Problem: There is a steady stream of promises from pulpits that with enough faith and prayer we can have perfect health, plenty of money, and loving relationships. But life doesn’t seem to work out that way, even for the most devout Christians.
So, what is the real hope of our faith? Pastor Roger Barkley digs into scripture and people’s experiences to share the true meaning of Christian hope. He contrasts optimism with hope. This is the first Sunday of Advent, the season of waiting and preparing for the birth of Christ.
Week 1: Hope
I heard about a chaplain who entered a hospital room of a man who’d been in a horrible traffic accident.
He was burned, heavily bandaged, and on a respirator.
As soon as she saw the man’s condition, the chaplain pivoted on her heel and left.
Someone asked her what’d happened and she said, “I just saw a patient. I need to pray so that I see him as a person.”
When God looks at your life, He sees you, the person, His beloved child … not a shy, insecure man, not a drunk, not a divorced mom living under a pile of debt, not the man who can’t sustain a long-term relationship.
God doesn’t see you as overweight or over-the-hill.
God sees you, the person He created and loves.
This is the source of true hope – that God meets you where you’re at, loves you as you are, and stays with you no matter what.
Your problems or your past don’t define you in God’s eyes.
There is a strand of Christian optimism that has particularly appealed to Americans through the years.
From the New Thought movement of Mary Baker Eddy, to the positive thinking of Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuler, to the prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen, this movement has attracted millions, and it has failed most of them – or at least only taken them so far.
Optimism is the expectation that things are eventually going to get better, usually as measured in material terms.
Biblical hope, on the other hand, asserts that no matter what may come, no matter how bad things may get, God is with us, will see us through this, and will bring something good out of it.
Christian faith does not guarantee wealth, perfect health, or trouble-free relationships.
Christian faith does promise life – abundant life – that is available whatever our immediate circumstances.
Christian hope starts here and now and stretches beyond the confines of life as we know it.
Our problems may not fully disappear, as the optimist hopes.
The fact is that none of us are exempt from pain, suffering, or disappointment.
But the Christian promise is that to the extent we are open, God will give us the strength, guidance, and resources not just to endure these things but even to flourish in light of God’s promises.
Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose.
That is the number of broken bones Barbara Esrig suffered in a head-on car crash near Gainesville, Florida in 1997.
She remembers a car speeding her way after it had crossed the center divider trying to pass four or five cars, and she remembers that those cars just wouldn’t let him back in line.
And she remembers the white explosive impact followed by the absolute silence.
Lying in the hospital, she had a patch on her eye, and her head was so bandaged that you couldn’t really see her face.
She was on a respirator.
She had tubes hanging out from everywhere you can imagine.
The staff and the doctors, nobody thought she was going to make it … but she felt alive deep inside her casts and bandages.
She had hope, but she realized that it was up to her to share her hope with those treating her.
A young resident, absorbed in her charts, briskly walked into her room for the first time, and Barbara could tell that when he looked up and saw her he freaked out.
He said, “We don’t know if you’re ever going to talk again. And we don’t know if you’re ever going to smell again. We don’t know if you’re ever going to taste again.”
The only way Barbara could communicate was with a chopstick with which she could point to letters on an alphabet board.
She laboriously wrote out, “Life is not worth living if you can’t eat cannolis.”
At first, the young resident looked confused, but then he saw that her one eye was twinkling with humor.
And then she wrote, “Now put down that chart and give me a hug.”
It was a turning point in her treatment – to be seen as a whole human being, not just “auto accident room 461”.
From then on, she called the young resident Dr. Cannoli.
Fast forward through a few years of surgeries and grueling physical therapy, and Barbara was back at Alachua Hospital, now in a new capacity.
Her body was not perfectly healed.
She has scars and deals with chronic pain and physical limitations, but she now has a mission born out of her experience: Writer in Residence.
A writer in residence is someone who meets with patients and through biography and story writing helps them get in touch with themselves beyond their injury or disease.
It helps a patient remember who they are and to envision goals and tap into dreams beyond their physical issues.
Barbara remembers that as long as she was only seen as a victim by herself or others, she had little hope for recovery.
But as she reminded herself and her doctors that, despite her broken body, she is a whole-person with dreams and potential, then healing was possible and that something wonderful could come from her tragedy.
Despite her previous career as a psychiatric nurse, she came to believe that her writing and storytelling with patients is the culmination of her life’s work.
That is Christian hope.
This is why the Apostle Paul, who was languishing in a Roman jail awaiting possible execution, could write,
Romans 5:3-5 We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit.
Christian hope is not passive … we participate.
God isn’t your babysitter.
God is your partner who – together with our choices and participation – can transform your hard times into something good for you and for others.
There are two ways to be active participants in hope.
First, we urge ourselves to awareness of what God may be doing.
You are not alone in whatever you’re facing … God hasn’t gone anywhere and He wants to be your partner.
One of the best-known promises in the Bible is Psalm 23.
Notice that through it, God does not promise that there will be no dark valleys in your life.
Biblical promises do not align with the American “optimism gospel” so popular in the last century.
God does not promise that you can have your every material desire, as the “name it and claim it” televangelists claim.
But God actually suggests something more:
Psalm 23:4 Even though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death You are with me.
You’ve often heard me say that no matter where we find ourselves, the most important thing to do is to stop, be still, and ask, “God where are you in this moment? God, what are you up to in this situation, and how can I get on board?”
I grew up watching TV westerns.
Gunsmoke. Maverick. Roy Rogers. The Rifleman.
What did those white-hatted heroes do when the black-hatted villain threatened them?
In a flash, they whipped out their six shooter, shot from the hip, and shot the bad guy in the arm.
I was raised with guns, and let me tell you, that is absolute nonsense.
It makes for good TV adventure, but in real life that’s the best way to shoot yourself in the leg or take out your damsel in distress who’s standing off to the side.
Most of the shoot-from-the-hip decisions I’ve made in life didn’t turn out so well; I’ve shot myself in the foot more than once.
But when I’ve taken the time to allow God’s voice into the conversation – including through the wisdom of people I’ve learned to trust – things generally turn-out pretty good.
Proverbs 28:26 Only fools would trust what they alone think, but if you live by Wisdom, you will do all right.
We ask what God is up to in this situation because we want to participate with God in co-creating our life.
We are co-creators, God and us, partnering to make our life.
Starting in 597 BC, the Israelites faced a terrible crisis.
Their king Jehoiakim refused to pay tribute to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.
In retaliation, Nebuchadnezzar invaded, destroyed the Jerusalem walls, and marched many of its citizens into exile.
During this time of national despair, the prophet Jeremiah spoke these words:
Jeremiah 29:11 “I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “Plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
He was saying, “Keep hope alive; God didn’t bring this far to abandon you now”.
A second way that hope is active and not passive is that it is expected to be shared.
You may know of Rev. William Barber of North Carolina.
He has become a strong voice in today’s civil right movement, an inspiration rooted deeply in his family line.
He remembers as a child sitting in his grandma’s kitchen as she and other ladies from their church sang as they prepared dinner.
She’d give him a plate to eat and then they’d make some to-go plates and, with their aprons still on, head out the door to visit the sick and shut-in.
“We’re going to hope somebody”, his grandma would say.
Of course, the biggest hope givers are the people who’ve been through the hard times themselves … their troubled times become their credentials and their experiences become their wisdom, so their reaching out to others offers a way out of victimhood and back into the cycle of life.