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Crucial words in the Christian vocabulary: HOPE

 

Lamentations 3:22-24                      Romans 5:1-5                Mark 5:1-20

 

“I hope it doesn’t rain the day of our picnic.” You and I have no control over the weather. When we hope it doesn’t rain, then, we are merely indulging in wishful thinking. Is Christian hope mere wishful thinking? No, it isn’t.

“I hope the Blue Jays win the World Series.” This is always possible but extremely unlikely. Is Christian hope a hankering after what is possible but exceedingly unlikely? No, it isn’t.

“I don’t think there’s much wrong with the world.” Some people make statements like this. They are evidently very naïve about the way world-occurrence unfolds, naïve as to the turbulence and treachery and turpitude that riddle the world. They are naïve – or else they know better but have to deny unconsciously whatever threatens to shake up their Pollyanna-ish fantasy world. Is Christian hope simple naiveness concerning the world or unconscious denial of its contradictions? No, Christian hope isn’t this at all.

Then what is it?

 

I: — Hope, for Christians, is a future certainty grounded in a present reality. The present reality is the faithfulness of God. We who are honorary Israelites recognize the landmarks that identify God’s faithfulness to his people. One such landmark is Israel ’s release from slavery in Egypt and her passage through the Red Sea and the stamp at Sinai, the gift and claim of the Ten Words, wherewith God stamped his people indelibly as surely as circumcision is indelible.

Another landmark is Joshua’s leading the same people into the promised land. Another is the renewal of God’s covenant promise to his people and their renewal of their promises to him as God met with his people in the person of David and the person of the prophets. Another landmark is God’s bringing his people back from exile in Babylon and his joining with them in the celebration of their homecoming.

The most noteworthy landmark of God’s faithfulness to his people, however, and the one that towers over all others, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Here God fulfilled his promise to his Son. And the promise now fulfilled to the Son continues to spill over onto all whom the Son summons, over onto all who cling to the Son in faith. God has promised to renew the entire cosmos in Christ. The raising of the Nazarene from the dead is the first instalment of this and its guarantee as well. Therefore the raising of Jesus Christ is the crowning landmark of God’s faithfulness.

But how is it that we believers affirm this when others do not? How is it that we see in the resurrection of Jesus the Father’s pledge and guarantee that one day the entire creation will be healed? How is it that we maintain such a hope, this “future certainty,” when so many people around us look out upon the world and see only what contradicts such a pledge? So many people look out upon the world with its turbulence and treachery and turpitude; they see only a world which, if it isn’t getting any worse, is certainly getting no better.

None of us would ever say that the world, of itself, is improving; of itself it isn’t getting better. Still, all of us at worship this morning are convinced that our hope isn’t misplaced. God has raised his Son from the dead, the climax of his many landmark acts of faithfulness. God will bring to completion that good work which he has begun in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1:8) He will restore to its created goodness that creation which now sits evil-ridden and haemorrhaging from innumerable wounds.

Then why does our conviction remain ironfast in this matter where others appear to lack any conviction at all? In his Roman letter Paul speaks for us: “…we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God…and hope doesn’t disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” ( Rom. 5:1-5) Right now Christians are vividly aware of God’s love flooding us; we know we are awash in God’s love. His love is the environment in which our life unfolds as surely as water is the environment in which fish thrive.

What’s more, our present experience of God’s uninterrupted love; which is to say, our present experience of God’s promise-keeping is itself part of his faithfulness to us. Our experience of his loving faithfulness prevents our hope from evaporating into nothing or worse, collapsing into despair. Our present experience of God – his love flooding us and supporting us – is an aspect of that present reality (the resurrection of Jesus) which grounds the future certainty.

In other words there are two aspects to the present reality of God’s faithfulness: one, his raising his Son from the dead as promised; two, his flooding us with his love so as to support us in our hope.

There’s a feature of this hope we mustn’t overlook: God commands his people to hope. To be sure, hope is first a gift from God. It has to be a gift first of all, since only God has kept God’s promises and only God has raised his Son from the dead and only God can flood our hearts with God’s love. Nonetheless, the hope that arises solely on account of God’s faithfulness and therefore has to be his gift to us; this hope we are also commanded to exercise ourselves. Then hope we must. We disobey God if we don’t affirm our confidence in God’s future. Indeed the mediaeval rabbis maintained that the first commandment of the ten, “Thou shalt have no other gods besides me, Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel;” this commandment was logically identical with another that our Jewish friends clung to in the middle ages, “Thou shalt not despair.”

