Sunday, 10 January 2016

Rejoice in hope

Readings: Psalm 105 and Romans 12: 12

This is the first of three sermons on Paul’s letter to the Romans Chapter 12 verse 12:  ‘Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer’.  My sermon today is on the first command in this verse: rejoice in hope.  So I’ll be talking about hope and indirectly why we are to rejoice in it. 

I want firstly to distinguish between hope and optimism, secondly to suggest that hope is a gift and that it doesn’t make much sense to tell people that they must have hope, thirdly to talk about the grounds for hope: why we can have hope,  and fourthly to ask the question: what are we hoping for?

Firstly hope and optimism.

I think it is really important to distinguish between hope and optimism.  In our text for today Paul says , ‘Rejoice in hope’ not optimism. I am not at all optimistic about what is going to happen to me or the planet but I do have hope.
As some of you may know my work involves – to some extent – predicting the future – particularly when it comes to the food we eat.   I am involved with the University of Oxford’s so-called Future of Food programme.

One of my predictions for the future of food is that we are going to need radically to change what we eat if the planet is going to survive in anything like its current state.  We all need to eat less meat and switch to a more plant-based diet to reduce the amount of green-house gases associated with rearing animals for food - and quite frankly I do not see that happening.   Despite the sort of success of the Paris talks in December I think that human-produced climate change will bring increasing suffering not just to people in far-away countries but even to people in this country – the floods in the North of England are just the beginning.  I am pessimistic but I am still hopeful. 

Similarly in my own life.  I am sorry to witter on about this in sermons but I am acutely aware of how old I am getting.  I turned 60 last year and that makes me feel old.  People tell me that 60 is the new 30 times two but quite frankly I personally don’t believe it.   I know I am coming closer to death but that is not what I really worry about.  I worry about getting sick as I get older.   I know, for example, from looking at the statistics, that roughly one in three of us in this congregation will develop dementia sometime in the future.  These don’t sound to me very good odds.   And I am getting closer to that age when dementia if I am going to get it is more likely to begin.   I am pessimistic but I am still hopeful.

Of course I realise that some of you will be of a more optimistic inclination than I am.   Maybe you think the Paris talks will prove to be turning point in our getting a grips with climate change and that in the end we will find ways of changing what we eat.   Maybe you think that given that two in three don’t get dementia you’ll be fortunate and anyway by the time you get to 60 they’ll have found better ways of treating it.  And it does seem to me be the case that how you look at things makes you more or less optimistic.   It isn’t just a matter of the facts but how you view them. 

And we also know that the world we live in presents us with a particular selection of the facts.  Take the so called refugee crisis.   The news this week has been all about the attacks by young male refugees on women in Cologne.   Almost buried by that news were the stories of Syrian refugees helping out with flood victims in Manchester.   How we see refugees – whether we are optimistic or pessimistic about their arrival in this country - isn’t entirely of our choosing, 

Which brings me to my second point: hope as a gift.

I really don’t think you can command people to hope if they don’t feel hopeful.   Hope for me is not a matter of choice but something that is given to people at different points in their lives.  Telling someone to have hope is like telling them to pull themselves together – as I am sure I have said before.

In this context I think it is interesting that Paul says in our text for today, ‘Rejoice in hope’, not, ‘Hope!’ with an exclamation mark after it or even, ‘Have hope’.  In other words he is not telling the Romans to hope for Jesus to return, or whatever they are supposed to be hopeful for, but to rejoice in the hope that they have already been given.   I challenge you to find me a verse where Paul, John, or any of the other New Testament writers - or indeed Jesus, as recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, commands us to hope.    I know I have issued this challenge before, and someone found me a verse which said something like ‘Be hopeful’ – which I can’t now find – but anyway this isn’t quite the same as ‘Hope’ exclamation mark or ‘Have hope’.

Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians talks a lot about spiritual gifts – such as teaching, healing etc. and in the that section of the epistle called the Hymn to Love starts by telling the Corinthians to ‘Strive for the greater gifts’ and goes on to compare the gift of love with the gifts of prophecy, understanding and knowledge.  Chapter 13 verse 13 – summing up this Hymn - says of the three related gifts of faith, hope and love:  ‘And now faith, hope and love abide, these three: and the greatest of these is love.’ 

So here, for example, Paul is talking about faith, hope and love as things we are given and which will last for ever not things we are commanded to have or do.

Now it is fairly undeniable that Jesus commands us to love.  In his summary of the law he tells us to 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself’.  He even tells us to love our enemies.  And Paul in the same chapter as our text for today commands the Romans – in Chapter 12 verse 10 – to ‘Love one another with mutual affection’.  So I’ll concede that love is – at least to some extent - a matter of choice – but still I think it is difficult to love those we are not naturally drawn to and that we need God’s help in loving someone when they don’t love us back.

When it comes to faith I am even less sure that we can choose for ourselves to have it or not.  My father said to me m- when we talked about what we believed that he wish he had the faith I have.   This used to annoy me, probably unreasonably, because now I think he just wasn’t given a belief in God for some reason that I cannot fathom. 

If someone were to command me to believe that 1 + 1 = 3 I just couldn’t do it however much I wanted to obey their command.   I am not sure Jesus ever commands his disciples to believe in him but if he does then it’s not without giving them reason to do so.  He doesn’t anywhere say, ‘Believe me when I say I am going to rise from the dead’ he just goes ahead and does it and they get to see that he has risen.  This is his gift of to them.

