HOPING AGAINST HOPE
Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.
I don’t know if it often happens to you, but sometimes I find that, from the variety of powerful messages that come from the Lectionary readings each Sunday there can sometimes be one line or verse that may not have been key in the minds of the Lectionary compilers yet will insistently force itself forward in my mind.
This morning from our Gospel reading we have the message of always being prepared ‘because (we) do not know the day or the hour’ [Matt 25:13]. While in the Epistle reading from Thessalonians, we are commended to lead quiet and loving lives and are foretold of Jesus’ return in glory. In the Old Testament reading from Joshua we heard of God’s people acclaiming their being witness against themselves that they ‘have chosen to serve the Lord’. [Josh 24:22]. And Psalm 78 sang of passing on from generation to generation ‘what we have heard and known.’ [Ps 78: 3]
There is so much that could be preached about from such a richness of messages; but it was verse 13 from our Epistle reading that has insistently spoken to me this week as I have been preparing my sermon for this morning:
(We) do not grieve like (those) who have no hope.
The verse clearly refers to the hope we have in Jesus of our being resurrected from the dead; that death will lose its sting for us who know certain hope because Jesus, son of God, overcame death himself and did so for us. But there was an additional power to this verse coming to me this week that was not simply a kind of testimony to post-death life – the verse also spoke to me of hope through Jesus in this life.
What does it mean to have hope? Hope is a word we hear often; indeed we all use it frequently, don’t we? But when we use it, what are we actually expecting?
I hope it won’t rain tomorrow as I plan to be working outside. Is the hope here the same as saying that I hope life may be blessed for our grandchildren, in particular six month old Serena, who is here with us this morning along with her parents Jess and Kerch? These two hope statements seem of a different order of magnitude, don’t they? The first is simply a kind of predictor of how I may end up rating tomorrow when the day is done – it will be a 5 if it doesn’t rain and I’ll be happy, a 3 if it drizzles and a 1 if it continuously storms which will leave me grumpy. But, unlike the first, the second is imprecatory – it seeks an intervention of some power beyond anything that I, Jess or Kerch or any of our family can do for Serena. Only if the intervention occurs will the hope have been fulfilled.
This leads me to wonder how an atheist could possibly hope in this second way. If the atheist does not believe in anything beyond the collective nature of living things, how could there be any external intervention answering such a profoundly expressed hope? If that hope is imprecatory, to whom could the prayer possibly be addressed? To the amorphous collective of living things? An atheist hoping for world peace would be a sterile exercise for example. Simply stating such a hope could not, in an atheist’s perspective, have any possibility of changing anything, for the lack of peace in the world has been the outcome of that very same collective of living things, so how could an act of hoping change the outcome? – it would be as futile as saying today ‘I hope the end of WWI, 99 years ago yesterday, won’t lead to WWII’.
Some years ago, when I was working at Anglicare SA, there was media reporting of a dreadful event in our community; in consequence I reflected much upon the difference between secular hope and hope through faith. You may recall the event; it was reported that two families had been guilty of the dreadful abuse of their own children, subjecting them to physical and mental violence as well as deprivation to the extent of severe malnutrition occurring with the spectre of long term damage. There was a widespread feeling of revulsion in the community at the monstrous actions of these two families, mitigated only slightly by the removal of the children and arrest of the adults. I say mitigated only slightly, because I know there was a general despair about how such damage could ever be repaired – how could these children ever go on to live normal lives after all they had been through?
This sentiment crystallised itself with awe-ful power the following Friday night after the report broke. I was attending a service club event and was speaking to a friend whom I know to be compassionate and a dedicated volunteer through that service club in order to help others. We were speaking about the news report and of the children in particular. At the climax of the conversation, my friend said that those children could have no hope; that they would never be able to recover from what they had suffered.
At that moment, two explosions went off in my mind. The first was the adamant statement that screamed within my head: It could not possibly be true that those children have no hope because everything in my faith has told me that Jesus brought his message of hope to everyone, not just to the lucky ones. When we read him saying in John 10:10 that he came so that we may have life in all its fullness, it was not an exclusionary message that was intended just for the likes of us, but not for those unfortunate children. My mind’s explosion went further to state that, had Jesus’ message being partial such that the likes of those children had seen all hope evaporate, then my faith would be bankrupt.
However, this was no moment to set Richard Dawkins applauding. On the contrary, as my mind went through all these thoughts, it also drew on all the experiences I have had or been witness to over many years about the very real existence of the Holy Spirit in our world; all of which attested to Jesus’ message being for all.
