A Living Hope (1 Peter 1:3-9)

Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Because of his great mercy he gave us new life by raising Jesus Christ from death. This fills us with a living hope, and so we look forward to possessing the rich blessings that God keeps for his people. He keeps them for you in heaven, where they cannot decay or spoil or fade away. They are for you, who through faith are kept safe by God’s power for the salvation which is ready to be revealed at the end of time.

Be glad about this, even though it may now be necessary for you to be sad for a while because of the many kinds of trials you suffer. Their purpose is to prove that your faith is genuine. Even gold, which can be destroyed, is tested by fire; and so your faith, which is much more precious than gold, must also be tested, so that it may endure. Then you will receive praise and glory and honor on the Day when Jesus Christ is revealed. 

You love him, although you have not seen him, and you believe in him, although you do not now see him. So you rejoice with a great and glorious joy which words cannot express, because you are receiving the salvation of your souls, which is the purpose of your faith in him. (Good News Translation)

There’s no need for hope if everything’s going just the way you like it. I remember when I was a college undergraduate, I hoped for Christ’s return toward the end of every semester. The prospect of all those final exams and the pressure of grades had me longing for heaven.

But that’s life. Maturity, resilience, perseverance, and just about every virtue you can think of comes as a result of life’s trials and sufferings. The Christian has hope, precisely because things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be.

Faith has to be tried and tested. And hard circumstances are the way of purifying it. Like gold being purged of any dross by being exposed to extreme heat, so our faith becomes strong, robust, and genuine by the purgative fires of life’s many large and small sufferings.

The whole point of it all is to make us people worthy of our spiritual calling. Resurrection only happens because there’s been a death. Glory is only realized through suffering.

New life, the Christian life, isn’t a matter of making a new set of resolutions, as if it were nothing more than aspirations at the beginning of a calendar year. Rather, Christian faith is a response to the mercy of God in Jesus Christ.

One of my all-time favorite stories is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. It’s a story of grace and new life, of a hopeless man given the chance at hope.

The main character is Jean Valjean, who spends nineteen years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family. The experience in prison caused him to become a bitter and cynical man. After his release, Jean Valjean has nowhere to go. 

In desperation, he seeks lodging one night at the home of a Catholic bishop, who treats him with genuine kindness, which Valjean sees only as an opportunity to exploit. In the middle of the night, he steals the bishop’s silver and skedaddles. 

The next day, however, Valjean is caught by the police. When they bring him back to the bishop’s house for identification, the police are surprised when the bishop hands two silver candlesticks to Jean, implying that he had given the stolen silver to him, saying, “You forgot these.” 

After dismissing the police, the bishop turns to Jean Valjean and says, “I have bought your soul for God.” In that moment, by the bishop’s act of mercy, Valjean’s bitterness is broken. Hope springs to life.

Jean Valjean’s forgiveness is the beginning of a new life. The bulk of Victor Hugo’s novel demonstrates the utter power of a redeemed life. Jean chooses the way of mercy, as the bishop had done. Valjean raises an orphan, spares the life of a parole officer who spent fifteen years hunting him, and saves his future son-in-law from death, even though it nearly cost him his own life. 

“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to what is evil but to what is good. I have bought your soul to save it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.” ― Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Throughout Jean Valjean’s new life, there are trials and temptations all along the way. Yet, mercy keeps his faith strong, and hope kindled. Whereas before, Valjean responded to mercy with a brooding melancholy and inner anger, now – after being shown grace – he responds to each case of unjust suffering with gratitude, deeply thankful for the chance to live a new life full of grace.

Hope is kept alive because of suffering. Faith is strengthened by means of adversity. And both originate because of mercy and grace.

Christianity is a worldview perspective that enables one to rejoice in difficulty. For the Christian, there is no empty meaningless grief; there is the hope that our suffering means something. Like the athlete who endures all the painful practice in order to realize a future hope, so the believer in Jesus goes into strict training for the development of faith – all in the confident expectation of a fulfilled salvation.

It’s a hard lesson to learn, this seemingly weird alchemy of faith, suffering, hope, joy, and new life. And every generation of Christians needs to experientially discover it. Each believer eventually learns, in the crucible of hard circumstances, that the promises of God are the ballast to persevere in faith and patience throughout life.

Christian hope is a confident expectation that the promises of God will be completely realized.

A Christian’s salvation encompasses past, present, and future.

We were saved back there in the past when Christ died on the cross for us. We were crucified with him.

We are presently being saved from the world, the sinful nature, and the devil, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit in making us holy.

And we will be saved in the future when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Then, our salvation will be fully realized. Since that hasn’t happened yet, we have hope to sustain us.

