Hoping Against Hope

An Advent Meditation

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11.2-3)


I have hopes. Of the way I’d like things and me to be. However, as the world and I remain stubbornly resistant to change, sometimes, I wonder whether my hopes are earnest. Or wishful thinking? Or something entirely other?

John hoped for the coming Messiah who would inaugurate the reign of God’s righteous rule. Baptizing “with the Holy Spirit and fire” and, with winnowing fork in hand, “clear the threshing floor, gathering the wheat and burning the chaff.”[1] In a word, rendering judgment, dividing the righteous from the wicked. So, John preached, calling all to repent in preparation for the coming of this Messiah.

John, now imprisoned, believing in Jesus the Messiah had come, but hearing no news of the ensuing judgment, wonders. Was his hope earnest? Or wishful thinking? Or something entirely other?

Caught in that terrible place between bewilderment (“Was my hope wrong?”) and despair (“My hope was wrong!”), John’s heart is broken open. In that vulnerability, he wonders whether he may have been wrong for the right reason. That what he had hoped was not to be. Yet the word he had preached (“After me, comes one who is more powerful than I”) was truer than he could have imagined. So, John dares ask, “Jesus, are you the one who is to come or must we wait for another?”

Jesus, in compassion, knows mere words (even saying, “Tell John I am the Messiah”) are inadequate. So, Jesus offers John signs. Demonstrable, visible proofs of brokenness made whole. Symptomatically, the blind see, the sick are made well. Systemically, the poor receive good news and the dead are raised. The way things are is being overcome.

Will John see the signs? Not simply acknowledge their occurrence, but accept them as proof of the fulfillment of his hope? Can John relinquish his belief that the realization of his hope must be as he had dreamed?

That’s my question, too. Will I, can I see in Jesus the fulfillment of my hopes about the way I’d like things and me to be? A fulfillment so extraordinary, perhaps unbelievable precisely because it doesn’t look like anything I can imagine, for it is other than the way things are and the way I am. A fulfillment that in the face of hurt and anger and the cry for vengeance, always forgives. That in the face of need, in compassion, always sacrifices my security to serve. That beholds the world’s brokenness and, praying of another possibility, always acts to bring the light of hope to life.

© 2022 PRA

Illustration: John the Baptist in Prison, Juan Fernández Navarrete (1526-1579)

[1] Matthew 3.11, 12

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