the church, among those who know and trust Christ and have been filled by the Spirit of Christ, we have begun to get a foretaste of the age to come.
This past week I received a kind note from a person who is new to our church. It was a note of gratitude from somebody who wanted me to know what blessing she had experienced since finding this congregation, a congregation which she described as having a unique atmosphere that radiates welcome, warmth and love. Now, no church is perfect, this one included. But when the church is living into its calling, it is unique in this world. It becomes a community where all that is wrong with our world begins to be worked out, where racial divides are crossed, where forgiveness and grace are freely extended, where strangers with differences are welcomed, where communities are built up rather than torn down, where life in this age begins, even in small ways, to resemble life in the age to come.
John chapter 1 is a text we often read this time of year. It includes these words which greeted you on the screen as you came in this morning to worship: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The light John refers to is Christ, a light which began to shine in the darkness at his birth one silent night in Bethlehem. Christ, the Son of God, the Messiah, came into this present age of darkness, into a world of sin, and death, and decay, and he came to reverse the curse that creation was under. When he was crucified he took all the sin, death and decay of the world upon himself. When he was resurrected three days later he opened the way for all of creation to be similarly restored to the fullness of abundant and everlasting life. Even now the light of that life is shining in communities like this one which are being transformed. The promise is that Christ will return some day, the Day of the Lord, and on that day darkness will be chased away for good and light will rule the day.
Today in our Advent wreath we lit the candle of hope to symbolize this present and coming light, remembering that we are not wishing that the sun will come out some day. No, we are waiting for the sun will come up some day. Even now we see the sliver of light on the horizon. We know that it is coming. This is our confidence, our hope! Therefore, we do not keep our eyes fixed on the present state of our lives and of our world but we keep our eyes fixed on the promises of God in Christ which we know will be kept in his time.
C.S. Lewis says this so brilliantly I want to quote him at length.
Hope means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next…It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither…Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise.
By the way, this is why Christians ought to care about this world so much, every aspect of this world. We have been given a taste of what God is making this world to be some day. As we therefore join God in the restoration of this world we know that our efforts are not in vain. As writer Jim Wallis once put it, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change.” We don’t just watch; we participate! We join Christ in seeing the light overcome the darkness. In fact, we are, according to Jesus, the light of the world.
In his book, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, writer and pastor John Ortberg tells of the time some years ago when he was in Ethiopia. While he was there some friends took him one day to meet an extraordinary woman who, from that day on, for him exemplified hope. He writes,
She was a ninety-nine year old woman who lived about two hours outside Addis Ababa, the capital city. This woman had become a follower of Christ in middle age, and she was both blind and illiterate. She lived in a little hut, where she kept two Bibles on her table – one in Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia), the other one in English. Whenever someone came to visit her, she would ask the person to read. Over time, her favorite passages became so familiar that she could recite them from memory, and if her visitors couldn’t read, she would recite as a kind of gift to them.
People would come from far away just to visit her. Why would they make the journey for an elderly, illiterate, blind widow? Because somehow in her presence, through her voice, the words “The Lord is my shepherd” ceased to be just words. Those thoughts had washed over her mind so deeply, so often, that there was simply no way that anxiety-producing thoughts could survive. In purity of heart, she willed one thing. People flocked to her because it was impossible to hear her say those words without being filled with the hope that perhaps one day they would be as real to them as they were to her.
When we wait with wishful thinking for things in life we aren’t certain will come and, even if they do come, aren’t guaranteed to deliver as advertised, we wait with desperate anxiety, with a trembling hesitancy that eats away at our soul. This morning I want you to be honest with yourself. What are you waiting for in life? And as you wait, are you waiting with hope or are you waiting with wishful thinking. It is possible, you know, to wait with hope, as long as you’re waiting for the right things.
That blind, illiterate, old woman in Ethiopia will likely never, in this life, possess any of the things many of us are waiting for this Christmas. What she does possess, however, is that for which all of us truly long, and which, sadly, too few of us possess. Isn’t hope really all you want this Christmas, to know that the things for which you wait will one day be realized? In Christ, this hope can be yours. Christian hope is not some trembling, hesitant wish that perhaps the promises of God may be true. It is, instead, the confident expectation that they cannot be anything else but true.
