Presumption and Despair: A Sermon

Jeremiah 23:23-29
Hebrews 12:1-7, 11-14
Luke 12:49-56

CrossI am going to talk about sin this morning. I am not talking about sin because this is my favorite sermon topic. I am talking about sin because this is the common subject of the lectionary readings. Sin is a difficult topic to preach on for at least two reasons. First, in today’s popular culture, Christians are accused of being obsessed with sin, or, more specifically with other people’s sins. Second, Christians are accused of being judgmental of other people’s sins, and no one likes to be judged.

I do think that there is some truth to these accusations. There are preachers who love to talk about sin, but one gets the impression that too often they mean the sins of the people in their pews that they find most irritating. There are few things that turn people off from the church like a preacher who scolds parishioners from the pulpit, reminding them of just how far they are from living up the pastor’s expectations.

At the same time, there is a certain amount of hypocrisy in all of this. The same culture that criticizes Christians for being obsessed with sin is absolutely unforgiving of behaviors that they don’t call sin. They just call these behaviors by different names. Hatred, intolerance, and bigotry, are the three main sins condemned in our culture today. And all you have to do to be guilty of one of these three offenses is to disagree with the current spirit of the age. Again, although no one likes to be judged by others, there is plenty of judgment to go around. The news media loves to tell the stories of the latest celebrity who has, once again, had to check into a rehabilitation program because of a drug or alcohol addiction. You cannot buy groceries without noticing the tabloid newspapers and magazines with the latest shocking headline about which Hollywood actor was caught having an affair, or, an even worse sin, which Hollywood actress has gained too much weight to wear a bikini at the beach. And, of course, there is the world of politics, which has become something of a contact sport in our society. One of the ironies of today is that we live in a culture where no one believes in sin, but everyone blames other people for things we do not call sin, and where no one believes in forgiveness for any of these things. If you’re ever guilty of the kinds of things that one group or the other disapproves of in our culture, God help you, because only God can.

What all of these examples have in common is that they are about other people’s sins. My friend and colleague Leander Harding has defined sin as “Things other people do that we don’t approve of.” At the same time, Leander says, we all do things that other people do not approve of, but we don’t think those are sin. The religious writer Kathleen Norris has a better definition of sin: “To comprehend that something is wrong, and choose to do it anyway.” (Acedia and Me)

There are some things that our society condemns that are not really sins. No longer having the body you had in high school when you go to the beach is not a sin. Not having as well-paying a job as the next guy, or not being able to afford the latest car or the newest IPhone is not a sin.

However, there are things that people do that really are wrong. Jesus defined the heart of the law as loving God and loving our neighbor. The ten commandments can be summarized as a list of genuinely wrong actions that do not show love for God or neighbor. There really are times when people put themselves at the center of the universe, and put themselves where God should be. There are some things human beings can do that really do cause harm to other people. And, let’s be honest, these are things that we all do. We are not taking the notion of sin seriously as long as we define sin as things that “other people do.” Any serious talk about sin needs to begin the way that Alcoholics Anonymous users introduce themselves. “Hello, my name is Bill. And I am a sinner.”

So the first thing we need to do when it comes to sin is to recognize that sin is something serious. Sin is when we try to run the world as if we are God rather than letting God do his job. Sin really hurts other people. And, second, we need to recognize that we all do it.

But the lectionary readings this week do not focus on just any sins, but a particular kind of sin. A key theme of the lectionary readings from the epistle to the Hebrews this week and last week is that of hope. Last week’s reading began with the famous definition of faith: “Faith is the assurance of things hopes for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1) That theme of hope continues in this morning’s reading. In the Middle Ages, spiritual writers talked about two temptations connected with sin that were opposite of one another, and yet had something in common in that they were both temptations to sin against hope. These were the temptation of presumption and the temptation of despair, and they seem to be the primary focus of the reading from Jeremiah and Hebrews this week.

What are presumption and despair?

