Hope in the Midst of Despair

Sermon delivered on Trinity 18C, Sunday, September 29, 2013, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you would like to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 32.1-3, 6-15; Psalm 91.1-6, 14-16; 1 Timothy 6.6-19; Luke 16.19-31.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I want you to picture the following scenarios in your mind. Work hard at placing yourself in the midst of them. In the first scenario, you live in a city that is fortified by thick walls but which is surrounded by enemies bent on your destruction. You know if they breach your walls, they will destroy everything and everyone near and dear to you. They have cut off your food supplies so that you’ve seen parents eating their children to survive. Gold and silver are worthless because there is no food to buy and your savings have been destroyed as a result. To make matters worse, you have been thrown into prison, accused of being a traitor to your country by advocating surrender to the enemy laying siege to your city. How would you feel? Hopeless? In despair? Fearful? Angry? Numb? All of the above? None of the above?

The next scenario is closer to home. You are in a hospital room watching your loved one actively dying. The doctors have told you there is nothing more they can do and now you are engaged in a death vigil, helplessly watching your loved one die. How do you feel? Hopeless? Fearful? Angry? Guilty? In despair? Numb? All of the above? None of the above?

Finally, you have worked hard all your life and have carefully planned for and saved up a nice nest egg for your retirement. You are nearing retirement and look forward to enjoying life before you get too old and infirm to do the things you want to do in retirement. Then the stock market crashes and you lose much of your retirement savings and investments. Your nest egg is no longer sufficient for you to do the things you planned to do and you will have to work at least another 10 years just to have a retirement income on which to live. How do you feel? Angry? In despair? Betrayed? Hopeless? Fearful? Numb? All of the above? None of the above?

Have I managed to make you sufficiently depressed? Of course that is not my intention. Rather, I am simply reminding us what we know so well. We live in a good world corrupted by human sin and evil and things like this (and much, much more) happen to all kinds of people every day so that it should not surprise us when catastrophe strikes (but often it does). There is not a person in this room, if we have lived long enough (and sadly some don’t have to live very long), who has not been afflicted by some kind of evil. If I didn’t hit your particular affliction, you can surely fill in the blank quickly. Now to be certain, there are great joys and happiness in this life. We don’t live in a world gone totally bad. But irrespective of who we are, we all must endure affliction and sorrow in our life. So how do we as Christians do that and yet have some modicum of hope? It is this question I want us to look at briefly this morning.

Everyone needs hope, of course, because without hope we will die. The problem is that we tend to look for hope in all the wrong places. This is what Paul is talking about in our epistle lesson and it serves as a solemn indictment of what our culture has become. We tend to put our hope in things that are transient rather than permanent, things that make our material existence easier or more comfortable, the chief thing being money. As Paul reminds us, money itself is not an evil. However, love of money is the root of all kinds of evil because it inevitably leads to all kinds of corrupting behavior, the kind of behavior that afflicts the rich man in Jesus’ parable.

Money, of course, isn’t the only false thing in which we put our hope. We are also fond of power, security, fame, sex, etc., and of course money is closely connected to many of these things. But the point Paul is making is that when we relentlessly pursue money (or power or security or sex or fame or whatever else is our elixir), we are pursuing things that cannot possibly give life or rescue us from evil, sin, and death. As Paul reminds us, only God is immortal (so much for the mistaken notion of the immortality of the human soul) and therefore only God can give life and rescue us from evil, sin, and death (cf. Genesis 1.1-2.24; Romans 4.17).

And perhaps as importantly (if not more so), when we put our hope in money et al., it tends to make us myopic, both to the needs of others and to the bigger picture of God’s creation and his rescue plan for it and us. This too is tragically illustrated in Jesus’ parable. Despite having the teachings of the law and the prophets—i.e., having the knowledge of how God intends for us to live our lives so that we can cooperate with his rescue plan—the rich man spent a life pursuing wealth and opulence and as a result, it made him blind to both the poor beggar at his gate and to the fact that life is vastly greater than the pittance of time that is our lifespan on earth. Not only that, as Jesus and Paul both warn us, there are also eternal consequences, both good and bad, that accompany the lifestyle we choose to live right here and now.

So what is the answer? How can we have real hope in the midst of life’s trials and tribulations? The first thing we have to do is to remember that God has implemented a rescue plan for his good but fallen creation that is not yet completed. We are active participants living in the midst of it. If we do not keep this at the front of our minds, we will surely lose all hope. As Paul reminds us, doing so requires faith on our part, precisely because God’s rescue plan has not reached its culmination. We believe that in and through the cross of Jesus, who was the very embodiment of God, God has defeated the dark forces of evil and rescued us from the power of sin and death (Colossians 1.19-22; 2.15). We further believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, thereby launching his promised new creation, albeit only partially. Jesus is the first-fruit of God’s new creation and his resurrection gives us a preview of coming attractions when Jesus returns to complete the rescue plan his death and resurrection launched. This is what Paul is talking about when he tells us to fight the good fight until Jesus appears. This all takes faith, first because God has not fully vanquished evil, sin, and death from our midst so that we are still plagued by trials and tribulations, and second because we are finite and mortal so that we do not understand fully how God’s rescue works (cf. Isaiah 55.6-11).

