A Living Hope: 1st Peter 1:3-9

In the early 1980s I was flying from Greensboro to Newark and sat next to a delightful little grandmother.  In those days, the airlines served food even on short flights, and the stewardess came by to ask if we wanted a sandwich.

My seatmate said, “I am hungry. What do you have?”

The stewardess said, “Ham and cheese.”

My seatmate declined the offer, but I accepted. As I ate my sandwich, between well-chewed bites, I turned to her and said, “You turned down the ham and cheese. Are you Jewish?”

She smiled and said that she was, immediately adding, “I survived the holocaust!”

She then told me the story of how she  and her family was taken prisoner by the SS and shipped off to one of the work camps. Her mother, father, and younger brother all perished in the camps, but by some miracle—and sheer determination, she survived.

I said, “In the midst of all that horror, what did you hope for?”

She said, “I hoped to be alive at the end of the war.”

Over the course of our lives, we all hope for many things. Some of our hopes are vain hopes. Some of our hopes are vain hopes. For instance, as my 16th birthday approached, I had a hope that I would go down to breakfast on the great day and find that my dad had placed a set of keys by my place, and the keys would fit a red 1965 Mustang Fastback with a Hi-Performance 289 Cubic Inch V8 and a four-speed transmission.  Of course, I never told my dad or my mother that I wanted that Mustang because I knew it was way beyond my needs and way beyond his means. It was a vain hope, and I knew it. Still, because I knew my parents loved me, I figured that my chances were at best 1 in 1,000 and at worst 1 in 1,000,000.   You may laugh, but my hope was not nearly as vain as the hope of winning the Powerball Jackpot.  If you play Powerball, on average, you have 1 chance in 292,200,000 to win.  By contrast, you have  1 chance in 222,000 of death or injury from being hit by lightning in any calendar year. And 1 chance in 57,825 chance of dying from the sting of a hornet, wasp, or bee over the course of your life.

Some of our hopes are vain hopes, but some are quite worthy.

  • We all hope for food and shelter—and you and I are blessed to have both. In America everybody has the chance of food and shelter–if they will take it. It is a tragedy when they don’t, but it happens.
  • We all hope for good health. As well we should,  for there is no greater division among human beings than the division between those who are well and those who are seriously ill. No one wants to be told that we have cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and the like.  But diagnosis is the first step toward a cure, and that should give us some hope.  Much of the time, the odds are good!
  • Likewise, we hope for safety and security, especially today, because violence can be more deadly than any disease. We know from countless headlines that violent people often give no warning and show no mercy, not even to children.
  • We all hope for love, and we all want to belong. All children need love from their parents—and if they don’t get it, they spend a lifetime looking for it. Father Richard Rohr says that a great many American men go around emotionally crippled, looking for the love that their fathers never gave them. Most people grown-up looking for love. Some hope for a partner, a husband, or a wife who will share our adventures when we are young and share our miseries when we are old. Others simply want to belong—to a family, to a church, to a group of friends.  Sometimes we just want to go where everybody knows our name and accepts us for who we are.  People who are truly blest know without being told that “there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother or a sister.”
  • We hope for other things. We hope for a good education for ourselves and for our children, whether in the classroom or in the school of life. With an education, we hope for a job—and more than a job, we want a vocation, a calling, and the sense of purpose that comes with it. It was the poet Thomas Carlyle said, “The man who has found his work is blessed; let him ask no other blessedness.”  And the investor  Warren Buffett still says, “Do what you love, and you will never work a day in your life.”  Who would not hope for that?

Hope is a good thing, and most people pass through life seeking the realization of their hopes and dreams.  That said, many do not have hope beyond this life.  According to John Stewart, 30 percent of Americans have begun to define themselves as atheists. Like Carl Sagan they believe that the cosmos is all there is, there isn’t anything else.”  Their hope is for this life only.  Many face death as Sagan did. He told people not to look for a deathbed conversion, and he was true to his word.  Others are not so bold, in a world without God and without hope they finish their lives filled with despair.

This does not have to be. I once asked my friend David Carrol, a physicist, why, as a scientist,  he believed in God. He said, “The wisdom of crowds.”  He went on to explain that 95% of all the people alive today believe in God or in gods—and that over the history of the world, the percentage is even higher. Most of these people have had a hope that transcends death.

The Pharaohs and other rulers of Egypt spent the better part of their lives building their tombs and stocking them with all the necessities they would need for the journey into the afterlife. When a pharaoh died, their favorite servants and pets were often sacrificed in order that they might accompany them on a dangerous journey that carried them deep underground, before they were judged righteous and granted access to an after-world not unlike our present world.