Presumption is the temptation that says, “no matter what I do, no matter what sins I commit, I have nothing to worry about.” Among other things, the anti-Christian philosopher Voltaire is famous for having said, “Of course, God will forgive. That’s his job.” That is the attitude of presumption in a nutshell. Presumption seems to be the key problem addressed in the Jeremiah reading this morning: “Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God far off? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? Do I not fill heaven and earth? How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceits of their own hearts, who think to make my people forget my name by their dreasm that they tell one another, even as their fathers forgot my name for Baal?” (Jer. 23:23-26) Exactly what is it that these prophets have been prophesying? We find the answer earlier in the chapter, not included in the lectionary reading: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you . . They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you,’ and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’ ” (vs. 16-17) Presumption is the sin of those who presume to speak for God without having heard God speak to them, and who have no concern that they might be mistaken. It is the view that says that God is on our side rather than making sure first that we’re on God’s side.

Presumption is perhaps the most characteristic sin of the secular culture we live in today where people seem to think that the whole notion of sin is something we can do without. But I think there is also a real case of presumption among those, both in the secular world and in the church who define sin not as what we do, but as what other people do. Presumption is the sin that says “I’ve got nothing to worry about, but that other guy is in trouble.”

Despair is the opposite extreme from presumption. Despair is the temptation that says, “No matter what I do, no matter how much I try, God will never forgive me because I have done something so bad, it could never be forgiven.” But despair can also be the sin that says that God has forgotten about me, or God just does not care. Despair is the key temptation treated in the Hebrews passage. The entire book of Hebrews is addressed to those who are in danger of losing their faith because of persecution, and this morning’s passage exhorts its hearers to not despair or give up: “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. . . . Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees . . . so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.” (Heb. 12:3, 12) Despair is, I think, the temptation to many of us who find ourselves living in a culture in which Christian faith is no longer appreciated, where the media almost always portray Christians in a negative light, where perhaps our own families think that we are misguided because we have faith.

Up to this point I have been setting up a problem. But there would be no point to the sermon without a prescription for the problem. The first part of the solution is to note something that would be easy to miss if we only read the lectionary readings this morning. Sometimes the lectionary can mislead because it does not include everything that is important. When we talk about sin, it is important to remember that the context of sin is always grace. One of the reasons that secular culture is suspicious of Christians is that it hears Christians talking about sin, but it does not hear the message of grace that provides the essential context for understanding sin. As a result, non-Christians tend to think that the Christian God has an anger-management problem. God is always angry, and he is always condemning people who think that they are just fine, and are only minding their own business.

In both of our lectionary readings this morning, however, the primary context of the warnings about sin is God’s goodness, God’s love, and God’s care for his people. Jeremiah is usually thought of as a prophet of judgment, but in Jeremiah, that judgment has a context. Sin is forgetting that God loves Israel. At the beginning of Jeremiah in chapter 2, God says to Israel: “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness.” (Jer. 2:2) God asks Israel “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me and went after worthlessness, and became worthless?”God points out that he delivered Israel from slavery in the land of Egypt, “And I brought you into a plentiful land to enjoy its fruits and its good things.” (vs.5, 7) But despite that, God says, Israel has forgotten the good things that God has done. God’s message to the presumptuous is “You have forgotten something. You are who you are only because I have been gracious to you.”

Similarly, in Hebrews, the context for the warnings in this morning’s lectionary readings are everything that the writer has said already about what God has done in Christ. In the first verse of the book, the author writes, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son . . .” (Heb. 1:1) In today’s lectionary passage, the context is the previous chapter, whose theme is hope. God’s message to the despairing is “I have not forgotten about you.”

There is also a solution to the problem of both presumption and despair, and it is faith. Or, rather, it is specifically faith in Jesus. In our Hebrews reading this morning, the author writes: “Let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of God.” (Heb. 12:1-2)

The author points to the cross, and the cross is the only solution to the twofold problem of presumption and despair. There were groups of both kinds of people present at Jesus’ crucifixion. Those who put Jesus to death were certainly examples of the presumptuous. The Jewish religious leaders of the time aligned themselves with the Romans – the Jews’ worst enemies — to put Jesus to death. And they did it because they thought that they were doing what God wanted, and that Jesus was an enemy of God. On the other hand, Jesus’ disciples provide a fine example of the temptation to despair. While Jesus was being put on trial for his life, Peter warmed his hands by a fire and denied that that he knew him three times. The rest of the disciples fled.

