Sunday, December 5, 2010

Hope and Harmony

This is the message I shared with the people of Zion Lutheran Church, Baker, WV this morning. The text is Romans 15:4-13. 

            Hope…it’s a word we hear a lot. What does it mean? I hope it doesn’t snow. I hope I win the lottery. I hope I pass this exam. The Jewish people’s hope was in a messiah that was to come. When friends struggle with impossibly painful, awful situations, when asked if things will ever be any better, they may respond, “I hope so.” But biblical hope is more than crossing our fingers and wishing.
The hope Paul speaks of in today’s reading from Romans is that “of Christian expectation…hope that faith affords” (BDAG). Hope is “to put one’s confidence in someone or something” (BDAG). And that someone or something is God.
            What Paul says here begins with hope. It ends with hope. It’s like a shelf full of books with bookends. They are named hope. And the books the shelf contains are full of hope as well. Hope is at the beginning of Paul’s writing, hope flows through the passage, and hope is the grand finale of Paul’s message.
            One might say, “That’s easy for Paul,” but he doesn’t know my situation. He doesn’t know my family. He doesn’t know the pressure I’m under.
Or perhaps we think, that’s right, I should have biblical hope in what God can do, but what do I do to get it. How do I get there from here?
            The very first verse that we heard tells us how—“…by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4b). What’s this about steadfastness though? It sounds like something I’m not very good at. Listen to some of the ways that word can be translated, “the capacity to hold out or bear up in the face of difficulty, patience, endurance, fortitude… perseverance” (BDAG).
How can the scriptures encourage us? For Paul, the scriptures were the Old Testament writings. Seeing what God has done in the past for those who hoped and trusted in him, helps us to trust that God can work on our behalf as well.
            We receive encouragement from persevering. I know that intellectually, but I know my own failings as well. It’s ok that we fail though. We do not have to rely upon ourselves for the capacity to hold out. The “God of steadfastness and encouragement” is the one who works in our lives. It is his fortitude that we can rely upon.       
            Paul hopes for harmony within the church at Rome—harmony between those who are so radically different, who were enemies before coming to faith--Jews and Gentiles. The Jews were the covenant people of God while the Gentiles were pagans. They were like oil and water. Jewish believers believed they were superior to Gentile believers because of their lineage from Abraham. In Christ however, the Gentiles were as much a part of the people of God as the Jews. But the church was divided between insiders and outsiders.        
            Don’t we see that in the church today? We have Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, people born here and immigrants, men and women, differences between the races, differences between family members. How do we as Christians bridge these gaps? For Paul, the solution is in God, not in the ability of people who are different to get along with each other.
            Paul clearly spells out the basis of this—as Christ has welcomed us, we are to welcome one another. This makes possible the unity of all in him. Jesus came to break down the barriers “…and to unite in himself the whole of rebellious humanity” (Achtemeier, Romans (Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching) 1985, 224).
            If today the reality of unity still remains a hope, “it is a hope grounded in the power of God himself; and that is why the hope is sure” (Achtemeier 1985, 225-26). Maybe we cannot forgive someone for how they wronged us. Maybe it’s too painful to even think about. Our inability to do so is ok. Our hope is grounded in God’s power, not our own. Our hope is based on God’s ability, not ours.
            The author Dante, in his vision had this sign above the door of hell, “Abandon hope all you who enter here.” For Dante, hell is a place without hope. To enter hell is to give up hope. But aren’t we living on earth? As long as we’re living on earth, we can have hope through the grace and mercy of God.
Today’s passage from Romans begins with hope, gives God’s character as the basis for that hope, and it ends in hope. Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, defined hope as “…the passion for the possible” (Godfrey, A Philosophy of Human Hope (Studies in Philosophy and Religion 1987, 29). Do we have that passion for the possible? Do we really believe that the God who has been faithful to us in the past can be the One we dare to hope in, through whom we dare to have “the passion for the possible?”
            I’d like to leave you with Paul’s benediction for the Romans, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13).  Amen.


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