The ancient Greeks also believed in life after death. Socrates told his disciples that he believed there was better than an even chance of surviving death. Then, just before he drank the poison that would take his life, he spoke of his hope that, in the afterlife, he would meet and converse with the great thinkers, statesmen, and heroes of the past. Plato was more confident of life after death than Socrates, but he thought in different terms. Plato thought that the human soul or life-force was a little spark broken off from the Eternal Flame which burns at the heart of the universe, which we call God, and, at death, the little spark returns to the flame to be swallowed up again.

Unlike the Egyptians and Greeks—and most other civilizations, the Ancient Jews were like the tough and wonderful little grandmother on my flight from Greensboro to Newark.  They were cautious. They did not believe in life after death. Most of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, reflects the conviction that a human being is a unity of body, mind, and spirit. When the soul, spirit, or life force leaves the body, the person is dead. Their body goes into the ground, ashes to ashes and dust to dust, and whatever remains of is related to Sheol, aka, the grave, aka the place of departed spirits, aka death, aka the pit.  In Sheol— “in death,” there is no worship of God, no memory of this life, and no hope for the future.

Gradually hope emerged.  As Jesus himself said, “You search the scriptures because in them you think you will find eternal life and they are they which testify of me.”

In the Hebrew Bible, a few people were resuscitated by the prophets like Elijah and Elisha, in much the same way as Lazarus was resuscitated by Jesus. Resuscitation stops short of true resurrection—for true resurrection is transformation to a whole new order of eternal being.  By contrast, those who were resuscitated and restored to live in Scripture had to face the pain and horror of a second death.

  • Job had a rare degree of confidence when he wrote, “I know that my redeemer lives, and outside of my flesh, I will see him.”
  • The prophet Isaiah had the confidence to proclaim, “Your dead shall live, O Lord; their bodies shall rise.”
  • The prophet Ezekiel had a vision of a valley of dry bones, brought back to life by God. He had hope for Israelites of all generations.
  • And in Psalm 16, the Psalmist opines, “O Lord, you will not give me up to Sheol, or let your godly one see the Pit.” This is the same kind of confidence that the 20th-century rabbi had when he said, “I have lived with God all my life long. I believe it is easier for God to raise the dead than it is for God to forget me.”
  • In the New Testament, Jesus himself argued life after death on the strength of the tense of a verb. He told the Sadducees that when God spoke from the bush to Moses he said, “I am the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob.” He indicated that he “is” the God of the living, not the dead.  In the days of his flesh, Jesus also brought at least three people back from death; but—as we have already mentioned these were resuscitations.  They all had to face death a second time.

    Jesus was the first to defeat the last enemy forever. Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, then, on the third day, God raised him from death, and Jesus showed himself alive by many proofs to his carefully chosen apostles.  Tradition says that it was one of those apostles, arguably the most important of them, who wrote:

    3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,  4 and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you,  5 who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

    The new birth that the apostle talks about here is not the individual new birth  about which Jesus speaks with Nicodemus in John chapter 3. Rather it is about a rebirth of hope for the whole human race. As Bonhoeffer observed, “Apart from Jesus Christ we live in the anxious middle.  Our lives are bound by the womb in the tomb. We don’t know where we have come from or where we are going. Only in Christ do we see that we have come from God and we are going to God.”

    There are still plenty of skeptics in our world, skeptics like Alexander Pope who wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast, man never is, but always ‘is to be’ blest.” But Christians believe that  in Jesus Christ, the “to be” has become the “is!” He is the firstborn from the dead that in all things he might have preeminence, but our turn is coming. He is the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep, but we are the harvest.

    I have friends, followers of Jesus, who believe in the Fatherhood of God and the brother and sisterhood of all believers, but stop short of believing in the resurrection of Jesus.  It is enough for them. From my point of view, St. Paul was right when he said in St. Paul himself said, “If for this life only we have a hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1st Corinthians 15:19). If for this life only we have a hope in Christ, let us eat, and drink, and party hardy, for tomorrow we die. But after 45 years of studying the evidence, I am convinced that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, and that changes everything. As James S. Stewart, the great 20th century Scottish Presbyterian once observed:

    “The central business of preaching today is telling men and women that the same power than took Jesus Christ out of the grave is available to us today, not just in the moment of death, but in the midst of life.”

    This means that no matter what our circumstance in life; no matter what our difficulty, no matter what our challenge, we can turn in confidence to the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave him for our sins and raised him from death to give us a future and a hope. And, as Jesus himself has said, “All things are possible with God!”


    This entry was posted in Sermons. Bookmark the permalink.