Holding on to Hope

The very first Nancy Guthrie book my wife and I were given was Holding on to Hope. Before we had even turned a page, the title grabbed us because it resonated deeply with the needs we had been living with, at that stage of our life, for almost 16 years. Our daughter was born with severe disability and we were discovering that her needs were to bring fresh challenges year on year. At times our hopes had been shaken and at other times they were simply dashed, but what we knew we needed was the perspective from Scripture that allows us as God’s people to hold on to hope, even when it feels like it has gone.

Ever since receiving her little paperback, the title of Nancy’s book keeps popping into my head at Christmastime – always in relation to a little detail that Luke inserts into his record of the Nativity. It occurs in his account of Mary and Joseph taking the baby Jesus to the Temple to do what was required for him according to the Law of Moses (Lk 2.22-24).

There in the Temple precincts the little family was met by two complete strangers: Simeon and Anna. Luke says of Simeon, ‘He was waiting for the consolation of Israel’ (Lk 2.25). He echoes this in what he remarks about Anna after she had seen the baby Jesus: ‘…she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem’ (Lk 2.38).

Calvin and others point out that these two descriptions of Simeon and Anna are actually the same, but simply phrased in slightly different ways. Since Jerusalem was the capital of Israel, it is used with reference not merely to itself as a city, but for the entire nation of which it was the centre.

The language of ‘consolation’ and ‘redemption’ unmistakably pick up on the language that flows through the prophets in Old Testament times. As we follow the history of redemption through Israel’s history and in light of the God-given interpretation of that history in the prophets and the psalms, we see Israel still longing for both these aspects of God’s deliverance, even when their hope is at its lowest ebb.

This sacred yearning comes to light again at the pivotal moment when the promised Messiah entered the world at a time when Israel’s hope had all but disappeared.

It was not merely that the holy land had endured a long succession of Gentile conquests and occupation; but it had now been annexed by Rome and was under imperial domination. This was indeed a troubling thing for many Jews at that time; but for the two saints Luke mentions, it was far from the worst thing.

Both were clearly true believers in the Old Testament sense of the word. Simeon was not only a ‘righteous [justified] man’, ‘the Holy Spirit was upon him’ (Lk 2.25) – an indication, according to Calvin, that he was a prophet. It was because of a Spirit-given revelation that Simeon had been assured, ‘he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ’ (Lk 2.26). So also with Anna, despite her great age – she had spent much of her long widowhood in the Temple courts – she spent days and nights worshipping, fasting and praying (Lk 2.136-37). She too was not just ‘waiting’ she was holding on to the hope God had given to her and all his people through his word.

The tenacity in hope of these two individuals stands out all the more noticeably because for two very spiritual reasons. The first is that there had been four centuries of divine silence in Israel. The God who had progressively revealed his plan and purpose in redemption through the pages of Holy Scripture, had added nothing to his revealed word throughout this time. Even though it was a period marked with major national and international crises that affected God’s people deeply, there was no fresh revelation. But for the remnant – like Simeon and Anna and the others simply alluded to by Luke – the existing revelation never went stale. Even though many of their contemporaries and others who had gone before them lost their appetite for God’s Word, these two clung to it in faith.

The other spiritual factor that made their faith all the more remarkable was the fact the religion of the time had become more about form than substance. One only has to survey the encounters between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day to see how serious this was. The very men entrusted with the spiritual guardianship of the people of God had betrayed this sacred trust to serve themselves instead of serving the Lord and the needs of his people. So, in this era that was largely devoid of any meaningful spiritual leadership or example, it is noteworthy that we meet these two faithful ones.

Humanly speaking, it was against all the odds that they refused to let go of the promise God had made to send a Saviour. Even though there was nothing in their immediate circumstances that gave rise to hope; the found it in God’s word.

It is curious that Simeon and Anna are not given the prominence in the preaching of the Nativity that they deserve. Not least because not a year goes by when even the most faithful of the faithful in the church find themselves struggling on so many fronts to hold on to hope in face of what they are facing and experiencing.

They knew that the ‘consolation of Israel’ and ‘the redemption of Jerusalem’ would one day come through the child of Promise. Calvin points out that they did not see this simply by looking at the baby in Mary’s arms, but by the Spirit’s revelation through the eye of faith. We too have this revelation, written down forever in the gospel record and it still gives us reason to hold on to hope, come what may!

I have been called many things in my years as a pastor; but one stands out among my favourites. A Jewish believer who attended the church I served in Philadelphia used to call me his ‘Presbyterian Rabbi’. He was steeped in the Hebrew Bible and he visibly exploded with glee every time he saw its promises and truths rise to the surface in the New Testament, fulfilled in Christ. He for one knew what it meant to be ‘holding on to hope’ because he too was ‘waiting for the consolation of Israel’!

Mark Johnston