The People who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined. Isaiah 9:2
The first week of Advent is grounded and guided by the single word and light of "Hope". In the English language we often use the words "hope" and "wish" interchangeably. As a random example, I hope I get a new ipad for Christmas...oh how I wish my wife reading this blog post would heed my not-so-subtle wish for a new ipad. See how that works? Hint...Hint...Hint.
Yet, within the life of faith, I think there is a difference between hope and wishes. It is a difference rooted in what God is doing in our midst right here and now; and what we wish God would do at some future point to conspire/conform to our expectations.
I realize this might be splitting syntax hairs or playing with words, but I also think that it matters as we journey to Bethlehem. What exactly are we expecting when we step inside the stable this year to stand in the straw amid the cows and shepherds? Do we expect to see just another baby? Will we gaze upon the Christ child and think, "Yup, just as I had thought!"
Or are we willing to be surprised by what we encounter on the road to the manger this year? John Claypool has said that "surprise" is just another name for God. Are we surprised by God any more? Or has our faith gotten into such a well-worn rut that nothing about church/religion/worship/ encounters with God has the ability to leave us speechless?
Surprise is important for our understanding of hope because if we only see what we thought we'd see, then maybe we need to be willing to look again. Hope is about being open to what God is doing, how God is slowly bringing about new life in our world, even here and now. It is hard to hold onto hope. It can feel like sand slipping between our fingers. The more tightly we grasp, the more frustrating it is to see the tiny grains still fall to the ground. But, am I only seeing the pile of sand congregating on the floor? Or perhaps do I see the sand that is so stuck to the palm of my hand it would take real effort to get every tiny piece brushed away? Anyone who has ever been to the beach knows that sand has a glue like quality to it...along with the ability to get in all the wrong places!
Brian McLaren has said that where we look will determine what we see. What we are expecting will impact what we actually observe. If I am looking for evidence of a broken world, I will see it. If I am looking for signs of hope, then there is a possibility to see that as well!
Part of the reason why Hope is the important first word of Advent is because if we are not clear about what we hope we might see when we get to Bethlehem this year, we run the risk of seeing only what we've seen every other December. But the truth is we are different people than we were last year at this time. Events, experiences, and encounters in 2013 have left a mark upon us. The road to Bethlehem, while vague familiar, has unexpected twists and turns, if we are awake, alert and aware. If we are on auto-pilot, however, chances are we will still arrive at a stable, but we may have missed the journey!
What I hope for this year is to be aware of God's movement in my life and to hold onto the promise that God is full of surprises. I will reserve my wishes for packages under the Christmas tree knowing that even if my wishes go unrealized (hence no ipad), I still will encounter something much more beautiful and fulfilling and hopeful this December: God's presence.
May the traces of God's presence stir in your life this week.