It was hope that sustained me in college. I endured all the hours of study, all the exams, all the various courses taken, with the confident expectation that I would someday walk across that stage, receive my diploma, and graduate with my intended degree.

We ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:23-25, NIV)

The Christian’s hope for ultimate deliverance is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. This means we can live through a difficult day or week or month or a year, or even decades, with spiritual endurance. Our goal shall come in all its fullness. 

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them and be their God;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4, NRSV)

Eventually, suffering will have done its work and we will be with Christ forever. Until that day, let us explore all that God has for us, embracing both the meaning and the mystery of faith. 

Since our salvation is assured, let us live with confidence and run the race marked out for us.

Heavenly Father, you created us and lovingly care for us. We accept all our sufferings willingly, and as truly obedient children we submit ourselves to your holy will. Give us the strength to accept your loving visitation to us through adversity, and never let us grieve your heart by giving-in to impatience. We offer you our pains to be used for your honor and glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Hebrews 10:32-39 – Don’t Throw Away Your Confidence

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So, do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For,

“In just a little while,
    he who is coming will come
    and will not delay.”

And,

“But my righteous one will live by faith.
    And I take no pleasure
    in the one who shrinks back.”

But we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved. (New International Version)

Confidence is necessary for the Christian life. It’s not optional. One can only persevere through trouble with some confident hope.

It’s one thing to bear up under a hard circumstance for a few days or weeks. It’s altogether another thing for that same hardship to continue for months, even years.

Living with such adversity everyday makes one tired… really tired. Feelings of hopelessness slowly creep within. And, after a while, the person or group of people just want the madness to end. So, they simply give up, being lost in their troubles, feeling alone and bereft of options.

Without the confident expectation of better days ahead, while in the throes of difficulty, a failure of faith can too easily happen.

To realize better days, it’s important to remember the earlier days. I’m not talking about living in the past and wishing it were the 1950s again with Beaver Cleaver across the street. This is not about believing that the past was the good old days, and that the present is bad.

Instead, we can recall and remember the ways we endured and persevered with joy in past experiences.

The original Christian recipients of the message of Hebrews needed to recall the various ways they stood firm and tall in their faith, despite the adversity.

In earlier times, they were insulted and persecuted. Yet, they showed solidarity with others in similar situations. The believers were attentive to prisoners and sought to meet their needs. And they responded to the confiscation of their property with joy because they knew there was so much more than this present life and it’s possessions.

But the persecution and the insults continued… day after day… with no apparent end….

The Christians began to lose their grip on faith. They needed to reconnect with their purpose, with why they were Christians to begin with.

Originally, the reason they had such incredible attitudes while enduring hard things is because they were pursuing heavenly treasure. Their earthly possessions were merely temporary things, not of eternal value. They understood that people have eternal value, not stuff, so the believers willingly focused their efforts in helping others.

However, over time, the band of believers lost their focus. All they could see was the pain and the difficulty. They became disconnected with their purpose. And so, they were in danger of losing their faith and becoming utterly hopeless.

What to do? Give up? Renege on faith? Adopt a “whatever will be, will be,” sort of philosophy?

No. Instead,

Remember what God has done for you.

Affirm what is right, just, and true.

Embrace faith and patience.

That’s what the prophet Habakkuk did. And his resilience helped to bring proper perspective to present troubles.

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.”

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

Habakkuk was distressed over the corruption of his fellow Israelites. Things were askew and not right. So, he complained to God about it. 

God responded by informing Habakkuk that judgment was coming to Israel through the Babylonians. This was neither what Habakkuk expected nor wanted. The prophet grumbled even more because the Babylonians were more corrupt than the Israelites. 

The prophet was having a hard time, and it seemed God was only making things worse, not better.

Habakkuk struggled to come to terms with what God was doing, and not doing. Finally, he concluded the matter by reconnecting with his faith: 

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
    and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails,
    and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields,
    and the cattle barns are empty,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
    I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!
The Sovereign Lord is my strength!
    He makes me as surefooted as a deer,
    able to tread upon the heights. (Habakkuk 3:17-19, NLT)

Perhaps the most significant faith experience we can have, is to come to the point of complete trust in God so that our happiness is not dependent upon good circumstances. 

The truth we all must eventually come around to is that joy and security is independent of what’s going on around us. 

Even though we face difficulty, and even evil, confidence can still exist and thrive within us. We can still rejoice because we don’t need everything to go our way in order to be happy.

Faith, patience, and joy are neither cheap, nor easy. For them to remain rooted within us, we must affirm our commitment to Christ daily. And that requires remembering.

