In the coming weeks, many churches will touch on the themes of Advent: hope, faith, joy, and peace. But our world is riddled with despair, unbelief, sadness, and violence. There seems to be all too many reasons not to have hope, faith, joy, or peace. How does the gospel make sense of this apparent contradiction of Jesus’s birth? Why is the hope of the gospel still relevant even (especially) in this apparently hopeless world? I encourage you to read through the first two chapters of Luke on your own or with your family to contemplate these important questions before reading further.
The Nature of Hope
What is hope? Hope is human—rocks don’t hope. Birds don’t hope. Fish don’t hope. Humans hope. And if we lose hope, we can’t go on living. Hell is a kind of hopelessness, which is why at the entrance to Dante’s Inferno stand the words: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Hope makes all the difference in the world. Hope is not only human; it’s forward-looking, future-oriented. Hope is belief that the future can change the present.
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life. - Proverbs 13:12
Temporal hopes will wax and wane. This very fact shows us that hope is the beat of the human heart. Hope makes all the difference in the world.
The Tension of Hopelessness
First, a word about the word “hope.” In English it possesses a degree of uncertainty. “I hope to make it home by 5.” Uncertain but hopeful.
In the Bible, hope possesses certainty. “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience." (Rom 8:24-25) or the “full assurance of hope” (Heb 6:11). Biblical hope looks forward in certain anticipation.
If we're honest, we often lack this biblical hope. Perhaps, we even lack normal uncertain hope. Although hope is the heartbeat of every human, our hearts are beating slowly, strangled by the tension of hopelessness. Josef Pieper, a German theologian, wrote a book in the middle of the 20th century called On Hope, and in it he argued that we all tend toward hopelessness, in one of two directions. Hopelessness, he says, has two forms—despair and presumption—and we all bend one way or the other.
Presumption, Pieper writes, “is a premature, self-willed anticipation of the fulfillment of what we hope for from God.” Presumption is a leap into the future, an insistence that the future be the present. It bypasses hope, insisting we have heaven on earth now.
In an edition of Atlantic Monthly a few years ago, the cover article read: Did Christianity Cause the Crash? The article pinned the blame for the housing market crash on Christians who preach and live a prosperity theology. God wants you to be wealthy and healthy. The article was getting at this presumption, this bypassing of Christian hope to insist on the future in the present. So take your house, your car, your clothes, your possessions by faith (whether you can afford it or not)!
The presumption of prosperity theology is that it insists Christians are entitled to the future heavenly blessings of security and prosperity now. They refuse to hope and endure, and tell those who lack security and prosperity that they lack faith. Get that house, regardless of your present income. When the wife of a prosperity preacher was pressed about this as irresponsible, she responded by saying: “But if the Lord is telling you to ‘take that first step and I will provide,’ then you have to believe.” This isn’t a matter of belief, it’s a matter of greed, of inordinate desire for more stuff or more security. So they, we, get into mortgages we can’t afford. How presumptuous.
Now, it’s easy to point the finger, to prosperity presumption, but what about our presumption? Are we insisting on the future in the present? A little heaven on earth? Are you stockpiling assets for your own security? Insisting on a standard of living that is supported, not by hope, but by irresponsible debt? Driving cars we can’t really afford, renting where we don’t belong, paying bills and buying Christmas gifts on the credit card? We try to eliminate hope in our quest for security and wealth.
Presumption refuses hope. It rejects the persevering nature of hope, which makes it so admirable, and as a result, becomes “the fraudulent imitation of hope.” (Pieper) But Christian hope forgoes present joys for the greater future joy. It sacrifices present comfort for the sake of others. It goes not into irresponsible debt but into deliberate generosity. It goes through the cross before entering the new creation. Do our lifestyles reflect hope or presumption? What could you do this Christmas to express true Christian hope?
Pieper notes: “In the sin of presumption, man’s desire for security is so exaggerated that it excels the bounds of reality.” (67). Our material desires are exaggerated beyond reality and beyond God’s promise. God never guaranteed a mansion this side of glory. Somehow we forget that Jesus was a homeless Messiah, who told us that no disciple is above his master (Luk 6:40). Some of us bend toward presumption, a sinful distortion of hope.
Others of us bend toward despair. Pieper describes despair as “a premature, arbitrary anticipation of the non-fulfillment of what we hope for from God.” Presumption anticipates fulfillment, despair anticipates non-fulfillment. Presumption is overconfident; despair is under-confident. Instead of making a leap into the future, despair sits down in the present, sulking, depressed, and gives up on God. It abandons hope. Instead of bypassing it; despair rejects hope altogether. There is no hope. We spiral down, so far down we can’t look up.
