This week’s sermon I wrote for Gethsemane Lutheran and it was delivered by my friend, Matt Connelly.
Today’s lesson, written by the Pastor Paul to the church in Rome, reminds us about the toughness of the Christian hope.
Hope in itself is a funny thing because you can’t touch hope or feel hope with your hands or weigh hope on a scale. Even though there is no physical thing called hope we all believe it exists and it has very real and tangible effects on us and the world we live in. Maybe we can see most clearly the way that hope shapes and structures a human life and the world around it by looking at what happens when the opposite of hope happens – what happens when people despair.
When someone is lost in despair they can be anxious and pre-occupied with death and death-related topics. They will look down on themselves to the point of self-loathing and self-hatred. Someone lost in despair will tend to isolate themselves, change their behavioral patterns for the worse, losing interest in work, relationships and activities they once enjoyed. Anxiety and depression, drug and alcohol abuse, all are common coping indicators for someone that has lost hope. Despair is the belief that life is a series of failures, culminating with the final ultimate failure, death, in a world that is destined to be pointless and meaningless – all things failing completely.
In 2008 the New York Times ran an article about the tragedy of suicide bombers, titled- “Despair Drives Suicide Attacks by Women.” The article talks about the amount of loss these middle eastern women have endured losing husband and close family in the violence and being put under so much pressure in the male-dominated culture that there is no future or hope presented as being available to them. It said “Only women in despair, in desperate situations, would do this.”
In sharp contrast when someone has hope in their life they are usually directed and optimistic. They will tend to feel better about themselves and the world around them. Hope builds people up, helps them engage the community and gain new vitality in their work and responsibilities. The difference between hope and despair is as clear as white and black in a person’s life.
Sometimes it might be said that the most important thing then is to have hope, in whatever, it doesn’t really matter, as long you have hope in something to help you get through this life.
Maybe, “I hope that I can win this game, or get that scholarship or lose those pounds or get that promotion,” kind of hope. This kind of hope is empty and settled upon things that really don’t matter. Ultimately, hope has to be more than winning or losing a game, academic success or career success, or weight control, because a human life is much more than these things can ever be. These can be goals which we would like to achieve. I can even be optimistic about these things happening, but they are not hope in any real and true sense of the word. Try telling the woman lost in despair who is considering strapping on the suicide bomber vest that if she lost a couple of pounds she would be happy. What kind of hope would that be for her? No, if I place my hope in things that don’t really matter if they occur or not, that isn’t real hope. It can be a desire, a goal, an “I really want it happen,” but not hope. Hope is something different.
Hope has to be directed towards something or someone that will last, that can take the test of time, that can make a real and lasting difference to a life and to a soul. Hope has to be tough to be the kind of hope that can really help people because this world beats the hope out of people all of the time. It seems like the story of life; you’re told to walk this way and someone pulls the rug from underneath you; do this and you’ll be successful but you only end up getting farther in debt; just when you feel like your catching up something else seems to knock you down. The world that we live in is an expert in knocking the hope right out of people time and time again, and if our hope is placed in something that the world can knock apart then it’s not much of a hope at all.
In our Epistle lesson from Romans 5 Pastor Paul begins to tell us what this tough hope that will not let us down looks like.
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
First, just think of the kind of hope Paul is describing here. It is a hope that is hard earned and hard won. This hope does not primarily have anything to do with being optimistic, happy feelings or future goals, but instead:
- This tough hope comes through the fire and disappointments of the world stronger.
- This tough hope is not broken down by suffering but outlasts suffering.
- This hope, instead of making us weaker, makes us stronger.
- This tough hope produces people who are strong of character and solid in spirit.
Secondly, this kind of hope begins and ends with God. Hope, if it is to sustain us throughout this earthly life, cannot be a hope that is based in anything that is of this earthly life. We are frail and mortal beings living in a frail and mortal world filled with frail and mortal things. To place our hope in anything frail and mortal is to invite disappointment and despair. To place our hope in the God who loved us so much to send Jesus is to have hope in God’s eternal and unchanging love.
Finally, hope has to be placed with God or there is no hope at all. Remember, if there is no God or no eternity, then this world is simply a gathering of random events without purpose falling towards chaos and occurring without meaning or thought. Without God there is not even the possibility of real hope, just temporary cessation of discomfort until oblivion. But we were made for hope and God has placed eternity in our hearts. We long for something we have not seen but yet still we strive for, just like hope is a very real thing even though we cannot quantify it and boil it down in a test tube. We were made to be with God through all of life both now and eternally.
This tough hope is only properly placed in the eternal God of heaven and earth who sent Jesus to give us a hope that does not disappoint but lasts eternally.
I want to share with you a simple encouraging thought to illustrate this point. In June of last year “a new study by the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, has found that Christians are happier and more socially connected than atheists are on Twitter. The study says that it analyzed data from nearly 2 million tweets on the popular social networking website from over 16,000 users, with the aim of examining differences between Christians and atheists in natural language. Analysis of the results revealed that users who identify as Christians use more words that convey positive emotion and less words that convey negative emotion than nonbelievers do.” (Christian Post)
Not that I put much stock in twitter generally speaking but since social scientists have been monitoring the effects of faith and well-being the results have been consistent and it should not be a surprise. If your worldview is based in a random and meaningless life with no eternal future or hope your typical worldview will be more negative. But if your worldview includes the eternal God of love who shows that love in real and tangible ways through Jesus, your outlook on life will tend to focus on that goodness and hope even when the going gets tough.
But ultimately, our hope is not about happiness, but about the God of love found in Jesus Christ. The God who gives meaning to a meaningless world and hope to the hopeless. “Who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” (Romans 4:17a) God gives us a hope that is tougher than this broken world, tougher even than death, because it comes from and goes back to our eternal and almighty God.