But if we study the Scriptures and by God’s grace become convinced that God does indeed have a rescue plan for his creation and us, and that we are living in the outworking of that plan, i.e., if we have faith, then we can have hope. We see an example of how this works in real life in our OT lesson this morning (which was the first scenario I painted for you, BTW). How else do we explain Jeremiah’s behavior? His situation seemed hopeless. He was imprisoned in Jerusalem as a traitor for telling the people living there to surrender to the Babylonians. Judah and Jerusalem were being overrun by a fierce and deadly enemy who would rend the land and destroy both Jerusalem and its Temple, the very place where Jews believed God chose to dwell with his people on earth. Jeremiah witnessed unspeakable suffering and savagery, including cannibalism. There was no rescue coming from any Ally. There was no hope. And yet in the midst of this hopelessness, God’s word came to Jeremiah, telling him to buy property in his hometown! If the situation were completely hopeless as it surely appeared, such an act would be utterly foolish. The land would either not be his to own because of the presence of foreign occupiers or it would be totally worthless because of its destruction. But here we see God asking Jeremiah to put his money where his mouth was and Jeremiah complied (cf. Jeremiah 29.1-11).

And let’s be clear about all this. Do you think that when Jeremiah bought the property he and his situation were suddenly and magically transformed? If you do, you might want to increase your dosage of anti-naiveté meds. Of course things didn’t change immediately. Jeremiah remained in prison and Jerusalem eventually was overrun and burnt to the ground. Jeremiah himself was later taken to Egypt against his will where tradition has it he was stoned to death by his own people there. This is hardly a happy ending (cf. Hebrews 11.29-40). So what might explain why Jeremiah bought the land? Because he had hope in the Lord and trusted God to deliver him from evil, just like we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. To have this kind of hope, surely Jeremiah had to have the Big Picture perspective of what God was doing to rescue his world from all that bedevils it. After all, Jeremiah was God’s prophet. But this didn’t make Jeremiah immune from the hurts, heartaches, and suffering we all experience. However, Jeremiah knew the love and faithfulness of God and therefore he trusted in God to deliver both him and his people as God promised he would, despite everything around him that suggested otherwise, and therefore Jeremiah had real hope. You see, like us, Jeremiah was also living in the midst of God’s rescue plan for his creation. Do you have this kind of faith that produces real hope?

This helps us better understand and appreciate Paul’s use of words like “fight the good fight.” This having faith business is not for the faint of heart. But it is not about us. It is about the power of God made available to us through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. If we read Paul’s admonitions to us simply as advice for us to try to live a better life, we miss much of what Paul wants us to learn. Of course living a better life is good advice. But Paul has bigger fish to fry here. He is talking about Jesus the Messiah being the real King of kings and Lord of lords, who has conquered evil, sin, and death, who has ushered in God’s promised new creation, and who will return to complete God’s rescue plan for his world and us. Paul wants us to keep our eyes on that prize so that we don’t get distracted with all life throws our way and lose heart and hope. Otherwise, given our weakness, we will surely chase after false gods and idols like money, power, and security, and we will be ruined because none of them has life in them or the power to deliver us from evil. That was the plight of the rich man who refused to help Lazarus and it sadly will be the plight for any who do not heed this lesson.

So how do we avoid becoming like the rich man who was myopic and without real hope? We learn to develop a lifestyle that is characterized by a healthy outlook on life and based on the hope that God is at work right now rescuing his world and us from all the evil that besets us. This means we resolve to abandon our pursuit of false gods and idols and instead develop the habits of character and heart that will allow God to use us as part of his rescue plan to bring the kingdom on earth as in heaven. But here’s the problem. We do not innately have these needed character traits, traits like faith, love, endurance, righteousness, godliness, and gentleness. We therefore must spend a lot of time and effort to develop these habits with the help of the Spirit so that they eventually will become second nature to us. Of course there will be setbacks as well as successes and this does not make us immune from further trials and tribulations. But again Paul is essentially reminding us to keep our eyes on the bigger prize. He is reminding us that if we want to live in God’s promised new creation, we must train to be good citizens there.

Think of it this way. As we train to develop the character habits of the heart that we will need to live in the new creation, we are not unlike a runner preparing for a marathon. When we first work on developing character traits of faith, love, endurance, etc., it will feel awkward and we may be tempted to stop trying. But just as runners get conditioned when they keep on training, developing character for the kingdom, which can only be developed by doing, gets easier over time and sooner or later we discover that we come to value these new traits we are learning in the power of the Spirit. Just as veteran runners love running, so we too learn to love righteousness et al. and when that happens we discover that we really do abhor our old former selfish lifestyle, just like a runner would abhor abandoning his running.

Make no mistake. I am not talking about earning our way into the kingdom. We enter the kingdom through Jesus’ blood shed for us, which also requires faith on our part. What I am talking about is the logical outworking of our faith in the power of the Spirit to equip us to take our place in God’s new creation so that we can live with hope in the midst of despair in this life. This isn’t about following the rules; it is about developing a lifestyle that equips us to live in God’s kingdom starting right now. If you don’t long for goodness, kindness, love, gentleness, faithfulness, and all the rest, why would you want to live in a place where these things, and only these things, will be the order of the day? Does not compute.

And as we develop the needed habits of the heart in the power of the Spirit, we will also discover that we know how to use the things of this world properly—to the glory of God and the benefit of others. Our selfishness turns into a generous love for even the least and most lost among us and along the way we also discover we have a newfound hope despite everything around us and within us that screams we should have none. We have this hope because we believe Jesus really is Lord, which reminds us, of course, that we have Good News, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.