Hope is often understood as the meeting of expectations and reality. It is, to look to the completion of something: some event, or goal, and finding fulfillment in its fulfillment – I have waited for this, and it came about, and now I am hopeful, like it’s that twinge in the stomach a child may get on Christmas morning, or laying down a nap after the Christmas meal has been mopped up. When I think things are coming together it’s easy for me to get excited. It’s finally happening. That would make disappointment the opposite; that is, when reality and expectations do not align. But what if the greatest hope comes in the wake of disappointment? The greatest value we see is not from where we stand looking forward, but from where we will stand looking back.
Shortly upon its inception, sin entered the world and broke its reality. Even today these waves crash over our society and soak through our lives. Look at the war, the hate, the sickness – the genocide of an entire race will fall today on the back of social and health issues – but our world, often as taxing as it can be, stands improved from what it has been. Israel stood in the heart of conflict of the Roman Empire: it played house to a number of power exchanges over the years, many pushing to a more civilized point, but all on the same principle – blood in, blood out. The plan of heaven to correct a savage world was a baby. It seems a tad goofy, honestly.
Jerusalem rested in the heart of the interest of ancient civilizations. Rome, Greece, Medio-Persia: these kingdoms all held stock in Israel as their eastern and western boarders, and approached the city of Jerusalem largely from the north. The roads ran through Northern Israel and passed through the city of Nazareth that once rested on the brow of a hill as the “guardian” or “watchtower”. These armies would often become locked in combat in the hill country before the walls of Jerusalem, or else would pass through this city when they were retreating – the Assyrians destroyed this city completely in the late-700 BC. Nazareth was not a safe place. It was not a wealthy place. It was not a good place to be.
Yet from the heart of war came the child of peace. He was born into the province of animals as the sky over the city of David erupted with the exultation of God’s promise – the King had come, the Son of God and son of man, Emmanuel: God with Us – first announced to shepherds, and to gentile kings from the east, yet the people of Israel were not strangers to the prophecy of the Messiah, and so it is easy to criticize them for not recognizing His authority. They waited for generations for His coming, but doubted Him constantly – almost like they had been waiting on a bus that came and went while they were sitting at the bus stop. They followed Him for bread and begged for miracles, and then they forsook Him where worse came to worse. Bad Israel!
I think the beauty of grace is that it tears away the perfect faces and exploits the truth. We live with our eyes only half open to eternity and so are drawn to the light of the temporal by default. We see our needs through the reflective lens of money, romance, and power. The currency of God’s Kingdom is that His values and the worlds do not align. Jesus did not come to gain power in this world, but to lose it: the meek inherit the earth, the pure of heart see God, those who mourn rejoice. King Ahaz wanted salvation from Assyria, and Israel from Rome, but real salvation is not a temporal thing, nor is it physical. We do not need freedom from oversight, but we need freedom from our sins. We do not need more riches, but we need to be restored. We needed to be reclaimed.
The shepherds were dirty and poor, yet they were the ones to whom God first showed His Son. They were an unreputable bunch, often equated as thieves, but it was the dishonest to whom God first revealed His glory. Yet this is how He comes to us; though we believe ourselves to be rich, the truth reveals we are destitute and filthy. This encounter changes us. Our expectations are exhausted and rebuilt, otherwise we would never receive the faith for the hope at all. Just as the shepherds, we come before a King form Whom we wait to return – but do we live that way? I think the secret is in the telling in what we value, how we react, what consumes us. If I walk on the belief that Jesus may break open the sky at any minute to claim His bride; the heart for whom He has fought and won, that He has removed my sin and filthiness and has covered me with His righteousness, then I wonder if my big life plans start to seem a little goofy.
“I know now, Lord, why You utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before Your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?” – C.S. Lewis
“I will rejoice greatly in the LORD, My soul will exult in my God; For He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” – Isaiah 61:10