It took a long time to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A really, really long time. The construction began in 1506 and finished in 1626 – 120 years! There were thirty-one popes during that time! Imagine that you’re a construction worker laying stone at the very beginning – you must know that you would never live to see it finished! It must be kind of discouraging to begin something that you know would not be completed in your lifetime.
In many ways, that is what we hear in the first reading. Notice how everything in the first reading is in the future tense…
The desert will exult; the steppe will rejoice. The glory of Lebanon will be given to them, they will see the glory of the LORD. Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf will be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.
Isaiah never lived to see the fulfillment of the prophecy – it came true 700 years later, when Jesus made it clear that the prophecy referred to Him.
Hope is the theological virtue that makes us wait with confidence on God’s promises. Often we use the word “hope” to mean “wish” – as in, “Oh, I hope I win the lottery” or “I hope I get a puppy for Christmas.” But the virtue of hope means something different: hope is the confidence that God will do what He promised.
And we can look at hope in two ways: first, what God promised to the world, and second, what God promised to each individual soul.
First: God promised to redeem the world. But the world seems like a mess, doesn’t it? Suffering, sin, violence, brokenness, addiction. The redemption is a work-in-progress. Christ came once, as a baby, to begin the work of redemption, but the work of redemption will only be finished when He comes again in glory. To have the virtue of hope, then, is to have confidence that God will come again and bring to completion the redemption He promised. Someday this mess will all work out as part of God’s magnificent plan for the redemption of the universe.
Many early Christians believed that Jesus would come again during their lifetime. They got anxious as years passed and still no Jesus! They suffered persecution, trials, pain, and death – and wondered why Jesus hadn’t come yet! This is why St. James reminded them in the second reading that hope requires patience – God is faithful to His promises, and He will redeem His people… but it might take a while!
We may not even live to see the fruits of God’s redemption! In 1912, a Canadian man named Dr. William Leslie felt called by God to minister in a remote region of the Congo. He spent 17 years with the Congolese people, trying to teach them about God’s word but having very little success.
He was eventually driven out by a tribal chief who wanted nothing to do with this new religion of Christ. Dr. Leslie returned to Canada, feeling like a failure. Fast forward a hundred years – in 2010, a group of Protestant missionaries traveled to the same region to preach the Gospel – and they were stunned to find a 1,000-seat stone cathedral built in the jungle, with thousands upon thousands of believers in Christ among the tribespeople.
Where had their faith come from? From only a handful of believers who had listened to Dr. Leslie a hundred years earlier. He didn’t see God fulfilling His redemption in his lifetime, but God was at work, accomplishing His purposes!
But the virtue of hope deals not only with God’s promises to the world, but also to God’s promises to each individual believer. But we have to be clear – what did God promise us? Not wealth, health, material blessings. He didn’t promise us that our loved ones would always be alive, nor did He promise that everyone would always love us. Actually, He promised quite the opposite – “You will be hated by all”; “You must pick up your cross and follow Me.”
But He did promise us that all things work for good for those who love God. He did promise that He would bring to completion the good work He has begun in us. He did promise that no eye has seen or ear heard the good things that He has prepared for us who love Him.
Essentially, He promised to save us and bring us to eternal life with Him. That is His promise – and the virtue of hope means we have the confidence that He will do this! Even though we are sinners, who may struggle with the messiness of our lives and our relationships, we can have confidence that if we trust in Him and entrust ourselves to Him, He will bring us to Heaven with Him.
But this too takes patience! There is a great story of a devout man who was praying one day and he heard God say to him, “Go out behind your house and push the giant boulder out back.” The man obeyed, and went and pushed and pushed, but didn’t move it an inch.
The next day he went back out and pushed, and it still didn’t move. Day after day he struggled and tried to push this boulder, but nothing worked. Months passed, and finally, he was exhausted and fell to the ground, crying out, “God! Why have you told me to push this boulder? I haven’t moved it an inch!” God replied, “I never told you to move it – I told you to push it. Now that all your pushing has made you strong, I will call you to a real task.”
Sometimes it seems like we’re not making any progress in the spiritual life, that we are still pushing against the same boulder for years and years. But hope says, “God will come through for me; He will sanctify and save my soul. I must only have confidence in Him.”
So, have hope! God will take the messiness of our world and our lives, and redeem it. He has already begun the work of redemption in the world and in our souls. And with hope and patience, He will bring that good work of redemption to completion.