Saved by Hope
Despite all the bad news, we are safe in God
This is a sermon about Christian hope. It is based on a passage from one of the most important chapters of Paul's letter to the Romans. That book has been and continues to be perhaps the most powerful statement of the Christian faith. Hear Paul's words:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (Romans 8:22-25).
Now, when I talk about Christian hope, I do not mean optimism. To be optimistic is to expect certain things to happen.
Optimism is based upon what is concrete or as Paul would put it, on what can be seen.
Instead, Christian hope is based on what we do not see. It focuses on the meaning and purpose of life. Christian hope is what gives us direction.
My friends, the Christian faith is essentially a religion of hope—an expectation and longing for what cannot be seen. Hope lies at the heart of what it means to be human—to be alive.
Paul certainly has few illusions about the world as it is. He knows that God's children suffer. "We are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered," he declares (8:36). And yet it is a world groaning in labor pains—straining to give birth to new life—a new creation.
Paul's world is one conquered by hope instead of fear, anxiety and despair. Therefore, Paul writes, "For in hope we were saved." "In hope we were saved."
What can that possibly mean? What, after all, is Christian hope? Let me answer that with three simple sentences:
1. You are not alone.
2. You belong to God.
3. You need not be afraid.
The Christian faith has many ways of trying to capture the meaning of salvation and the nature of hope, but they all revolve around one fundamental idea—being bound together with God through Jesus Christ.
Here in Romans, Paul uses the metaphors of redemption and adoption. Through Jesus Christ, God has bought us and brought us back into relationship with God; God has redeemed us. Through Jesus Christ we are adopted by God. We become children of God.
When we belong to God, we are saved in hope—because nothing will ever separate us from God. We are never alone. We need not be afraid. This is the hope that drives Paul's passionate affirmation:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (8:38).
Hope is not some talent or expertise that we can nurture. Instead, it is a gift—a product of our loving and being loved by God. It is the promise of abundant life, even eternal life, because we will know—even in and beyond death—that God has not left us alone. God will not abandon us. That is our hope; that is eternal life.
There are times when the meaning of hope can become crystal clear. Four years ago my mother died. It was a terrible death, the kind of death we fear for ourselves and our loved ones. Trapped by medical technology, she spent three months moving between intensive care, coronary care, and pulmonary care until even machines could not keep her alive.
Throughout her life, my mother often seemed joyful and free. She laughed easily. She was proud of being the joke editor of her high school newspaper.
But beneath this exterior was anxiety and fear. Perhaps it began when they buried her mother on her fifth birthday. A near-fatal auto accident and years of recovery from a nervous condition obviously contributed to her uncertainty about herself and her world.
What kept her going was her faith, even though she confessed to me many times that she wasn't sure she was saved.
The last time I visited her she could not talk because of the tubes in her mouth. She looked helpless—12 or 14 tubes going into her and who knows how many coming out.
She had a tablet on her tray. Typical for her, the tablet was a complimentary one she had picked up from a lumber company. She also had a large black crayon. She grasped the crayon in her swollen hand, scrawled a message, and then pushed the tablet toward me.
At first I couldn't read her barely legible writing, but then it came to me. She had written: "I can't worry." When I looked at her, she gave me a funny, crooked smile.
That is Christian hope. In the face of death, looking back on a lifetime that had mixed joy and sorrow, security and anxiety, she declared, "I can't worry." Why? Because she knew she was not alone. She belonged to God. She was saved in hope.
But that is not the end. Christian hope is not only the conviction that we belong to God but also the motivation for all our work and witness.
Martin Luther declared, "Everything that is done in the world is done by hope." When we belong to God, we are free from ourselves and liberated to serve others.
St. Augustine made the same point with a simple and beautiful image. "Hope has two daughters," he wrote. "They are anger and courage—anger so that what should not be, may not be. And courage, so that what must be, will be." In other words, Christian hope is not only the answer to death; it is also the answer to life.
Consider one illustration of how hope's two daughters, anger and courage, can make a difference. In the continuing saga of violence from our nation's cities comes this story from New York.
Four whites attacked two black children—a 14-year-old boy and his 12-year-old sister—as they set off for school. They robbed them, cut off some of the girl's hair, and then smeared them with white sneaker polish.
Their bodies recovered, but their souls and minds were scarred. Their mother, Nellie Wilson, was distraught. "If they hadn't put paint on them, I could have taken it," she said. "But the painting, the cutting the girl's hair and the racial slurs, that's the part that bothers me. This world is so vast, so big, big, big. Why can't we get along?"
"Why can't we get along?" That is the cry of a world groaning in labor pains, straining for fairness and justice. God's message of hope is that the cry of suffering will be heard.
Nellie Wilson's children received letters from an entire fifth grade in Lexington, Massachusetts. One girl wrote:
Before I tell you how I feel, I want to tell you that I wanted to write this letter and that no one made me. I was shocked when I heard what happened to you. I don't see why anyone would or should hurt anyone just because of a different skin color. Even though I am white I am still mad. Why would anyone do this? And then she concluded: Please don't lose hope!
That is the message of Paul in Romans. That is the message to take with you today: "Please don't lose hope!" That is the good news for each of you—caught in your own traps of fear and anxiety. That is the message to proclaim to others.
You are not alone. You belong to God. You need not fear.
Each of you is called by God to be a bearer of hope, whose daughters are anger and courage. Tell people, show people, that what is does not need to be, that what should be will be.
Help people see a world which is groaning in labor pains, straining to bring new life into the world, a society in which justice can prevail, a new creation in which God's love is triumphant.
Be messengers of hope, for we know that nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. We are saved in hope.
With that conviction, we can declare with the Psalmist,
Why are you cast down, 0 my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.
With that conviction we too can write: "I can't worry."
Copyright ©2002 Dr.
John M. Mulder. Excerpted from a sermon preached at the Calvary Episcopal Church Lenten Noonday Preaching Series.