 

II: — But we are tempted to despair, aren’t we? We are tempted to abandon confidence in God’s future when we are face-to-face with life’s frustrations and contradictions and outright bleakness. On the one hand, it is the Jewish people, from the time of Moses onwards, who have insisted that God’s people continue to hope. On the other hand, the centuries of heartrending tragedy that have befallen this people in particular is precisely what might tempt anyone to renounce hope in God’s transformation of this world.

In 1943, in the little village of Sighet , Rumania , soldiers arrived to deport the Jewish inhabitants. An old man, Dodi Feig; as soon as Dodi Feig saw the soldiers and knew what they were about, he put on his very best suit. “Why are you putting on your fine suit?” someone wailed, “You won’t need that where we’re going.” “Don’t you understand?,” replied Mr. Feig; “Because of the disaster threatening our people, because of the horrible mutilation only a train ride away, the Messiah will certainly come. He can’t fail to come in this situation. And I want to be wearing my best when I meet him.” How Dodi Feig felt; what he thought two days later I don’t even want to contemplate. I like to think he died praying the ancient prayer which so many of his fellows have recited since the time of Maimonides in the 1100s, “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah. And though he tarry, yet will I believe.”

It’s easy to see why hope is not only gift but also command. It has to be command or else world occurrence will find hope evaporating. In the face of the world’s distress we must hold up, anticipate that day, say prophets and apostles, when the world’s people will hunger no more, neither thirst any more; when nation no longer lifts up sword against nation; when God wipes away every tear from every eye. Having been given hope as gift, we must continue to honour hope as command.

 

II: — But why are we commanded to hope?

[a] We are commanded to hope because without hope, without confidence in the coming transformation, our faith collapses. We like to say we believe in God. In what kind of God? We believe in the God whose “search and rescue” mission in his Son is going to restore us to the uttermost. When are we going to be restored to the uttermost? When we stand before God on The Great Day and his love, only his love, yet burning as hot as it has to, burns out of us whatever dross and impurities remain in us. In the meantime we are glad that God has already begun his work of renovation within us. He began it the day we were “clothed” with Christ in faith. Still, we’d never pretend that God has finished his work within us.

The apostles are of one mind concerning God’s work of restoration. Jude exclaims, “[He will] present you without blemish before the presence of his glory with rejoicing.” (Jude 24)   Peter writes, “[You will] be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.” (2nd Peter 3:14) All Christ’s people have been appointed to live with him eternally without spot or blemish. Every last sin-engraved defacement; every last sin-wrought disfigurement; every last distortion within us is going to be eliminated. But we’re not there yet. At the same time we don’t want to lose sight of our destination, for if we ever lose sight of the destination we’ll wander off the way. If we wander off the way then in our discouragement or cavalierness we’ll start to indulge the sin that remains in us instead of repudiating it.

What’s more, we’ve been told we are going to be found without spot or blemish and rejoicing, and at peace. Our life isn’t joyless now, but there’s enough heartache to prevent us from saying we are rejoicing without interruption. Our life isn’t devoid of peace now, but there’s enough disruption to prevent us from saying we are at peace without qualification.

We are commanded to hope. We are commanded to hope just because our faith in God’s completion of the work he has begun in us must give way to sight on that day when we do appear before him without spot or blemish, rejoicing and at peace.

Several years ago the shell of an apartment building was erected on Bayview Avenue in the Don Valley . For some reason completion of the building was delayed, then delayed some more. At first passing motorists nodded knowingly, “It will be finished soon. It looks promising.” But it wasn’t finished. After a few years this building became an oddity, the butt of jokes at dinner parties all over Toronto . After another few years (by now we are up to 25) the building had become an eyesore, a piece of clutter. Eventually the building-shell was levelled. Anything that begins full of promise but doesn’t move on to completion becomes first an oddity, then an eyesore, and finally rubble. Without hope, confidence in God’s coming transformation of you and me and the entire creation, faith follows the same route, ending in collapse.

You must have noticed that the New Testament regularly links faith, hope and love. Hope is the middle term between faith and love. You see, hope keeps faith from collapsing under the weight of disappointment and delay.   Hope also keeps love from dissolving under the acids of frustration. After all, for how long can love be frustrated (as love is frustrated whenever it meets ingratitude or nastiness) and not dissolve into petulance? Only hope keeps love loving and faith clinging. It’s no wonder we are commanded to hope.