Hope makes all the difference in the world. Without it we can tumble into despair, where we would rather sulk in self-loathing than lift a finger for change. Despair says: “It doesn’t matter what I do, nothing will ever change. I will never succeed.” It’s self-centered, not others-centered. It insists on self. It is a parasite of hope. Despair cannot exist without hope, but it ever remains the cynic, refusing to trust in God’s promises, to look up instead of down. Instead of choosing the persevering, arduous path of hope in the midst of trial, it surrenders to become the antitype of hope. It exaggerates self in the face of God. When it comes to hope, we all fall toward presumption or despair, leaping into the future or settling down in the present. We bypass hope or reject it. Overconfidence or under-confidence. So how do we reclaim biblical hope, enduring confidence in the future that affects the present?
The Story of Hope
Luke 1:67-80 tells a story of hope about a people of hope, the Jews. A people of unparalleled resilience—exodus, exile, holocaust. Of course, Israel swayed between presumption and despair like any people, but there was always a remnant that endured, embracing the difficult path of hope in God. We come upon a faithful Israelite, Zechariah the priest, who is met by an angel and promised a son. He and his wife Elizabeth have been unable to bear a child, a scandal in Jewish society. No doubt they struggled with despair, but God would restore their standing in society with the birth of John the Baptist.
It has been 400 years since the last prophet, Malachi, who prophesied about John. John was the appointed prophet of the 1st century. Now, since Malachi a lot had happened to Israel. Although they lived in their Promised Land, it was not their land. It had been occupied by pagans for centuries. Israel was subject to a series of foreign powers: Persian, Greek, and now Roman. Over the centuries leading up to John’s birth, various Jewish leaders rose up to overthrow the occupying powers. Some of them claimed to be the messiah. Can you imagine what this did to Israel? Up and down, presumption and despair, their hope battered and bolstered over and over again.
Over time, splinter Jewish groups formed. The sectarian Jews withdrew from society, radically conservative and presumptuous, believing they were God’s special elect people. His new covenant people appointed to usher in the kingdom of God. They were called the Essenes, led by the messianic pretender, the Teacher of Righteousness, whose authority could not be contested. Convinced they were to usher in the Kingdom of God, they prepared for holy war. They were presumptuous. Leaping into the future, they bypassed hope claiming heaven on earth. They were overconfident, disengaged from society. They did not contribute to the social needs of Israel nor did they love their neighbors.
Then there were the secularist Jews, who abandoned faith and integrated into Greek and Roman society, so much that they were indiscernible from the pagans. Non-practicing we might call them. They gave up on God and hope, disillusioned and despairing of any messianic rescue from their enemies. They were under-confident and settled despairingly down into the present, jettisoning hope.
It’s in this context that the prophet, John the Baptist, is born. We are told that when his name was announced the news travelled throughout the hill country of Judea, “and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts saying, ‘What then will this child be?’” A spark of hope rising in the Jewish heart. We die without it. Israel was beginning to come back to life. John’s father, Zechariah, who had despaired and been struck mute for not believing the promise of his son, stands up and, filled with the Holy Spirit, makes a prophecy of hope.
The Object of Hope
Zechariah proclaims, "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us…” (Luke 1:68-71)
The object of hope. Zechariah declares the visitation and redemption of his people, a time referred to by the prophets as the Day of the Lord. And then regarding his son he says: "And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins." (Luke 1:76-77)
Zechariah is so taken with this newfound hope, that he almost neglects his son! Why was John born? To prepare Israel for the Day of the Lord, by giving the “knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.” Israel had been lingering in unbelief and hopelessness, splintering into presumptuous groups and despairing groups, into sectarian and secularized Jews who either bypassed or rejected hope in God. They found themselves in a predicament with God. Guilty of sinful presumption and despair. How does God respond? Salvation in the forgiveness of sins!
God extends forgiveness for their hopeless presumption. For jumping ahead of him, for pimping him out for security, wealth, and power. For the hopeless, overconfident, self-reliant American who has an exaggerated, idolatrous desire for security and cash, God mercifully extends forgiveness. Forgiveness the person who rids himself of hope in God, and hopes in self-wrought security and happiness. Forgiveness for the person who holds onto his goods or money - refusing to give it away.
If we will turn away from greedy presumption in repentance, we can turn to faith in God’s promise of forgiveness. Then we can hope. We must bank on God, not on his gifts or power. To the hopeless despairing ones, God extends forgiveness for not believing in his promises, if we will unseat ourselves from despair and step into hope.
Wherever you are this Advent season -- despair or presumption -- God in Christ is extending you hope, hope for forgiveness and for healing. Hope in the Son of righteousness, who has risen with healing in his wings. Hope makes all the difference in the world.
Jonathan K. Dodson (MDiv; ThM) serves as a pastor of Austin City Life in Austin, Texas. He is the author of Gospel-Centered Discipleship and has written articles in numerous blogs and journals such as The Resurgence, The Journal of Biblical Counseling, and Boundless. He has discipled men and women abroad and at home for almost two decades, taking great delight in communicating the gospel and seeing Christ formed in others. Twitter: @Jonathan_Dodson
For a free Advent devotional ebook, check out Come Lord Jesus Come by Will Walker & Nathan Sherman.
For more on the gospel & Christmas, read: Taking in Christmas by Timothy Keller.