"I hope it doesnt rain the day of the picnic." You and I have no control over the weather. Hoping it doesnt rain is nothing more than wishful thinking. Is Christian hope wishful thinking in the face of all that we cant control?
"I hope the Toronto Blue Jays win the World Series." They might win it; its possible to be sure, even though its extremely unlikely. Is Christian hope a hankering after what is extremely unlikely?
"I hope well soon learn to get along together, and class hostility, social conflict and financial exploitation will soon be a thing of the past." Anyone who speaks this way is most na´ve concerning human nature and utterly ignorant of human history. Is Christian hope childlike na´veness with respect to our nature and inexcusable ignorance with respect to our history?
I: -- For Christians hope is a future certainty grounded in a present reality. The present reality is the faithfulness of God. Gods faithfulness is marked out by major landmarks (promises he has kept) in his involvement with his people, an involvement he wont renounce on behalf of a people he wont abandon. One such landmark is Israels release from bondage in Egypt and its deliverance at the Red Sea. Another landmark is Joshuas leading the same people into the long-promised land. The landmark that towers over others, however, and gathers them up into itself, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Here all the promises of God find their fulfilment. Here the fulfilment of Gods promises to Israel and to Israels greater Son overflows out onto all flesh, Jew and Gentile alike, out onto all whose faith-quickened seeing acknowledges the presence and power and purpose of God in Jesus of Nazareth. God had promised to renew the entire creation in Christ, liberating the creation from its bondage to the evil one, freeing it from its frustration and allowing it to flower abundantly. Gods raising his Son from the dead is the decisive moment of this promised liberation and is therefore the landmark of Gods faithfulness.
Question: how is it that we who are believers affirm this while unbelievers do not? Believers and unbelievers alike live in the same world, suffer the same pain, undergo the same treachery and turbulence and tragedies. Yet believers speak of Gods faithfulness as the ground of their hope while unbelievers see no evidence of faithfulness and no reason to hope. Then why do believers persist in hope while unbelievers dont? Believers continue to hope, continue to insist on a future certainty despite present contradictions, never feel that their hope is misplaced because "Gods love has been shed abroad in our hearts." (Rom. 5:5) At this moment believers are aware of Gods love flooding them. Our present experience of God is itself part of Gods faithfulness to us. This too is part of the present reality undergirding a future certainty. In other words there are two aspects to the present reality of Gods faithfulness: one is what God has done for us in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead; the other is what God has done in us as the Holy Spirit has soaked us in the Fathers love again and again. No wonder we look with confidence to the transformation of men and women, nature and universe, as the entire creation is finally healed.
Such hope is certainly a gift from God inasmuch as the resurrection of Jesus Christ and our Spirit-wrought inclusion in that resurrection is a gift from God. While such hope is plainly a gift, however, it isnt gift only; its also a command. God commands his people to hope. To be sure, its only as he gives us hope that he commands us to hope, yet command us to hope he most certainly does. For this reason the mediaeval rabbis used to say that the arch sin is despair.
II: -- Despite the fact that hope is both gift and command, despair remains humanly understandable. Lifes contradictions are just that: contradictions. Lifes frustrations, suffering so very intense and protracted as to leave behind whatever lesson we might need to learn through suffering, lifes unrelieved bleakness for unnumbered people: all of this renders despair humanly understandable.
In 1940, in the little village of Sighet, Rumania there pulled into the railway station the train that would soon take the villagers on their three-day trip to Auschwitz. The people were beside themselves. An old man in the village, Dodi Feig, put on his best suit, the suit he wore only a couple of times a year on extraordinary occasions of celebration. "Why are you putting on your best suit?", someone wailed, "you wont need that where were going!" "On the contrary", replied Feig, "because of the unprecedented horror that has overtaken us, the Messiah cant fail to come. And when the Messiah comes, I want to welcome him wearing my best." How Dodi Feig felt three days later I cant imagine. Many like him died praying the ancient prayer of Maimonides, "I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah. And though he tarry, yet will I believe."
Hope is Gods gift and therefore Gods command. This command, like any command, is to be obeyed. Temptation here is like temptation anywhere: temptation to doubt the goodness of God and allow oneself to violate the command of God. Yet this temptation, like any, is to be resisted. Despite lifes contradictions we are to join prophets and apostles in announcing that day above all days when the worlds wretched neither hunger nor thirst any more, when nation no longer lifts up sword against nation, when God wipes away every tear from every eye. We are commanded to hope.
