Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
The people of Rohan are trapped. Surrounded by impenetrable rock on all sides save one, their only path of escape blocked by a blood-thirsty hoard of orcs. The women and children in vain flee deeper into the mountain, gaining but a short reprieve from their inevitable doom. The fighting men have twice retreated already, and now they have no choice but to make one final stand, to face the terror at the door with what courage they have left. There is no hope of victory, no hope of living to see another sunset. There is only the meager comfort of dying a hero and dispatching as many infernal beasts as possible before the end. But even this comfort, such as it is, is robbed by the knowledge that no matter how valiant the fight or how many monsters are slain, thousands more will yet pour into the caverns at their backs when they lie dead, there to murder the innocent loved ones they will have failed to defend.
A single beam of dawn breaks over the stone window to the east. Aragorn, in sudden remembrance of a dim promise, turns to the king and says, “Ride out with me.”
This scene, or something very much like it, is what I think of when I hear the words “A thrill of hope.” Just at the moment when things seem the most hopeless, and then hope comes unexpected, the sudden rush of adrenaline and wonderment (an interesting mixture of the physiological and the mental) is aptly described as a thrill. A thrill that brings you to tears.
One fascinating layer of the Christmas story is that this thrill is almost entirely retrospective. We can only guess at what the Shepherds, Wise Men, Mary and Joseph knew or felt at the birth of Jesus, but we can safely assume that the World had no idea that the tide of history had turned that night in a tiny, dirty stable. Rohan is saved, the enemy is defeated. Now we need to go tell everybody.
In this respect, the great commission is a mandate to bring this thrill of hope to all the nations. Not that the gospel is all about getting a chill up your spine. The birth of the Son of God is an objective reality that accomplishes something real in a world that is really mired in sin and error and pining after fellowship with a Creator it has rejected. If Gandalf’s promised return is nothing more than a comforting narrative Aragorn tells himself to give meaning to his suffering, then his thrill of hope will be decidedly short-lived (and so, incidentally, will he). But his hope, rooted in faith, is in something objective. Gandalf’s staff and the spears of the Rohirrim are very real, as the orcs are soon to discover.
At the same time, objective realities ought to affect us. If Aragorn doesn’t have any particularly strong feelings about the hope of immanent salvation, but stoically suggests that it might be preferable to live than not, we would suspect that he either does not grasp the true nature of his peril or else he does not truly believe that salvation is coming. And of course we are prone to both errors. It is no accident that Paul’s magnificent presentation of the gospel in Romans begins with the wrath of God revealed against all unrighteousness. Unless we know deeply our wretched state, we cannot feel the great thrill of our hope. The people of Rohan had no idea that their very existence as a people was being threatened, after all, until a herald came to shake them out of their ignorance and complacency, and to point to the hidden rot within their own kingdom (and subsequently, to cast that rot out and make the heart of their kingdom, its king, new again).
Yesterday, December 2nd, was the beginning of Advent. This is not the season when Christians dutifully meditate upon the many 50%-Off blowouts at Sears and Amazon, faithfully trusting in God to lead them to make just the right purchases to please their family around the tree. Nor is it (I only grudgingly admit) the season when we finally get to listen to Christmas music every day without getting strange looks from the fellow in the car next to you (though it is that). This is the season when Christians get to run around excitedly asking everyone they meet, “Have you heard? He’s come at last! He’s come to make all things new! The tide has turned!”
Evangelism tends to focus on Easter, and even more on Good Friday. “You’re a sinner, right? Well Jesus took care of that, and here’s how.” But Christmas, it seems to me, is an equally evangelistic celebration. Jesus is the reason for the season, but what is the reason for Jesus? The reason is that for a very, very long time the world lay pining in sin and error, darkness and despair. And just then, a beam of dawn breaks. A light unexpected. God eternal comes, a helpless babe.
To know this and understand it is to feel the thrill of hope. And if you truly feel that thrill, if you know the hope that brings you to tears of unbearable joy, how can you not share it with those who still wallow in hopelessness? How can you not to turn to everyone you meet and plead, “Ride out with me”?