The Nature of Christian Hope   (Romans 8: 18-25)

by | Sep 20, 2020 | Sermon Text | 0 comments

I begin this sermon where I ended the last one, by reciting Paul’s spiritual calculus for developing spiritual maturity.  He declared, “We rejoice in our suffering because we know that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because the love of Christ has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”  Paul, who had been relentlessly attacked verbally, emotionally and physically as he championed God’s Good News, nevertheless clung to hope, unquenchable hope!  He clung to the hope that regardless of the adversity he faced, his hope in God would be rewarded with a glory that he could not envision, but a glory, in his words, that would “be revealed to us.” 

Ironically, the twentieth century writer who wrote most convincingly of the power of hope was, like Paul, a Jew.  His name was Viktor Frankl, an Austrian physician and psychoanalyst imprisoned in several Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, where he lost his wife and several other members of his family. This incredibly brilliant doctor who had already earned a renowned academic and medical reputation, learned a truth in the death camps that he could not have learned elsewhere: that the force most capable of generating the endurance to survive even infinite horrors and degradation is the power of hope.  As long as one is capable of summoning hope, one’s soul is fueled with the inexorable power of life.  Lose the power of hope, and you lose the will to live, too.  Frankl offered the example of a well-known composer and fellow prisoner who confided to him that he dreamed that the liberation of the camp was to happen soon.  It was already the first of March, so Frankl asked his friend if his dream had given him an exact date for their deliverance.  Yes, the man replied, “March 30th.”  Frankl noted that regardless of the camp’s hardships, this man’s spirit remained buoyant throughout the month.  But on March 29th, with no sign of liberation in sight, the man developed a deadly fever and died on March 31st.  To outward appearances, Frankl noted, he had died of typhus.  But Frankl knew, the man had really died because he had lost his hope.

Paul never lost his power of hope. When he found himself chained in a Philippian prison, bloodied and bruised from a scourging earlier that day, the power of hope empowered him to sing God’s praises at midnight.  When he was thrown in a pit by an angry mob and stoned into such a messy pulp that people were sure he was mortally wounded, the power of hope energized him to climb out of the pit and stagger back to his friends.  When he was cast adrift aboard a floating plank in the vast, empty sea, the power of hope inspired Paul’s assurance that somehow, someway, God would deliver him.   When he was aboard a ship blown across the ocean by a fearsome tempest, so that all others on board had resigned themselves to death, the power of hope inspired Paul to assure everyone that God would deliver them safely to land.  Hope grounded in the experience of God’s faithfulness allowed Paul to assert boldly, “I consider that the suffering of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. . . . For in this hope we are saved.”

Understand this: at heart of all Christian hope is a profound discontent.  At the heart of all Christian hope is a holy spiritual restlessness that burns with a desire for change.  Of course, there are plenty of Christians who want nothing to change, but Christians who do not burn with a desire to change things have lost the power of hope. That is not to say that all discontent is rooted in Christian hope.  The world is full of discontented people dissatisfied with their lives precisely because they have lost their ability to hope.  Such people have fallen in love with their anger; they are intoxicated with their cynicism, drunk with the assurance that life is bleak.  Perhaps there was a time when their discontent signaled a hope that they might improve themselves and their world, but if so, such a productive hope was but a passing phase.  Now their acid resignation signals a demonic desire to disfigure other lives with their gloom.  Such is not the nature of the hopeful Christian’s discontent.  In fact, Christian hope denies the cynic’s basic presupposition. The cynic believes that the world is doomed and bleak, frozen in a status quo that cannot change. The Christian hope not only rejects the notion that the world is doomed; we reject the very idea of a status quo.  There is no such reality as the status quo.
It is a fundamental axiom that life is never frozen in stasis:  life is either becoming better or becoming worse.  Life is always in flux. When I lived in Kentucky, one of the architectural characteristics I found so charming was the mile upon mile of white fences that boundaried the horse country of that region.   Occasionally, I would see workers out along the fence lines applying fresh paint, because if those white fences were left alone, those white fences wouldn’t stay white.  I understand that since I have departed the state, many Kentucky horsemen have started painting their fences black, because black fences show dirt less easily.  But even if it takes less maintenance to keep a fence black than it does to keep it white, some energy is required even to keep it black.  What is true of fences is even truer of people and the societies in which we live. Our characters and cultures are not frozen in time.  Rather we all live in a ceaseless stream of change. Spiritual growth requires constant commitment and courage and sacrifice.  We are either making the world better or we are making it worse; we are either making ourselves better or making ourselves a little colder, a little less loving.  Character necessitates daily courage and commitment in order to mature.   And mature we must.  We must desire to mature spiritually or be untrue to God’s imprint of hope upon us. 

Paul makes this point in poetic and visionary fashion when he asserts, “All creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.”  He adds, “The whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons.”  To be fueled by Christian hope is to feel this inner unction, a spiritual restlessness, to improve ourselves and our world.  All creation, and we ourselves, says Paul, are groaning with restlessness. Not just we, but all creation, groans for maturity, groans for improvement.  God’s imprint upon us has given us intimations of the great future that God intends for us.  We desire to make real the in-breaking goodness and justice of the Kingdom of God.  It is the very nature of Christian hope to make us feel the disparity between what the world is and what the world could be.