 

[b] We are commanded to hope, in the second place, because without hope the individual gives up. We quit the kingdom-work we began with such conviction and zeal. We quit working, quit struggling, quit anticipating. We just quit. Paul urges the Christians in Corinth , “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour will never be in vain.” Is our work in vain? It often appears to be in vain. Just when we are about to give up we remember: the God whose faithfulness we have known for ourselves we can count on for our work. Regardless of what appears to be happening or not happening right now, any work done in our Lord’s name and for his sake he will take up and use as an ingredient in his coming transformation of the creation.

Hope, in other words, is our confidence that what we see isn’t all there’s ever going to be. Under God there is going to be more than we can now see. Such hope has everything to do with our capacity to tolerate, even triumph in, life’s pain and confusion and occasional bleakness. Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor, noted again and again that prisoners who came to feel that the bleakness around them was all there was ever going to be; in other words, those who lost hope – these prisoners broke down, sickened and died at a much faster rate.

You and I don’t live in a concentration camp. Still, from time to time, even for extended periods, we are visited with frustration, perplexity, uncertainty, discomfort. Hope keeps us from giving up.

I should never pretend that such hope comes easy. In the midst of his torment Job cries out, “I feel only the pain of my own body.” In other words at that moment he’s in such pain that his pain has eclipsed everything else. On such days, says Paul, God’s people “hope for what isn’t seen” (Romans 8:24 ); that is, there’s no evidence for our hope that a neutral bystander would notice. On these days, says the apostle, we simply cling to the God whose faithfulness has raised his Son from the dead and whose faithfulness will reinvigorate us.

 

[c] We are commanded to hope, in the third place, because without hope the world is abandoned. Whether we really hope with respect to the world is made plain by our answer to one question: Does the world have a future? Oh yes, since we are Christians we quickly say, “Of course the world has a future: its future is the manifest kingdom of God .” But while we say it as if we were on autopilot do we really believe it in our heart? Because only as we believe it our heart do we refuse to abandon the world.

The most dangerous person in any society isn’t the murderer. (Murder, by the way, is the crime with the lowest “repeat” rate. Since murder is usually a crime of passion the vast majority of murderers offend only once.) The most dangerous person is the cynic. When the cynic comes upon those combating racism or environmental pollution or nuclear madness his only comment is a contemptuous, withering, “What’s the point? You can’t make any difference.” Unknowingly the cynic is forever urging people to abandon the world.

In his major theological statement, the letter to the churches in Rome , Paul maintains that the entire creation is in bondage to inferior powers that corrupt it.   But even as it is in bondage to powers that corrupt it and frustrate it the creation longs to be free from them, and longs so ardently, says the apostle, that the creation “groans,” is always groaning, to be free from them. For this reason Paul insists, in his Roman letter, that God has stamped the word “hope” upon the entire creation. “Hope” means “transformation guaranteed.” For this reason, then, the cynic who carps, “What’s the point?”, isn’t merely a threat; he’s also a blasphemer.

In view of the fact that every single arms race in human history has ended in war, and in view of the fact that even conventional weapons now have the firepower of Hiroshima-era nuclear weapons, I refuse to label “pinko” or anything like this those who work tirelessly for arms limitation.

In view of humankind’s reliance upon the sub-human world I maintain that environmental pollution is no small matter.

In view of the fact that a few years ago there were 16,000 psychiatric beds in Toronto hospitals and today there are 4,000 psychiatric beds, I am convinced that those who spend themselves for psychiatrically distressed people now living wretchedly; those who care for them shouldn’t be dismissed as bleeding-heart do-gooders. They remain the most realistic people in our society, for they know that those they care for have been appointed to an end that the townspeople saw in our Lord’s earthly ministry when a deranged man was found seated, clothed and in his right mind.

 

Hope is always God’s command. We mustn’t despair. For hope keeps faith from collapsing; hope keeps us from giving up in our kingdom-work; hope keeps the world from being abandoned.

At the same time, before hope is God’s command it is God’s gift. He presses upon us a future certainty (his creation transformed) grounded in a present reality (his Son raised and his love flooding our hearts.)

Knowing all this, we are eager to say with Jeremiah, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will hope in him.”

 

                                                                                                     Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                

 March 2004