And how does Jesus himself address these two groups? Of the presumptuous, those who crucified him, Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) Jesus’ address to the despairing can be found in his appearance to Peter after his resurrection,. After he rose from the dead, Jesus appeared to his disciples who had fled him in his hour of greatest need, and the first thing, he says is “Do not be afraid!” (Matt. 28:10, Luke 24: 38, John 20:19) To Peter, who had denied him three times, he says “Feed my sheep!” (John 21:15) And he tells them all, “I will be with you always.” (Matt. 28: 20)

There is a third option that is neither presumption nor despair, the option of faith. And that is what we find in the gospel of John where the apostle John and Jesus’ mother stand at the cross. (John 19: 25-26) The presumptuous, those who were sure that God was on their side, nailed Jesus to the cross. And they stood by and mocked him. (Mark 15:29-32) The despairing, Jesus’ disciples, fled from the cross out of fear. But a few, some of Jesus’ women followers, and the apostle John, stood by the cross.

And it is the cross by which Jesus overcomes the presumptuous, and returns hope to the despairing. Why is the cross the one effective response to the temptations of presumption and despair? Because it is in the cross that the power of the omnipotent God is shown in the vulnerability of a love that embraces rather than destroys us in our presumption and despair. To the presumptuous, the cross presents them with a God whose power is beyond any strength they can imagine, but who responds to his enemies not with vengeance, but with forgiveness. To the despairing the cross presents them with a God who does not threaten, but rather reaches out to us even to the point of dying for us. Paul writes, “God demonstrates his love for us, in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8)

And the cross has been the one thing that has overcome both the presumptuous and the despairing. There are numerous examples in history of the presumptuous, the proud who knew they were in the right, and that God was on their side, who have had their pride broken by the cross. Saul of Tarsus was a young Jewish leader who was convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was a false prophet. He was on his way to the city of Damascus to arrest and imprison Christians, when the risen Christ appeared to him as spoke “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4) From that point on, Saul’s life was radically changed, and he became the apostle Paul, who went on to write that the cross is the foolishness of God that is wiser than the wisdom of men. (1 Cor. 1:18-25) Martin Luther was a medieval monk, whose consciousness of his own sin accused him to the point he was convinced that God would never be gracious to him. But it was the cross that convinced Luther of God’s graciousness, and Luther went on to become the great theologian of the cross.
I would imagine that there are many who hear these words who, at one time or another, have been tempted by presumption. There are times when we have been sure that we are just okay. We imagine that if God could see things from our point of view, he would congratulate us on just how right we are, and how great a job we are doing. Or perhaps, we have found ourselves at the opposite extreme. We look in the mirror and we see a failure, we see someone God could not possibly love, and perhaps we ask ourselves how God could forgive someone who has messed things up as badly as we have. And I would imagine, most of us have belonged to both groups, at one or another time of our lives, sometimes presumptuous, sometimes despairing.

The wonderful thing is that God is not proud. God is the infinite Creator of the entire universe. To anyone who is convinced that they have got it all together, God could simply say “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” The entire universe could collapse around us, and where would we be? But instead, the infinite all powerful God has made himself very small. He has come among us in the person of Jesus, and he has allowed the presumptuous to nail him to a cross. To the despairing, to those who feel that God could never forgive, the Jesus who died on the cross has risen from the dead, and comes to us as he came to Peter, who had denied him three times. And whether we are presumptuous or despairing, we are called to be like John and Mary, and to return to the Jesus who was crucified for us, no longer trying to convince ourselves that we have it all together, because we don’t, but also no longer worrying that we have made things so wrong that there is no hope for us. The crucified Jesus is our hope.

So let us not be too proud to admit that we are not in the right after all. We cannot fool God, and he knows what we are. But neither let us be the fearful who have no hope. Let us be like Mary and John and come to the cross where our presumption and despair are both swallowed up in the love of Jesus, who overcomes our strength with his weaknesses, and overcomes our fear with his love.




