Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness, a light has dawned. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on His shoulders. And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of His government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord.
For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy. As it is written: “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing the praises of your name.” Again, it says, “Rejoice, you Gentiles, with His people.” And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; let all the peoples extol Him.” And again, Isaiah says, “The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; in Him the Gentiles will hope.” 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.
Hope. I was stunned to find more than two billion references to the word "hope" on the Internet. Quotes about hope abound.
Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” From Samuel Johnson, we have this: “The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure but from hope to hope.” And from Martin Luther King Jr., we have this: “We must accept finite disappointment but we must never lose infinite hope. Everything that is done in the world is done by hope."
But then, poking about online, I came across the novel writer Snoopy, of Charlie Brown comic strip fame. This entry opened with: "It was a dark and stormy night ..." Lucy looks at what Snoopy has written and goes into a tirade, berating Snoopy for not knowing that any good story starts with the words, "Once upon a time!” The last frame of the comic strip has Snoopy starting his story again. Now he types: "Once upon a time, it was a dark and stormy night." Do you feel like Snoopy sometimes? No matter how you begin your story you somehow revert to "a dark and stormy night." If you feel that way today, you’re not alone. Many of us are struggling in one way or another to overcome the dark side of our existence.
The Advent season leading to Christmas should be a time of joy, anticipation and hope. But, the very fact that it is supposed to be such an upbeat time only compounds the problem. Some of us don’t like the short days and the long nights: too much darkness, not enough light. Others of us feel the pressures of our American society that bombards us from every side, compelling us to spend extravagantly on our families and friends at Christmas, and yet making us wonder at the same time if we will be able to pay off the credit card balances after December the 25th. Still others of us are worried about our health or about the health of someone in our family or in our circle of friends; and, of course, the passing of loved ones is usually felt most keenly in this season.
If we are struggling with loneliness, a lack of direction, a feeling that we are cast adrift without much hope, where can we turn to find the way through our own dark and stormy nights?
The Apostle Paul provides us with a clue when he states: "For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us so that through endurance and the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope."
The Bible tells us and life bears out that our God is a God of overflowing goodness and kindness who takes care of His people and never abandons those He has called to enter into fellowship with Him. That is the source of biblical hope. If God is good and never changes his attitude nor forsakes us, then whatever difficulties may arise are seen in the context of God’s love, sovereignty and eternal care.
In our passage for today, Paul is writing to Christians in the young church at Rome. He reminds them that the promises in these ancient writings are trustworthy and true. Above all, he wants to assure Gentile Christians that they are not second-class citizens.
In our day, we divide the world into artificial and arbitrary classifications. We speak of the West, and the East and the Third World, often referring to the latter in condescending terms. Or, we divide the world into the so-called "developed" nations and the "developing" nations. In Paul's day, the first Christian century, the Greeks divided the world into two categories: Greeks and barbarians. If you were not part of the riches of Greek culture, then you were simply an uncouth barbarian. And if you were not a descendant of Abraham, then you were a Gentile, outside of the covenant promises.
Paul's great passion, reflected in all of his letters, was to preach the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles and to convince them that they were included in the scriptural promises. In our passage from Romans, the apostle quotes no less than four verses from the Hebrew scriptures, and in each case the Gentiles are mentioned: "I will praise you among the Gentiles," and "Rejoice, O Gentiles," and "Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles," and finally referring to the Messiah "the Gentiles will hope in Him." What impresses me about these quotations is that one is from Deuteronomy, one is from the prophet Isaiah, and the other two are from the Psalms. In other words, the whole Hebrew Bible is represented -- the Law, the Prophets and the Writings. Yes, absolutely this passage insists, the scriptural promises offer hope for the Gentiles too.
But what about us -- today -- in the Advent season? Do we really believe that the promises are for us? If not, how can we make this scriptural hope our own? Let me suggest a few practical tips.
First, read the scriptural promises. The message of hope is not really going to do you much good unless you read about it. Millions of Bibles are printed every year. You can find a Bible almost anywhere you go. But is the Bible read? Someone has said that if all the neglected Bibles were dusted simultaneously, we would have a record dust storm, and the sun would go into eclipse for an entire week.
Perhaps the situation is not quite that bad but it is serious. You’ve probably heard about the test given to students in a prominent New England high school. Asked to give answers to simple factual questions about the Bible, among the replies were: Eve was created from an apple; Sodom and Gomorrah were lovers; Jezebel was Ahab's donkey; and Jesus was baptized by Moses.
If you read the Bible with intentionality, you will not only be able to do better than these students on a pop factual quiz on the Bible, but you will ultimately become persuaded of the beauty, truth and power of the scriptures as THE Word of God.
I was struck by this truth very recently when I was visiting with someone who is weak and probably near to drawing a last breath. I felt led, at one point, to read a particular passage of the Bible: Isaiah 41, verse 10: “Do not fear for I am with you; do not be dismayed for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” The person, well on in years, needed the boost of the Word, had been trying to recall that particular passage, and was immediately encouraged.
I will never forget a woman named Lucy who was a member of the congregation I served in Hampton, New Hampshire. She had lived for years with excruciating pain in both of her legs; she was confined to a chair and couldn’t walk a step. Yet I never – not once -- heard her complain. From every report, no one did. Instead, she held fast to the Lord and immersed herself daily in the scriptures. She found her strength there. She knew the power of the Word.
In 1947 the Englishman J. B. Phillips began his translation of the New Testament into contemporary English. He started with the letters of Paul which he titled “Letters to Young Churches.” In the preface to this volume he recalls the sensation that came to him as he went about his work of translation. Phillips exclaimed, "... again and again the writer felt rather like an electrician rewiring an ancient house without being able to turn the mains off."
