Light at the end of the tunnel?
Updated: Apr 18, 2020
We need hope, particularly as the lock down continues into an uncertain future. So at yesterday’s press conference foreign secretary Dominic Raab seeks to reassure: "There is light at the end of the tunnel" Some years back my good friend Jeff, a New Yorker, was experiencing major problems with his businesses. I recall him emailing me to say that the only light he could see at the end of the tunnel was the front-end lamp of the approaching locomotive. It was a grim time for him. Sometimes you just have to laugh. As it happens Jeff is Jewish and one of the blessings of the Jewish faith is the gift of humour, not least from the rabbinic tradition. Two Rabbis, Rava and R Zeira, get together for the Purim Feast, and Rava, in his cups, takes out a sword and beheads his colleague. When he sobers up and sees what he’s done, he’s of course horrified and brings him back to life. Rava invites his friend to a Purim feast the next year; R Zeira declines, saying “Miracles don’t happen every year!” I’ve just pulled that out of “Jewish comedy, a serious history” by Jeremy Dauber, an academic study of how Jewish comedy has mirrored, and sometimes even shaped, the course of Jewish history. And the serious point here is that the Jewish people, almost from day one, have known suffering. Hence the humour. And it is from the Hebrew scriptures we discover hope, an understanding that however bleak our present situation may be, God is at work, faithful to his promise to bless. There seems to be some tie-up between humour and hope. Thanks to the lockdown I am now making rapid progress through Tom Wright’s magnum opus, "Paul and the Faithfulness of God", no pictures and lots of footnotes. The end at page 1519, however, is in sight; just 198 pages to go! The point is that I have now finished his section on Paul’s theology, on how the cross and resurrection of Jesus transformed his Jewish understanding of how God is working in his world, especially what God has in store for us. So chapter 11, God’s future for the world, freshly imagined, begins with the observation that “many ancient Jews clung on to a hope which had specific content and shape. . . Such Jews were distinguished from their neighbours, however, not simply by the precise content of this hope but by the fact that they had any large-scale hope at all.” Wright goes on to observe that “it would be very odd for a Dictionary of Judaism not to have a substantial entry on ‘Hope.’ . .There is no such entry in the Oxford Classical Dictionary.” In other words, neither in Greek or Roman culture do we find any equivalent to the hope we of the Hebrew scriptures. This very much mirrors the popular culture of our day from which God is excluded. Cosmologist Stephen Hawking articulates this postmodern world view: “it is clear that we are just an advanced breed of primates on a minor planet orbiting around a very average star, in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies.” And our future? Here Hawking, with little faith in human nature, speculated that we would turn the planet into a giant ball of fire by 2600 due to overcrowding and energy consumption which will make earth uninhabitable. Not much to look forward to there, and yet Hawking inexplicably advances a hope which he himself lived. If we are breed of primates, albeit advanced, why muster the courage to overcome a terrible disability? “However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at,” he suggests. “Where there's life, there's hope.” Is this just whistling in the dark or a sense of God’s faithfulness, still embedded in our culture despite centuries of secularism? “God's mercy and grace give me hope,” declares Billy Graham and then he adds “for myself, and for our world.” It is the resurrection of Jesus which changes everything. Only God could produce hope from the despair of a Roman cross, a hope anchored in this world, the world you and I live in. We are not talking here of some remote and insubstantial existence, “over the Rainbow” so to speak, sought by the Greek philosophers. Jesus’ victory shows that God is going to renew this world, so that his will is done here on earth as it is in heaven, a world where - in the words of the Hebrew prophet “sorrow and sighing will flee away!” (Isaiah 51:11). However, what completely changed the apostle Paul thinking was that this glorious future promised by God has now arrived in the resurrection victory of Jesus, not at the end of time which he thought as a Pharisee but even now in our distracted and disturbed world. There is light but not at the end of the tunnel. It shines here in the darkest and gloomiest section. So the apostle rejoices “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6). We’re still in the tunnel but Jesus calls us to shine with his light, even in our small corner as we wait for Christ to return. So Paul exhorts us: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.” (Ephesians 5:8) After God created 24 hours of alternating darkness and light, one of the angels asked him, “What are you going to do now?” God said, “I think I’m going to call it a day.”