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Sunday Worship 7 July | What Does Christianity Say About...Hope?

The Lord declares "I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." (Jeremiah 29:11) The prophet Isaiah assures us that those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength, so that they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:31) And the psalmist calls us to hope in God "for with the Lord there is steadfast love and plentiful redemption" (Psalm 130:7).
Hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. (Romans 5:5) And the hope to which he has called us is the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people. (Ephesians 1:18) So let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. (Hebrews 10:23) And let us always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks us to give the reason for the hope that we have. (1 Peter 3:15) And may the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace as we trust in him, so that we may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)

This morning we return to our topical series to ask “What does Christianity say about hope?” Perhaps you have noticed that the service has already been shot through with hope, in the prayers and in the vision of justice and peace in our last hymn. And that collection of verses from scripture makes clear that the faith we have inherited is short though with hope too. Hope wasn't originally in the line up for this series, but then a few weeks ago, while I was posting the reflection to the blog after Sunday lunch, I heard a little voice from behind me. “Mum, you know you asked for ideas for what to talk about at church?” “Yes, Eddie.” “Well, I have a couple of ideas.” “Fabulous. What are they?” “Hope and joy.” Hope and joy are two of my favourite things to talk about, because I believe they are central to the promise of God and the life of faith, so I didn't need to be asked twice.

I asked Eddie what he knew about hope already, and he said it was when we want something good to happen but we don't know if it will. That's certainly how we use the word hope when we say that we hope it's sunny tomorrow or we hope England win the semi-final on Wednesday, but I think Christianity has something else to say about hope. I think when Chrisitianity talks about hope, it means something which runs much deeper and works much harder. It is not a shallow or easy optimism but a grounded and resilient trust. The biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman spoke of a prophetic arc which moves from reality through grief to hope. We do not come to hope by pretending things are better than they are or closing our eyes and crossing our fingers, but by doing the hard work of seeing the world as it really is and lamenting the world as it should not be. It is only then that we can discover a hope that really means something. Anything else is just wishful thinking.

This week I relistened to a podcast with religious studies professor Timothy Beal called ‘Finding Hope at the End of the Word’. He began with the premise that we have done so much damage to the environment that we cannot repair it, and then moved to ask how we might find hope when our time is short. There are of course differing views on just how bad the climate crisis is, and while I take it seriously, I'm not sure I share his degree of pessimism, but I did find some of his answers really interesting. He said that while there is something to do there is hope, and suggested what he called a palliative hope which takes its cues from palliative care, based around the principles of alleviating unnecessary suffering and accepting unavoidable suffering, focusing on building and repairing relationships, and making the most of our embodied existence by experiencing the world through all the senses we have. I think there is something really profound in this idea of finding hope even in a situation which we know will not get better, and in doing so by putting our efforts into care and connection.

But is this a Christian hope? I think it is - these principles are certainly consistent with if not unique to Christianity - but I don’t think it is the whole of our hope. I believe that there will come a day when “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain”. I believe that this world will be renewed and everything will be made good again. I believe that much can be made better even before then. So in that sense, our hope is more than palliative. And yet until that vision is fulfilled, there will be many desperate situations. There will be illness that cannot be cured, and there will be loss that cannot be restored, and so there will be need for hope that soothes even what it cannot solve. That is why reality and grief must be part of the arc that leads to hope. Such hope will strengthen us, and it will fill us with joy and peace, as we heard in those verses from scripture earlier.

A little later we will sing a couple of hymns that focus on Christ as the sole reason for our hope. For me that doesn’t mean that we can’t find reasons for hope in everyday life, but rather that those reasons for hope point to Jesus, because true hope flows from the faithfulness of God and comes through the power of the Spirit. The hope to which we are called is rooted in a God who is gracious and compassionate, who loves us and desires good things for us. And it is found in Jesus, whose resurrection tells us that the bad stuff is never the whole story or the final word. And it is felt through the Spirit, in whose presence we experience love and joy and peace. That is a strong and eternal foundation, which will not shift or waver. This hope does not require that things go a certain way, but trusts that they will be well in the end, and we can endure in the meantime.

One source of hope for me has been the promise that nothing is truly lost or wasted. Through the prophet Joel, God told the people “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten”, and I have held onto that promise for a long time. I don't believe that God causes us to suffer, but I do believe that God can redeem all of our pain, that our suffering does not have to be in vain if we can drag a blessing from it. The Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber talks about composting Christianity, letting the tradition we have inherited be mulched up and turned over so that it can provide fertile soil from which a mature and authentic faith can grow. I want to extend that metaphor to cover our whole lives, because I think we can throw everything on the compost heap to be broken down and turned into something that will nurture us. I am not glad of my depression or my experience of being bullied as a child, but I also know that by the grace of God I have grown from them, and trusting that the same can be true again helps keep me from despair.

I spoke earlier of the hope that all will be renewed and made good again, what theologians might call our eschatological hope. This places our ultimate hope beyond this life, and I want to give that a little more thought, because there is a tricky balance to be held here. To look only to the next life is to fail to fully live this one, and I don't believe that's what God intends for us. As the old Christian Aid slogan had it, “we believe in life before death”. There is much cause for hope here and now, and yet there is still more to hope for beyond this, and if we can hold those two hopes together, I think there is great comfort and confidence to be found.

So as we draw to a close, I think I would want to modify Eddie's answer slightly. If hope in the context of weather and football is when we want something good to happen but we don't know if it will, then hope in the context of faith is when we trust something good to happen even if we don't know how it will. That is a hope that can sustain us, and it is a hope that will not put us to shame. So may the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace as we trust in him, that we may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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