And yet … From the world’s point of view, what my friend had said was eminently rational, all the world’s logic argued against those children ever being able to recover from the dreadful things that had happened them. My friend is an atheist and has had none of the experiences that I have been party to; so how could he have been expected to draw any other conclusion than that which he had arrived at?
And so took place the second explosion in my mind which was – what was I going to do about the understandable deficit of comprehension on the part of my friend? How could I convince him that Jesus’ promise was that hope is always possible? That is not to say easy; for I have experienced stories where hope has taken many years to play out. The point is that such hope, however long in the bringing, would even then not have happened had those trying to help not themselves believed in the possibility of ultimate success.
Such situations require hope against hope – the very words that Paul wrote in Romans:
Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed.
This was just one of the many references made by Paul to hope; and because there were so many we might think that they are just simply comfortable words of reassurance. In fact they are much more than that. When Paul wrote them in the Greek-speaking world of his time he used the word ἐλπίδα [elpida] for hope. The original source of the Greek word was ἐλπίς [Elpis] which was the name of a divine being who was considered to be the personification of hope. This all sounds very benign, but it wasn’t anywhere near as simple as that.
Elpis first appears in recorded literature in Hesiod’s account of Pandora. In the mythological story about Pandora’s box, it was Elpis (hope) that was the last remaining in the box after Pandora had opened it and unleashed the flood of tribulations on the world. So the message was, when all that is ill befalls, the only thing left to do is to hope; at the very best those tribulations bring nothing in their wake but a pitiful appeal to hope. But that is a spirit of negativity, of a despairing ‘what else can one do?’ This was the way ‘hope’ was seen as a concept in Paul’s time – something evocative of despair, not a concept of benign comfort but a grieving. A last resort with the smell of futility about it. Hope that the future might possibly be different, but not that anything could be done to make it so,
So let’s now consider again just how Paul introduced the promise of hope to his readers. His words about Abraham now take on more significance:
Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed.
His was a world that saw hope as a last ditch option; therefore, Paul knew he had to create a new understanding of what it meant to have hope through faith against the prevailing idea of a despairing hope, a hope of last resort; and thus it was he wrote that against all hope, it was through faith that Abraham could have hoped.
By doing so, he upended prevailing thinking; he linked suffering positively to hope, not despairingly. Listen to his words in his letter to the Romans:
We glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope [Romans 5:3-4]
Or this from his letter to Timothy:
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth … but to put their hope in God who richly provides with everything for our enjoyment. [1 Tim 6:1]
How wonderfully enlivening these words must have been to listeners in his day? How powerfully enabling can they be to our contemporary world that so easily despairs of hope? In the week after my conversation that Friday night, at Anglicare we resolved to adopt the slogan ‘Hope is Here’ – this was no cheap marketing mantra, but a sincere belief that, in faith, there can be hope when all about the world seems to decry such a proposition.
Yesterday I attended the book launch of “There is a Light at the End of the Tunnel” which has been written by Airlie Kirkham. Back in the late 1980s, Airlie had been a Sunday school teacher to some of our children. Then, twenty six years ago, in September 1991, she was involved in a terrible car accident which left her in a coma for some time and subsequently with permanent, catastrophic acquired brain injury which has severely affected her physical capacities though not her capacities for thinking and memory. She is confined to a wheelchair with almost no motor skills; but notwithstanding this, in the intervening years she has completed a Masters’ Degree in Music at the University of Adelaide and now written this book.
Through all these years, she has been upheld by the wonderful love of her parents, Pamela and Les, as well as her siblings; the wider family and loyal friends of many years have also all been supportive too. Additionally Airlie acknowledges the dedication and efforts of those who have treated and cared for her through all these years. But let me read from the last section of her book about what she sees as most important, what, in her immobile state, she has written about her guiding light in this tunnel into which she was cast:
I want to tell the world that miracles still do happen. God works them in His own time. I want to tell the world to trust in God and to always have hope … There is light at the end of the tunnel, but one has to find the way there. I have found that light and, with God’s help, it will lead me on into the future. [p81]
And so I return to my earlier story. If we were to accept the world’s reasoning, we would write off as incapable of help those children I spoke about. We would grieve for them as having no hope. However, we should not follow the world’s reasoning but that of Jesus; and by doing so we can say that they do have hope if we never cease praying for them.
Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians:
(We) do not grieve like those who have no hope.
Will only work if we hope in faith, hope against the sterility of the world’s hope.
I hope it won’t rain tomorrow.