READ : Proverbs 13:12
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.
Proverbs 13:12, RSV
I want to think with you today about your hopes and dreams, about your desires and longings – what it’s like when they’re fulfilled and when they’re frustrated. I want to focus on great expectations that are realized and others that keep receding into the distance. Here’s the word of God in an old proverb: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”
Maybe you are celebrating today a desire fulfilled, a long cherished wish come true. One family close to us is rejoicing like that now. They had been a long time waiting for one of their children to marry when finally their lovely daughter took the step. After what seemed ages more, they got the news that she had become pregnant. Then after nine months and a protracted time of difficult labor, the little boy finally appeared. First child, first grandchild! After all that waiting, here was a great yearning fulfilled.
Some of us lived through the agonizing years of World War II. A smaller circle may remember World War I. Terrible conflicts, those. So many nations involved. The fighting went on and on. Casualties too many to count, destruction beyond the telling. It seemed that almost every family had some loved one at the front; almost every home knew sorrow. Only those who lived through those days can fully grasp what it was like when the fighting ended. No more round-the-clock terror, no more anguished waiting. VJ Day was a collective sigh of enormous relief, the welling up of a great joy in the midst of terrible pain and loss. It was the fulfillment of our best hopes, the answer to prayers without number.
The first Christmas was also a hope realized, a desire fulfilled – this time for the whole world and for all the ages. From the dawn of God’s revelation, there had been hints that a Deliverer would come, someone to right earth’s wrongs and bring God’s banished ones back home. The vision became more clear in the promises made to Abraham and later to David: a seed through whom all the families of the earth would be blessed, a promised king whose reign would never end. In Him God’s justice would appear and His peace be known. Prophets told of His advent; psalmists sang of His glory. Every Hebrew girl dreamed that she might some day become the mother of God’s Messiah. And so through the centuries His people waited, forgetting the promise at times, then recalling it again. Broken by tragedy but sustained by hope they kept looking forward. The Lord whom they sought would suddenly come to His temple. And then it happened on a starry night in Bethlehem. The Lord of glory came down, the Almighty One to be born as a baby. The hopes and fears of all the years, we sing, met in a stable that night. It seemed the greatest of desires fulfilled. To all the world it was a well of refreshment, a tree of life.
Simeon spoke for all of us when he took up the little child in his arms and blessed God and said:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel (Luke 2:29-32).
He was saying, “Lord, it’s enough. Here is the One I’ve been waiting for all the days of my life. Now my hopes are realized. I’m ready to go.” “Joy to the world! The Lord has come!”
But that first Christmas was a long time ago, wasn’t it? From where we stand, we are looking back on it, not ahead. And some of us haven’t known very much of desires fulfilled. Maybe we know too much about hope deferred.
All of us have tasted something of what it’s like to have our hopes deferred. The little boy has waited for days that seemed interminable for a promised trip to the circus. For weeks, he has hardly lived through five minutes without thinking about it. He’s been telling his friends at every chance he had, “I’m going to the circus with my dad!” Then came the crushing news, “Sorry, Johnny, I’m not going to be able to take you this weekend.” It seems that his father would to have to go out of town. “We’ll have to go some other time.” But that “other time” seemed, to a heart-sick boy, light-years away. It’s hard when hopes have to be deferred and the painful waiting begins again. There seems to be no end to it.
I know someone who has been waiting for the effects of an illness to leave him, and now it has been over ten years. There has been some improvement, but the hoped for wholeness hasn’t fully come yet. It’s hard sometimes to fight off the demons of discouragement.
Perhaps you’ve been battling against a condition that doesn’t seem to improve, struggling with a broken relationship that just won’t heal, agonizing in a prayer for which no answer seems to come. You know firsthand how hope deferred can make the heart sick. Maybe it seems to you at times that the fulfillment you long for is never going to come.
This proverb doesn’t give us all that we need, does it? It describes things as they are – quite accurately. It tells us that a desire fulfilled is a tree of life, a source of joy and refreshment, and also that hope deferred makes the heart sick. But it doesn’t tell us how we can move from the one to the other. We need to take in the larger witness of the Scriptures for that. I want to think with you now about how we can wait with patience, how we can hang on when hope is deferred, not becoming so discouraged that we give up.
BETWEEN THE TIMES
I ask myself, how have the saints of the Lord in other times been able to wait patiently? What about Abraham, for example? Think how long he waited for that son Isaac. He kept waiting until he and Sarah were well past the age when most people have children. He was an aged man, and Sarah a very old woman. And as far as the land was concerned which he was to possess, he kept waiting for that his whole life long and never did really settle down in it. How did he keep going when hope was so long deferred?
