A Sermon: Hope That Sustains

Last Sunday I preached from the lectionary passages for the second Sunday of Advent. A couple of days before preaching our church learned of a tragic car crash in Malawi that claimed the lives of three people. These three had become incredibly close with members of a youth group and leaders that we sent to Malawi this summer to help at a youth camp. This was at the forefront of my mind as I wrote this sermon.

We have said that Advent makes plain the gap between how things are and how they will be. After the tragic news this week from Malawi we remember how large the gap can seem.

In Romans 15:4-13 we hear three words repeatedly that we in-between people should pay attention to: endurance, encouragement, & hope. The passage begins, For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

This week Nelson Mandela was rightly remembered as a man who embodied these three words. He was a man who endured, who encouraged those around him, and who maintained hope. We rightly celebrate this man and these traits but, as we’ve seen, it can be easy to forget the extent of the hurt & wickedness that called forth these traits. In order to endure, there must be opposition. In order to be encouraged, there must be reason for discouragement. In order to hope, there must be despair in the atmosphere.

At first glance, our passage seems seems devoid of such opposition, discouragement, and despair.

 Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.

It’s an amazing claim Paul makes: Jesus Christ becomes a servant to God’s people. That is, he takes onto himself Israel’s vocation to bless the world as well as Israel’s sin, rebellion, and exile. By fulfilling Israel’s vocation, Jesus completes the promises made to Abraham that his children would be God’s way of rescuing the world. Paul says that, because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the Gentiles – the nations – have been included in God’s family. They too glorify God for his mercy. It’s an amazing summary of Christ’s accomplishment, worthy of the praise, rejoicing, and exultation Paul quotes from the Old Testament.

So why then does our passage begin with the focus on endurance, encouragement, and hope? And why does it end with a double reminder of our desperate need to hang onto hope?

For Paul the reason to press the Roman church toward endurance has to do with the very real stuff of life:

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

It may be true that Jesus fulfilled God’s promises of rescue and redemption, but the women and men of the early church in Rome are in the middle of living out these promises. It’s a beautiful thing to talk about enemies being reconciled until you are faced with living alongside your former adversary. It’s nice to talk about cultural diversity until you can no longer assume that your culture is valued and accepted. It’s well and good to aspire to reconciled relationships until we experience what it’s like to give someone else a voice in our life.

So here it is: at the center of the passage is the glorious vision of God’s rescue of humanity; of the Son of God reconciling all things; of the sinless Savior becoming sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  And on the margins of the passage is the acknowledgement that we live in a world that pulls against God’s love; is an acknowledgement that we live in a city with division in its DNA; is an acknowledgement that relationships – every single one of our relationships – are sometimes hard, and bent toward separation; is an acknowledgement that opposition, discouragement, and despair are closer to us than we’d like to admit.

To come at this from another angle: Advent reminds us that we live between the Messiah’s victory and his vindication; we live between the resurrection and the return; we live between the empty grave and the end of all graves. We live in between; in the gap.

We, of all people, are in need of endurance, encouragement and hope. We have been rescued by a Savior who calls us to follow him. Our following – our discipleship – takes place within the real world- the real messy, confusing, beautiful, tiring, world. Ours is a Savior who went to the poor, to the sick, to the forgotten, to the oppressed, to his enemies.

So, following this Savior in this world means that Christians will regularly come face to face with corrupt government policies; with students with the least amount of support and resources; with hungry people, tired people, thirsty people. Following this Savior in this world means honoring all people as integrated image bearers of God regardless of how naïve a notion that sounds to our neighbors. Following this Savior in this world means choosing to stay in the neighborhood when others move out. Following this Savior in this world means identifying with the invisible members of our society: the child struggling to read; the sex worker; the widow in the apartment down the hall; the young man in prison; the newly arrived refugee family with no possessions and no English. Following this Savior in this world means stewarding our privilege and power for the good of others. Following this Savior in this world means choosing quiet generosity over identity-forming consumerism.