“The Assurance of Things Hoped For”: A Sermon

Genesis 15: 1-6
Psalm 33
Hebrews 11: 1-16
Luke 12: 32-40

ship

The common theme in the lectionary readings today is that of hope. This is a topic that one usually associates with Advent, but it never hurts to be reminded from time to time of things we need to hear. Think of the sermon this morning as a little bit of Advent in the summer.

The Old Testament passage focuses on Abraham, and his hope for a son. In this morning’s passage, God appears to Abraham, and promises him, “Fear not, Abram. I am your shield. Your reward shall be very great.” (Gen. 15:1) Abraham is now an old man, and his response is perhaps understandable. Basically, he asks God, how can my reward be great? I will not be around much longer, and I do not have any children to give any reward to when I die. God’s response is one of the key passages in the Bible. “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. . . So shall your offspring be.” (v. 5) This seems to be a highly unlikely promise to make to an old man beyond the prime of life, but we know something Abraham did not. We know how the story turned out. We know that Abraham’s descendants would become the nation of Israel, and Jews who read this passage in their Scriptures would have realized that their very existence was the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. If we include Christians, who also understand ourselves to be descendants of Abraham by faith, the promise to Abraham was fulfilled beyond his wildest dreams. According to the experts [Wikipedia], there are somewhere between 13 and 15 million Jews in the world today. There are something like 2.2 billion people who could be considered Christian in at least some sense living in the world today. So that’s a lot of descendants for Abraham.

Verse 6 reads: “And [Abraham] believed the Lord, and [the Lord] counted it to him as righteousness.” This is a key verse for later Christian theology. In both Paul and the book of James, the passage is crucial for the discussion of justification, how it is that we are considered righteous by God. That, however, is not the focus in today’s reading. The author of Hebrews talks about faith in a slightly different way. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1) Referring to Abraham, the writer of Hebrews says “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance.” (v. 8) And, of Abraham’s wife Sarah, the writer says, “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” (v. 12)

So Hebrews focuses on “faith” not as touching on the question of righteousness, but on faith as trusting in God’s providence, that God will provide despite evidence to the contrary. Abraham obeys God “by faith,” and leaves his home and family to go to a new land, a land which will become the home of his descendants, the nation of Israel. Although Abraham and Sarah are too old to have children, they trust God who gives them Isaac as their son.

This sense of faith as “hope”for that which is not seen, is a necessity of human life – which leads to my first point: Hope is basic. Human beings are goal-oriented animals. Everything we do, we do in hopes of attaining a fulfillment that we cannot yet see. We go to sleep at night, trusting that we will wake up in the morning. We wake up in the morning, expecting that we will have food to eat. We go to work expecting that we will be paid, if we are students we study, expecting that we will learn, we get married and have children, trusting that our families have a future, we begin exercise programs, we take up new hobbies, in the spring, we plant seeds for flowers or vegetables in our gardens but don’t see the results until summer – everything we do, we do to attain a purpose whose outcome we can only anticipate but cannot yet see. Hope is fundamental to human life. If we had no hope, we would simply not get out of bed in the morning.

Supposedly we live in a culture that is more and more secular, and also more cynical and distrustful of other people – a society that says everyone is on their own, and you cannot depend on any one else. Yet, despite all of that, we are still a culture in which hope thrives. I think that is one of the reason for the popularity of “superhero” movies these days. The plot of every new superhero movie has the same basic structure. There is an “origin” story, where we find out how the hero became the hero – how Spider-man got his powers, or how Iron Man designed his suit, or how Superman came to earth from Krypton. Then there is a threat, usually a “super villain,” who threatens to destroy all that the superhero holds dear. Finally everything wraps up with the special effects extravaganza, in which the superhero defeats the villain, and the movie ends with celebration because evil has been defeated and good has won. New versions of these kinds of movies with new heroes, or sequels with the old heroes, are made over and over again, and judging by box office sales, people do not get tired of seeing them. Why? Because they have a basic message of hope. The future may be bleak. World destruction is just around the corner! But we know that, in the end, everything will turn out all right, because in the end, the good guys always win.