What’s more, there is a reward ahead if we persevere to the end.

We can remain patient, express faith, kindle hope, and remember necessary things whenever we stop doing unimportant things which do not add value to our ultimate goals.

So, be mindful of the things which are most important to you; and move through life at a pace of hope, not anxiety. Don’t throw away your spiritual confidence, just because things are continually hard.

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen. – The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr

Hebrews 11:1-7 – Live By Faith

The Mackinac Bridge, joining the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.

By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.

By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith. (New International Version)

“Faith does not eliminate questions. But faith knows where to take them.” Elisabeth Elliot

Faith is dynamic, not static. Faith is both knowledge and mystery. Faith encompasses past, present, and future.

The Mackinac Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in the Western hemisphere at 26,372 feet long. At its highest, the roadway is 200 feet above the strait that separates the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan in the United States. 

All suspension bridges are designed to move to accommodate wind, change in temperature, and weight. It is possible that the deck at center span could move as much as 35 feet either east or west, due to severe wind conditions.

It’s one thing to know facts about the bridge, and it’s another thing to actually drive on it and cross the strait. 

Some people don’t try it. I’ve driven the Mackinac Bridge many times, and it’s a hoot! In order to cross the bridge, we need to know it will hold us up above the water. And then, we actually need to drive on it.

True biblical faith is neither an existential leap into darkness, nor a simple recognition of certain facts. 

Rather, Christian faith is a reliance upon and commitment to Jesus that results in taking a risk. 

Faith is knowledge that God exists. Faith is stepping out and acting. Faith requires both knowledge and action. 

One can read all the facts about the Mackinac Bridge, but it isn’t the same thing as crossing it. Conversely, one can cross the bridge, even daily, and have no real appreciation for its true magnificence and structural wonder.

The New Testament of the Bible wants us to know Jesus, both intellectually and experientially. Only through those two elements of faith will anyone have a sustainable faith which perseveres throughout life. 

A lack of high-level commitment from professing Christians points to the reality that many believers are missing a crucial part of faith. There are those who rush into situations half-cocked without a solid base of understanding. And then, there are others who talk an issue to death and never act. 

A full-orbed biblical faith seeks knowledge and understanding so that it may respond in loving action.

Faith is important. It’s part of us. We are all people of faith – maybe not sharing the same faith – but it is faith, none-the-less.

“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.” Corrie ten Boom

Belief transcends time. Faith is rooted in the past, experienced in the present, and future-oriented. In Christianity, faith is historically moored to the redemptive events of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. This historic faith has continuing ramifications into the present time. And it is a faith which believes Christ is coming again to judge the living and the dead.

All of this means our salvation encompasses past, present, and future. So, it is appropriate and accurate to say the Christian has been saved, is being saved, and will be saved.

Deliverance from sin, death, and hell was achieved on the cross. We are presently in the process of being delivered from our sinful nature and the effects of a fallen world. And we will be completely delivered at the end of the age from disease, disaster, and death.

The New Testament brings out all these dimensions of time. Whereas the Apostle Paul tended to continually look back to the past of God’s action in history, the author of Hebrews consistently looks ahead and brings out the future orientation of our faith.

And that is what the great Hall of Faith in chapter eleven of Hebrews is about – giving repeated examples of individuals who transcended their present hard circumstances through realizing what will be eventually coming. All of them acted particular ways in the present time because of what they believed would happen in the future.

People of faith allow their belief in what is coming to shape how they live now in daily life.

Abel took the absolute best of his flock and made it an offering, with the intent of giving God an appropriate gift. Whereas his brother Cain cobbled together some of the leftovers from his vegetable harvest and gave them a nonchalant toss to God. Then, he got upset when God looked with disfavor on it.

Abel’s actions demonstrated the attitude of his heart. His knowledge and action worked together. The gift he gave to God cost him his life, as Cain was inflamed with anger and killed his brother. Only by looking ahead and seeing that God’s reward is better than anything this world can offer, can we endure hardship.

Enoch focused on pleasing God through his three-hundred year life, knowing he would then enjoy an eternity with the Lord who provides good rewards. Enoch displayed his faith through obedience to God. He believed God existed and that God is good, and then proceeded to live a life of goodness.

Noah, despite the jeering of his neighbors, took one-hundred years of his life to build a big ark, believing without a doubt that God’s judgment was coming. The daily grind of constructing an ark for such a long time was made possible because Noah was looking ahead. His present actions were shaped by his forward thinking faith.

In each individual’s life, their daily actions were a result of their unshakable belief in what was to come.

