6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
The four weeks of Advent preceding Christmas are so commercially intense that it is easy to forget that the season is about coping with despair. In Isaiah’s time, the chosen people had seen the defeat of the Davidic kingdom, exile and a return to a devastated land. The Jewish people had a vision of what it looked like to be God’s children and they were thrown into darkness when that vision was lost. They were alive but their understanding of a people, blessed by God, special in his eyes, who would be a beacon to the world was lost in the rubble of the temple. They were in deep darkness.
It doesn’t take much imagination to remember personal times of deep darkness. It can be as commonplace as the chronic sleep deprivation of new parents, job loss, a strained marriage, fractured families or alienation in school. Every day there are people who live with depression that is much bigger than a down day, where even the simplest task seems undoable. There are those who have lost—or who are losing someone they have loved. For many, holidays are harsh reminders of times they can no longer have. Deep darkness comes in many ways, some ordinary and some extraordinary.
I see a woman whose daughter was a star child—bright, attractive and with an open future—until she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She is physically healthy but virtually incapable of managing her own life. There are episodes of better functioning but each has ended in relapse. Hours of research, multiple treatment programs and thousands of dollars have come to naught. This young woman’s future is bleak and her mother is in darkness.
The physical limitations of aging are a concrete confrontation with our limitations and the end of our invincibility. A man in my Sunday School class told me his wife had fallen in the night and he was too frail to help her up. I listened then but now I know much more about the despair of his experience. Another woman told me about falling and being unable to reach the phone. As I age, more and more friends are facing chronic pain and terminal diagnoses. ‘No one defeats Father Time’ is a lot more stark when it is happening to you or to those in your circle. Every new ache or pain includes the nagging thought—’Is this a sign of something worse?’—’Will I have this for the rest of my life.?’
Darkness is a place most of us have lived—and a place most of us have survived. That in itself is a way to hear hope. But, don’t cheat and advance the story. It is a lot easier to cope with darkness and despair in retrospect. In the midst of such times, what does it mean to hear hope? Promises and assurances ring very hollow when we are in the midst of loss, debilitation and chronic conflict—when it is hard to even imagine relief. Advent is such a time— we have promises but they have not been realized.
Most commonly I believe we hope for specific outcomes and we gravitate toward promises of such outcomes. For the post-exile Jews, it was the hope of a restored nation, a rebuilt temple and the respect of other nations. For us, it might mean a miracle cure for cancer or at least relief from suffering. We want an end to discomfort and pain and we hope for relief. Unfortunately, such outcomes are as rare as lottery winners. We regularly hear about the winners but never about the hundreds of thousands who lost. There are very few miracle cures for cancer. It usually kills. There are very few people whose dementia is reversed. And even fewer people who get to skip aging—unless they die prematurely. Pick your poison.
If hope resides in an outcome we like, such occurrences are rare. We are stuck with convoluted explanations of ‘why’ some but not most receive what is hoped for. We end up with a God who abandons more than saves and/or a litany of self blame to explain the unexplainable.
The hope that John wants us to hear is the promise of presence—the promise of a God with us. This is not the hope that humans expected nor asked for. As John put it, “10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” The world includes a whole lot of things that most of us would rather skip. Darkness and even great darkness is a regular occurrence. Most of us want that darkness eliminated. What we get is a God who shares it.
Though contrary to our desires, this is an ordinary experience in real life. We may not be able to articulate the mechanism of help but most of us have had someone who could sit with us. They often do not have words and they certainly do not have solutions. They share the pain, the sadness, and the helplessness. When that happens, it is remarkable how sustaining such presence is. Very little gets fixed but we are not alone. Our despair is not a sign of our failure, it is a darkness to be walked through. Sometimes we do not even know how we survived but we kept walking. That is the Jesus story. That is the incarnation—the Word became flesh. The world is arguably just as harsh and unjust as it was in Jesus’ time. Living in hope allows us to love when we cannot see ‘good’ outcomes.
These are not just good ideas, this is a radically different way to live. We believe that every drop of kindness matters but that hope is hard to hold on to. I have slowly learned in my pastoral care that my job is to be present. It is not to change someone. I stand just as helpless before cancer, schizophrenia, rebellious children, failed marriages and dementia. I understand these principles but living them is a whole different ball game. When my mother is confused, disoriented and cannot hold the answer to her questions for more than a minute—when she lives much of her life in another decade and lashes out, there are no solutions. Though God knows we spend a lot of time looking for them, our job is to be kind and to be present. Hearing that truth provides hope. It is the way to get through each day. I don’t like it but discomfort, sadness and helplessness are every bit a part of life as any other. When we face such knowledge, we can better live in the present and we can be more present to each other.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. We only have enough light to take the next step—take it. This is how we hear hope.
Let it be so.