“In this hope we are saved,” thunders Paul.  “And hope that is seen is not hope.  If we hope for what we do not see, we we wait for it with patience.”  The great apostle is saying here that Christian hope is inherently creative.  Paul does not espouse some vague doctrine of infinite and automatic progress.  Our faith does not believe in automatic progress.  As Paul sagely observed, if we did, our hope wouldn’t be hope.   The Christian hope is inherently creative because we know the world is not only free to be improved and accept the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, but it is also free to devolve into hatred and horrific destructiveness.  Our forgiveness, our mercy, our compassion, our efforts toward justice, peace, tolerance, our transformative love. all of these are required in order to make God’s hope real in the world.  Such spiritual realities do not automatically happen.  Our courage, our commitment and our sacrifice are required to make God’s will manifest.  If we do not summon these qualities, the world turns a little darker, a little colder, the future becomes a little bleaker.  We feel in our bones that the world is meant to be as fresh and white as those Kentucky fences – but we are called upon to apply the spiritual paint to make it so.

Christian hope is ceaselessly restless and inherently creative, but also steadfastly realistic.  Christian hope is not a fantasy unrelated to reality.  Christian hope arises out of profound and intense conversation with reality.  On this weekend when the world’s best golfers are engaged in the U. S. Open, I think of a friend of mine who was privileged enough to play Augusta National.  He was on the historic 13th hole, one of the most famous par 5s in the world, a test of golf that requires two perfectly executed shots to cross Rae’s Creek and land on the green in two, with a good chance at birdie.  But other golfers can lay up with their second shot and hit a wedge into the green on their third shot to accomplish the same goal.   My friend, who was an estimable golfer, smashed what he thought was a massive drive.  He had visions of emulating the pros that he had watched play the hole for years and going for the green in two.  However, as he contemplated his club selection, the wise old caddie who had shepherded him around the course said, “You ain’t got it.”  “What?” my friend asked.  “You ain’t got that club in your bag,” the old man replied.  My friend was wise enough to realize what he meant.  He could still birdie the hole, but only if he was patient and realistic:  he would need to hit another shot to put himself in good position for his approach.  Of course, he could have ignored that wise man’s advice: he could have gone ahead and given the ball a mighty whack, “hoping” that it would clear the creek anyway.  But such an act would not be an act of hope, but an act of fantasy, an act ignoring reality rather than rising out of conversation with reality.  Christian hope is grounded in conversation with reality.   

Yet quite a few actions that masquerade as Christian “hope” are more precisely acts of destructive fantasy. The woman who marries a man she knows is wrong for her in the “hope” that she can change him,
engages in a destructive fantasy bound for heartache. The businessman who yokes himself to an unscrupulous partner whom he “hopes” to reform engages in an act of destructive fantasy that is destined to founder.   Yoking ourselves to commitments that are not in keeping with our aptitudes or our passions is not an act of hope, but a foolish waste of time and energy.  True hope comes when two people of kindred hearts share a common vision of love and faith and intertwine their lives in the hope that that relationship will mutually nourish them for the rest of their days. When one entrepreneur meets another who demonstrates a mutual creativity and value system, then their partnership becomes a common adventure that nurtures and benefits them both.  When we commit ourselves wholeheartedly to enterprises that comport with our interest, abilities and passion, those are positive acts of hope that prove fruitful to ourselves and to our world. Christian hope is steadfastly realistic. 

And, as Paul says so directly, Christian hope is patient.  After all, says Paul, “hope that is seen is not hope.”  But, he adds, “If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”  Paul’s words in this passage bring together two disparate ideas in a way that illumines his spiritual genius.   He maintains that Christian hope must be patient even as it is irreducibly “other-worldly.”  I do not mean that Christian hope feeds pie-in-the-sky escapism that causes people to ignore the challenges and injustices of this world.   That is precisely what Christian hope does not do.  Christian hope gives us eyes to see the challenges and injustices of this world, and gives us ears to hear the groaning of every human heart for the in-breaking of a transforming power.  But Christian hope is “other-worldly” in the sense that we realize the world could be other than what it is.   Christian hope is the antidote to those despairing people who hear creation’s groaning and resign themselves to thinking that the world is meant only to groan.  We know that creation groans, not in despair, but in creative yearning, like the yearning agony of childbirth, painful, but with an eye to bringing new life, a new future, into being.  Creation is not groaning for the sake of groaning, but is groaning in spiritual childbirth, trusting God’s Spirit as the spiritual Midwife who ushers in a new creation peopled with new creatures in a new world.  We are meant to be instruments of Christian hope that brings about this new creation and concretizes creation’s intimations of God’s heavenly kingdom.  The ambition of our Christian hope is to so work that Heaven truly does, as the song says, “come down so that glory fills our soul.”   I say again, in this sense, our Christian hope is irreducibly other-worldly.

There is no doubt, we live in threatening, difficult, uncertain times.  But I remember something a wise sea captain said to his crew amidst a storm, “The waters of the seas are deep and wide, but these waters cannot sink us unless we let them get inside our boat.”  The sadness and despair of this world is deep and wide, but they cannot sink us unless we allow them to get inside ourselves.  Our hope in Christ is spiritually restless, infinitely creative, steadfastly realistic, irreducibly other-worldly, and ceaselessly patient.  And if we practice that kind of hope, we can bring divine light to a world that desperately needs it.  We can be the instruments by which the hope of Christ is made manifest in a despairing world.