The period from Christmas and New Year is an odd time of year. The build up to Christmas is often a bit crazy – getting ready for Christmas, buying presents, catching up with people we haven’t seen since last Christmas! Life reaches a crescendo of busy-ness which peaks on Christmas Day, and then we fall in a heap on Boxing Day (or soon after, if Christmas overflows into Boxing Day as it often does). After weeks of end-of-year get togethers, Christmas parties and other festive events, the post-Christmas period can feel like paradise for introverts or a nightmare for extroverts.
Christmas and New Year can also be a very emotional time of year. Excitement for children; busy-ness for parents; and exhaustion for both is a potent combination. The end of one year and the start of the next brings with it an expectation of new beginnings that isn’t always realistic. The idea of the ‘New Year’s Resolution’ feeds this expectation that life will be bigger and better in the New Year.
For many of us, Christmas and New Year are difficult times of the year, when struggles we face are felt in strong contrast to the overwhelming expectation that we’re enjoying the festive season.
Each Sunday during the period of Advent at our church, we light the Advent Candles. There are five candles, representing the Bible’s teaching on hope, love, joy and peace. The final candle, that we light on Christmas Day, is the ‘Christ candle’ that reminds us that Jesus is the fulfilment of all of God’s promises, and is the one who truly who brings hope, love, joy and peace into our lives.
At this time of the year, when we’re meant to feel hopeful about the end of one year, and the start of the next, what can we learn about real hope - the hope that Jesus brings, and that we celebrate at Christmas?
1. Christian hope doesn’t mean ignoring our present struggles.
We often talk about people having blind faith about something or in someone, meaning faith that doesn’t have a realistic basis. But we could easily talk about hope in the same way. I’m sure we’ve all met people who seem to hope for things that seem incredibly unlikely, or even downright impossible. In a year when we’ve just had another Olympic Games, blind hope would be like Australians hoping to top the medal tally at the Games. We all know it’s just not going to happen, no matter how much we hope, and how hard our athletes try!
So is hope always like this? Does the very act of hoping mean that we’re ignoring our present circumstances and difficulties and unrealistically looking forward to a different future?
Interestingly, the Psalms in the Bible are full of hope, but are also full of trouble, longing, despair and crying out to God for help. They are bluntly realistic about the challenges of life, but also encourage us as we hear the psalmist repeatedly putting his hope in the Lord.
Psalm 42 is a case in point. We don’t know the exact circumstances of the psalmist, but he says in the psalm: ‘My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”’ (v3); ‘my soul is downcast within me’ (v6); and ‘I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?”’ (v9). Clearly the psalmist is struggling, experiencing opposition of some kind, and feeling far from God.
The final verse of the psalm holds together the tension of the struggle of the psalmist with his hope in God:
‘Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Saviour and my God’ (v11).
Christian hope doesn’t mean a blind denial of our struggles, but rather a recognition that God is our Saviour and that we can confidently put our hope in him despite our circumstances.
2. Christian hope is based on the past, and looks forward to the future.
So Christian hope isn’t ‘blind hope’, but you might think this begs the question: how do we know that God will come through for us? What does that look like? How can we confidently put our hope in him?
These are huge questions, but let’s start by thinking about putting our hope in people first. Everyday life involves trusting people – putting our hope in them. If a friend arranges to meet you at a certain time and place, you put your hope in their word, and you arrive at that time and place. But we soon learn, don’t we, that some friends are always half an hour late. So we might start arriving late as well, when we’ve arranged to meet that particular friend. We give up hope that they’ll arrive on time.
So what’s God’s track record like when it comes to keeping his word? Do we have a solid foundation for putting our hope in God?
Well, arguably, the Bible is the record of God’s promises to his people, and the story of his delivering on his promises. God’s people have always been a people of hope. God promised Abraham when he was childless that he would be the father of many nations. ‘Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations …. he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God … being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised’ (Romans 4: 18, 20, 21).
God promised Moses that he would lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land – and he delivered.
God promised David that his son would build a temple for the Lord, and that he would have a descendant on the throne forever – and he delivered.
God promised Israel through the prophets that he would send a Messiah, a Prophet, a Servant who would save his people – and he delivered.
Jesus promised that he would die, and then be raised to life again after three days – and he delivered.
Peter writes this about our hope in Jesus:
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5)
We live at a time in history when we can look back and see the work of God in the past in keeping his promises. Specifically, Peter reminds us that we can look back at the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, which has given us a living hope, and then by that hope, look forward to our inheritance that is waiting for us in heaven and will be ours when Jesus returns.
God has promised that Jesus will return again to gather his people to himself, and that we will live with God in a new heavens and a new earth – and he will deliver!!
God has an excellent track record of delivering on his promises. Christian hope is based on this track record, and it looks forward to the future when Jesus will return and we’ll experience our salvation in all its fullness.
3. Holding on to our hope in Jesus gives us an anchor for our souls.
But how do we hold on to this hope when life continues on its daily course and we face the whole gamut of human experience and emotion – the peaks and troughs, the joys and sorrows, the delights and the despairs?
Is hope just another emotion that we experience, that comes and goes depending on how we feel at the time?
While we can feel hopeful (and so hope is an emotion to some extent), the Bible also talks about us focusing on our hope. In this sense, hope is something concrete based on objective realities, and this is the sense of our hope in Christ. As we’ve already mentioned, Christian hope is based on God’s excellent track record of delivering on his promises in the past, and the writer of Hebrews has two pieces of helpful advice for us when it comes to hope, both based on the death of Jesus.
First of all, we’re urged in Hebrews 10:23 to ‘hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful’. God keeps his promises, so hold on to his promise that Jesus will return and bring in his new creation. Secondly, the writer to the Hebrews says, ‘we have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure’ (Hebrews 6:19). In both of these passages, the context is Jesus’ high priestly work of dying on the cross to pay the penalty we deserve for our sins, and therefore cleansing us so that we can draw near to God.
So, on the basis of what God has done for us in Christ, let’s hold on to our hope! Remind ourselves each day of what’s in store for us when Jesus returns. Remind ourselves each day that the challenges of this physical life aren’t the only reality, and aren’t the eternal reality. Remind ourselves each day that God loves us and has a plan for us to be with him forever. Let’s hold on to our hope!
And let’s remember that this hope is an anchor for our souls. I love this image of a boat being tossed and thrown about on the sea in a storm, but all the while being held firm by its anchor. We may often feel like a boat being tossed about by the storms of life, but God offers us hope in Jesus as an anchor for our souls. What a beautiful gift.
There’s much more that could be said about Christian hope. But let me finish now with a prayer from Paul’s letter to the Romans (15:13), and this is my prayer for each of you this Christmas and New Year. ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.’ Amen
Nat Rosner grew up in Sydney, lives in Melbourne and loves both cities! A former lawyer, she’s now a Minister at St Hilary's in Victoria and is passionate about sunshine, summer, sport, reading and local church ministry.