And hope I think is the same as faith.  Hope is a gift.  For Paul hope is one of the primary gifts of the Holy Spirit.  For example earlier in Romans – Chapter 5 verse 5 - he has said: ‘Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’.

I said I wasn’t optimistic when it came to the fate of the planet but that I was hopeful.  But I didn’t explain why I am hopeful.   I am hopeful because I believe in miracles and that God intervenes in history and for me this means that I think that the planet will survive although we are going to need a miracle for that to happen.   I said I wasn’t optimistic when about my old age but nevertheless I am hopeful.  I am hopeful because I believe that God will give me what I need to cope with whatever happens to me – even dementia if I get it.   I don’t think God gives us what we think we need but what we truly need.   And indeed we all really need hope as I think you’ll agree.

Which brings me to my third point: the grounds of our hope.

This is perhaps the easiest part of this sermon: to say if not to believe.  We can have hope because Christ has risen from the dead. 

We can, I think, all agree that our Christian faith stands or falls with the reality of the raising of Jesus from the dead by God.  Two things need to be said about the resurrection in relation to hope.  

Firstly the resurrection is an event which constitutes the definitive act of God’s promise of a future - for both the planet and ourselves: a future that is different but better than now.  Here this aspect of the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is made clearer by looking at the history of hope throughout the whole Bible.  The God who raised Jesus from the dead was the God of Israel whose action can only be fully understood against the background of his promises as recounted in the Old Testament.

This is why I chose Psalm 105 as the Old Testament Reading for today.  Psalm 105 is an incredibly up-beat psalm where the psalmist is full of hope for the future.  He/she remembers all that God has done for Israel from the promises made to Abraham about his descendants and the land they were to possess to the liberation of the people of Israel from captivity in Egypt under the leadership of Moses and their taking possession of the land of Canaan.  We heard just the first third of the psalm.   It ends with the words ‘Praise the Lord’.  The psalmist might have equally well have said: ‘Rejoice in hope’.
Now the God of Israel revealed himself to the people of Israel by making promises that opened up the future.  Jesus’ resurrection generated the possibility of a new future for everyone – and that includes us - in which even death is overcome.  In Jesus’ resurrection God guaranteed his promise of a better future, by enacting it in Jesus’ person.  

Secondly an essential feature of the resurrection, as revealed in the resurrection appearances, is Jesus’ identification of himself in those appearance as the same Jesus who died on the cross: even to the point of showing the disciples his wounds.   By raising Jesus from the dead, God promises that the future – including our individual futures and that of the planet - is both a radical discontinuation with the past and a continuation of what has been.
Now the cross represents all that is wrong with this world – its subjection to sin, suffering and death, its godlessness, god forsaken ness and transitory ness - and yet the cross is in the same place as the tomb where Jesus was raised to a new permanent life with God.   Literally so if you believe in the builders of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where the remains of the cross and the tomb are, or at least were, in the same building.
The resurrection was not the survival of some part of Jesus which was not subject to death.   Jesus was wholly dead and wholly raised by God.  Similarly God’s promise to us is - enacted in the Resurrection - is for a radically new future for these bodies of ours and for the world.   Yet this new future, this new life, has a continuity with the past.  Just as it the same Jesus who was crucified and raised so God’s promise is not for another world but for the new creation of this world, and it’s not for other-worldly bodies but for these bodies of ours.

The promise of the resurrection is given to the world in which the cross stands.   And it is given to that world and to ourselves in all our material and worldly reality.  It is not that some aspect of our wold, or our bodies, can survive but that the whole of creation, subject as it is to sin, suffering and death, will be transformed in God’s new creation.  It is this which gives Jesus’ resurrection its universal cosmic significance and its present significance for ourselves.

So fourthly and finally what are we to hope for?   What precisely is this hope that we have been given and, according to Paul, we are to rejoice in? 

You might have thought that, by this point in this sermon, we might be able to answer this question quite easily and yet I find it quite hard to be categorical.   I have talked about my personal hopes (and indeed fears) for my future and for the planet.   And I have talked about God’s promise – through raising Jesus from the dead – of a better future for the world and ourselves, indeed a complete transformation.   But how do our personal hopes and this promise through Jesus’ resurrection connect up?

In our text for today Paul just says: ‘Rejoice in hope’.   He doesn’t go on to elaborate on what this hope is for.   If you scour Paul’s epistles for what he means us to hope for it all seems a bit vague, quite frankly.  For example earlier in Romans - Chapter 8 verse 18 - Paul talks about ‘the glory about to be revealed to us’ but what is this glory.  Here and in other places in his epistles Paul is clearly thinking in terms of the return of the risen Jesus to this world and thereby, as I have been saying, the complete transformation of life on this planet.  

Paul clearly too hope for life after death if not – like me - an illness free future.   He says in Chapter 15 verse 12 of his first letter to the Corinthians: ‘Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead’ and in verse 19 ‘If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied’. 

And yet there is, of course, an intrinsic uncertainty to hope.  In Romans Chapter 8 verses 24 and 25 Paul talks about this aspects of hope:  ‘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.’  And I think it is this uncertainty that makes the question of what are we to hope for quite difficult to answer.

But this we surely can and need to say, in the words of the hymn we are about to sing: ‘In Christ alone our hope is found’.  And in the end I do not think we can be precisely certain what the future brings: whether for the world or for ourselves beyond the simple fact that through Christ all will be well and all manner of things will be well.