III: -- But why? Why are we commanded to hope? Because without hope, Christian faith collapses. Faith is faith in the God who wont abandon his creation so much as a nano-second before he has restored it so thoroughly as to have all of humankind, Christian or not, ascribe him the praise that he is owed. We say we believe in God. What kind of God? The God who returns the creation to the glory with which it first came from his hand. When? To what end? Paul writes a word of encouragement to the Christians in Philippi, "I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ." (Phil. 1:6) God has begun a good work (the good work) in them. We know what the apostle means. We like to fend off our critics humorously, "Be patient. God isnt finished with me yet." Not only has God not finished with us yet, it appears he has scarcely begun and has ever so far to go. Then will he leave us half-recovered? Is he like a transplant surgeon who removes the patients damaged heart and then gives up on the surgery, leaving the patient with no heart, or with the new heart improperly connected, or with the new heart properly connected but without the after-care apart from which the heart-transplant is useless? He who has begun a good work in us is going to complete it. And he has promised to do as much for the creation writ large.
Several years ago construction was begun on an apartment building on Bayview Avenue in the Don Valley. The shell of the building was several stories high and gave every indication of eventually providing fine accommodation overlooking the Don Valley, even Lake Ontario. Then there was a dispute, unresolved, between the builder and city hall officials. Construction was halted. Every day motorists driving up and down the Don Valley Parkway nodded knowingly, "It will have to be finished soon. It cant just stand there." In fact it stood there for years, as builders and politicians waited for each other to blink. After several years the structure became an oddity, the butt of jokes. Another year or two and it had become an eyesore. Another year or two again and the project was abandoned, the building shell reduced to rubble. Anything that begins full of promise but doesnt move on to completion becomes an oddity, then an eyesore, and finally rubble. Without hope, without confidence in the completion of Gods transformation, Christian faith follows the same route: beginning with promise it ends in collapse.
You must have noticed that scripture links faith, hope and love, and groups them together again and again. Hope is the middle term between faith and love. Hope keeps faith from collapsing under the burden of disappointment and delay. Hope keeps love from dissolving under the acids of frustration. Hope fortifies love and lends it resilience. Hope stiffens faith and forestalls collapse.
We are commanded to hope, in the second place, in that apart from hope the individual gives up. Apart from hope we give up, quit; quit working, quit struggling, quit sacrificing, quit living, simply quit. Paul urges the Christians in Corinth, "Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain." (1 Cor. 15:57-58) Is your work in vain? Is mine? Our kingdom-work can never be in vain. The God whose faithfulness we have known for ourselves is the God whose faithfulness we can trust for our work.
One week ago today Mr. Allen Stretton, a long-time member of this congregation, died. His funeral service was conducted on Wednesday. At the reception downstairs following the service a young woman spoke with me, thanked me for the service just concluded, and then thanked me for the funeral service at which I had buried her brother several years ago. I had driven home from a cottage one afternoon in August inasmuch as I had had to bring Mary home to meet a friend. I was planning on staying in Streetsville for one evening only, then driving back to the cottage next morning. At 4:00 oclock in the afternoon of our arrival the phone rang. I thought to myself, "Im on holiday. I need a holiday. Ive waited all year for a holiday. Another minister is covering pastoral emergencies in any case. Im not going to answer the phone." By the second ring I was thinking, "Perhaps its my dear wife. Ive been away from her for three hours and perhaps she has sweet somethings to whisper to me." And so I answered the phone. It was Carol Stretton. Her 28-year old nephew had died in distressing circumstances. Would I help? I phoned Maureen and told her Id resume our holiday in a couple of days. Last Wednesday the young woman told me that her parents still talk about her brothers tragic death, the funeral service, what was said, and how much they were helped. Then she kissed me and moved off to speak with someone else. Can our work ever be in vain?
"What youve just related has nothing to do with hope", someone objects; "its improper to speak of hope when concrete results are already evident. Hope is properly hope only where whats hoped for hasnt appeared." The objection is sound. In the midst of his torment Job cries out, "All I can feel is my pain." At the moment of his outcry he cant see even the tiniest bit of hopes fulfilment. So far from being fulfilled, even ever so fragmentarily, hope appears simply futile. His friends think him silly for continuing to hope since theres no evidence to suggest his hope is anything but wishful thinking; his hope seems as groundless as a childs wish for the appearance of Mary Poppins.
