It’s so good to see everyone! It’s great to be out of the snowdrifts and black ice, isn’t it? This time last week our driveway was an icy luge in-the-making and we opted to stay safely at home. But we missed you!
In this season of Lent, our sermon series is organized around the Voices of Our Faith. We are focusing on words that reflect the way we approach a life in God – words like justice, hope, mercy, reconciliation, and joy point us towards Easter and the Resurrection of Christ.
Todd spoke last week on Justice – where we work for the world to become as God created it to be. That is, to move past societal norms and politics and focus on the Creator’s design for our world, one that has beauty, equality and justice.
The Voice of Our Faith this week is the voice of HOPE.
HOPE. What is it? What do Hope-filled (or HopeFULL) people do? What difference does Hope make in a Christian’s life?
Hope is an elusive word and it’s one that we misuse all the time. It’s not wishful thinking (“I hope it doesn’t rain on Opening Day for the Nats!”) or a wish-on-a-star-God-make-it-happen kind of prayer. (Though don’t we all pray that way sometimes?)
Hope is vesting ourselves in what is possible. It moves from the present to the future. Hope is desire combined with confidence and discipline. It is based on reality, or, in the Christ-follower’s case, on the Promise that God is absolutely true, absolutely trustworthy, absolutely the same yesterday, today and forever.
Hope is the fire that fuels our passion for justice. It’s beyond feelings, in fact, Hope buoys us up when we feel discouraged and depressed.
Wishful thinking, on the other hand, is when we really REALLY want something to happen. It’s passive. It’s not necessarily based on reality. It’s expressing uncertainty and wishing for the opposite. Tossing a penny in a wishing well or wishing on a star have no guarantees but they can, for the moment, make us feel better.
I like how Eugene Peterson expresses the difference between Hope and Wishing:
“Wishing grows out of our egos; hope grows out of our faith. Hope is oriented toward what God is doing; wishing is oriented toward what we are doing…
Wishing is our will projected into the future, and hope is God’s will coming out of the future. Picture it in your mind: wishing is a line that comes out of me, with an arrow pointing into the future. Hoping is a line that comes out of God from the future, with an arrow pointing toward me.” (Eugene Peterson, in Living the Message, Daily Help for Living the God-Centered Life)
When we build on Hope, we are embracing the reality of God’s work in our world and in each other. When we are hopeFULL, it changes…
What we see
What we hear
What we say
What we want
How we respond
INTELLECTUALLY, we get this. Practically and emotionally, we have a problem, because we rarely experience it.
Why don’t we experience hope?
I think one reason is because we are caught up in the present and the demands in our lives:
Bills and student loans
We are overwhelmed and frustrated. We have little to no endurance. And we lose perspective on what’s really going on.
We do not see God at work. We forget the spiritual realm is active, and God is present and working.
Hope has staying power. It fuels our passion for justice. It allows someone to look past the reality of one’s struggles and believe God can bring change. It energizes and moves us to change. Why else do you think people stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama 50 years ago and banded together to demand change? It was their Hope in justice, God’s justice, to prevail in a human justice system.
Let’s stop and think for a minute… Imagine…
Imagine standing on a bridge, one named after Edmund Pettus, a Confederate general and Grand Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan. Imagine preparing to walk, peacefully, towards Montgomery, Alabama to petition your state to give you voting rights – ones that you already had been given almost 100 years earlier in the 15th Admendment. Rights that were systematically denied you, and others like you, simply because of your race.
Based on history alone, with generations of discriminatory voting practices, why would you believe that things could change? HOPE.
Hope brought about people who persevered. A week later, in a third attempt, the march started towards Montgomery. The numbers swelled from a couple hundred to 25,000 by the time they reached the capital. And Congress, galvanized by the reaction to that Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965, and the show of support from a united front of men and women from many races and religions, passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a few weeks later.
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march. President Obama and family, and former President George W. Bush walked across that bridge in a symbolic act of remembering how far we have come, and how far we have to go as a nation. The original marchers, some of whom were present at yesterday’s commemorative events, explained why they decided to march in 1965. They had a confidence that was based on Hope. They were ready to see change.
“When I was a child, I didn’t know how it would affect my life now, but it also makes me sad that some of the same battles of the sixties, we seem to be fighting over again. And things don’t go away. We keep renaming the same stuff and I think every generation thinks they have to start a battle over. But if you don’t know the mistakes and the gains of the past, you’re destined to be bogged down in the same stuff.” – Selma marcher Joanne Bland, 11 years old in 1965
Paul the lawyer, Paul the Jewish scholar and Paul the human being help us understand something of the nature of Hope. This chapter is a long “therefore” building on everything Paul has written in this letter. A legal argument, if you will, that started back in the previous chapters.
Paul the lawyer set out a logical argument and explanation of the basis of our hope and faith in God. I know it’s a challenge to wade through Paul’s writing sometimes – but don’t let all those dependent clauses and therefores and wherefores throw you off!
Paul explains that it is God doing the work of reconciliation. It is God showing mercy to us.
Paul explains that
We have peace (verse 1) because we are in relationship with God
We have access to God by faith (v 2) because of God’s love, compassion and forgiveness
We are loved in spite of who we are (v 8) – sinners – to use the old-fashioned word – people who fail to live up to God’s standards and who hurt one another – and yet we are accepted by God because of our relationship through Christ.
