I’m wrestling with Advent this year.
I desperately wanted this Advent to be a season of peaceful reflection and soul gripping hope, but to be honest, hope feels especially far beyond my grasp this year. All the Advent talk of desire and anticipation, of waiting and watching, of hoping and dreaming has seemed to shine a spotlight on all that I am still waiting for.
On all that I have just about given up hope for.
I didn’t grow up in a tradition of marking time through a church calendar. For me the month of December meant one thing and one thing only – Christmas! Christmas and all that went with it – the lists, the gift buying and giving, the lights, the cooking and eating, the carols, the laughter, time spent with those we love, and most of all, the Nativity. The birth of Immanuel, God with us.
There’s nothing wrong with this approach to December and Christmas. But for me, it was almost as though December was about my getting ready for everything I had to do, and then on Christmas Eve I would prepare my heart for the coming of the King.
When your heart is as prone to wandering as mine is, perhaps 48 hours just isn’t enough time to prepare for the arrival of the King of Kings.
For the past several years I have been worshiping at a church that celebrates the liturgical calendar, and with it, Advent. And because of that, I now have a slow four weeks to prepare my heart and mind for the coming of the King.
In the Advent scriptures and devotionals, I keep reading about hope. And that despite all the turmoil we see around us hope still wins because our hope is to be anchored in Christ’s having come and in his coming again. And while I believe all that to be true, this year my heart whispers, but what about all my hopes for today? For this one life you’ve given me to live today? Am I not to feel the least bit sad when the same hoped for, prayed for desires still go unfulfilled at the end of another year? Am I allowed to even voice that kind of disappointment in the presence of the King come as a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes?
It’s not that everything in my life has gone wrong this year. I don’t want to give that impression. There have been plenty of joy spots this year. But the deepest desires remain unfulfilled.
Where in the Advent story of optimistic waiting and watching and hoping is there room for my still unfulfilled hopes for unanswered prayers? Does Jesus really say that because Advent contains the promise that he will return one day, that I have no business feeling sad about my unanswered prayers?
I don’t think so.
Jesus’ ancestor, the wise King Solomon, declares in Proverbs 13:12 – “Hope deferred makes the heart sick; but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”
Can I just be brutally honest with where I am right now? Saying my hope is in Jesus’ return and therefore that should make everything else okay just won’t cut it for me this year. It’s another year of waiting for healing. Waiting for direction. Waiting for a doctor to have an idea. Waiting for release. Waiting for real hope. Waiting for human dignity to be restored. Waiting for some semblance of peace on earth. My hope has been deferred again and my heart is, well, frankly it’s sick. I love Jesus with everything within me, but waiting thru Advent with only the certain hope of his return just isn’t enough hope for me. Not this year.
Is there a remedy for this sick heart of mine? This sick heart that cries out for real answers to hard prayers. For fulfilled longings? This year all the talk of waiting and watching and hoping has fallen flat. I want to experience hope fulfilled.
Come desire of nations come.
I long to have the deepest desires of this earthbound journey met. I long to have my sharpest hungers satisfied. Could there be another hope for me this year? A different type of hope? A hope that comes not from the satisfaction of an earthly desire, or the knowledge that Jesus will return, but from the assurance that Jesus has never left me?
I stop dead in my tracks. Right there in those first six words from Proverbs, hope deferred makes the heart sick, the God of the universe, the God of Advent has given me permission to feel the full weight of all my deferred hopes.
Yes. They make me feel sick. Sick at heart.
And they make him sick at heart too.
But because he is the God of resurrection and redemption, and because he is in the business of bringing new life out of dead things, he doesn’t want me to remain stuck in the dead place of deferred hope. His promise is his name, Immanuel, the God who stays with me. And he draws me deeper into his name, deeper into his promise.
A new hope emerges – a hope that even in all the mess, God is still at work. Even in all the sorrow and pain, nothing is ever wasted. Not one tear. Not one more disappointing doctor visit. Not one more dead end. Nothing is ever wasted. It may not all work out good, but God is still working good thru my unanswered hopes.
The baby born in the manger, this Immanuel, God with us, is the very tangible reminder that I do not walk through the pain of deferred hope alone. This God with me sees the sick of my heart and promises that none of my pain is in vain, none of it is wasted when I offer it back to him, trusting that even these ashes he can transform into beauty.
This is not an easy offering to make. This is the hard work of offering a sacrifice of praise when I would rather utter a howl of complaint. Offering God my unanswered hopes can only be made from a posture of trust. Trust in the God whose name is Good. Trust in the God who promises to do all things well. Trust in the God who took on flesh so that he would know my pain, because his name is Love.
(These two photos, taken within one hour of each other as I sat and wrote, remind me God is always at work and his light always dispels the darkness.)