“All hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.” (Acts 27:20)
“For in hope we were saved.” (Romans 8:24)
Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, has been speaking about “audacious hope.” That’s the theme of one of his books, and one of the big issues of the presidential election this year: where do we go to find hope?
Indeed. It is more than that. Hope is one of the most essential and most elusive needs of our lives.
Our friend, the Harvard psychiatrist, Armand Nicholi says that we humans have four basic psychological needs: love, security, forgiveness, and hope. And while we may live without the first three we cannot live without hope.
The intuition of hope
John Polkinghorne, the British physicist-priest, spoke in a recent interview about how in a world full of suffering and evil there is “a very deep human intuition of hope.” That’s why when a child wakes in the middle of the night, scared by a dream, a parent goes and hugs and comforts them saying “It’s all right.”
Is that a loving lie, asks Polkinghorne, when obviously cancer and concentration camps are not right? Nevertheless, he says, that “deep-seated intuition of hope” is an important part of enabling that child to grow up into full humanity.
Do you ever wake in the night worried about the world? About the future for your children and grandchildren? Where do you go for hope?
Wendell Berry, one of my favorite poets, in his “The Peace of Wild Things” tells where he goes.
When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Sometimes when anxious I do as Berry does. I go into the woods and repeat his poem, and for a time .. am free.
For a time … but we can’t stay on a retreat to the woods, can we?
So: where do we go for hope?
Is there “audacious hope” in the midst of the war, and the economic downturn, and all the other problems that haunt us and our world?
An apostle of hope in a perfect storm
Remember Paul’s famous triad of the three virtues that abide – faith, hope, love? Does hope truly last in the real storms of life? Or is it just wishful thinking that gets blown away when the hurricanes come?
Paul’s rhetoric is backed up by his own life experience in a perfect storm he faced.
It’s a storm described in Acts chapter 27, and comes while Paul is on a ship going to Rome, a prisoner on the way to appeal his case to Caesar. His enemies among his countrymen had accused him to the Roman governor of disturbing the peace and being disloyal to the empire. For two years he was held without trial. Then a new governor found nothing to the trumped up charges. He asked Paul, “Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and be tried there before me on these charges?” (Acts 25:9).
But Paul said no. He knew that God had promised he would bear witness to the gospel in Rome. So he appealed to his civil rights as a Roman citizen to be heard by the Emperor.
The governor Festus agreed. “You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you shall go”(Acts 25:12). So under guard Paul boards a ship for Rome.
Luke was traveling with Paul and described the voyage. His account of the storm and shipwreck which came has been described as one of the most detailed and accurate records of an ancient ship voyage in all of classical literature – a “small classic in its own right” (F.F. Bruce).
As the ship passed Crete a violent storm – a “northeaster” – rushed down. The ship had to give away and be driven by the wind. The sailors took steps to undergird the ship with cables, lowered a sea anchor, and finally threw overboard the cargo and tackle. After many days without sun or stars, and the storm still raging, Luke notes, “all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned” (Acts 27:20).
Then it is – with all hope lost – that Paul the prisoner in chains appears as a Christian in the middle of the storm. The preacher of hope becomes the symbol of hope – a hope that holds in the storm.
He stands up among them and tells them that there will be no loss of life, only of the ship. That an angel of God stood by him that night and said to him,
Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before the emperor; and indeed God has granted safety to all those who are sailing with you.
So, says Paul,
Keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we will have to run aground on some island. (Acts 27:24-26)
And it happened just as Paul said. The ship did go aground on Malta. It was stuck on a reef and pounded to pieces. But either by swimming or holding on to planks and debris all hands made it safe to shore. Not a single life was lost.
What a wonderful turning upside down this was: Paul on his way to trial in Rome becomes the one in command … the one voice of hope when everyone had given up.
Where did Paul go for hope? To his confidence that God had made a promise and would make good on it. . He would get to Rome. He would bear witness there. And until his mission from God was complete he was immortal. No storm and no Caesar could stop him!
For Paul this was not wishful thinking. It was a certainty.
He lived in a world where Jesus was Lord, not the weather or Caesar!
And he was sure of this because he knew Jesus had been raised from the dead and with that event history had changed forever – his own history, and the history of the world. That conviction made Paul an apostle of hope – an Easter person in a baffled world.
