Fourth Thursday of Advent: The Hard Work of Hope

By Rev. Dave Carver

Advent Devotional | December 22, 2022

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
    from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
    the Spirit of counsel and of might,
    the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord
and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

—Isaiah 11:1-3a (read Isaiah 11)

My friend had been told that she’d never conceive.

Her body just wasn’t aligned right, they said. Maybe you can adopt, they said.

But a wonder: she got pregnant. She delivered prematurely, but well, and a healthy son blessed this beautiful couple. What unexpected joy!

Don’t get your hopes up, they said.

Two years later, another conception. More joy and anticipation. Around the seventh month, she was hospitalized in an effort to avoid the risks of premature birth. Six long weeks of waiting, hoping, feeling the baby move, knowing that the baby was growing. And then—released from the hospital. Go home, they said. Get yourself ready. This baby will be here soon, they said.

Two days later, she called me in tears. “Dave, I need you to take me to the hospital now. The baby is dead. I know it. My husband will meet us there.”

And she was right. Something had happened, and the baby’s oxygen was cut off. The pain and horror of a stillbirth awaited this family and their community.

Another year went by, and yet another miraculous pregnancy. Only this time, there was no joy, no hope. “I can’t do that again,” she said. “Why is this happening?”

She did all the right things, but she could not find any reason for hope or joy. When they hospitalized her again, she was bereft. “I can’t, Dave. I just do not have, and cannot find, hope.”

I was a young pastor, but somehow the Lord gave me the right words.

“I know you can’t. So don’t. Let us carry the hope for you for a few months. We are your community. We can hope. We have lots of hope. You work on getting through the day.”

And so there were six long weeks of waiting, hoping, fearing, trembling, feeling the baby move, knowing the baby was growing. And then: a miracle. A healthy child. Tears of joy and relief and release.

Pizza in the maternity ward.

Isaiah paints a beautiful picture of an Edenic future. God’s people, and indeed all of creation—restored and renewed, walking in the paths of peace. What could be more indicative of that than His assurance that the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the lion and the calf and the fatling and the toddler shall all sleep together? Isaiah speaks of a fundamental re-orientation of creation. It’s beautiful.

But we’re not starting from scratch.

When we see the soft, tender, new growth from Jesse’s line, it comes from a “stump”—all that remains of the once-majestic tree in which we trusted, and for which we had great hopes. The great theologian Woody Allen once observed, “The lion will lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.”

Hope—the first time—is exciting. It’s fun. It’s easy, in many ways.

But what about hope in the face of failure? Hope in the ruins? Hope amongst ashes?

The wolf and the lamb know how it’s been. And now they are called to a new way of being. We—and all creation—are glad for that. But it’s hard to hear, and harder to hope, when you know the reality of hope deferred.

In the cold, dark, depths of Advent, the Church is called once more to say that cold and dark are not God’s eternal intentions.

We look at the scoreboard and are reminded that the lambs, the kids, the calves, and the fatlings are still being shut out—and we say, “But not for always.” We walk into the refugee camps, past the children who have suffered unspeakably, into the mouth of the drought, the famine, the persecution—and all we have is hope.

But we have hope.

In the incarnation of Jesus, we have seen something of God’s intent.

Shepherds are called to leave their flocks (even for a night) with the expectation that the wolves and the lions will not bring destruction—not here, not tonight. Pregnant teenagers sing of God’s care for the poor. Old priests dream big dreams. And we know that something is happening.

And we have hope.

In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious. (Isaiah 11:10, NIV).

Even in Isaiah’s great vision, all the people are given is a piece of cloth, a bit of fabric to wave. Yet this is no mere textile. It is a banner of hope. It is a declaration of both identity and intent. It is a rallying point around which the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead may congregate—and carry each other’s hope.

It’s not easy. But it’s good and it’s true.

This Advent, may we be a people who are willing to acknowledge the difficulty of hope?

May we be willing to understand how and why it’s so hard for some people to catch the vision of restoration and reconciliation? And then, can we continue to raise the banner anyway, knowing that it is not dependent on who we are or what we do, but rather always on—only on—the One to whom that banner points?

In all likelihood, we’re not going to “solve” anything this Advent. We’re going to keep burying children and bailing out floodwaters and lamenting lynchings. But we dare not do any of that with the banner in our pockets.

Let us, O Church, wave the banner of hope that we’ve been given into the places where such hope is at a premium, and let us give that hope away as freely as we have received it.

—Dave Carver is Pastor of First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dave served on CCO staff from 1982 through 1988, and his church has partnered with the CCO off and on since then.

This story first appeared in the 2017 CCO Advent Devotional.