A Homily given during 6pm Night Prayer, by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO, on the 28th January 2024

A philosophy or a theology of Hope – 3

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Our reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews this evening [Hebrews 11:1-13] started with these words:

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. [Heb 11:1]

In the first of my three Night Prayer homilies on Hope, I looked at the ancient Greek idea of that concept, which was depreciative – to hope was seen as weakness, a fallback position when all else had failed. In the second, I commented on the Roman idea where Hope in the imperial age had become something of a talisman, where it was aspirationally identified with emperors. I quoted from the apostle Paul in both those homilies, identifying how his epistles (to the Corinthians and to the Romans) addressed these two different approaches.

Now, tonight, I would like to look the Judaic concept which might, from a worldly view be reduced to – hope without hope; but, in reality, was a capacity to find by faith, hope where there seemed none to be found. After four centuries of hopelessness in Egypt, this aspiration was expressed through Moses. Then deliverance from Pharoah took the people of God to a wilderness for forty years, and it would be the hope of faith which enabled Moses to lead them. Centuries later, in the Babylonian exile, a theology of hope in the midst of hopelessness was born.

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.   

Sometimes, in our life pilgrimages we may feel ourselves in dark places – places where hope seems beyond the possible, where our faith resources are challenged as we find it difficult to have confidence in what we hope for through faith. It is at times like this that these words from the epistle to the Hebrews may not only give us comfort but strength to carry on the journey.

It appears that the epistle to the Hebrews played such a role for John Wesley when he found himself in a dark place. In 1736, with his brother Charles, he had set out with evangelistic enthusiasm to America. James Oglethorpe, the founder of the social experiment that became Savannah, Georgia, a planned community a century before the social experiment of the South Australian colony and its capital Adelaide, had invited the brothers to bring the good news of the Gospel to the Indians of the colony and spiritual succour to the colonists, many of whom had been freed from debtors’ prison to start new lives across the ocean.

The venture of the Wesley brothers was not a success; Charles returned after just a year, while John laboured on under increasing duress for another twelve months. The missionary project to the first nations people failed utterly and the parish work generated distressing conflicts, so much so that John Wesley found himself being charged by local authorities. In his diary he wrote:[1]

I shook off the dust of my feet, and left Georgia, after having preached the gospel there (not as I ought, but as I was able) one year and nearly nine months. [Dec 2 1837, p35]

A few months earlier, in August of that year, as the crisis was reaching a peak, Wesley found himself preaching on the epistle to the Hebrews. He wrote on the 16th of that month:

The evening lesson … was the eleventh of Hebrews; a reading which I was more particularly encouraged. [p30]

What might have encouraged him? Perhaps verse 13 was most telling to the depressed John Wesley:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised, they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.

Those faithful people listed in that chapter of Hebrews had all had faith which enabled them to have hope beyond the seeing. Wesley seems to have thought a great deal about this over the subsequent months for, on 29th January, at sea with the coast of England now in view, he wrote:

It is now two years and almost four months since I left my native country, in order to teach the Georgian Indians the nature of Christianity: but what have I learned myself in the meantime? Why (what I the least of all suspected), that I went to America to convert others, was never myself converted to God. [p39]

John Wesley was starting on an epiphany which would transform his life. On his return to England, he found himself encouraged by a Moravian missionary, Peter Boehler who told the struggling Wesley ‘to preach faith until you have it; and then because you have it, you will preach faith’. [5 Mar 1738 p44]

In this instance, Wesley was being told that, through hope with faith, he might find that which he did not feel he had – either faith or hope.

The hymn we will sing tonight – Oh, for a heart to praise my God – was written by Charles Wesley in the early years after the failed American adventure; John Wesley incorporated it at that time in a hymnary. The yearning of the brothers to feel the encouragement of such faithful related in our Hebrews reading tonight is expressed in the final verse:

Thy nature, gracious Lord, impart.

Come quickly from above

Write thy new name upon my heart

Thy new, best name of love.

In my second homily, I quoted the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the idea of the Jewish invention of the concept of Hope. In his article he drew attention to an oft mis-translated portion of Scripture. I am sure you know well the line where God supposedly spake to Moses:[2]

I am as I am [Exodus 3:14a]

These words are of profound encouragement, for they speak of an eternal present – the I am. Yet, they are not a correct translation of the original Hebrew which should be translated as:

I shall be as I shall be.

An eternal future rather than just an eternal present – in the difference between the two, we may find true hope.

That verse from Exodus continues:

Hashem said, ‘So shall you say to the Children of Israel, ‘I shall be has sent me to you’. [Exodus 3:14]

In the first of these three homilies on Hope, I had quoted from 1 Corinthians 13:13:

Now faith, hope and love abide, these three.

Now let me finish quoting that well known verse:

… but the greatest of these is love.

Over these three homilies I have focussed on hope through faith, but there, in the closing lines of this verse, Paul has almost casually set aside both faith and hope. Why so? Because faith and hope lead us to God’s love; and in the fullness of that love, faith and hope become subsumed.

Let’s turn to the Book of Revelation, chapter 21 where ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ is described. John, writing of his vision, wrote in verse 22:

I did not see a temple in the city.

Why was no structure of faith and hope needed in the new Jerusalem? Because ‘the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple’. That which had been hoped for through faith was now the ever present ‘I shall be’ who said in verse 6 of that chapter:

It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.

In the period of silent reflection now, as Coby plays the organ, we may wish to reflect on our own personal journeys, where we have prayed for hope, prayed for faith. Through His Holy Spirit, may we feel God’s enfolding love as we make those prayers.

[1] Citations from John Wesley are from The Journal of John Wesley, Vol 1, Charles H Kelly, London, 1903.

[2] Rabbi J Sacks, How the Jewish people invented hope, www.myjewishlearning.com/article/how-the-jewish-people-invented-hope/