And that is what God is calling each of us to be.
At Malta Paul and his companions and guards caught another ship for Rome. I somehow can imagine him on that final leg of his journey thinking back to salvation from that storm. Perhaps he had with him a copy of his “letter to the Romans” sent to the believers there some years before. I can imagine him sitting on the deck, looking at the waves, and meditating on his own words … in musings like these
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us …
When I wrote that I didn’t realize how hard things were going to be! But what I wrote is even more true now.
For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. But who hopes for what is seen?
We surely didn’t “see” hope in the middle of the storm. But that hope still saved us!
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us.
Hmm. I didn’t know how to pray that night. I wondered if we were all lost. But then the Spirit prayed and an angel came and I found strength that I did not know I had.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose … (Romans 8:11, 18, 24, 26, 28).
Amen! I knew that before. I know it now. And I know that whatever happens when I get to Rome, whether I live or die, God will use it all for his purpose!
Yes I can believe that Paul had thoughts like those!
When Paul finally got to Rome for two years he proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus “with boldness” (Acts 28:31). Don’t you think that often he told the story of how all hope seemed lost and how God’s promise came true in the middle of that perfect storm?
Dr. Bill Bradford said to me a few days ago, when we were talking about hope, that optimism is man-made, but hope is a gift of God!
True! The God who lived up to his word made it possible for Paul the prisoner to stand in the storm and say to the terrified crew and passengers:
Keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you … for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told” (Acts 27:22-25).
That truly is “audacious hope.”
And it poses the question: what about you and me? Are we also marked by hope when we face the perfect storms of life: sickness, economic distress, family troubles, death? What keeps us steady? Are we too apostles of hope?
Hope: a compound emotion
Hope, I have read, is a compound emotion made up of two parts: desire, plus expectation.
To desire something but not expect it is not hope; that is frustration, or futility.
But to expect something without desiring it is not hope; that is foreboding.
But to desire something deeply and to wait for it expectantly: that is hope – the “hope of our calling” as the Bible describes it. It is hope in the God who desires the best for us and the world, and who will deliver on his promises!
As William Barclay wrote,
The Christian hope is not simply a trembling, hesitant hope that perhaps the promises of God may be true. It is the confident expectation that they cannot be anything else than true. (More New Testament Words. William Barclay. 46)
Surprised by hope
So here are two questions to ask:
What is the ultimate Christian hope?
And, what hope is there for change in our present world?
Bishop N. T. Wright of England, one of the great contemporary New Testament scholars, has written a provocative and profound book about our Christian hope.
He says that we usually think of this hope as going to heaven when we die. But, surprisingly, there is relatively little in the Bible about “going to heaven when we die.”
But when Jesus spoke of “entering the kingdom of heaven” he wasn’t usually speaking of what happens after death. He was talking about what he taught us to pray: that God’s great rule will come “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Jesus did promise that he is preparing a place for us and he will come again and take us to be with him (John 14:3) So to be “away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8) But that is not the end of our hope story.
In the Bible heaven is not a future destiny. It is the present, hidden, dimension of our ordinary life – God’s dimension. And the promise is that God who made heaven and earth at the end is going to remake this earth and join heaven and earth together.
That’s why in the book of Revelation we have that wonderful picture of the “new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven” so that “the home of God is among mortals” (Revelation 21:2-3).
Jesus is coming again: and when he comes heaven and earth will be one.
This is our Christian hope: the sure and certain hope of the resurrection – Jesus’ resurrection and ours – and of his sure return to make all things new.
Remember: for the first disciples the crucifixion of Jesus seemed the end of their hopes. Crosses were a sign that Romans ran the world and that Caesar was in charge. Crucifixion seemed to say: Jesus was wrong. He lost. The Kingdom has not come. You bet on the wrong side.
But the resurrection changed all that.
Do you see? The resurrection of Jesus is the first act in God’s great drama of making a whole new creation. What happened with him is a preview of what is going to happen to all God’s people in the final resurrection. Just as Jesus had a new body for the next part of God’s great story, so we too will have new bodies – resurrection bodies – bodies made out of the old material but animated by God’s Spirit.