Read the Bible, and you too will sense its electrifying power.
Second, study the scriptural promises. It’s not enough to read the Bible; we have to study it. Now, I know that the common complaint is that the Bible is too difficult to understand. But I’ve always liked the method of Bible study proposed by D. L. Moody, the Chicago businessman turned evangelist. He said that he studied the Bible the way he ate fish. When he came to a bone, he didn’t toss out the whole fish. Instead, he put the bone aside and finished the rest of the fish. Likewise, if he came across a difficult passage in the Bible, he didn’t put aside the whole Bible. He just put aside for the moment the tougher verses and went on with his reading. Inevitably he discovered that the additional knowledge he gained could be used to go back and help explain what he’d previously found difficult to understand.
In addition, today we have so many helpful resources to assist us in comprehending the Bible -- Bible dictionaries, concordances, atlases, and, of course, there are also a great many translations in contemporary English. And to get moving in the Word and to actually focus on the true meaning of Christmas, there are wonderful daily devotional options, such as the Our Daily Bread, available in print or online (http://odb.org). Other resources that have especially ministered to me over the years are: Streams in the Desert by L.B. Cowman (http://streamsinthedesert.nicheblogger.net/) and My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers (http://utmost.org). This season is an ideal time to commit or recommit ourselves to centering in on the Word of God.
And, you know, as the younger ones in our lives open the Word, not only do they grow spiritually but they help those who are older grow spiritually. Children come to the Bible with such fresh eyes and ask the most amazing questions that cause adults to see things in a whole new light. Adults, study the Bible with a child and you will be challenged in ways that will astonish you.
Third, memorize the scriptural promises. Read, study and memorize the Bible. Why do I say that? Well, perhaps, you’ve come across those who have internalized the Word of God. How many of us have seen dear saints of the Lord who, despite serious illnesses or setbacks, have radiated calmness, a cheerful spirit and hope in the future all because they’ve stored up the Word in their souls?
Some years ago, I heard a man speak at the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Manila, the Philippines. He had been imprisoned for a time in China for preaching the Word and, in the camp where he was confined, was put in charge of cleaning the cesspool of human waste. To clean it, he had to walk in it. And he said -- with a smile -- that he came to love that cesspool because His Lord walked with him there. And he could sing Christian songs and shout out passages of scripture and no one was going to come close enough to him to put a stop to it. His comfort came from His Lord, Christian music, and the Bible that he’d internalized.
Over the years, I’ve sat with people who’d come to Christ in their youth but had gotten off track and chased after the drink, other drugs or dissolute living. I’ve seen what can happen when they’re fed the Word again: how all the Bible verses, stored up in their souls, come pouring out of them to bless them and to dispel doubt.
There are also times when you and I don’t have ready access to the Bible. For example, in the middle of the night when we cannot sleep or when we are so sick that we cannot read or at numerous other times when a Bible may not be at hand and we desperately need to hear God's Word. The words of scripture that we memorize will be invaluable to each one of us in those critical moments – those precious words will be with us for a lifetime.
One afternoon, as I was in the car at an intersection, I saw a young woman face down on the sidewalk. A number of individuals had gathered around her and had telephoned for medical assistance. I thought back to what a friend had said about a Christian woman who had raced to his side when his motorcycle collided with another vehicle. She tended to him at the scene – ministering to his body, mind and soul – until the rescue crew arrived. He credited her with saving his life. Would you -- happening upon a person in need -- have enough of the Word of God stored up in you to be able to bring spiritual, scriptural comfort to that person?
Fourth, and last of all, incarnate the scriptural promises. Read, study, memorize and incarnate. In other words, put flesh on these words of hope. Let us live out in our daily existence what we say we believe.
It’s been 67 years since Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor and theologian and member of the German resistance movement against the Nazis, died by order of Hitler in a Nazi concentration camp. In his enduring book Life Together, Bonhoeffer raises the question about what happens to a person after he has meditated upon the Bible in the morning, and then goes to work: "Has it transported him for a moment into a spiritual ecstasy that vanishes when everyday life returns, or has it lodged the Word of God so securely and deeply in his heart that it holds and fortifies him, impelling him to active love, to obedience, to good works? Only the day can decide."
That is the crucial test -- whether or not the Word of God remains lodged in our hearts when we go to our place of employment, or when we enter the classroom or attend to our loved ones or explore a new personal relationship. If I could encourage just two or three people who had never taken the Bible seriously before to begin reading, studying, memorizing and incarnating these scriptural promises, I would consider this a hugely successful year.
Many Americans may recall hearing the tales of folk hero Johnny Appleseed. Born in 1774, he traveled throughout the frontier country planting apple trees. What is not as well known is that he also was a great student of the Bible and further that he shared his enthusiasm for the Bible with others. As he went about his travels he often would be welcomed to stay the night in the home of a kindly settler. During his sojourn he was observant of the personal needs of the host family. Many of these people living on the harsh, bleak frontier were lonely, frustrated and worried. Before Johnny left the home in the morning he would rip out a page in his Bible and leave it with the family. Not any old page would do but one that he thought would fit the condition of this particular family, a passage that would exude hope.
In this Advent season – as we read the promises from the Old Testament, such as the Isaiah 9, and see those promises fulfilled in Jesus, as recorded in the New Testament's Luke 2 -- we can be certain that, in the same way, God's Word has a promise to suit our personal need and God is true to His Word. He will not fail you. Let us make this scriptural hope our own. Let us believe in hope and live in hope. Paul's final words in our passage from Romans constitute a blessing and it’s the one that perhaps you might especially wish to memorize that you may use it to encourage others in this season: "May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in believing that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit."