Choose hope

Our scripture reading is 1 Peter 1:3-7.

            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.

            You have a pure and enduring inheritance that cannot perish that is presently kept safe for you in heaven.

            Through his faithfulness, you are guarded by God’s power so that you can receive the salvation he is ready to reveal in the last time.

            You rejoice in this hope now, even though you are distressed for a short time by various trials.

            Just as the purity of gold is tested by fire, these trials are necessary to prove the value of your faith and will bring praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

*  *  *  *

            The story of Easter and the story of Jesus and the whole story of Christianity is a story of hope. It’s a story of hope born from despair and from the death of hope.

            Jesus’ disciples “had hoped that he was the one who would redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21, CEB). Their hope died when he was nailed to a Roman cross.

            Two days later, the women went to his tomb expecting to anoint a corpse. They had seen Jesus die, and with his last breath their hope died, too.

            The last thing they expected was to be told: “He is not here. He is risen.” The last thing anyone expected was to see him alive again. His Resurrection gave birth to a new hope, born of a renewed faith. It is hope reborn.

            It’s that hope and that faith that I want to talk about this morning and over the next few weeks in a new series of messages titled “Hope.”

            It’s inspired by a series now unfolding at Church of the Resurrection. I appreciate them sharing the series outline and supporting material. And I appreciate the wisdom of focusing on hope at this time in our lives.

            Because we sure do need some hope right now, don’t we?

            Last week we marked the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day. I wanted to say that we “celebrated” the 50th anniversary, but there is little to celebrate right now. The current administration in Washington is systematically rolling back every environmental safeguard erected since 1970. Soon we’ll be back to the good old days when a haze of smog covered the sun in cities like Denver and Los Angeles, and rivers were so polluted that they caught on fire.  

            Soon we’ll be wearing masks to protect us not from a virus but from air pollution. If the pollution doesn’t kill us, the cascading effects of global warming might. Rising ocean levels will drive us away from the coasts, but many places inland won’t be habitable. Those amber waves of grain will be a distant memory. The fruited plain will be a baked desert. O for spacious skies clear enough that we can see those purple mountain majesties!

            That’s the distant future – maybe not even 20 years distant, if we don’t do something fast. But it’s far enough away that the current crisis absorbs all our attention today. If you’re not tired of cocooning at home, you are probably worried sick about your immediate future because you’ve lost your job or enough income that you’re anxious about tomorrow – even though, as Jesus said, today has enough troubles of its own (Matthew 6:34).

            We sure do need a little hope right now, don’t we?

            The feckless leadership we’ve gotten from Washington won’t get us very far in fighting the coronavirus, or much of anything else. Don’t put your hope in states or municipalities, either. Some will relax their shelter-in-place orders too soon, and the epidemic will likely come roaring in to fill the vacuum, killing thousands more. Other states will wait longer and suffer from the civil unrest that’s being orchestrated by rich right-wingers.

            Some religious leaders still claim it’s all a hoax. Some seem to think that the Holy Spirit makes them immune from germs. The rest of us – I hope most of us – cling to the genuine promises of God conveyed to us in Scripture and confirmed by the voices of tradition, experience, and reason.

            Those promises anchor the hope we proclaim today. The Psalmist tells us, “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:7 NIV).

            There’s nothing magic here. Hope based on trust in the Lord is more than Pollyanish optimism. Hope is not born from wishful thinking. Rather, hope is born from the depths of the pit of despair. Hope is born from the death of hope. Hope comes to us from above.

We don’t often read from the book of Lamentations. It’s a small book you’ll find nestled between Jeremiah and Ezekiel in the heart of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Some think Jeremiah is the author. Whoever wrote it vividly expresses the desolation the people of Israel felt after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.

            “I remember my affliction and my wandering,” the writer says, “and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope. Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:19-23 NIV).

            If we were together physically today, we would sing that old hymn inspired by this passage. “Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning, new mercies I see. All I have needed thy hand hath provided. Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.”

            We might sing a couple of other songs as well, such as “Only Trust Him” and “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus.” That one ends with those haunting words, “O for grace to trust him more.”

            The music and some of the lyrics to these hymns are just a little too syrupy for my taste, and yet I can’t keep them out of my head. They are part of that storehouse of remembered grace that keeps me counting on still more grace.

            Just as the author of Lamentations could remember God’s great love in the face of previously unthinkable destruction, so we today can call to mind all the good things we have received from God throughout our lives, and we can find hope for tomorrow.

            The speed with which the coronavirus has utterly changed our lives is simply amazing. How quickly it showed us just how fragile our lives are, just how tenuous our social connections are, and just how childish our partisan bickering really is – especially when it endangers lives.

            When we’re isolated at home by shelter-in-place orders, it’s easy to become disoriented – that is, to lose focus on what we should be about, and to lose our sense of purpose. Who am I? Why am I here? We need constant reinforcement of our identity from others and from God as well, because when we forget who we are in Christ, we lose all sense of location in the world.

            Ironically, it appears that we do not develop a sense of identity and hope in good times but rather in bad times.

            We “boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God,” the Apostle Paul tells the churches in Rome. “Not only that, he says, “but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Romans 5:2-5 NRSV).”

            Bad times can lead us to hope, Paul says, and hope does not disappoint because it comes from God. It’s a sign that God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Yes, hope is a sign from God.

            We may be distressed by the trials of life, the Apostle Peter says in the letter we read earlier. But we can rejoice now in the hope we have through the Resurrection of Jesus. Whatever trials we face now, the Resurrection gives us a new birth into a living hope.

            It’s truly a living and active hope that is anchored in trust in God. In Psalm 40, David testifies: “I put all my hope in the Lord. He leaned down to me. He listened to my cry for help. He lifted me out of the pit of death, out of the mud and filth, and set my feet on solid rock. He steadied my legs. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise for our God” (Psalm 40.1-3a CEB).

            Commenting on this passage, Adam Hamilton notes an interesting difference in the ways this verse is translated. Most translations say, “I waited patiently for the Lord,” but the Common English Bible words it, “I put all my hope in the Lord.”

            Waiting and hoping are related in the Hebrew language and in our theology and our experience as well. Trust in the Lord is commonly born of waiting.

            Sometimes we wait patiently, as we try to do now while sheltering in place, not knowing what else we can do. Sometimes, following the example of the prophets and many of the psalm writers, we cry out to the Lord in our pain. We impatiently demand that God come to our aid in concrete ways that we can see and feel and touch, and that God does it now.

            And sometimes we spring into action to help make our hope a reality. Hope is not only trusting that God is working to fashion a better day for us. Hope also is working to make that better day a reality.

            Hope also is being the hands and feet of Christ for others and in our loving actions proclaiming the good news that Christ is alive in the world. Christ is alive in us because God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, giving us a living hope that we just have to share with others.

            Be the change you want to see, Gandhi said. Be the hope you want to live and share. Whatever hopes have been dashed in your life, the Resurrection of Jesus and the promises of God offer newness of life and hope for your future. Remember, our hope is a hope born from despair. It’s a hope reborn through the grace of God and the Resurrection of Jesus.

            In the next week and for the rest of your life, embrace that hope! Count on it! In all you do, choose hope!

            Amen!

This message was delivered via Facebook and YouTube on April 26, 2020, for Edgerton United Methodist Church.

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