Hopeless for Hope
Hope has a way of turning us into fools.
We are hopeless for hope–as though we are by nature wired to believe in underdogs, long shots, and lost causes.
A pair of star-crossed lovers……
The wild card game that opens to a World Series……
A bedouin immigrant named Abraham……
A rogue rabbi from Nazareth……
We are hopeless for hope. We are intent on believing that little girl on the internet can beat cancer, that maybe I have really won a cruise when that telemarketer calls, and that winning the lottery is only a matter of time.
I’m not pointing fingers here. I’m the most hopeless of fools in this world. You may not be able to fully appreciate this, but I’ve been a Chicago Blackhawks hockey fan for nearly 25 years. I know about foolish hope. But the past couple years, I’ve also learned the sweet and glorious payoff when our hopes are fulfilled.
Abraham & Sarah
There was a hope God breathed into the world way back in Genesis 12. God issues a promise to Abraham: that God will use Abraham’s family to bring about God’s blessing on the whole world. In order to do this, God promises to make Abraham a “great nation.”
It is the promise of children more numerous than the stars of the heavens, more abundant than the grains of sand on the seashore. To Abraham this promise was given, an old man, whose wife Sarah was well beyond childbearing herself. But what is it we read of Abraham in Romans 4:18? On account of his faith in God, he “hoped against hope”–a wonderful expression for how foolish his hope must have seemed to anyone else.
The hope of what was begun in Abraham & Sarah grew with God’s involvement in the world. After many years, Isaiah and other prophets catch a glimpse of what is coming–of a hoped-for messiah who will change the world.
They only catch glimpses; they never see the whole picture. But it stirs them to action and emotion as they dream an impossible dream with God. As they hope against hope for God’s victory, even when around them they only see defeat.
Isaiah is not very hopeful when he looks around and sees his fellow countrymen. In verses 6-7 of our reading in Isaiah 64, the prophet proclaims:
All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have given us over to our sins.
The language here is vivid, but the outlook is bleak. Their best intentions are “filthy rags,” they are “shriveled up,” and “swept away” by their sins. It’s funny how across time and space, the same images can be used to talk about trying to make it in this world without God: dirty, empty, a dried up husk, abandoned, things out of control. Isaiah might as well be describing many in our own world, even as he describes his own.
Isaiah sees no hope for them……at least, no hope without God’s intervention.
So Isaiah intercedes with God on their behalf, begging God to forgive them and mold them again according to God’s desires. In looking to the future, Isaiah remembers their past with God (vv.3-5)
For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.
Since ancient times, no one has heard, no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.
You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.
Isaiah remembers, and he hopes and prays for God to intervene like that in the world again, a hope expressed in vv.1-2:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!
Shut ‘Em Up?
Oh, boy! That God would do that again! Right?
That’d show them! That’d shut them up!
But would it?
You see, this foolish hope of Abraham and continued through prophets like Isaiah does get fulfilled, through one known as Jesus. God intervenes in human history in an amazing and dramatic way. It is not just the heavens that are rent when God comes down, it is also the temple veil and the barriers we erect to try to control “God” and “religion” and one another.
According to Matthew 27, with Jesus’ death comes an eclipse of the sun, an earthquake, and even the resurrection of some others who were dead. It is all very extraordinary and apocalyptic, just like Isaiah hopes it will be.
But it “shows” no one. It “proves” nothing to those who do not already believe. There are rumors and conspiracy theories, and the whole thing seems to end up a wash at best, at least in terms of public opinion.
That’s not quite how Isaiah had hoped it would turn out. Even when his hope is fulfilled, I imagine Isaiah might feel a bit foolish for all the ways he imagined it wrong.
But on some level, it will always be that way. It is part of the way God works. 1Corinthians 1 reads:
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
God works the way God works in order to bring God (alone) honor. Weakness is power in God’s kingdom, in order to show how broken are our notions of strength. Faith like a child is required for salvation, in order to reveal how incomplete and arrogant is the wisdom of our world. Humility and a heart of service are necessary parts of the life of faith precisely because they are discounted by our “me-first” culture.
Here’s something I realized this week. When we, like Isaiah, want God to “tear apart the heavens and come down and show the world,” what we really want is for God to vindicate us. It actually has nothing to do with honoring God. It has nothing to do with God’s desires being fulfilled. It is about us. It is about God taking our side and showing the world that we were right and they were wrong all along.
But if that is our desire, then we do not merely look foolish, we are fools. And we have misunderstood everything about the God we worship, the Jesus who saves us, the Spirit who abides with and guides us, and the life of love and sacrifice that we are called to lead.
I’m not sure I can overemphasize this distinction between looking foolish and actually being the fool. But remember that when even the most certain hope is distant, there comes a time when it appears to be foolish.
Think Noah, building that ark, awaiting the coming rain that the earth to date had never experienced. His hope was solid, anchored in the faithfulness of God. And yet, how foolish he must have looked and even felt at times!
Think Gideon, challenged to lead the army against thousands of Philistines. Even though God acquiesced to Gideon’s “testing” God by insisting on a sign, what a fool he must have seemed as he pared down the military to a mere 300 men.
Think Hosea, who God calls to live out a radical symbol of Israel’s unfaithfulness by marrying a prostitute. Just try to tell me he didn’t look like a foolish idiot every time she went back to her former life, and Hosea had to go to the brothel to bring her home again.
Think Mary Magdalene, tasked with proclaiming the absurd notion of resurrection to Jesus’ other disciples.
They all looked the fool, but their hope (anchored in God) proved them to be wise.
Our Foolish Hopes
Maybe we should pause to add our own foolish hopes–fulfilled or otherwise.
We hope that black-sheep-relative will turn their life around.
We hope that so-and-so’s chronic pain will ease.
We hope that we will be able to pay that bill.
We hope for forgiveness.
We hope we are strong enough to forgive.
We hope for peace in the Middle East.
We hope for enough peace in our families to simply make it through a holiday meal.
We hope for revival in our hearts and God’s church.
We hope for the return of Jesus.
In the face of apparent impossibility, these hopes seem hopeless. And the more time that passes–the longer our hope is drawn out–the more impossible it seems. The more foolish we appear.
It is just as with Isaiah, peering over the edge of today into God’s tomorrow. He saw the impossibility of his countrymen being anything other than what they were–hopeless sinners. But he also realized that his hope for the future was not rooted in them; it was rooted in God.
Let it be so for us, as well.
Our hope for healing is not rooted in medical science. It is firmly planted with the Great Physician, who knit our cells together and infused life in our mortal corpse with the divine breath.
Our hope of provision is not rooted in our jobs, bank accounts, or 401k’s. It is grounded with the Creator of Heaven and Earth, the one whom Jesus describes as caring for us more than the grass of the field and the birds of the air.
Our hope for life comes not from a mere expectation of tomorrow, but on account of the Giver of Life, who draws for us Living Water, which wells up to eternal life.
We can look foolish for our hope, yes. And let’s.
But let us not actually be fools.
Let us hope in Christ, and trust in God, and rest in the Holy Spirit.
“To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1Tim 1:17).