Following this Savior in this world might mean traveling to Malawi to serve young people only to be trapped on the other side of the world when you learn the worst possible news.

Do you need encouragement? Endurance? Hope? If you are a disciple of Jesus following him within a broken world the answer will always be yes. Yes!

We can’t be surprised when we feel tired, discouraged, or even on the edge of despair. There are those well-meaning people who will tell you that your faith in Jesus is meant to protect you from these hard experiences and emotions. I get this. In the face of the deaths in Malawi this week I am tempted this morning to say things that sound good. To say that tragedy is the exception. To say that bad things don’t generally happen to good people. To say that your lives moving forward will be marked mostly by happiness rather than the sadness that cloaks your hearts today.

These are the moments – death, layoffs, abandonment, and betrayal – that have us looking around for a soothing dose of spirituality. Something to numb the pain that has our stomach twisted. A mantra we can repeat when we can’t sleep. These moments have us looking for a distraction of some sort.

But let’s not get it twisted. Following this Savior in this world requires endurance not distraction. Following this Savior in this world requires hearts and minds that are en-couraged not numbed to reality. Following this Savior in this world requires robust and clear-eyed hope not wispy spiritual clichés.

If our Savior cried out from the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – than we must know and expect our faith to bring us to the very edge of the cracks and shadows of this world. Our Savior went to the depths of Hades for us and our salvation. Should we not expect our crucified Savior to lead us to the hells on this earth, bearing cups of cold water and words of life?

Here is a hard word: a Christian’s life will be characterized by pain, suffering, and tragedy. Not only these, of course. And not always. We worship a resurrected Savior who will return. There is faith, hope, and love running through our veins. But in these days, in this world, following this Savior, we must expect to confront and be confronted by the weight of a groaning and suffering world.

Do you need encouragement? Endurance? Hope? Like the early church in Rome, the answer is Yes. Of course. For the encouragement and endurance they desperately need, Paul points to the Scriptures.

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

More specifically, Paul points the Roman church to a well-known passage from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah.

[Isaiah 11:1-10] 1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord— and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.

At first this passages sounds too fantastical for the real stuff of discipleship. Why does Paul point the Roman church here for endurance? What does a world where wolves and lambs get along have to do with our very real disappointments and grief?

We must remember that Isaiah is writing to a frightened people; Israel had fallen in 722; Judah stood vulnerable among competing superpowers; Jerusalem was besieged. In other words, Isaiah was writing to a people with no tolerance for fantasy or empty promises.

Our first clue of this is that Isaiah refers to the once proud Israelites as a stump: A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse. Their former glory had been squandered; idols and nationalism had captured their hearts. The vocation to bless the world had been traded for self-interest. Referring to Israel as a stump is no metaphor for something that looks bad but is actually good. No- this is just bad. Where there had been life there was now death. A stump serves only as evidence of the past, of what once had been.

But the image quickly shifts. There is life here. A shoot rises; roots descend; a branch bears fruit. What had seemed to be the end proves to be a new beginning. There is salvation. Or, rather, there is a Savior.

This Savior will be marked by the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament the Spirit was given occasionally, for specific assignments. But here – 4 times – Isaiah makes plain that this Savior cannot be separated from God’s Spirit.

We begin to glimpse a Savior unlike any other the world has known. And then we hear that “he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will want what God wants. He will love what God loves. He will desire what God desires. He will be the one who one day would tell his disciples,

[John 5:19-20] Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.

He would face the suffering of the cross and abandon himself to the Father’s will. He would face the unthinkable choice of betrayal, abandonment, injustices, and suffering on the cross by relinquishing himself to the Father: Not my will but yours be done.

What sort of a Savior is this? Isaiah calls him a judge. But he will not judge by superficial evidence: not by what eyes see or ears here. He will not be swayed. He will fulfill the vocation of a just and righteous king. Like ancient kings were meant to do, he will represent the poor and needy. He will be free of politics and favors.

He will speak with power; a power that one day would cause the crowds to be “amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority.” He will be known for righteousness – doing right in all circumstances; and faithfulness- dependable and true.

