In this three-part sermon series we are pondering themes commonly associated with the season of Advent. Last week, Br. Curtis spoke about judgment and salvation. Next week, Br. Mark will speak on desire and longing. Tonight, our focus is hope.
It is impossible to live without hope. We can live without many things, but we cannot live without hope. Martin Luther, the great 16th century Reformer, boldly stated that “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.” Hope inspires us and sustains us; it gets us out of bed in the morning and consoles us in the evening. It enables us to persevere in hardship, to rejoice in suffering, to carry on in the face of overwhelming odds. It enlivens us, cheers us, and brings meaning and focus to our lives. We cannot live without it.
What, then, is hope, and how can we obtain it?
Ordinarily, when people use the word ‘hope,’ they are expressing uncertainty rather than certainty. “I hope she wins the election” means, “I don’t have any certainty that she will win, but that is what I desire.” But this is not the hope we are speaking of this evening. Christian hope is not just a desire for something good in the future, but rather the confident expectation that what we hope for will, in fact, come to be. Christian hope is not wishful thinking, it is not keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for the best. Rather, it is the unshakeable conviction that God is faithful and true, and that what God has promised will come to be.
From the beginning God has never left us without hope. In the story from Genesis today we learn that even when our sin and rebellion resulted in pain and suffering, God did not abandon us to our fate, but promised to work for our salvation and deliverance. Foreshadowed by the angel’s pronouncement to Mary, that promise would come to fulfillment in the person of Jesus, whose name means “Yahweh saves.” Christian hope is the confident expectation that God is at work in the world and in our lives, to save and deliver us, and to restore us to that fullness of life that God intended for us, and it is the confident expectation that there is nothing that will ultimately overcome or defeat us, or thwart God’s ultimate purpose for our lives – not even death.
What is the basis for such hope?
I’ll suggest three things; I’m sure there are others besides these:
First, we have hope in the character of God. Everything we know of God – from the Scriptures, from our faith tradition, from our own experience and the experience of countless others – is that God is loving and good, faithful and true. In every generation there have been countless believers who have “tasted and seen that the Lord is good,” and so have learned to put their trust in God. Our hope is in the GOD that we have come to know. With the psalmist we declare our faith in him: “For GOD ALONE my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken… For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him… On GOD rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in GOD” (Psalm 62:1, 2, 5, 7).
Our hope is not in political leaders, in governments or institutions, in popular movements or new ideas, in progress brought about by human intelligence or achievement, though we are not indifferent to these things. Our hope is in GOD, and God alone. “Why are you cast down, O my soul,” asks the psalmist, “and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in GOD, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God” (Psalm 42:5). We hope in GOD.
Second, because we have come to know the goodness of God, we have hope in the promises of God. Remember our forebears Abraham and Sarah. It was promised to them that they would be the parents of a great nation and even when Abraham was old and his wife was barren, they clung to that promise. Saint Paul speaks of Abraham’s faith in God’s promise in his letter to the Romans. He writes, “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (Romans 4:21,21). “By faith (Abraham) received power of procreation,” the letter to the Hebrews tells us, “even though he was too old – and Sarah herself was barren – because he considered him faithful who had promised” (Hebrews 11:11). Abraham’s hope was not in his own resourcefulness, determination, skill or effort; but in God. The promise, if it was to come to pass, depended entirely on God. He hoped in God. He dared to hope because he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” Because we believe in God’s character, we also believe in God’s promises.
Third, we have hope in the power and ultimate victory of God. When the New Testament speaks of hope, it almost always does so in conjunction with the resurrection of Christ from the dead. For example, Peter opens his First Letter with these words: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” (I Peter 1:3). The early Christians found new hope not only in the empty tomb, but in their experience of the Risen Christ living and active among them. The fact that God had raised Jesus from the dead was evidence for them of God’s ability to overcome every obstacle. It was why Paul could write to the Christians in Rome with such great conviction that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39). Christian hope looks back to the resurrection of Jesus and forward to his coming again in glory. Because of what God has done in the past, we dare to hope that God will fulfill his promise for the future. Therefore, “we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,” as Paul writes to his disciple Titus (Titus 2:13).
How can we hope, you might ask, when the world is so full of suffering and pain?
We must realize that hope, but its very nature, is oriented towards something in the future that it longs for and expects, but that it does not yet possess. We wait “in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the children of God,” says Paul, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves…groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24,25). It is true that suffering still surrounds us; but we do not despair because we believe in God, in God’s promises, and in God’s power and ultimate victory. We await the appearing of our Savior.
Perhaps you are thinking, “That is well and good for those who find it easy to have faith, but how can I hope in God when by nature I do not trust God or love God or want to obey God?” We answer, In our own strength it is not possible; but with God, all things are possible. Only God can change our hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. Only God can lead us from doubt to faith, from fear to love. Only God can overcome our despair and fill our hearts with hope. Is there any true saint who can honestly say, “I overcame my rebellion against God?” “I replaced my cold and indifferent heart with a heart filled with compassion”? “I changed myself from a skeptic into a trusting child of God”? No, when we speak of faith we say, “By grace I became a new person. By grace my stubbornness and anger melted away. By God’s grace I am what I am.” From beginning to end it is all the work of God’s grace. We cannot earn it or deserve it or merit it. It is a free gift. Simply believe it, rest in it, delight in it – and it is yours.
In our Rule of Life we say, “Our hope lies not in what we have done for God, but in what God has done for us” (Chapter 49). Our hope is in GOD, always.
This hope we have in God can become for us a reservoir of strength in times of need:
When we are put down or attacked by others, we can look to the reservoir of hope for the strength to return good for evil. Without hope, we have no power to absorb the wrong and respond with love. Without hope, we resort to self-justification or self-pity.
When we experience disappointments or setbacks, we can look to the reservoir of hope for the strength to keep going and not give up. Without hope, we could easily succumb to despair.
When we are overwhelmed by the tragedy and pain of suffering, our own or others’, we can look to the reservoir of hope for the strength to believe that a better day will come. Mahatma Gandhi, the great spiritual leader of India, once said, “Whenever I despair, I remember that the way of truth and love has always won. There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time they may seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail. Think of it: always.” That is the perspective of faith. Hope springs from faith.
When we are overwhelmed by evil, we can look to the reservoir of hope for the strength to endure and the courage to stay true to our course. Corrie Ten Boom, a Dutch woman who survived a Nazi concentration camp, once wrote: “There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still.” That is the perspective of faith. Hope springs from faith.
“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? HOPE IN GOD; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God. (Psalm 42:5) In this season of Advent, practice hope. Live with hope, speak with hope, encourage others with hope. In hope and expectation await the coming of our Salvation.
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