"Abound in Hope!"
Scripture - Romans 15:4-13
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, December 1, 2013
I hope you enjoyed a delicious Thanksgiving dinner and spent it in good company. We drove to our son's house to celebrate the holiday. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite days because I relish the opportunity to spend time with our children and grandchildren. And there are few things I find as pleasurable as a luscious meal. Cognizant that a first class feast featuring multiple dishes would be on tap, I lectured myself on the drive down, "Do not overdo it. You are not compelled to consume everything on the menu. No one will force you to take second helpings. Show some discipline!"
When we arrived, the aromas of the turkey, dressing and sweet potato pudding were wafting through the house, but it was hours before we would gather around the table. To tide us over there were cheeses and assorted crackers sitting on the kitchen island, including brie baked in pastry with orange marmalade. Yum! Ignoring its waist-expanding calorie count, I dove in with gusto.
After savoring a large portion of the brie, the voice in my head screamed, "Whoa, big guy, pace yourself!"
As anticipated, when it was time to indulge, no king ever feasted on a more exquisite meal. As I began heaping the food onto my plate, that voice in my head pestered me again: "Not too much! Do not go overboard!" My response to that voice? Delete! Delete!
Ah, the spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. Do any of you start off with a determined spirit, but then your flesh caves in? Hands up.
When we fail to live up to our intentions, that is often our excuse. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was not up to the task. But, I wonder if sometimes the opposite is actually the problem. Could the spirit be the culprit?
In the wealthiest nation in the world, why are the lines growing longer at soup kitchens and homeless shelters? In a nation boasting world-class colleges and universities, why so many high school drop outs? In a nation with such a high standard of living, why is there so much despair and so many suicides?
Do we fail to make progress on these and other social problems because we lack the resources, or is it because we lack the inspiration? Could it be that our hope for a better tomorrow has been diminished to Lilliputian dimensions because we do not truly believe it is possible to make great strides?
I think most of us severely limit what we believe to be possible. Perhaps we have experienced too many disappointments and we become overly cautious to avoid experiencing another setback. Perhaps our hopes have been crushed too many times so we no longer risk dreaming grand dreams.
What if God is whispering in your soul, "You can survive this loss." "You can overcome that temptation." "You can get past that roadblock." "You can forgive him." What if God is whispering, "You can do this." But you keep shaking your head, "No. It is too hard."
One of the most frustrating parts of being a pastor is listening to people say, "I can't" when I know perfectly well they can. It is painful to watch someone in misery who has locked herself into a room from which she believes there is no escape. She is convinced there is nothing she can do about it, but all the while the key is tucked in her pocket!
To what extent do we squelch our hope by restricting what we believe is possible? It's easy to get locked into thinking that the future cannot be different than the present; that the way things are today is how they will always be. We live in a culture that has become addicted to cynicism and despair. It scoffs at those who cling to grand dreams and brands them as naÃ¯ve.
I wonder how many people said, "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." How many said, "Blacks and whites will never get along in South Africa." How many said, "There will never be peace in Northern Ireland."
History is not rolling down a predetermined path that can never be altered. The future is unknown and open to great possibilities, but when we handcuff hope we cap what can be accomplished.
Today's passage from Paul's Letter to the Romans falls near the end of his long letter to these early followers of Jesus. Before signing off to this fragile community of faith, he encouraged them not to give in to daily trials and despair, but to live in hope. He wrote, "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope." Then, he concludes the passage saying, "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."
Paul reminds us that our hope is not based in confidence in ourselves. There is nothing wrong with possessing self-confidence. Being confident in our abilities can give us a boost to do our best. However, the foundation of our hope is not in ourselves and not in the human race, because a sober assessment reveals that we are prone to envy, greed, injustice and conflict. Our hope is in God, because God can guide us toward a world whose principle characteristics are compassion, justice and peace.
God seeks to fill us with hope, but I fear that all too often we resist. We want to dredge up our evidence that there is insufficient reason to hope. There are too many boulders in the path and the road is too long and we have limited resources. Hopelessness shines the spotlight on all the reasons life will not get better. Hopelessness rationalizes why we should accept things as they are and not strain ourselves to break new ground.
We human beings can be such an arrogant bunch. We think that simply because we cannot imagine a better situation things will never get better. How quickly we forget that God is full of surprises! No matter how dark the sky and no matter how unrelenting the storm, the sun will shine again. God is in the business of piercing darkness with unexpected light.
If you find yourself limiting what you believe is possible, listen for another voice. Listen for the voice that whispers in your soul, "What if? What if it is possible?" What if you can catch God's vision of a world where people are generous and just and live together in harmony?
One author writes, "I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge... That dreams are more powerful than facts... (And) That hope always triumphs over experience."1
Hope is not a simple-minded cheery optimism that ignores present reality. Hope is putting faith in God's vision of a better tomorrow, and then trusting God's Spirit to fill us with the confidence and the courage to bring it to pass.
A recent piece in the New York Times tells of the legacy of Nelson Mandela and how his devotion to "justice remains a beacon of hope for all those who long for freedom...A lifetime of indignities taught Mandela that €˜there is no passion to be found playing small - in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.'"2
Hope takes root when people begin to imagine the unimaginable. Before people in South Africa could rid their nation of apartheid, they had to believe it was possible. Before people in Northern Ireland could stop the violence and usher in peace, they had to believe it was possible. Before we can put soup kitchens and homeless shelters out of business, we must believe it is possible. Before the Israelis and Palestinians live together in peace with justice, their leaders must believe it is possible.
Hope is trusting God's vision for the world enough to work with God and with each other to create a better day. Hope is remembering that God's middle name is Resurrection and that God is an old hand at bringing life out of dry bones.
Is our problem that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, or is our spirit on life support because our faith in God has become feeble?
We spend the majority of our time doing - working, playing, shopping, corresponding - but it is our interior self - our thoughts, our beliefs and our hopes that make life ordinary and undistinguished or exceptional and exciting.
Today we begin walking the path of Advent. It leads to the place where "the hopes and fears of all the years" are met in the one who seeks to transform your life. Abound in hope, so that God can use you to transform the world.
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