If I asked you to name the essentials of life, what would they be? What is absolutely necessary for people to live? We would probably begin with a list of the tangibles things that we need, such as food, water, shelter, and clothing. As much as we are dependent upon those tangible items there are some intangibles as well that are necessary to life, and one of the most important of those is hope.
Having hope is not easy these days. Political campaigns promise hope but fewer and fewer people seem to have hope. In 1999, 85% of Americans said they were hopeful about their own future and 68% said they were hopeful for the future of the world. A few years ago only 69% were hopeful for their own future and only 51% were hopeful about the future of the world (from a CNN opinion poll). It’s probably dropped even more since then.
There is a trinity of values in the Christian faith, as Paul describes them in I Corinthians 13, and they are faith, hope, and love, none of which we can live without. Everyone – even the greatest skeptic, has faith in something. Everyone, without a doubt, needs love. But we must not forget the importance of hope, which is absolutely necessary to life.
Hope, we must note, is much more than wishful thinking. We might say that we hope to have a good week. I might say that I hope the Steelers win the Super Bowl this year. You might say you hope UK wins the NCAA this year. Some might say they hope UofL doesn’t win anything this year.
This morning, on this final Sunday of Advent, let us consider The Gift of Hope. Our Scripture text is Luke 1:67-79 –
67 And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying:
68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people,
69 And has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant—
70 As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old—
71 Salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us;
72 To show mercy toward our fathers, and to remember His holy covenant,
73 The oath which He swore to Abraham our father,
74 To grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear,
75 In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.
76 “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways;
77 To give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins,
78 Because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high will visit us,
79 To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
- Hope is an affirmation of belief in God’s promise of the future.
It is the belief in that promise that compels people to continue to move forward. The Hebrew people had the hope of the Promised Land. For centuries they endured slavery in Egypt, but they had hope in the promise of the future that one day they would not only have freedom but a home as well. That hope is what enabled them to endure through the many years of struggle and despair.
Job, a towering figure when it comes to hope – perhaps the greatest example of hope – clung to the hope that God was with him and had not turned against him. I read several passages daily and one of them is Job 13:15, which says though he slay me, yet will I hope in him. Nothing could cause Job to lose hope, not even his friends who came to him and encouraged him to give up. They saw no reason for hope, but Job did.
The early church had hope for a future free of persecution. As the mighty Roman Empire put many to death in horrific ways – as fodder for the animals and the gladiators in the Coliseum, as human torches lighting Nero’s gardens at night, and in countless other types of persecution – instead of losing hope their hope grew and with it grew the church.
When Paul writes of hope he is writing from very deep experience. It’s not an academic treatise; it’s real life. Paul suffered in so many ways – he was arrested and beaten (II Corinthians 11:13-29), people sought to kill him, and he was eventually executed – this was a guy who really understood hope. In the midst of his greatest trial – awaiting execution – he writes the letter to the Philippians and they are beautiful words; they are words of hope.
- Hope is what allows one to look at the terrible circumstances of the world and say things can be better.
Hope is what allows us to face our struggles, to look them straight in the eye, and say I can do this; this is possible; the Spirit of God will provide the strength to endure and His promise of a better future is true.
Victor Fankel learned that hope. He was a prisoner in a concentration camp, and at the entrance a sign bore the words abandon all hope ye who enter here, which is Dante’s inscription on the entrance of Hell. He lost everything. Every possession was taken from him, and he suffered from cold, hunger, brutality, and the constant fear of death. While in the camp he lost his father, mother, brother, and his wife.
He later wrote of one of his darkest moments. He was digging in a cold, icy trench, and at that moment felt the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose.
At that moment a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, and upon seeing that light, hope was kindled in him, and his words at that moment were et lux in tenebris lucent – and the light shineth in the darkness. John 1:5 says the light shines in the darkness.
Hope is the light that shines in the darkness of life. It is a light that illumines this life.
Christians have been accused over the years of concentrating so much on eternal life that the problems of this life are overlooked. But genuine hope never forgets this world. In fact, C. S. Lewis says that it is when Christians have most thought of the next world that they have worked to improve this world.
(Mere Christianity, p. 118)
- Proper hope, then, becomes something that moves us to make a difference in this world and in this life.
Hope changes things in this life. Proper hope does not ask people to simply endure this life while they are awaiting the next. A hope that sees something beyond this life sees how things should be, and when we see how things should be we work to make them that way. That’s why most of the great social movements in history have come out of the church; because the church saw how things could be and should be, and they worked to make it so.
Hope, then, makes all the difference. One of my favorite stories of hope is the story behind the great hymn It Is Well With My Soul. The hymn was written by Horatio Spafford, who was a lawyer in Chicago in the mid 1860s. He had a very successful career, but in 1870 a series of tragedies befell the family, beginning with the death of their four-year-old son from Scarlet Fever. A year later almost all of the Spafford’s real estate holdings were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire, causing Spafford to lose his life savings.
In 1873 his family planned a trip to England, but at the last minute Spafford was called back to Chicago on business. He sent his wife and four daughters on to England, anxious to see them enjoy a trip to take their mind off their tragedies. But tragedy struck on the trip, as their ship collided with another, and sunk in only twelve minutes. Spafford’s wife survived but their four daughters perished.
Spafford took the first ship out of New York to meet his wife, and during the voyage the ship’s captain called Spafford to the bridge. The captain explained they were passing the spot where his daughters had perished. Spafford returned to his cabin and wrote the hymn, which included these words – when peace, like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well, with my soul.
When hope exists, people can survive even the most desperate of circumstances. As Emily Dickinson writes in her poem Hope,
Hope is the thing with feathers,
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune – without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
May hope live in us always.