Hope is an ordinary part of human agency.
When we judge that the circumstances are right, and that we have sufficient resources of strength to act, we embark on a specific course of action in hope of completing it. We go to the grocery store, expecting that it will have the ingredients we need to purchase for dinner. We begin a race for which we have trained, expecting that we will be able to run its course successfully. We teach our children, expecting that they will listen, learn, and master the lessons we teach. We proffer love, hoping that it will be received and returned.
Christian theology knows of this kind of hope and encourages it. Though the gospel does not derive from human agency (Deut 6:10-11; 7:6-8; 9:4-5; Eph 2:8-9), it does reestablish human agency (Deut 8:17-18; Eph 2:10). Therefore, we act in hope. Strengthened by the Holy Spirit, the Christian is encouraged to sow meaningful action in hope of reaping spiritual fruit (Gal 5:6-10). Because Christ is risen, our labor is not in vain in the Lord (1 Cor 15:58).
But Christian theology knows of another kind of hope as well, what Paul calls “hope … against hope” (Rom 4:18). This kind of hope emerges after we have lost confidence in the strength of our own agency, when circumstances are no longer ripe for reaping a harvest of productive action. This kind of hope looks beyond our desperate plight, beyond our own weakness to God.
Christian hope in the strict and proper sense is hope in God.
Psalms 42 and 43 are specifically concerned with Christian hope in the strict and proper sense. The psalmist repeatedly interrogates his soul: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Pss 42:5, 11; 43:5). The reasons for his soul’s dejection are numerous: God seems to have forgotten him (Ps 42:3, 9); the psalmist is cut off from public worship (Ps 42:4); his enemies seem to have gained the upper hand (Pss 42:9; 43:2). Nevertheless, in spite of his circumstances, and in spite of his own inability to do anything about his circumstances, the psalmist summons his soul to hope in God: “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Pss 42:5-6, 11; 43:5).
The psalmist’s hope is focused on God in two senses. The psalmist hopes in God; and the psalmist hopes for God.
The psalmist hopes in God by looking to God to act on his behalf: “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling!” (Ps 43:3). Despite his own incapacity for action, the psalmist is confident in God’s capacity to act, in God’s capacity to bring about the psalmist’s desired effect. When God sends out his light and his truth, the psalmist will be restored to the place he loves to be: “Then I will go to the altar of God” (Ps 43:4; cf. Ps 42:4).
The psalmist longs to be restored to “the altar of God” because he loves God. In addition to his hope in God, the psalmist also hopes for God. Only God can truly satisfy his soul: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” (Ps 42:1). God is the supreme spring of the psalmist’s joy (“God my exceeding joy” [Ps 43:4]). For this reason, the psalmist’s joy is consummated in giving God praise: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Ps 43:5).
During Advent, we “hear …, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” scriptural words like those of the psalmist in order that we might cultivate the psalmist’s hope in God and for God, confident that God indeed has answered the psalmist’s prayer in the gospel of Jesus Christ. God has sent forth this light and his truth by sending his Son to become incarnate of the Virgin Mary, to suffer and die for sinners, to rise glorious and triumphant on the third day, to reign at his Father’s right hand (John 1:4-5; 8:12; 14:6). God in Christ has poured out his Spirit to lead us to his holy hill and to his dwelling, to satisfy our souls in God, to perfect our joy in the public praise of God.
Christian hope in the strict and proper sense–hope in God, hope for God–is what Advent seeks to cultivate. By feeding our souls on the patience and comfort of the Scriptures (Rom 15:4), we remember the promise of Christ’s first coming and stoke our expectation of Christ’s second coming, whereby our “blessed hope” will be fulfilled (Titus 2:13).
Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and the comfort of your holy Word we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent, Book of Common PRayer (2019)