THE HOPEFUL COMMUNITY
Listen: Click to listen
(to save a file simply right click the link and select 'Save Target As...' or 'Save Link As...')
We’re talking about hope this morning. We are a people who hope. The world in which Paul wrote was a world in need of hope. Sophocles, one of the preeminent philosophers of the day put it this way – “Not to be born at all – that is by far the best fortune; the second best is as soon as one is born with all speed to return thither whence one has come.”
Yet there is a longing for something more. “Keep hope alive,” was the long-time slogan of Jesse Jackson. President Obama was elected while championing hope. The world largely seems to hang between hope and despair. I think this longing for hope is a good thing though. There seems to be a general sense among humankind that things can and should be better, isn’t there? A longing for something better. We sense this in ourselves. We sense this in our world. Things that we are told to put our trust in, our hope in fail us. The new national security policy, the new government, the new educational method, the new fill-in-the-blank. All seem to come up short. Expectations are not met.
We live in expectation. This is what we talked about before Christmas. We are a people who hope. These three things remain, wrote Paul to the people of Corinth, faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love. The greatest of these may be love, but faith and hope also remain. What exactly is Christian hope? What does it mean to be a hopeful people? Paul starts off his letter to the Colossians like this – “In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you.”
It would seem from this passage that hope is vital. Paul is writing to the people of Colossae and telling them that the faith and the love they have springs from the hope that they have.
What is this hope?
I often like to start this kind of thing by talking about what hope is not. What is the Christian hope not like? It’s not like the idea of hope that we use in common parlance. The idea of something that we would like to happen, generally couched in negative terms. Looking up at a cloudy sky and saying “I hope it doesn’t rain on the picnic today.” Saying we hope for something because it looks like we’re going to get the opposite result. “I really hope the Leafs win the Cup this year.” Though that one seems more and more likely yes?
As followers of Christ we share something. Throughout this series we’re considering what makes us different. Peter describes what we share in the passage that we heard this morning – “By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope…” By the mercy of God we have been given a new birth. This is grace friends. One is not born based on any effort of one’s own. We have been given a new birth into a living hope. This makes us different. One writer puts it like this – “The readers (of Peter’s letter) did not become Christians by accepting a new theory, by committing themselves to certain ideas and principles, or by joining themselves to another worthy cause.” As we said last week, the church is not merely a club which is based on any of these things.
We’re a group of people whose lives who have been caught up in a story. A group of people whose individual stories have been caught up in a grand story. The hope that we have looks back first of all. It looks back to God’s great saving acts. We spent a lot of time last fall looking at God’s great saving act for the people of Israel in Egypt. We talked about how this looked forward to the work that Christ accomplished on the cross. Peter writes “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 can’t have a resurrection without a death of course. You cannot have new life without death. The hymn puts it so well – “Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” The sinless lamb of God who has made a way for us to be reconciled to God – reunited in a relationship with God. This is the backward looking part of our hope. This makes a difference to us. We are given a new birth. This is the image Peter uses. It’s the same one that Jesus uses with Nicodemus. We are born again. Made into something new. Paul uses a slightly different image when he talks about being adopted into the family of God. Our hope looks back on the death and resurrection of Christ. We open ourselves up in the various ways we’re called to open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit of God working in and through us, changing us. Creating in us something new.
What has God done in you that you know could not have come from yourself?
We should boast in these things with gentleness and reverence. We’re not boasting in ourselves when we do, rather we’re boasting in God.
The second part of the Jesus story in which our stories are intertwined is that Christ ascended to Heaven. Paul puts it like this in his letter to the Colossians – “So if you have been raised with Christ (if you are a sharer in Christ’s resurrection and the new life contained therein), seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” God is in control. Beyond what we’re able to see. This is our hope in our present. James Russell Lowell, a 19th-century American poet put it like this in a poem called “The Present Crisis” – Though the cause of Evil prosper, yet tis truth alone is strong… Truth for ever on the scaffold, wrong for ever on the throne, - Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.” We have an imperishable, undefiled, and unfading inheritance that is being kept for us. Hold onto this. Hold onto this together. There are not many things in this world that are imperishable or unfading. Moth and rust consumes those things we spend so much time seeking after. Rest in this inheritance. It’s an inheritance that’s based on love and grace and mercy and justice. It’s this inheritance that we look forward to as we live our lives in the present (and in the Presence).