Clearly this Savior could not be an ordinary king: He would be born by the Holy Spirit; new life in a barren wilderness. He would perfectly represent God the Father. If you could but see and know him you could know the transcendent Creator God. He would be a righteous judge; beholden to no special interest; no campaign contributions; no powerful lobbyists. The poor and needy would find dignity and relief under his rule.

His words would bring life. He would be the Word become flesh. In him would be righteousness and faithfulness come to life. His life would make righteousness possible for unrighteous people; faithfulness a characteristic of faithless and unfaithful people.

Isaiah shows us what this Savior is like; he shows us what he does; then – in this otherworldly poem – he shows us the results of this Savior’s arrival. Eugene Peterson translates the passage like this:

The wolf will romp with the lamb, the leopard sleep with the kid. Calf and lion will eat from the same trough, and a little child will tend them. Cow and bear will graze the same pasture, their calves and cubs grow up together, and the lion eat straw like the ox. The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens, the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent. Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill on my holy mountain. The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive, a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide.

Here, under the righteous and faithful rule of Root of Jesse, is a world without fear: the wolf and lamb; leopard and goat; calf and lion; cow and bear together. Here is a world where you Come home alone at night without fear. You have that conversation with your dad without fear. You Look toward your children’s’ future without fear. You walk down that street to school without fear. You visit your aunt in the hospital without fear. You sit alone in silence without fear.

But there is a particular fear that Isaiah has in mind in these stanzas: The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. I viscerally recoil from this image because I know the result: death. The images of predator and prey and children play near poisonous snakes are images of death. Yet even this fear – humanity’s greatest fear – is neutralized under this Savior’s reign.

It comes down to this: As a result of this Savior’s victory, death will no longer have the final say. This is why Paul pointed the Roman church to Isaiah.

Here they were reminded of the time before their Messiah’s birth when the people longed for his arrival and liberation. They were reminded too of the one-day culmination of his victory on the cross- a day when death itself will be vanquished.

But maybe even this sounds lacking when we are facing opposition, discouragement, or despair. Are we meant to simply take comfort in the fact that one day things will be better? Is a one-day hope as good as it gets?

Listen to the last verse in our passage:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is not a one-day hope. The call is not to endure because eventually things will be better. We are not to be encouraged only because of what the future holds. Yes, our future is bright. Yes, we endure the present like our Savior did, for the joy set before us. Yes, we can hold onto courage knowing how the story ends. But the hope we see here is a present hope. A hope that overflows.

The almost unbelievable hope that is available to us now is that though we live in-between; though we live in the gap between how things are and how they will be; our audacious hope is that we can live now without fear, including the fear of death.

It is the hope that sustained Paul through all manner of opposition. It is the hope that has sustained the saints over the generations who lived outside the long shadow of death. It was the hope of those who died in Malawi.

It is our hope.

About this cruciform hope J. Heinrich Arnold wrote,

Jesus’s life began in a stable and ended on the cross between two criminals.  The Apostle Paul said he wanted to proclaim nothing but this crucified Christ.  We, too, have nothing to hold on to except this Christ.  We must ask ourselves again and again: Are we willing to go his way, from the stable to the cross?  As disciples we are not promised comfortable and good times.  Jesus says we must deny ourselves and suffer with him and for him.  That is the only way to follow him, but behind it lies the glory of life — the glowing love of God, which is so much greater than our hearts and our lives. 

Following this Savior in this world requires facing our greatest fears. But only by following this Savior can we live without fear.

Following this Savior in this world will lead us into tragedies and frights and disappointments. Following this Savior in this world will lead us to opposition, discouragement, and at times to the very edge of despair. Yet, it is only in following this Savior that we know freedom from fear, even the oldest and deepest fears, including death itself. We will follow Jesus through the tragedies and find that the tragedy cannot claim us. We will follow Jesus through the dry wilderness and find the river of life. We will follow Jesus through death itself and find that he has already gone before us, that there is abundant and eternal life on the other side.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

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