When Stephen Spielberg’s movie about Abraham Lincoln first came out, I was interested in seeing it. One of my students, in a sarcastic moment, commented to me, “You know, he dies in the end.” The humor, of course, was that everyone knows that Lincoln dies in the end, but usually, heroes are not supposed to die at the end of the movie. The problem is that if we’re honest about it, we know that everyone dies in the end. Superhero movies always end with the triumph of the superhero and the defeat of the super villain. Fairy tales always end with “And they all lived happily ever after.” But in real life, that’s not what happens. In real life, Iron Man goes home after saving the day, but next week there’s another super villain, and eventually Iron Man would get too old to fight super villains. But Hollywood has a way around this. Hollywood loves what are called “reboots,” so there have been six James Bonds, and who knows how many Supermans and Batmans, if you include both television and the movies. In real life, James Bond and Superman and Batman would all have gotten old and had to retire by now. And, of course, everyone dies in the end. In recent years, there has even been a new kind of superhero character in response to this realization that things don’t really turn out happily ever after in real life, the antihero. The “Dark Knight” Batman and the Daniel Craig James Bond are antiheroes for an era where hope disappoints, and things don’t turn out all right.

There is a saying that a cynic is a disappointed romantic. Perhaps antiheroes are the kinds of heroes you get when there’s always another super villain to fight next week, and everyone dies in the end. Cynicism is one possible solution to the realization that fulfilled hopes are only temporary. There is even a biblical book that echoes this position – the book of Ecclesiastes – and we heard a reading from it in last week’s lectionary reading: Vanity of vanities. All is vanity and a striving after wind. There is nothing new under the sun. We all have Ecclesiastes moments, and perhaps it is good that such a book exists in the canon.

Which leads to my next point, however. Finite hope is hope for today. But finite hope is not enough. Finite hope presupposes cosmic hope, and if finite hope is not grounded in cosmic hope, it will disappoint. What do I mean by cosmic hope? Cosmic hope is the belief that in the end everything is going to turn out all right. When a mother comforts a crying child and says, “It’s going to be okay,” that’s cosmic hope. When a husband or wife loses a job and there is not enough money to pay the bills, and the other spouse says to the one who has just lost the job, “It’s okay. Somehow we’ll get through this,” that’s cosmic hope. There was a rather sappy Kenny Loggins tune when I was young that had the lines,

And even though we ain’t got money,
I’m so in love with you, honey,
. . . . . . . . . .
And in the morning, when I rise,
You bring a tear of joy to my eyes
And tell me everything is gonna be alright.

Sappy that may be, but that’s cosmic hope. Cosmic hope is the alternative to just accepting things as they are – to realizing that the fulfillment of hope is only temporary, and things don’t always turn out all right.

In the book of Genesis, Abraham is portrayed as having a basic hope, a hope for a son. But in Hebrews, we’re told, “he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” (Heb. 11:10) Hebrews speaks of the various heroes of hope in the Old Testament and concludes, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on this earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. . . they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one.” (verse 14)

Toward the end of the period during which the Old Testament was being written, the promise to Abraham had been fulfilled. Abraham’s descendants were many, and they were living in the land that Abraham had been promised. But for a couple of hundred years after the death of David’s son Solomon, Israel had had a series of really bad kings. The nation had split into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, and eventually both kingdoms were invaded and taken into captivity by their enemies. After the captivity, some Jews managed to return to their homeland, but they continued to be ruled over by foreigners, first by the Greeks, and then by the Romans. It was as if the promises to Abraham had been fulfilled, but the hopes of Abraham’s’ descendants had been dashed.

During the midst of all these troubles, prophets appeared who began writing about a new kind of hope, what could be called an eschatological hope, a cosmic hope for a new Israel and a new land in which hope would never disappoint. Jeremiah wrote about a new covenant, with a new law written on people’s hearts (Jer. 31:31-14). Ezekiel wrote about new life coming into Israel’s dead bones (Ez. 37). Isaiah talked about a time when the wolf would lie down with the lamb, and the child would play over the poisonous serpent’s den (Isaiah 11:6-9). In the latter half of the book of Isaiah, the prophet wrote about a new heaven and a new earth (Is. 66:22-23). Several of the prophets wrote about a new king, a descendant of King David, who would restore Israel’s hopes (Is. 11:1-5; Ez.34:23-24). And, of course, it is this imagery that is carried over into the New Testament, when Jesus proclaimed in his preaching that “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” (Mark 1:15) Cosmic hope is the hope for a permanent homeland, for what Hebrews calls a “city whose designer and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10) Cosmic hope is a hope that never disappoints, and it is cosmic hope that Jesus was talking about when he talked about the kingdom of God.