Our hope looks forward. Our hope looks forward to Christ’s return. No matter where we stand on the timing of it, this is something that we hold in common. Someone has said, Christian hope can be summed up this way – Christ died, Christ is risen, Christ ascended, Christ will return. Peter writes to “you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” That time described by Paul as this – “When Christ who is your life is revealed.” That day described by the prophet Isaiah when “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid… The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” It won’t be a matter anymore of nature red in tooth and claw and all creation groaning and crying out for redemption. In Christ God has redeemed and is redeeming and will one day redeem – bring back – all things to himself. That day when we hear a voice saying “Look I am making all things new and God himself will be with us and he will wipe every tear from our eyes and death will be no more and mourning and crying and pain will be no more for the first things will have passed away.”
This is the Divine Dream.
This is our hope friends.
This is what we look forward to. We look forward and await it actively. It makes a difference in our now. We don’t mourn like those without hope. We mourn, of course, but we don’t mourn like those without hope. Without the trust that one-day mourning will be a thing of the past, that there will be a joyful reunion. We look forward to this new age. We feel fine about it. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine, as the song goes. As followers of Christ yes we do feel fine about it. We are also called to usher it in. To welcome that new day by what we say and do today. Someone has said that the Christian community has its roots in the future and its branches in the present. NT Wright put it like this – “…a mission-shaped church must have its mission shaped by hope; that the genuine Christian hope, rooted in Jesus’ resurrection, is the hope for God’s renewal of all things, for his overcoming of corruption, decay, and death, for his filling of the whole cosmos with his love and grace, his power, and glory.” As followers of Christ, we’re called and enabled to work for these things.
This friends, is our hope.
We are to be living letters to this hope. We are to be living letters in what we do. Preach the gospel wherever you go, and when necessary use words. This is attributed to Saint Francis. We are the first Gospel most people will read, as I like to say. Ask God to help us show the Gospel story in our lives. Peter puts it like this – “For it is God’s will that by doing right you silence the ignorance of fools.” Be winsome invitations for others to enter into this story of hope, and faith and love.
Be ready to talk about it too. A lot of times are chances to tell the story will come about because of our actions. Of how people see us reacting to things. “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” Peter is talking about responding to people who malign his readers. In any case though do it with gentleness, with reverence, with humility. I never like to see those videos on YouTube “Watch this person destroy atheism in 30 seconds.” I wonder how effective those are. Peter doesn’t talk about destroying anything. He doesn’t say “Prove what you believe with the appropriate verses and everyone will understand.” Talk about your faith with gentleness and reverence. Be able to talk about the hope that is ours, what it’s based on. Be ready to talk about new life.
I think this is key. I think people want to know what all this means in your life. I know it’s what I want to know. I remember being at a breakfast meeting of pastors once talking about interfaith relations. Specifically, Jehovah’s Witnesses going door to door. Many of those gathered shared how they would point out Bible verses to their visitors. I wonder about the usefulness of this. If I think someone is entering a conversation with me with an agenda I’m rarely open to it. I thought at the time “I’d rather talk about what your beliefs have meant in your life, and I’ll tell you what mine have meant in my life.” There’s no argument there. One’s story is inarguable. If I tell you that what I believe God has done in human history, what my relationship with Christ, what my openness and willingness for the Holy Spirit to change me and work through me – if I tell you what they have meant in my own story, there’s no arguing that. To me, it’s not so much about winning an argument as being winsome. Inviting people to share in this story and get caught up in it with us.
So, friends, may we remember and remind one another on what our hope is based – the saving act of Christ. May we remember in the midst of a lot of bleakness that God stands watch behind it all. May God continue to make us a people of faith and love which flows from the hope that is ours – a people who live and dream the Divine Dream who look forward with eager and active anticipation to the day that is coming. May these things be true for us all.