Paul the Jewish scholar also asks us to remember the faithfulness of God. He knew that God heard the cries of the Jews in exile. The slaves in Egypt. The testimony of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus. The oppression of the Jews by the Roman Empire.
Paul wrote out of an intimate awareness of how God can be trusted.
Perhaps he remembered the words of Jeremiah to the refugees in Babylon:
From Jeremiah chapter 29
11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
These are words that were written to captives in Babylon, words that they believed but did not see come to pass until their great-grandchildren went back to Jerusalem.
Or perhaps Paul the scholar remembered the promises of God in Joel 2, words that reached across centuries to the coming of the Messiah:
28 “… I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.”
Words that came true on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit filled a crowd. These words from Joel are yet to be completely fulfilled – they are full of promise for God’s final redemption in the world to come. Words where WE can find HOPE.
Poignant words, to be sure, for a bridge in Alabama, for Christians who are beheaded in Libya or killed in Nigeria or Mali. They are words of Hope for our country as we try to understand the brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, or the shooting of a homeless man in LA.
Our world needs Hope, doesn’t it?
But I think the perspective I value the most as I try to wrap my head around the legal arguments of Paul the lawyer, and the centuries of Jewish history by Paul the scholar, are the honest hope-FULL statements of Paul the human being.
Paul the human being reminds us that we will walk though more than our share of disappointments, frustrations, doubts, questions and fears. Our very human condition of failure found in the word “trouble”.
Going back to Romans 5:
2b …we boast in the hope of God’s glory. 3 But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, 4 endurance produces character, and character produces hope. 5 This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Common English Bible)
Depending on the translation, “trouble” is translated “affliction” or “sufferings” or “problems.” The Greek word is “tribulations” – the soul-rending, heart-breaking events that make us want to give up… the long, dark nights when we are discouraged or depressed. We’re not talking hangnails or flat tires, here. It’s the stuff that causes us to give up completely.
Paul the human being was writing to the Church in Rome – where there was at least some opposition to the Church there, if the outright persecution by Nero and others had not yet begun. “Tribulations” (troubles) were a very real possibility.
Paul the human being reminds us that God invites us to persevere – to make it through the long haul… As someone who likes my coffee quick and hot and ready to go, who loves her microwave and cooks pre-fab dinners, I am honestly not a fan of endurance and perseverance. Our culture is INSTA-everything! It’s not “telegrams” any more — it’s “INSTAgrams!”
Anne Lamott says:
“Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”
When we persevere, when we hang in there, we are invited to lay claim to the promises God has made to each and every one of us!
God’s love is why we hope – hope in God does not disappoint us. Paul says it is an Artesian well poured out into us, full of God’s presence and promises.
From verse 5… “the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
This is the “REAL PAUL” – the man who wrote later in 2 Corinthians about having a “thorn in his body” that he had to live with. Something that he suffered with, endured, and kept serving God.
I think he knew what he was talking about.
First, we remember that this process of living a Hope-FULL life has no short-cuts.
There will be problems and disappointments. Sometimes it will be simply because “life happens” — like cancer, or dealing with nature. Other times, it is when trouble comes because someone else has directly or indirectly brought it on us – the car accident, dishonest stock broker, or identity thief.
From our troubles, we gut it out with perseverance, demonstrate our character, and discover the faithfulness of God – HOPE in God.
We also need to remember that life is best done TOGETHER.
We are relational beings created in the image of a relational God. We watch, encourage, pray and love each other. Anyone who has ever been in a support group or 12-step group will tell you how much strength and courage is found in others’ presence and love. You can’t get it on-line. It doesn’t happen from a distance. It’s life together.
There’s something else we see in people who understand the power of Hope. A Hope-FULL life is one that is visible and demonstrable.
Hope brings a challenge to live out the ways God is at work in our lives, so that others can find hope in God as well. You can watch someone who is hurting, yet who has a deep-in-the-gut trust in God, and you know that they believe God keeps God’s promises.
I think about the people in my life who are up against incredible odds… physical, emotional, psychological, relational… day after day, they live in a way that honors God and reflects their HOPE. They inspire me to hang in there just a little longer.
Rep. John Lewis, one of the original Selma marchers, tweeted yesterday, “When people tell me nothing has changed, I say come walk in my shoes and I will show you change.”
Do you think he believed on that day 50 years ago that he would celebrate this day with an African American president? That he would be an elected Representative to Congress from the state of Georgia? I think the work of the Lord exceeded his expectations! This is a man who has lived out the word HOPE.
The cross of Christ is a place of acceptance. The reminder that our present, finite souls are part of a huge and infinite reality.
The cross is a place where forgiveness, reconciliation and hope-FULL people demonstrate to one another God’s love. It’s one of the reasons that I love how we serve one another communion. It’s God’s hope, in the bread and the cup, put in our hands, that transforms our lives.
Every week we celebrate Communion, we remember these words of Paul – God’s Hope demonstrated through God’s love for us. We boast in the HOPE of God’s glory to be made real in us and through us. The gifts of God for the people of God point us back to the cross where Love brought about reconciliation, peace with God, and Hope. They are a reminder of the ever-present, ever-nurturing Spirit of God within us. They speak to our souls – where we will touch the Infinite Hope, the life-changing power of the risen Christ.
If we remember this, we can make it through life’s disappointments and challenges. In the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King: We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.
May you find, this week, INFINITE hope!
Thanks be to God!