The answer is clear: Abram had God’s promise. And really, that’s all that he had. The Lord said to him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” God didn’t say where the land was or how soon he would have it. He simply said “go” and “I’ll show you.” Abram packed up and started out on his way. Then God said to venerable, childless Abram, “I will make of you a great nation . . . Look toward heaven and number the stars if you are able to number them. So shall your descendants be.”
Imagine that! Here was the promise, but where was any supporting evidence for it? Sarah had never borne a child, and was getting older every day. Abram tried once to take matters into his own hands, fathering a child by Sarah’s handmaiden. But that wasn’t God’s answer. He kept saying, “Sarah will bear you a son.” The promise seemed so slender, so improbable, but that’s what this man of faith leaned on. That’s what he steered his course by. That’s what kept him from losing heart.
Yes, and when my hope is deferred and yours, that’s what we have to lean on. If you are a believer in Christ, all of God’s promises find their “yes” for you in Jesus. Sometimes it doesn’t seem the least bit likely that His word is going to come true for you – about as improbable as a woman in her nineties giving birth. But if God has said it, you can count on it. “I’ll never fail you, nor forsake you,” He says. “As your days, so shall your strength be . . . Everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; to him who knocks it will be opened.”
How did Moses keep on going? When he got in trouble and had to leave Egypt, while he spent 40 years in the desert when nothing seemed to be happening, how did he keep himself from anxiety and discouragement? Listen to the writer to the Hebrews. He tells us this about Moses: “He endured as seeing him who is invisible.” Moses couldn’t see God, obviously, with his physical eyes. It took eyes of faith. But Moses kept steadfastly looking in God’s direction.
You know what that is like. Where I live, in western Michigan, late fall and winter is always a cloudy time. Sometimes we can go for several days without seeing a bit of sunshine. It gets hard to remember at times what that blazing orb in the sky looks like. But we hold on in the faith that the sun is still there. And, on some days, the clouds actually part and those cheering rays from heaven break through.
In a similar way, we can’t always see God clearly, what He’s up to, how He’s working out His purposes. But we can always keep looking in His direction. We can set Him before us. We can give Him our attention. And that’s faith. We’re not responsible for the seeing, but we are responsible for the looking. And sometimes looking toward God, keeping Him in our thoughts, gives us what we need to persevere. Along with His promise, He gives us His presence. Often it happens that just when we’re most needing light and a lift, the cherished sunshine comes streaming through.
But even more than that, God is gracious to give His people a foretaste of what’s ahead. You may still have to wait a long time. The final fulfillment isn’t here yet, but God gives you tokens, glimpses, a sip or a taste of what is yet to be.
Jesus, after His resurrection, spoke to His disciples about a coming day of the Lord. They were told by the angels that He would come again as they had seen Him go into heaven. But the time of waiting turned out to be very long. He didn’t return during the lifetime of any of those first Christians, nor of any other generation, to this day. But in the interim, while they were waiting and hoping, He gave them His Holy Spirit. And the Spirit, remember, was to bring to them the “firstfruits” of the coming age. He would be, the apostle Paul tells us, like a “down payment” on their inheritance.
If you are a Christian today, if you’ve trusted Christ as your Savior, you have received the Holy Spirit. You have tasted the life of the age to come. You’re not there yet, not completely. You’re still battling against temptation. You still stumble at times. You still suffer. You still know sadness. But already the Holy Spirit is beginning to make real to you the kind of life you will know fully when Jesus comes again.
And that Holy Spirit is the One called alongside to help. He’s the encouraging Spirit, the One who puts fresh heart into you, the One who picks you up and gets you going again, the One who consoles you and cheers your heart. So when the waiting seems long and hope is deferred again and again, ask God to fill you with His Spirit and give you a fresh sense that help is on the way. Trust Him to give you some little sample of the fulfillment that may be still way out ahead.
And remember this: one of the ways the Holy Spirit does that is by bringing the reality of Christmas home to your heart again. The birth of Jesus is the pledge that God is forever with us, forever for us. He came to share our life, to identify Himself with us, to stoop under our load and bear our sins. The message is, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?” (Romans 8:32). God gave us, in other words, His very best. He’s not going to withhold indefinitely what we most long for, and what He has clearly promised. So hold on in faith. The One who came once at Christmas will yet come again. What God starts, He’ll finish, and the hopes He has kindled in our hearts, He will never finally disappoint. You may be feeling sick at heart now because the answer has seemed so long in coming. Our hearts are with you. But hope deferred, remember, is not hope denied. Let God’s greatest gift in Christ remind you that He’ll never, never let you down.
PRAYER: O God, all of us have strangled hopes and baffled longings. May we know today because of Your great gift in Jesus Christ, that there’s a sure fulfillment out ahead and may we hang on. In Jesus’ name. Amen.