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November 28, 2011

Shortly before Passover in 70 A.D. more than a million pilgrims arrived in Jerusalem to celebrate the victory of God over Egypt. War raged in the north with the Romans, not the Egyptians, filling the role of oppressive pagan enemy. But the Romans were winning. Soon they surrounded Jerusalem itself. Watchmen stood upon the walls, yelling warnings as Roman catapults hurled sixty-pound stones into the city. Inside, the city starved. An extra million mouths to feed would have strained the city’s resources enough, but the city was divided within itself as the forces of Simon bar-Gioras and John of Giscala struggled for supremacy. The great stores of food laid up against sieges were burned as one faction and then another tried to keep them out of enemy hands. As the hunger grew civilians fled Jerusalem. Each day hundreds of new crosses sprung up around the city, festooned with the screaming bodies of those who were caught. Inside, those without weapons to steal food with were reduced to eating grass, dung, and even human flesh. The dead filled the streets unburied. On the 10th of August the city fell. The Romans poured through the breach in the walls, set fire to the Temple, and killed until their arms grew weary. Nearly 100,000 slaves were sent from Israel to Rome where they were killed in the arena, burned alive, or forced to build public works. The Forum of Peace, built by Jewish prisoners, housed the captured relics of the Temple to forever proclaim the Roman triumph.

Where is the hope here? Where is the victory of God? Where is Advent’s promise of fulfillment, realized, supposedly, nearly forty years before all this? Perhaps we can find some hope in the tradition that the Christians in Jerusalem heeded Jesus’ words and fled the city before the Roman armies, knowing that God would not fight for the people who had rejected the way of His Messiah. Perhaps we can find hope that they knew that this would be a Day of the Lord, a day of darkness and not light, as if a man ran from a lion, only to encounter a bear. Perhaps we can find some hope in the eternal fate of those who were beaten to death, raped, enslaved, tortured for sport, and slaughtered. Frankly, this exercise feels like nothing more than a raven picking meat from dry elk bones, worrying at a shred here and there and calling it a meal. Where’s the hope?

Hope begins in the future. Christian hope begins in the victory of God, in the eschatological unmaking and re-creating of all things, of the great setting right of the world. Hope points forward and says that one day the night will end. That’s all well and good, but dawn is a ways off yet. I suppose if I were a perfect person this would not matter. I would stand beneath the overwhelming scourge in patience knowing that, someday, God’s redemption will set everything right. However, I am not a perfect person. I live between Easter and the parousia and it’s simply not all that comforting to know that God has won invisibly. I want a hope whose tires I can kick to counter the kicking I need hope to survive. And, frankly, I don’t get kicked all that much. What about those who do?

I don’t want hope to live in the future. I’m not there yet. I want hope to trickle back and time and drip on those of us stuck here in the present, when God’s great work remains unfinished. I want hope to give the homeless, the tired, the broken, the poor.

This is the Christian hope: that God will triumph. That God has triumphed. That God has triumphed for us. The Christian hope is not, as it is sometimes mockingly called, “pie in the sky by-and-by when you die”. The Christian hope is for the remaking of the world and the remaking of all of us. If we believe that God hopes only to receive our souls when, freed from our shattered corpses, they make their way heaven-ward then how can we hope for more? If we believe that God intends to transform us and that God’s kingdom will be the world in all its created glory then perhaps we can have hope of more. Perhaps hope can drip backwards to fall on those of us here who live in a world that is not the kingdom but who, paradoxically, hold citizenship in what is yet to come.

Hope resides in the future but we are not merely pawns in the stream of time. If we wish for hope we must walk towards that hopeful future.

I hope for many things. I hope that, one day, no one will starve. So do I give them bread? Do I pray for God’s work in my hands, with my hands, and beyond them? Do I hope with my mind and heart or do I hope with my whole self?

I hope for an end to murder. Do I hope this only because I fear murder myself, or do I hope for God’s own peace? Do I hope so hard that I hate my anger, or do I hope only that it will have no consequences?

Do I live in the future I hope for, or am I a stranger and an alien in a land of peace and joy? If heaven’s kingdom were to make itself manifest around me would I stick out uncomfortably at some awkward angle or would I find myself at home?

If we wish to live in the Kingdom of Heaven then we must live as subjects of heaven’s King. If we wish to be transformed we must ask for God’s work in our lives, God’s strength in our characters, and God’s love in our hearts. Especially that last one. However, if we want hope here and now we must also hope in God. I may, someday, be a gentle person without a touch of anger. I may still be hacked apart by an angry mob. I might, someday, feel no attachment to possessions and give to all in need. I may still become a possession, or be killed by someone who wants them. To hope in God may mean hoping for things that do not happen or hoping to avoid things that do happen. But hoping in God must ultimately mean hoping that God’s plans are larger than ours and that God is not thrown off course as easily as we are. Hoping in God will sometimes mean hoping only in the Day of Judgment. However, hope in God’s judgment requires trust in God’s character, in faith. How might we begin with faith? By tasting God’s goodness. By living, now, in God’s future. By seeing Who God is by accepting the invitation to be a people set apart, a nation of priests and kings, called to a new way of life.

Hope lives in the future but hope begins now. It is unreasonable to hope for wheat to grow from rocks. It is entirely reasonable to hope for wheat to grow from wheat seeds. Personally, I hope to be more like a seed, with God’s new life stirring inside me, than a rock.

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