But is cosmic hope just “pie in the sky by and by”? Is saying “everything’s going to turn out all right” just wishful thinking? Perhaps mothers should not tell their children that it’s going to be okay. Perhaps couples should not promise one another, “We’re going to get through this.” Maybe Kenny Loggins should never have written that sappy song.

Hebrews 11:1 says that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Isn’t believing in things we cannot see just wishful thinking? But “wishful thinking” is not what Hebrews means by hope. The Greek is helpful here. What the modern English translates as “assurance” is hypostasis in Greek, which means not a psychological hope but something solid, something that is founded in reality. The King James translation read: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for.” In the Bible, hope is never based on human psychological certitude. Hope in the biblical sense is not Jiminy Cricket singing “When you wish upon a star/makes no difference who you are/anything your heart desires/will come to you.” In the Bible, cosmic hope is grounded in God’s promise and God’s actions. So if we look at the Genesis passage this morning, we find the divine promise: The number of Abraham’s heirs will be as the stars of heaven. And we find the divine action. Genesis 15:1 begins “After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram.” “These things” are all the things that God had done for Abraham up to this point. In the very next verse after the passage we read this morning, God says to Abraham, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” (Gen. 15:7)

When God gave Israel the ten commandments on Mount Sinai, he reminded them of what he had already done: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2) And he gives them a promise: “Behold, I send an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.” (Exodus 23: 20)

What is the promise that Christians have in the New Testament? The risen Jesus promises us “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) And what is the divine action on which we can base that promise? That God has given us his Son, and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the “sign” that we can trust that promise. That Jesus is the guarantee of the divine promise is a major theme of the book of Hebrews. In just one passage, the author writes: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood” – that’s us –” [Jesus] himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (Hebrews 2:14-16)

So cosmic hope is not just “wishful thinking.” It is based on God’s promise and on what he has done for us in Christ, destroying the power of death, so that we might have hope of freedom from the slavery of death.

There is just one last point I want to make as I wrap things up. We can see it in this morning’s gospel reading. If all we have is finite hope, finite hope will lead to insecurity, insecurity will lead to fear, and fear will lead to greed and hoarding. If everyone dies in the end, and I have no guarantee of a future, then what I have now may be all I will ever have. And it’s possible that I could lose it at any moment. In that case, the best thing to do is to hang on to what I’ve got. It is perhaps not surprising that as our culture becomes more and more secular, as we live in a world where there is no God, and all we can be certain of is that “everyone dies in the end,” the culture as a whole seems to becoming more obsessed with success and its trappings, with the kinds of good things that consumerism can give to us. People measure their worth by the kinds of jobs they have, the neighborhoods they live in, and the things they own. At the same time, they seem to be less compassionate for those who have less.

Our gospel passage sends the very different message that cosmic hope leads to generosity. Jesus says, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32) He tells us to lay up treasures in heaven, not on earth, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (v. 34) The main point of the passage is that we need to be ready, “for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (v. 40) There is a warning here. In a culture that has no cosmic hope, it is easy to get distracted by and wrapped up in those things of the present that promise a security that they really cannot deliver. But the gospel reading also ties in with what the Hebrews reading says about those who hope for a city whose builder is God. So there is also a promise. Jesus says, “Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them” (v. 37). That’s quite a promise. And we know from John’s gospel that the master really does serve the servants because Jesus washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:4-20). And he promised them that he would go and prepare a place for them (John 14:2-3).

Cosmic hope is the assurance that we may all die in the end, but that’s not the end. Everything really is going to be all right. As the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich wrote, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” And because all manner of things shall we well, we don’t need to hang on to all we have for dear life. We can be generous. “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”