Paul put it this way in verse 25 of Romans 8: “If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Hebrews 6:19 puts it even more poignantly; “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.” We may anxiously wonder if the sun will come out. Whether or not it does, however, we can know with certainty that it will come up. It is, in fact, already coming up. The light is already shining in the darkness and the darkness will not and cannot overcome it.
In 1954 the Assembly of the World Council of Churches made a stunning declaration about Christian hope and the task of the church. I’d never read it before this week. When I did read it I was immediately sure these were the words I wanted to use to end this message this morning. Listen carefully as I read them to you now.
Multitudes ask themselves, ‘What is coming to the world? What is in front of us? What may we look forward to?’ The answer to those questions has been given to us in the Gospel. To those who ask, ‘What is coming to the world?’ we answer ‘His Kingdom is coming.’ To those who ask, ‘What is in front of us?’ we answer, ‘It is He, the King, who confronts us.’ To those who ask, ‘What may we look forward to?’ we answer that we face not a trackless waste of unfilled time with an end that none can dare to predict; we face our living Lord, our Judge and Savior, He who was dead and is alive forevermore, He who has come and is coming and will reign for ever and ever. It may be that we face tribulation; indeed we must certainly face it if we would be partakers with Him. But we know His word, His kingly word: ‘Be comforted, I have overcome the world.’
Today, this first Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of hope.
Faithful God, all of us wait. As we do, some of us, unsure of what tomorrow may hold, carry around within a deep, trembling anxiety. Father, this is not how you intend for us to wait. Help us, Lord, in Christ, to wait with hope.
There are some among us here this morning who fear that when all is said and done they will not be found worthy. Give them hope. May we all know that by the grace of Christ all who simply have faith are already found worthy.
There are some among us who find themselves consumed by grief over the loss of some loved one or thing in this life. Give us hope. May we all know that in time, Lord, you will restore every lost thing that matters in ways that far exceed our imaginations.
There are some among us today who find it barely possible to cover up the rivers of shame and guilt that run just beneath the surface of their forced smiles. Give us hope. May we all know that it is grace, and not condemnation, which you intend to have the last word.
Many among us are in despair of the world we perceive to be crumbling around us. We wait for a world free of war, and violence, and racism, and poverty, and decay. Some days we wonder if we wait in vain. So give us hope. Give us the hope of an expectant mother, the hope of a watchman waiting for the sun to rise, the hope of people who know that the world you promised, Lord, the world you have always intended, will one day be the world that is.
Come, Lord Jesus, into our world. We, your people, are waiting, waiting for that which we do not yet see but waiting nonetheless with patience.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Re-read the passage from Romans 8:18-25. What grabs your attention?
Paul proclaims, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed in us.” Is this your view of life? Do you live daily with this sort of hope?
How do you define hope? What is the difference between hope and wishful thinking?
William Barclay once said this concerning hope: “The Christian hope is not simply a trembling, hesitant hope that perhaps the promises of God may be true. It is the confident expectation that they cannot be anything else but true.” Do you agree?
What is it that you are waiting for in life these days? Do you have a confidence that what you wait for will arrive?
What do you say to those around you who say in despair, “What is this world coming to?” Do you have an answer to that question that offers hope?
Is Christmas for you a season of hope? Why or why not?
How can we become the kind of church where people are never allowed to forget the hope that is our confidence in Christ? What can we do to remind each other?
 See the list of the most popular Christmas toys of all time here: http://www.thedailybeast.com/galleries/2010/12/14/christmas-toy-fads.html#endSlide
 Romans 8:18.
 From Isaiah 61:1-5.
 John 1:5 (NRSV)
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: Collins, 1942), 116-117.
 See Matthew 5:14
 John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 185-186.
 I’m paraphrasing William Barclay here, New Testament Words, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1964), 76.
 Report of the Advisory Commission on the Main Theme of the Assembly: Christ – The Hope of the World, I,A,6 (pp.2-3) in World Council of Churches, 2nd Assembly, 1954, The Christian Hope and the Task of the Church (New York: Harper, 1954).