Faith enables us to persevere patiently through any kind of adversity.

Knowing we have a better reward ahead; realizing our present trouble will not last forever; and believing Christ will eventually make all things right in this world – forms the foundation of our faith. Such a faith buoys us so that we do not drown in a sea of injustice, microaggressions, unhealthy power dynamics, as well as plain old meanness and insensitivity from others.

So, when we face those times which tempt us to get lost or stuck in an ever-enclosing existential angst, take a pause, check the facts, and then confidently cross the bridge.

Live by faith. You’ll be glad you did.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Amen. – A Prayer of St. Patrick

2 Kings 4:32-37 – But That Is Not the End of the Story

Elisha and the Shunammite woman by Dutch painter Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621-1674)

Elisha entered the house and found the boy stretched out on the bed dead. He went into the room and locked the door—just the two of them in the room—and prayed to God. He then got into bed with the boy and covered him with his body, mouth on mouth, eyes on eyes, hands on hands. As he was stretched out over him like that, the boy’s body became warm. Elisha got up and paced back and forth in the room. Then he went back and stretched himself upon the boy again. The boy started sneezing—seven times he sneezed!—and opened his eyes.

He called Gehazi and said, “Get the Shunammite woman in here!” He called her and she came in.

Elisha said, “Embrace your son!”

She fell at Elisha’s feet, face to the ground in reverent awe. Then she embraced her son and went out with him. (The Message)

Life sometimes feels like a roller coaster. Our emotions go up and down alongside the circumstances which bring them forth.

Elisha was one of the all-time great prophets in ancient Israel. He developed an ongoing friendship with a woman from the town of Shunem. It was her simple hospitality to a stranger that brought about the enduring relationship.

Whenever Elisha passed through on his prophetic business, he would stop in and have a meal or spend the night in a special room set aside just for him.

But that is not the end of the story….

The woman was about to have a big change of life, a life she could not have ever seen coming and only dreamed of.

The Shunammite woman had no children and was not able to conceive. Yet, on one of his visits, Elisha promised her she would hold her very own infant child… which she eventually did. A year after Elisha’s pronouncement, the woman and her husband had a son.

The woman went from discouraged to elated. The child grew. The Shunammite and her family were content and living well.

But that is not the end of the story….

In today’s Old Testament lesson, we pick up the narrative as the child is a small boy, the family happy and healthy… until they weren’t.

One day the boy was playing, as he did every day. Whatever happened, he developed such a terrible headache that his dear mother rocked him for hours, trying to comfort him. The worst case scenario happened. The boy died.

The woman went from joy to despair in a matter of hours.

But that is not the end of the story….

The grieving mother refused to let death have the last word on her son. She saddled her donkey and went directly to Elisha. The Shunammite lamented to him about her son, and in her grief, cried out how Elisha had gotten her hopes up, only to be dashed by that dark enemy of death.

The prophet responded to the woman’s plea and set off  post haste to her home, which had now become a sort of funeral parlor. Elisha went into the room by himself with the dead boy. In an odd process similar to what Jesus would do centuries later, Elisha did some physical actions in bringing about a miraculous resurrection.

The boy sneezed, got up, and was given back to his mother. Her lowest of the low grinding sadness of distress and despair now turned to the highest of the high elation of joy and gratitude.

But that is not the end of the story….

The story continues because the larger overarching story of God’s gracious intervention into this world to bring about the redemption of all creation.

Along the way, across the millennia, the Lord continues to use faithful people to bring about renewal, restoration, and redemption. In the Christian tradition, the apex of this merciful work is fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.

God himself was pleased
    to live fully in his Son.
And God was pleased
    for him to make peace
by sacrificing his blood
    on the cross,
so that all beings in heaven
    and on earth
would be brought back to God. (Colossians 1:19-20, CEV)

The resurrection of the boy, and all risings from death before Jesus, prefigured and foretold the ultimate resurrection of Christ. And because Christ is risen, we too, shall rise from death – both spiritually and bodily.

Therefore, we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life. For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be united in the likeness of his resurrection. (Romans 6:4-5, NET)

The end of the grand narrative story is moving to a climax. Jesus is coming again to judge the living and the dead. All things shall be restored. All will be made right. We may sorrow in the night, but joy comes in the morning.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them and be their God;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also, he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. (Revelation 21:1-6, NRSV)

Our past grief and our present troubles will give way to a future hope – an ending to the story we can barely imagine, a glorious existence with our God which will have no end.

May the Lord come soon.

I pray the Lord Jesus will be kind to you.

May faith, hope, and love surround everyone who belongs to Christ Jesus. Amen.