Last week we gradually felt our way into the subject of hope. I would like to recall three things we talked about:
First, we saw that hope for this life is a nearly universal phenomenon, and it is well that it is. Without hope, everyone would know times in which we are mentally if not physically, crushed by pain, disease, disappointment, loss, and grief. Not to mention poverty, war, and the fear of death. At the very least, hope aids what the Declaration of Independence calls “the pursuit of happiness.” We don’t always arrive at happiness but hope frees us to chase it.
Second, we saw that not everyone has the same degree of hope. Some people are so blessed by the time, place, and circumstances in which they live, that they can reasonably hope for a long, pleasant, fruitful life, filled with love, joy, peace, and a least a small portion of every good thing.
Others are not so fortunate. The time, place, and circumstances of their lives are difficult at best, and there is nothing in their lives that gives them hope for anything better than the little that they already have.
In the play, “Whistle Down the Wind,” a young girl who was living at the margins was approached by a zealous evangelists and presented with the hope of life after death. She responded “I don’t give a damn about life after death. I just want to believe there is life after birth!” It is impossible to calculate the numbers of people who feel precisely that.
Third, we saw that not all hopes are the same. Some hopes are false-hopes which do us more harm than good. Plato said that false hopes often produce hubris and unfounded confidence and lead us along paths that we ought to avoid. Thankfully, other hopes are both reasonable and attainable. Plato said that hope and passion live, together, in the core of the body, in the center of our being, and when hope is properly paired and harnessed together with passion, then hope fuels the greatest successes in life. St. Paul properly paired his hope and his passion when he said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Of course, the trick for us, as for Plato and Paul, is to discern good hopes from bad.
In this week’s newsletter, I suggested that we can describe the process of choosing our hopes using the words of an old Kenny Rogers song called, “The Gambler.”Rogers sang:
You got to know when to hold ‘em.
Know when to fold ‘em.
Know when to walk away.
Know when to run.
All of us have some hopes that are no longer valid. They were still good last year, last month, or last week, but not now. We have to fold ‘em and walk away to lighten our load. Likewise, all of us hold some hope or other that has been false for so long we ought to drop-kick it through the visitors’ goal posts of life and run the other way as fast as we can.
We can afford to do that, because, as Christians, we have many legitimate hopes for this life. The Bible is filled with the promises of God. Some of which are made to other people, in other times, and in other places, but most of which are there for us too.
In a way, St. Paul was talking about discerning between false hopes and legitimate hopes when he wrote that we ought not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, but we ought to think with sober judgment according to the measure of faith that God has assigned us. (Romans 12:3) We don’t want to be filled with hubris and false hope, but neither do we want to sell ourselves short.
Many of you know the name of Abraham Maslow, the great psychologist who gave us Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow was not just a great psychologist, but a great teacher At the start of each term, he would face his new class with a question:
“Which of you will be a president of the United States, a senator, the author of the great American novel, the CEO of a major corporation, or, perhaps a saint like Albert Schweitzer?”
Maslow’s students always laughed and giggled at his question. Then Maslow would quickly add, “If not you, then who?” Few people will achieve lofty goals without actually fixing those goals in advance. It is true: Those who fail to plan, plan to fail. And those who have no hope, surrender to despair.
Now the Bible expressly teaches that we ought to set our hopes on the one true God, and not on false gods, or fallible human beings.
But the Bible also teaches that God uses sometimes uses fallible human beings as his instruments to help us along the way. When the late Robert Schuller, was building the Garden Grove Community Church in California, he knocked on more than one thousand doors. He said that to inspire himself to knock on all those doors, he would always pause before he knocked, and re-mind himself that the person who was about to open the door may just be the most important person in the rest of his life, that is, in the future of the church he hoped to build. I know many pastors who adapted this same line of thinking. I am one. When I was here, I read Schuler’s comment, and then I started praying and looking both inside and outside the congregation for the gifts we need to be Christ’s church in our time and place. For many years, every time there was a need, someone either stepped-up or arrived to fill it. I believe that God calls not just pastors but people to our congregations.
Of course, some people don’t care for this kind of possibility thinking. I would point these people to the example of Abraham, the father of all who have faith. Abraham answered God’s call and believed God’s promise that he would have a child with his wife Sarah. In Romans 4, St. Paul writes:
In hope (Abraham) believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations. He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead because he was about a hundred years old, or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. He grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.
Abraham’s faith was justified when 90-year-old Sarah, presented 100-year-old Abraham with a son, Isaac.
We can debate Abraham and Sarah’s age, but the one thing we cannot debate is that life sometimes puts to us the same question God put to Abraham and Sarah: God asked, “Is anything too hard for the Lord.”
I think not, and as proof, I would point to Jesus Christ, our living savior. As James S. Stewart, the great Scottish Presbyterian preacher once observed:
“The central business of preaching today is telling men and women and boys and girls that the same power that took Jesus Christ out of the grave is available to us, right now, not just in the moment of death, but in the midst of life.”
Our faith and our hopes are justified each and every time that we face a difficult situation and emerge from that situation—stronger, more confident, and full of faith saying:
We rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God! More than that, we rejoice in our suffering, because suffering produces endurance, and endurances produces character, and character produces still more hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.
Of course, as Christians, our hopes are not limited to this world. “We (also) rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” In his “Essay on Man,” Alexander Pope wrote:
Hope springs eternal in the human breast,
(Humankind) never is, but always is to be blest
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. He is a prolepsis, a small piece of the end of history, broken off and made manifest in the midst of history so that we might have a future and a hope. He is the first fruit. We are the harvest. So it is that:
“When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!”’ it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
Some people don’t “give a damn” about life after death. More and more people doubt the reality of it. They say, “Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” There is nothing wrong with feasting and merriment—but there is something better. In 1st Corinthians 15, St. Paul writes, “If for this life only we have a hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
Eternal Life is the Christian “hope beyond hope” for a better world to come.
“The whole creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. For the creation has been subjected to futility, not of its own will, but by the will of Him who subjected it in hope, for the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
This is good news for those people who want to know if the animals they have known and loved in their lives will have a place in the new world that is to come. John Wesley used this text to speculate that the horse that carried him 200,000 miles in his preaching journeys would receive a reward. Many people use it to justify the thought that they will share the world to come with the same pets who helped make this life immeasurable richer. It is pleasant to think that I will be reunited with the dogs that I have loved—and the cats, too, though fewer in number, but I am not sure I want to meet all the chickens, turkeys, hogs, and cows that have provided me with food for the journey!
Of course, hope does not stop with the animal kingdom. It extends to the “whole creation,” including the Animal Kingdom, the Plant Kingdom, and the Mineral Kingdom. Nothing is excluded. That is especially hopeful in the present time. In his book, “Science and Wisdom,” Jurgen Moltmann writes, “at one time humankind was dependent upon the environment, now the environment is dependent upon humankind.” Moltmann wrote that particular book in the 1990s and he was thinking of nd geo-thermal nuclear warfare. Today we think not just of nuclear war, but of climate change. It is true: “at one-time humankind was dependent upon the environment, now the environment is dependent upon humankind.”
By this time, one thing should be clear. Christians have an abundance of hope. So, what will we do with the hope that we have? Do we hold it close, or do we share it? In 1st Peter 1:3, St. Peter implies that the whole world has been born anew to a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead—but this hope is only available to faith. And how will they have faith in Jesus Christ unless they hear about it? No wonder that in 1st Peter 3:15, the apostle adds, “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.”
I have, I hope, just one more full sermon on hope. How do we share the abundance of hope that we have with those who have less?
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.