As Tom Wright colorfully puts it: our hope is not just for life after death, but for life after life after death.
So the apostles didn’t say, “Jesus is raised, so there is life after death.” (Though they knew that was true.) Instead they said, “Jesus is raised, he is the Messiah, the world’s true Lord – and we, his followers, have a job to do!” (SBH 56)
Between Jesus’ resurrection and his coming again we do have a job: to be witnesses of hope – that all things will be made new.
That’s the hope that kept Paul steady in the middle of the storm!
That’s what kept John McCain when he was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. When he is asked about his faith he often tells of how, when he was in despair and ready to give up, one of his guards took a stick and when no one else was looking drew the sign of the cross on the ground.
The cross becomes a sign of the hope of the resurrection: hope for this world and the world to come.
Our son Kevin was for several years a minister to students in Virginia. Once he had a long discussion with a UVA student about whether Jesus did rise from the dead. Kevin gave him historical reasons that the resurrection makes sense. After about an hour the student said, “OK. You’ve convinced me. I think maybe Jesus did rise. But my question is: so what?
How would you answer that?
I know what Paul would say. In his eloquent resurrection chapter Corinthians chapter 15 he wrote about the resurrection of the body. “We will not all die, but we will all be changed …this mortal body shall put on immortality … Death (is) swallowed up in victory.”
And how does he conclude? Not with
Therefore you will go to heaven when you die.
No. He ends with
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
This is the “so what”! So because Jesus is Lord do what God has called you to do … do it with excellence.. and do it with hope!
So what? So some reach out to help ex-prisoners get a job (like a young man we know well) Because the God of hope calls us to a new world in which prisoners will be set free!
So what? So when you hear that our Presbyterian missionaries are having to pull back because of the lack of finances, continue praying and giving. Why? Because the Risen Lord who told us to make disciples of all nations promised that when this gospel of the kingdom is proclaimed in the whole world, then the end will come.”
So what? So when you see the green space disappearing around our cities (like Charlotte) raise your voice! Why Because God is going to create a new world where trees line the river leading to the New Jerusalem!
Martin Luther put this hope clearly. When he was asked what he would do if he knew the world would end the next day. He replied: “I would plant a tree today”!
Plant a tree
Sponsor a child in Africa or Asia
Bring up your children and grandchildren to know the Lord
Save women and children from being sex slaves
Care for all God’s creatures
Start churches around the world
Preach the gospel by your life and words
Why? Because what we do now for Jesus, God will make part of his eternal kingdom in the new heaven and the new earth. If you are saved, brother or sister, saved by grace through faith in Jesus, God has saved you to be a sign of what he will do in the new heavens and new earth.
Twenty years ago Kevin and I met a brave Baptist pastor in Romania. Peter Dugalescu had faithfully preached the gospel in his church in Timisoara through the hard years of Communist dictatorship under Ceaucescu. He had been interrogated and harassed many times. In 1989 Romania was stirring as was most of Eastern Europe with a longing for freedom.
That year demonstrations broke out across Romania. In Timisoara one day thousands gathered in the town square to protest. Armed troops were sent to ring the crowd and disperse them, ready to shoot if necessary to stop any insurrection. Those were tense hours.
Then Peter Dugalescu went up to the top floor of the town hall and stepped out on a balcony facing the crowd. He gestured for silence. Then he spoke to them. And what did he say? “Go home and don’t cause trouble”? No. “Start a violent revolution”? No.
He began, “Our Father, who are in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.”
And with those words a hush fell. In a moment, spontaneously, thousands went to their knees, and joined their voices with him in prayer.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done.
As it is in heaven.
That day in Timisoara Peter Dugalescu was the voice of hope. Similar moments occurred across the country led by other brave pastors. And a new day began in Romania. Hope was reborn!
In the last verse of the hymn How Great Thou Art we sing
When Christ shall comes
with shout of acclamation
and take me home
what joy shall fill my heart.
That’s true and wonderful. But if we are Easter people, signs of hope in a hope-seeking world, we should also sing
When Christ shall come
with shout of acclamation
and change his world
what joy shall fill my heart!
So: we are saved in hope by a great God. And what a great hope this is! So, brothers and sisters, may we be Easter people, signs of hope, in a baffled world!