The apostle Paul has just such a day in mind when he reminds the Christians in Rome, "Hope that is seen isnt hope. For who hopes for what he sees?" (Rom. 8:24) The apostle is correct. Hope is genuine hope only where what is hoped for isnt seen. In the next verse the apostle reminds the Roman Christians that an accompaniment of hope so very necessary as to be virtually an aspect of hope is patience: Christians are patient in hope where there is no earthly evidence to support our hope and no apparent ground of our hope. No apparent ground, I must underline, for the ground of our hope is always and everywhere the faithfulness of God, promises he has kept. Possessed of such hope, we never give up, never quit.
We are commanded to hope, in the third place, for if we fail to hope the world is abandoned. Whether we are possessed of hope as scripture speaks of hope is made plain by our answer to one question: does the world have a future? Do we expect it to have a future, or have we concluded that the world can only repeat itself until it finally burns itself out and is consigned to the garbage can?
If I asked you to specify the most dangerous person in any society, what person would come to mind? The psychopath? The most dangerous person to have around isnt the psychopath. (Besides, how many of them are there?) The most dangerous person to have around isnt the murderer or the molester or the lunatic. Its the cynic. The cynic is forever sneering, "Whats the use? Why bother?" The cynics noxious breath is breathed out everywhere. Unlike the breath of God that turned dust into life, the cynics breath turns life into dust. The cynic claims victories here, there and everywhere. The cynics victories, of course, are actually victims, victims whose new-found "Whats the use?" abandons a world that God never abandons. To be sure, the damage done by those who violate Gods creation is no little damage; far worse, however, is the damage done by cynics whose cynicism impedes the healing of the creation and disdains the signs pointing to its ultimate restoration.
In his major theological statement, the letter to the church in Rome, Paul maintains that the entire creation is in bondage as a result of the fall. The entire creation is in bondage to assorted powers that not only enslave it but also corrupt it and disfigure it. Not surprisingly, then, the entire creation "groans", the apostle says, groans to be freed from that all that now corrupts it and disfigures it. To say that the creation groans at its frustration and longs to be freed is to say that the entire creation has "hope" stamped on it. "Hope" means "transformation and fulfilment guaranteed." Since God has guaranteed the release, transformation and fulfilment of the creation, the cynic isnt merely going to be proved wrong; the cynic is also going to proved a blasphemer, for the cynic has continued to say, "Whats the point?", when there is every point to identifying and identifying himself with that restoration at Gods hand which will unfailingly appear.
Let me say it again: the cynic is a blasphemer. She maintains that struggling on behalf of a groaning world is pointless. Shes a blasphemer inasmuch as Gods struggle on behalf of a groaning world is going to issue in splendour that will redound to his praise. The cynic cruelly worsens the afflictions she could relieve and blasphemously imputes indifference or ineffectiveness to God. The cynic is the most dangerous person on the face of the earth.
Whats the point in helping feed the 4,000 people per month (half of them children) that our foodbank feeds? The point is that a banquet has been arranged for them at which theyll be eating something besides tinned beans and Kraft Dinner.
Whats the point of resisting arms races, even as we are aware that every single arms race in the history of the world has issued in war? The point is that the day has been appointed when swords will be beaten into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.
Whats the point of tireless work on behalf of deranged people? (I trust you are aware that when I came to Streetsville there were 16,000 psychiatric beds in greater Toronto and now there are 4,000.) The point is that like the deranged man in the Gadarene hills who lacerated himself and ran around naked and shrieked appallingly; like that man whom our Lord touched as an instance of the kingdom, the deranged are divinely destined to be found, one day, seated, clothed, and in their right mind.
Whats the point of teaching underprivileged adults and ex-convicts to read? Dont even ask the question, for blasphemy ought never to be uttered in these precincts.
If ever we abandon hope, we abandon the world. But God wont abandon it, and I, at least, cant bear the thought of having him lonely.
Hope, from a biblical perspective, is a future certainty grounded in a present reality. The present reality is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and our vivid experience of him. The future certainty is new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells, says Peter. (2 Peter 3:13)
Hope is Gods gift and Gods command. Without such hope Christian faith collapses, the individual quits, and the world is abandoned. Glorying in our present experience of our risen Lord we cant help crying with Jeremiah, "The Lord is my portion; therefore I will hope in him." (Lam. 3:24)