Although the theme for this second week of Advent is peace, I’ve decided to keep working with the theme of hope. There is so much more to say about it. So to begin, a brief re-cap of the three kinds of hope we talked about last week. First, there is wishful hope, which is hope for things that are beyond our control. There is nothing we can do to make our wishful hopes come true. For example, “I hope it doesn’t snow on Christmas Eve.” Second, there is “aspirational hope,” which is hope about which we can do something, although, we may not. For example, “I hope all my teeth don’t rot and fall out.” (One of my recurring dreams). This aspiration motivates me to brush, floss, and go to the dentist. The third kind of hope is “overarching hope,” which describes a stronger, more comprehensive confidence about the future that is not tied to a single event or outcome. This kind of hope whispers, “In the end, everything will be all right.” Living with a sense that despite the struggles, setbacks, suffering, and disappointments, all shall be well, this sense nurtures peace in us. It frees us from undue anxiety and worry, and enables us to get up in the morning, put one foot in front of the other, and move forward into the future, without absolute certainty about what the future will bring, but with confidence that whatever comes, we will be okay.
I don’t know if our cat SiSi thinks about the future. But as human beings, who live in time, we are turned to the future. We live forward. As adults we think about and plan for what is ahead of us. We live with an awareness that time runs out. Time flies. Life is short. We say, “Use your time wisely. The future is just around the corner.” Every form of hope, whether wishful, aspirational, or overarching hope is future-oriented.
Now, the more likely it is that what we hope for in the future will surely happen, the better the bet, the greater the possibility, then the less hope we need. Right? If what you hope for exists in the realm of the possible, if it is expectable, plannable, foreseeable; if you have the means and the drive to forge ahead, then you don’t really need hope to get you there.
So maybe, we can say, the condition under which deep hope becomes necessary, and real, and possible, is in the face of the impossible. Derrida, the French philosopher, defines the “impossible” as something that shatters the farthest horizon of our expectations, something that breaks in upon us unexpectedly, catches us unawares, brings us up short, leaves us lost for words. It is the thing that we cannot possibly see coming. The thing that leaves us scratching our heads and saying “That’s impossible.“ The impossible, unforeseeable happening can be tragic and devastating, or it can be the most incredible, best impossible thing ever.
Think about the Jesus story. The disciples, who believed that Jesus was God’s promised Messiah, the one who would restore the kingdom of Israel, thought it was impossible that he should be crucified. No way, no how, never, ever possible. His death shattered their world. It annihilated their hopes. And they thought it equally impossible that he should live again. When Jesus appeared to them alive, with fresh wounds on his flesh, and breathed out the Spirit on them, their expectations, their world was shattered again. Both of these shatterings—the shattering experience of Jesus’ death, the shattering experience of his new life, are the doorway into a world in which true hope in God can be born.
If the story of God with the people of Israel, if the story of Jesus with the disciples tells us anything, it is this: that God is the possibility of the impossible. What the whole Judeo-Christian story of God in history tells us is that God is the thought we cannot think. God is the happening that we cannot predict or foresee with certainty. God is the transforming, limit transcending reality that is both with us in the present, and also always out ahead of us in the future. To go with God, to trust God with your life, your today, your future, the future of the world, is to surrender your expectations to what you cannot know to expect. It is to submit all of your best, foreseeable possibilities to the possibility of the impossible, and all of your best hopes to an even bigger and better hope that embraces you and God’s whole creation.
It is easier and safer to stay put than it is to go where you don’t know; safer to remain within the horizon of normal human expectations, within the realm of the possible, within the comfort of the tried and the true, than to embrace and stake your life on a future that God alone can bring to completion and God is already bringing into the present. There is an already, and a “not yet” to God’s future. God’s full future is beyond our seeing. It exists in the form of promise. God is the One who makes and keeps promises. God is the One who calls us into radical trust and blesses us with a hope that rests in the assurance that God is ahead of us and that a new, unexpected thing with a revolutionary effect for the future has already been accomplished by the God. To call upon the name of God, to pray for God’s kingdom to come is to call for the coming of what we cannot see coming. It is to commit ourselves, in hope, to the possibility of the impossible.
Zechariah the priest has been praying for God’s kingdom to come. It is his job. He has done it for so long with so little tangible result that he has come to expect that nothing will change. What has been will be. What is within the realm of possibility for him, he will do. Then this angel shatters his expectations with a promise that his wife Elizabeth will become pregnant and give birth to a son who will change the course of history. Zechariah cannot believe it. The word of promise is choked by his sense of the impossibility. That ship has sailed. That train has left the station. He and Elizabeth are not spring chickens. His hopes for a child have shriveled up and died. It is no wonder that he asks for a sign. Some proof that what the angel promises will come to be. It is the human response to the impossible. Zechariah doesn’t want to run home and raise Elizabeth’s hopes without absolute certainty that he isn’t just talking nonsense, and giving into some wild wishful hope that is beyond his own possibilities. The angel takes his voice away, not as punishment for his disbelief, but as a gift. A gift that temporarily silences all of the voices in him that say: this is not possible.
Zechariah must embrace the promise. He must take the risk to hope again. He must claim this promise and let it spur his own aspirations, and give him courage to act toward a future that he could never, ever have imagined, much less participate in. Zechariah must make silent love with his barren wife Elizabeth. And he does. And the impossible happens. She conceives. In her womb, the hopes of a hopeless old couple, the hopes of the people of Israel, the hopes of the world come to life.
Zechariah will get his voice back, and he will resume all his ordinary priestly routines and rituals with all his own aspirations directed toward God’s presence and God’s future. And his story will be added to all the stories of how God makes and keeps God’s promises in ways that we cannot know, or expect, or prepare for. Stories of world’s shattered, of hopes crucified, and of hopes snatched from the clutches of death. Stories of God’s wild love, and irrepressible life, and impossible promises breaking open the horizons of our even our greatest human expectations. This is the overarching hope that, even if as small as an embryo growing in the womb of an old woman, is enough to prompt us to risk our lives with this God who is the promise and the possibility of the impossible.