Hoping Against Hope – Br. David Vryhof

Br. David Vryhof

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Romans 4:13-25

The promise first came to Abram when he was already 75 years old!  God said, “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great…. In you, all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3).  It was unthinkable even then, unimaginable, impossible, given his age and the barrenness of Sarai’s womb.  But Abram believed God.

The second promise came eleven years later, when Abram was 86 years old!  This time, Abram questioned God, “You have given me no offspring… [Is one of my slaves to become my heir]?” (Gen. 15:3) and God replied, “[No]. Your very own issue will be your heir… Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.  So shall you descendants be” (Gen. 15:5). And, once again, Abram believed God.

But as time went on and there was still no heir, his faith wavered.  Abram and Sarai decided to help God out by taking matters into their own hands.  So, Abram slept with Sarai’s servant and she conceived and bore him a son, Ishmael.  But this was not God’s plan.

The third and final promise came thirteen years after the second.  Abram was 99 years old and Sarai 90.  Still, they had not conceived.  Their dream of having a child had withered over time and finally evaporated completely.  They knew it was now physically impossible.  They had no reasonable hope.  But God insisted, “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.  I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you” (Gen. 17:4,6). This time, Abram laughed (Gen. 17:17).

God ignored the laughter and affirmed once again that it would be just as God had said.  To mark the promise, God changed their names:  Abram became Abraham, the “father of nations,” and Sarai become Sarah, “princess to all.”  “Your wife Sarah shall bear you a son,” God said, “and you shall name him Isaac” (which, ironically enough, means ‘he laughs’) (Gen. 17:19). “[I will establish my covenant with Isaac, not Ishmael,” God declared.  “At this season next year, Sarah will bear you a son.]”

In one year, Abraham and Sarah would have a son, the son promised 25 years earlier!  The covenant was renewed: God promised to be Abraham’s God, and Abraham pledged to “walk before God and be blameless.”  The covenant was to last for generations to come.  To formalize the covenant, God insisted on a sign: “Every male among you shall be circumcised” (Gen. 17:10). The command seems peculiar, even bizarre, to us, but circumcision was for Abraham and his household a sacramental sign, a sign that had to do with progeny, offspring, the conception of children.  It would be a constant reminder of God’s promise.  And for thousands of years to come, this sign would distinguish Abraham’s descendants from people of other nations and would mark them as “God’s people.”

Thankfully, we no longer consider circumcision to be a sacrament.  For Christians, circumcision has been replaced with baptism, a sign which is available to females as well as to males.  For us, baptism is the “outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace” (BCP, p. 857).  Baptism is the sign of our covenantal relationship with God.  In it, God promises to be our God, to love us and to support us and to abide with us forever.  In baptism, we make promises as well.  Like circumcision, the commitment made in baptism is a costly one: it requires a whole-hearted sacrifice – the offering of our bodies, minds, and spirits – all that we have and all that we are – to God.  The sign of the Cross drawn on our foreheads at baptism marks us, as circumcision did for the Israelites, as God’s people in the world, God’s beloved children.  It binds us with others who have made this same commitment.  In baptism, we are “sealed by the Holy Spirit… and marked as Christ’s own forever.” (BCP, p. 308)

But let’s get back to Abraham, because his story has important implications for us today.

In his letter to the Romans, St Paul praises Abraham’s faithfulness: “Abraham believed God,” he writes, “and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3). Despite all odds, Abraham received God’s promise with faith, trusting that God would somehow fulfill God’s word to him, even though it seemed impossible.  “Hoping against hope,” Paul tells us, “[Abraham] believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’ according to what [God] said.” (Rom. 4:18) “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead… and when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb… 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” (Rom. 4:18-21).

Paul isn’t using Abraham as an example here; he’s not asking us to imitate him.  He is instead making the point that faith puts its trust in God.  He praises Abraham because Abraham trusted in God’s promise, against all evidence to the contrary.  Abraham obeyed God because he was convinced that God was able to make good on what God had promised.

It’s important to make a distinction between Christian hope and optimism.  Optimism hopes and anticipates that things will be better in the future; it trusts that we will somehow solve the challenges we face today.  It can be a good thing, but it is different than Christian hope.  The hope we have in God is not a naïve wish that tomorrow will be better; it braces itself and prepares to cope even if tomorrow isn’t better.  Hope doesn’t depend on us getting our act together and fixing things.  Christian hope is centered on GOD, and on what God has promised, and on the conviction that God is able to do what God has promised, even if the evidence isn’t clear or obvious.  Abraham believed in God and in God’s power and in God’s commitment to do what God had promised.  His faith went beyond mere optimism.  It was rooted in his experience of God as faithful and true.

The Rule of Life of our community puts it this way: “Our hope lies not in what we have done for God, but in what God has done for us.” (SSJE Rule, ch. 49, p.99)

Christians “are not optimists as the common definition goes,” writes Katherine Patterson[i] “because we… must be realistic about the world in which we find ourselves.  And this world looked at squarely does not allow optimism to flourish.  Hope for us cannot simply be wishful thinking, nor can it only be the desire to grow up and take control over our own lives.

“Hope is a yearning, rooted in reality, that pulls us toward the radical biblical vision of a world where truth and justice and peace do prevail, a time in which the knowledge of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, a scene which finds humanity living in harmony with nature, all nations beating their swords into plowshares and walking together by the light of God’s glory.”

“Hope,” said Desmond Tutu, “is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”  Once, when asked whether he was optimistic about a resolution to the Middle East crisis, Tutu said, no, he was not optimistic; but he was hopeful.  His hope was in God and in God’s promise to reconcile all things in Christ.

Genuine hope looks to God; it is not focused on us.  Abraham “hoped against all hope,” not because he thought himself capable of fulfilling the promise, but because he believed God was able to do what God had promised.  His faith was in God.

God’s covenant with Abraham was renewed several times.  In fact, the scriptures are full of covenantal renewal.  Again and again, God comes to us and says, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”  Think of it: GOD promises to be your God — through hardship and calamity, if that is what life brings; in joy and in sorrow, in success and in failure, in hard times and in good times.  God will be your God – always faithful, always present, always ready to do for you what you cannot do for yourself.  “If God is for us,” writes the apostle Paul, “who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31).  “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (Rom. 8:32)  “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced 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.” (Rom 8:35-39)

That is the promise of God to us.  That is what gives us reason to hope, even when it is not obvious how or when our help will come.  We hope in GOD, not in ourselves or in others.

This is what it means to be in covenant with God: It means that we do not walk alone.  We walk with the God who has taken us by the hand and promised never to let us go.  It is to that God that we offer ourselves, our souls and our bodies, wholeheartedly and forever.  It is in that God that we trust.

[i] Patterson, Katherine;  “Hope is More Than Happiness” in Children’s Books.

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  1. Kellianne on March 3, 2024 at 07:38

    Thank you

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