Phillip Brooks was an American Episcopal clergyman and author. In the month of December of 1865, he took a trip to the Holy Land. He wanted to study and reflect on the life of Jesus on Christ’s native soil. On Christmas Eve he made the short journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, where he assisted in the celebration of a midnight communion service.
When he returned to America and was reflecting on his experience in Israel and specifically that night in Bethlehem, he wrote the Christmas song, O Little Town of Bethlehem.
You can almost imagine him remembering that clip-clop horseback ride down through the narrow streets in the dark night on Christmas Eve in 1865 when you hear the words from that favorite old hymn.
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
That line in that old hymn distills in eight words what the Christian family has experienced for two thousand years. The great and deep longings of the human heart for spiritual reality; for peace, for justice, for a sense of home in the world—all find their resolution in the person of Jesus.
I wonder what kinds of images and emotions come to the surface of your heart when I say the word “hope.” How might you have used that word in the last week or so?
As you plan your holiday parties, you might glance at the weather and whisper, “I hope the weather cooperates.” You get ready to watch the Denver Broncos play another football game and you say to yourself, “I hope they don’t embarrass me again this week.” Perhaps you got into a car after Thanksgiving this year and you drove home alone and thought to yourself, “I hope next year someone will be with me on this journey home.”
What do we mean when we use the word “hope”? Often, we are really saying, “I wish this would happen, but I don’t seriously expect anything to happen.” But followers of Jesus have meant something stronger, more stable, and more energetic when they use the word “hope.”
The prophet Isaiah gives us a vision of hope and he tries to paint a picture for us of a great promised day when God would step into history to heal it and to restore it.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 2:4
While these words are emblazoned on the United Nation building in New York, they are more than about cease fires in the middle east and nuclear containment. This is a vision of a world put back together and restored to pre-fall status.
Isaiah is pointing to the day when God steps into this broken world to heal it. Restorative justice will triumph. Truth will prevail, wrongs will be made right and God will stand up for all of the kicked down and trampled upon of all history. And on this great day—peace, shalom will win the day. On this day weapons of death and human destruction will be transformed into tools to be used for human life and flourishing. This day will be a day where humanity will forget how to harm each other.
When we purchased our home, the owner left several antiques and I would take pictures of them and send them to my brother, who is an antique dealer, and ask, “What is this and what was it used for?”
Isaiah is telling us that there is coming a day when we are going to come across a bomb, or a drone, or AR-15 and ask God, “What is this and what was it used for?”
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.” Isaiah 2:3
This is describing a gathering of folks from every tribe, color, and language that would otherwise never associate with one another, but who are worshipping God. So, if associating with people of color is awkward for you, you are going to find heaven an uncomfortable place. At the center of this gathering is this vision of a mountain.
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it. Isaiah 2:2
Now, mount Zion in Israel is not that tall, as mountains go. The point here is that where God’s house or Temple is a transcendent place.
Some sights have taken my breath away—appetizers of transcendence. Like the first glimpse of my wife in her white wedding gown as she walked down the aisle of the church. Like the sight of my first son squirming, screaming, chin quivering and arms flailing as the nurse wiped gunk off his nearly ten-pound body. Like the first time I saw the Grand Tetons and averted my eyes because it was as if I were looking at the very face of God.
The way the Jews thought of the Temple is that it was a thin place where God’s dimension of reality and mankind’s dimension of reality overlapped and interlocked. It’s where flawed people like you and I could be in God’s perfect presence. It’s where God’s presence was available to sinners like us.
Isaiah is promising that there will come a day when all kinds of people from all over the world will be gathered together in God’s presence. A world-wide family connected to each other and connected to their creator in this thin place.
The Christian story, properly understood and practiced, ought to make us hope-bringers and peacemakers in a fallen world starving for both. Christian hope is a vision of tomorrow that gives us direction, energy, and strength for today.
5 O house of (O people of God),
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!
We live, serve, create, educate, work, love, forgive, make peace, and study now with sturdy hope because we have our eye on this great promise of tomorrow. We know where God is taking us, so we walk in the light of that great tomorrow—today.
The late Lewis Smedes reminds us, “Keep hope alive, and hope will keep you alive.”
Jesus is that blessed hope. That’s where all your hopes and fears belong.
Life without hope is no life at all.