Sermon: “Why Hope?”
The last weeks, we’ve been reflecting quite a bit on faith, hope, and trust. I expect it has been a nice reprieve from all the banging on about God’s love that I tend to do.
In particular, last week involved looking into those dark places of our lives and those of our neighbors, entering into the places where we’re “just barely hanging on,” and discovering God’s presence and work.
Today, we take a step farther. We take a step farther because sometimes, our circumstances are certainly our own fault. Sometimes, we realize we have earned the consequences we face. Sometimes, we know we deserve God’s punishment.
And when we find ourselves in this place, hope is hard to come by.
Where then do we go?
What then do we do?
We could very easily fall into despair and depression, of the sort described by the Teacher in Ecclesiastes chapter 2.
But that is not God’s desire, as we see over and over again in the bible. The good news is good news most of all for those of us at the end of our rope, with no where to turn, and nothing to be done.
Or, put into more theological terms, it is precisely those of us who are most deeply sick with sin that most benefit from God’s redemptive attention. As Jesus reminded the Pharisees of his day and our own, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31–32 ESV).
Today’s text in Jeremiah is one of the many, many places where God’s supposedly faithful people have failed to be faithful—and they know it.
And so, out of the desperation that all of us can relate to from our own experiences, the people of ancient Israel fall down on their knees, begging and pleading for the mercy they know they don’t deserve.
“Our guilt cries out against us…”
“Our betrayals are many”
“So much have we sinned against you…”
“God, do something!” (v.7, excerpts from The VOICE)
But even God seems against them. So they redouble their efforts, intensify their commitments, and Jeremiah himself makes “a case for grace,” much as did Moses in the Exodus 32 text we looked at about a month ago. This time, Israel’s plea is rooted firmly in who God is:
Forgive us……”for the sake of Your good name” (v.21)
Forgive us……on account of “Your covenant with us” (v.21)
Forgive us……because only you can do the impossible. “You alone.” (v.22)
This is not just spin. The Israelites are not manipulating God—tickling God’s ears, or pumping up God’s ego by telling him how great he is. This is actually what genuine repentance looks like.
The Israelites know they are lost without God. They know that without God they won’t be able to have any change in their situation. They know that without God they have no hope.
But they also know that with God, there is always hope. And there is always hope because of who God is and because of who God created us to be.
This brings us to another level to our hope, and it has to do with relationship. According to Genesis, we are created in God’s image, and like our God who is three-in-one—continually in relationship—we are made for relationship too. The church—the body of Christ—provides an important avenue for developing one kind of relationship, as we (peer-to-peer) are Christ to each other.
But that is not all. As spiritual writer Trevor Hudson has recently reminded me: “the gospel invites us into friendship with God” (Beyond Loneliness, 16).
“We were created with the purpose of befriending God” (Beyond Loneliness, 27).
This is the reason for God’s mercy.
This is the reason God is long-suffering.
This is the reason that we cannot and will not ever run God off.
God wants to be our friend. God wants to be your friend.
Jesus Calls Us Friends
I——I’m not a very good friend. I find it hard to open up, even to those I am closest to. I don’t stay in touch very well. To be honest, quite often I have a hard time believing anyone wants to be my friend—so I doubt those who do.
It’s the same for me with God.
But God is the way every friendship should be.
With God, you get back together and it’s like you never missed a beat, no matter how many hours or years have passed.
With God, no presidential election is divisive enough to drive a wedge between you.
With God, you will get pestered over and over again until you finally tell him what’s bothering you.
With God, the friendship is always the most important thing.
In John 15, Jesus calls us his friends. He says,
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:13–15 ESV).
Un-Manipulating the Gospel
Maybe this sounds strange. Maybe it’s too “touchy-feely” for you. Maybe it’s enough you want me to just go back to preaching on love. But this too testifies to the heart of God, revealed by Jesus Christ, who is the most complete picture of God that the world will ever know.
And it’s really important to remember that friendship with God is at the heart of the Gospel message. In a new book just released this month, author Tom Wright writes about how mixed up we’ve gotten the Gospel. He speaks to how some of the popular ways we have of talking about Jesus are dangerous, and they radically contradict important verses of the bible. To illustrate his point, he quotes one of the most famous verses in the Bible—which is also an important verse for the gospel of Jesus—John 3:16. He says:
“God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” Look at the two verbs: God so loved the world that he gave his son. The trouble with the popular version [of the Gospel that] I have described is that it can easily be heard as saying, instead, that God so hated the world, that he killed his only son. And that doesn’t sound like good news at all. If we arrive at that conclusion, we know that we have not just made a trivial blunder that could easily be corrected, but a major blunder. We have portrayed God not as the generous Creator, the loving Father, but as an angry despot. That idea belongs not in the biblical picture of God, but with pagan beliefs.
(NT Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, p.43).
God so loved the world that he gave his son.
This is the hope described as a “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” in Hebrews 6:18.
This is the hope “set on the living God,” which Paul tells Timothy is “the end” for which “we toil and strive” (1Tim 4:10).
It is the “good hope” of 2Thess 2:16-17 which “comfort[s] [our] hearts and establish[es] them in every good work and word.”
This hope—Romans 5:5 reminds us—”does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5 ESV).
Hundreds of years before the resurrection of Jesus, Jeremiah paints a picture of this kind of resurrection hope. Since God is able to do what no one else can do, only God can do what Israel itself cannot do—bring about real change.
This is the root of hope throughout the bible—both Old and New Testaments. Through stories and teachings, we discover this pattern of forgiveness and reconciliation:
Over and over we fail and fall.
Over and over we experience forgiveness.
We cannot change.
But God can change us.
“What is impossible with man is possible with God,” to quote a famous Jewish rabbi (Mt 19:26; Mk 10:27; Lk 18:27).
God is our friend, and our Friend is able to help us do what we could never do on our own—be who we were created to be.
And that, sisters and brothers—Church of God—sounds like good news.
Prayer (inspired by Psalm 84)
How blessed are those who dwell in your presence,
Where even a swallow finds a home
With the least and greatest among us.
Grow in us a desire—a longing—
to be with you always.
Change our hearts
So our growing our friendship with you
Becomes the most important thing to us.
Teach us to devote ourselves to the continual practice
of remaining aware of your presence,
Finding our identity
And our fulfillment
In our relationship with you.