Hoping Against Hope
On this second Sunday in Lent, we proceed deeper and deeper into God, into Christ, and perhaps most challengingly - into ourselves. We examine ourselves - our sinfulness, pride, our integrity and honor - and we strive to align all that is within ourselves, the worthy and the wrong, with the teachings and ethics of Christ. It is hard work - we’ve made our peace with so many personal shortcomings rather than face them down. We decide that they are somehow actually strengths of character, or that changing them is simply “more than anyone is asked to do,” or that it is actually who we are - the product of genetics, upbringings, hard circumstances, or similar things we can blame on others. As never before, let’s use these Lenten weeks to end those ways of excusing ourselves from growing more into the likeness of Christ.
Our Bible passages for today remind us both about how much in error the human family can be - how far we can stray from God’s purposes for us and for all creation - and also how clear is the true path forward if we will only trust what we hear from God and Christ. Paul writes to the believers in Rome who are quibbling amongst themselves about how much of Jewish law they should observe as followers of Christ’s Way. Paul brilliantly binds them into one community with a reminder of Father Abraham. Abraham should seem to be someone whose covenant with God provides an argument for the superiority of Jewish practice, history, and theology. But Paul makes a very different argument: the promise to Abraham was not prescribed through adherence to the law, but was made as a gift of grace. Abraham’s ongoing enjoyment of the promise to be father of many nations actually wasn’t contingent on Abraham’s observance of any religious law. In our day, we might add that the law wasn’t delivered to the people, formally, until many generations later. We also might note that Abraham swerved mightily away from trusting in God’s promises. He looked at his fellow nonagenarian wife Sarah and refused to believe that God could make them first-time parents, so he decided to beget a son through a slave girl named Hagar. But neither of these things does Paul need to refer to: he makes his critical point that God doesn’t make adherence to any divine law the precondition for the fulfillment of holy promises. Those promises have been made - and will always be kept - because of the grace of God and the ongoing strivings for faith in humanity. It is all based in grace and faith, not law. God’s grace is infinitely greater than any human sin, including Abraham’s. The promises still hold. They always will. And they are open to all who believe, gentile or Jew.
Only a few decades before Paul wrote to the Romans, Jesus was walking with his disciples and telling them about the suffering and execution that he was to endure. And they did not want to hear it. Peter took him aside and really let him have it, correcting Jesus, telling Jesus that he didn’t understand God’s plan, telling him not to scare people like that by saying such things in public. So Jesus let Peter have it, comparing him to Satan, the tempter whom he’d experienced in the wilderness. Not flattering! I imagine it may have indeed been tempting to Jesus to try to bring salvation to humanity without enduring the cross. Here was Peter saying, “We know you’re the Messiah, the Messiah doesn’t go through that kind of experience. He just ushers in God’s new age of justice, fairness and faith, trumpets blare, and then he reigns with God forever in glory.” Yes, that’s a much easier scenario for Jesus to consider, but in God’s wisdom it is not the way to redemption for the world. Salvation will come through enduring persecution, not avoiding it. Poor Peter (like us sometimes) is so certain of how things ought to go that he can’t understand how they really will and must go.
In both of our passages for today, there are great chasms between human ways of thinking and God’s thinking. In the Letter to the Romans, people are thinking overwhelmingly about the law, they are fixated on it as a way to judge people and between people; but God’s thinking is about grace. In Jesus’ conversation with the disciples, they are having very human thoughts about glory, vindication, and triumph on the road to redemption. Christ’s thinking is about faith, suffering for righteousness’ sake, and execution as the path to redemption. In both situations, there is a demand for human-based righteousness and reward, and that human thinking is very far from God’s.
Abraham, though, persevered in participating in God’s plan, no matter how unlikely it seemed. Peter and the disciples did, too, no matter how distasteful and even horrifying it seemed. Paul writes that Abraham was “hoping against hope” that all that had been promised could be true. I think it’s the very best advice for us “human-thinkers” in every age: hoping against hope.
Indeed, how can any person jump the hurdle of human experience and expectations to God’s reality without massive amounts of hope? We are going on promises, after all. Yes, they are given to us by God and Christ, but yes, also, the road from where we stand to the fulfillment of the promise is very challenging. God and Christ have promised us resurrection, salvation, life eternal when the life we now lead is over. Wondrous promise; challenging road. There is much suffering on the way to the promise’s fulfillment. There is particular suffering in any age for daring to be Christ’s disciple, for refusing to participate in the powers and principalities that denigrate some people, and that create hierarchies of human value, that place mammon over God, and that justify institutional or physical violence for personal gain. There is much suffering that will come to those who try always to think like God and not like humans.
Like Father Abraham, let us “hope against hope.” Hope is the only true bridge, I think, that can connect us between where we are now, as human communities, and the promise of where God wills us to be. Hoping against hope. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” Yes, there are many roadblocks between where we are now, and where God’s promises will take us. Let’s not permit the challenges that befall us derail our hope. The challenges are not insignificant - those things that can remove our hope - the death or desertion of one who is beloved, the unspeakable cruelty of others, the constant denigration of one’s humanity, the thwarting of a godly and worthwhile project. We accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope. That infinite hope - hoping against hope - is our only way forward.
Martin Luther, the inspiration for the King family, at least in naming, once said, “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.” We, this morning and every morning, take our place amongst all the hopers of the world. Our hopes make every good and Godly thing possible. Our smallest actions testify to our hope, not only the grandest of our gestures. We pack our kids’ lunches in hopes of their having a beautiful day. We study in hopes of growing our knowledge for today as well as for the ages. We persist in being present to a very challenging friend or family member because we hope that their tomorrows will not be like today. We live out our hope in God’s redemption for us, and for the world, by living as hopeful, hopeful people.
Hoping against hope, our hopes for the future sustain us in our lives right now. We think like humans as we try to live by the thoughts of God. Only our hope can bridge that divide. Let me conclude by sharing these verses from the First Letter of Peter: “By God’s mercy, God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith - being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire - may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”