HOW would you answer the following statement: To me, Christmas is ___________.
Maybe you have the first Sunday in Advent in mind, and you would answer Hope, because that’s what the first candle stands for. But then I would ask: Hope in what?
For a Christ-follower, it’s hope in Christ. Hope in a blessed baby that God sent to save the world. His son sent to us. God in the flesh, sent to redeem us, (although the actual redemption would come later, at the cross).
But if you’re not a true Christ-follower, what do you place your hope in? Mankind? That’s where atheists and agnostics place their hope. I heard an agnostic on the radio recently, talking about how he and others like him place their hope in community and the goodness of humans. He doesn’t think you need God for that. Honestly, that seems kind of silly to me, and it ignores reality. Mankind doesn’t have a very good track record. And it seems to be worsening. My mom, who will turn 95 on December 7, has seen a lot in her time. She lived through The Great Depression, and said goodbye to her new husband (my dad) in 1942 when he sailed over to North Africa and then faithfully awaited his return as he fought in a world war on two continents for three-and-a-half years.
She’s lived through the Civil Rights battle in this country, the Vietnam War riots, the leveling of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 in New York City. And she told me several days ago that she’s never seen it this bad—the anger, the hate, the malice, the frustration, the impatience, the way people treat one another. I asked my war history buff husband the other day if there’s ever been a time in history, a century, where there hasn’t been any war going on. His answer was swift. “Nope. There’s always been fighting going on somewhere.”
Maybe it isn’t any worse than it was a hundred to two hundred years ago. Maybe it’s just because we have 24/7 news now. News that’s always in our face and in our ears. News at the stab of a finger on a mobile device that allows us to see ugliness like we’ve never been able to see it before. Breaking News! flashes that scroll across the bottom of our televisions, Amber and Silver Alerts that flash on our cell phones. But the carnage and death and hate action all seem to be happening so breathtakingly fast. It's no longer just happening "over there," but over here, everywhere. In our cities, primary schools, colleges, and businesses. And the hateful speech, the name-calling. The yelling rather than respectful discussion. The ridiculous, unfounded labels people slap on others to make them look stupid, ignorant, unenlightened, and out-of-touch. It makes me wonder if some people have a vocabulary of ten or fewer words.
My point is that people do not seem to be evolving in a positive direction. People on their own, left to their own devices, that is. I’d be leery about putting my hope solely in humankind. Like I said, their track record stinks.
Or maybe you put the word “love” in the blank of that statement. Christmas is Love. Because that’s the second Advent candle we lit yesterday, and that’s what comes to mind. You think of Christ’s love for us, and the love we should have for our neighbor. After all, this is a big season of Love. Of giving because you love, and organizations and businesses inundating us with that message this time of year. Give, give, give! And, while you’re at it, buy something for yourself. You deserve it. You love yourself.
But I think we lose a lot of meaning in Advent if we focus entirely on a baby born in a stable. Yes, it’s important to celebrate God’s gift to us demonstrated in the Christ child, because it was a gift that gave us hope and love. But it wasn’t the giving that gives us hope and love; it was the Gift.
The Advent candles recognize the virtues of Christ.
It is Christ who gives us Hope.
What atheists and agnostics forget, refuse to acknowledge, or refute is that it is God through His son Jesus Christ that we can possess Hope. It is God through His son Jesus Christ that we can possess Love.
Why do I say that? Because God said it.
Some of the things God points out in Scripture are:
“God is Love.”
“We love because He first loved us.”
“…love hopes all things.”
“Apart from me [Jesus], you can do nothing.”
And what does He say about worldly wisdom, like the atheists and agnostics boast of?
“The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”
And in the very beginning, God said, “Let Us create man in Our image.” If you believe that, then you understand that His image is imprinted on each person born. The potential for goodness is there, in each heart and mind. He’s the one who put it there. We didn’t do it ourselves. God is good. Without Him putting that goodness in our hearts, we’d be devoid of goodness. Unfortunately, some choose to ignore or refute that truth. A truth that is pointed out much later in Scripture.
“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
And just what is it that keeps mankind doing any good at all in this world?
It’s God’s Holy Spirit working and moving in hearts. It’s God directing events. It’s the love and mercy of God. Without God there is no real love. Without God there is no true hope. Oh, you can be hopeful, but for what? You see all of this turmoil and hate and death going on around you, and your hope lies in changing it all, making it better. Well, that’s good, but what about the end of time? Don’t you wish that justice would have a final say? Don’t you kind of wish, and hope, that it will all work itself out for good at the end of time?
And that’s what the atheists and agnostics don’t address, or don’t like or want to talk about. If you don’t have a God, then there is no one to work it out at the end of time. There is no Christ returning to judge the world and all of its sin and injustice at the end of this age. It doesn’t matter because, in the long run, hate and evil win. And lucky are those of us who haven’t been used, tortured, run out of our country, murdered unjustly, or discriminated against. It's too bad for the sufferers who drew unlucky numbers at birth. If the naysayers are right, and I'm wrong, all we can say to the sufferers is, "I'm sorry."
And don’t you hope for that isn't the case? Don’t you hope for a perfect world? Not just for a future generation, but for those who came before us and are already gone? Don’t they need some kind of retribution exacted on their behalf? Or is this as good as it gets?
Of course, as believers in Jesus Christ, we are relieved because we have faith in Christ, that He has already paid the price for our sins. He has sat in our judgment seat and accepted the penalty for us, and we have been released, without punishment. We can hope in that perfect future, that perfect world because He is hope. We place our trust in Him.
Have you ever wondered what the world would look like if God removed His loving Spirit from it? All you have to do is read the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation to find out. It’s horrifying. Scary. It’s a heartbreaking picture of the world and people without God. No love, no hope. And all of its ugliness is true.
We love because it’s His love working through us. We hope because he instills that in us. We know the end of the story, and that gives us hope. Christ imparts His virtues to His people, and His gifts of Hope and Love keep us looking forward to a better time and place, keep us acting, keep us working for good, keep us abiding in faith. Keep us running the race, persevering. We can celebrate His first Advent and joyously look forward to His second.
We are not great men and women. We have a great God who loves and puts up with us. We have a great God who gives us second, third, and a thousand chances. For now. But eventually that, too, will come to an end. It has to in order for true justice to be served.
The evangelist Billy Graham had it right with his response to a man who recognized him in an elevator and said, “You’re a great man!”
“I am not a great man,” Reverend Graham responded. “I have a great message.”
And that’s what Advent is all about. A great message, for today and for the future.
A message of hope, love, joy, and peace. Hope, love, joy, and peace that once came swaddled and lying in a manger and that will one day return as a conquering King to right all wrong and rule forever. A time to celebrate Who came and Who will come again!
Where would you be without hope or love, now and in the future?
So, until next Monday, may your week be full of blessings that you receive and give, your heart be full of joy and thankfulness, and your days be filled with laughter. Build a little heaven in your life right now, and watch your heavenly garden grow!
When the eyes of the soul looking out meet the eyes of God looking in, heaven has begun right here on earth. ~ A. W. Tozer
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