August 12, 2013

“The Assurance of Things Hoped For”: A Sermon

Filed under: Sermons — William Witt @ 1:16 am
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Genesis 15: 1-6
Psalm 33
Hebrews 11: 1-16
Luke 12: 32-40

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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.”

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