A sermon by Margaret Hall
There’s a scene in the television series Downton Abbey, where Lady Edith is sitting with her grandmother at the church bazaar. She’s facing seemingly insoluble problems, and she says, “Sometime I think God doesn’t want me to be happy.”
The Dowager Countess replies, “My dear, all life is a series of problems, which we must try to solve – first one, then the next, then the next – until at last we die.” Then she adds, “Why don’t you get us an ice-cream?”
“That should sort it out,” says Edith.
The old lady chooses not to comment on whether God wants Edith to be happy. But the God the Bible reveals involved himself totally in overcoming everything that makes us unhappy. He became one of us in the person of Jesus. He resisted the sin we all succumb to, exhausted death’s power by taking it on himself, and signalled God’s new creation by rising from the dead. Whatever we’re going through now, Jesus brings hope – hope of the future God’s provided for the world he loves so much.
The theologian Jim Packer has this to say about hope:
Take away hope, and life with all its fascinating variety of opportunities and experiences reduces to mere existence – bleak, drab, repellent, a burden and a pain. Hope generates energy and enthusiasm. Lack of hope breeds apathy and inertia. To lack hope is to be diminished as a human being. But God, the Creator who designed our hearts, never intended that we should live without hope.
From beginning to end, Packer says, the Bible is a book of hope. Take the story of Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi. The turning-point for those two destitute women came when Naomi learned the identity of the man who’d shown kindness to Ruth. Naomi burst out, “The Lord bless him!” She explained to Ruth why she was so relieved: “That man is our close relative; he’s one of our kinsman-redeemers.”
That meant that by law Boaz had the right, if he chose to exercise it, to rescue them – not just from poverty, but from the worse fate of having no descendants. She realized from Ruth’s account of his kindness that Boaz was the very man any woman in her right mind would choose to be rescued by.
When Naomi says, “He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead”, it’s not completely clear whose kindness she’s speaking of – probably Boaz’s, but it could also be God’s. In the end it doesn’t matter, because, whether we acknowledge it or not, whatever kindness we manage to show one another is simply a dim reflection of the kindness of God, whose image we bear. Humankind was always intended to be like him, and he’s wonderfully kind to us, even though we don’t deserve it.
For those two women, recognising Boaz as their kinsman redeemer was the beginning of hope, just as for us recognizing who Jesus is is the beginning of hope. In fact, ‘kinsman-redeemer’ is a good description of Jesus – our kinsman in being human like us, and our redeemer because he paid the price that had to be paid, if we’re to be free – free from the power our wayward natures have over us, and free from the fear of what lies beyond death.
Boaz did marry Ruth, the outsider who was to become the great-grandmother of King David. In the course of time, into the line of David’s descendants, Jesus was born – the ultimate kinsman-redeemer, who brings hope for the whole world.
Here’s one of many words from the apostle Paul about the hope Jesus brings: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.”
The writer to the Hebrews described the hope Christians have as ‘an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.’
It makes sense that a compassionate God wouldn’t leave us wondering about what lies ahead – that he would give us a hope we can rely on – founded on the words of Jesus himself, which were faithfully passed on by those who heard them from his lips.
To Martha, grieving over the death of her brother, Jesus said this: “I am the one who raises the dead and gives life. Those who believe in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”
To his troubled disciples, Jesus said this about his imminent going and coming back: “Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come back, and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am.
The disciple John spent a lifetime mulling over the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. He distilled it in these words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. But whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for the wrath of God remains on them.”
Let’s be clear about what Jesus’ resurrection meant to those who announced it to the world. It certainly didn’t mean a spiritual experience in the present leading to a disembodied life in the future. What they announced was that Jesus had come back to life in a body – a body that could function in this world, yet which was somehow transformed. The word Paul used for it was ‘incorruptible’ – no longer doomed to decay and die.
For those who saw the empty tomb and the many who saw Jesus alive, what they saw changed them. No longer despairing, out they went to share the hope they were now sure of – of new life in God’s new creation – all because Jesus has bore for us God’s judgement on whatever spoils this present one.
Paul shared that hope with the people who gathered every day in the main market-place in Athens. A group of them wanted to know what he meant by the resurrection of the dead. So he talked to them about the invisible God who gives us life and breath and everything we have. Then he went on to say, “He has fixed a time when he will have the world judged by what is right, through a man he has appointed, and he’s given assurance of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered. Some wanted to hear more, but at another time. Some believed what Paul said. Through the resurrection, they saw Jesus, not as a would-be rescuer who’d tried and failed, but as the Rescuer come at last – the Christ, the King God promised – the world’s true King.
People do hold widely different hopes about what happens after death. A few years ago there was a piece on television about a couple whose small daughter had been killed in an accident, still in agony over it years later. They were searching for some kind of certainty, since life as they’d known it had fallen apart. They said they’d found some comfort in what a Buddhist had told them – that their daughter was always around them, in the very air they breathed.
That belief took my mind to a baptism service I’d been to the week before, for a little girl born with a damaged chromosome. She won’t be able to walk by herself or talk normally, her life expectancy is short, and for however long she lives her parents’ lives will be shaped around meeting her needs. They spoke about the strength they drew from knowing, through Jesus’ suffering, how much God loves them. They spoke about the unstinting support they get from their church community, praying with them, weeping with them and daily supplying all kinds of practical help. And they spoke of the bright hope that keeps them going – the knowledge that one day, because of the new creation Jesus’ resurrection signalled, their little girl would be running and dancing and singing. It was a moving testimony to the hope Jesus’ bodily resurrection brings.
As Vice President, George Bush represented the United States at the funeral of the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Bush was deeply moved by a silent protest carried out by Brezhnev’s widow. She stood motionless by the coffin until seconds before it was closed. Then, just as the soldiers touched the lid, she performed an act of great courage and hope – a gesture that must surely rank as one of the most profound acts of civil disobedience ever committed. She reached down and made the sign of the cross on her husband’s chest.
There in that citadel of atheistic power, the wife of the man who’d run it all hoped that her husband was wrong. She hoped there was another life, made possible by Jesus’ death on the cross, and his rising to new life. She hoped that same Jesus might yet have mercy on her husband.
But where is our new life in our new bodies to be lived? In the last pages of the Bible, the picture of God’s new creation is of heaven coming to earth – the complete answer to the prayer Jesus taught us to pray: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.’
So we live in the hope of enjoying all the beauty of this world, without the disorder and decay which the refusal to do God’s will has brought upon us. In the new creation all that’s wrong with this present creation will be put right – no more death or mourning or crying or pain, as we enjoy the relationships we’re meant to have, with God and with each other.
Christian hope gives us more than assurance of a place in God’s new creation. It changes our view of the present, as Alice Chambers wrote in her book Something More:
My husband died very suddenly when we were in England. I came back to my family in Australia and was taken to a cottage on the coast. It was right on the beach and my bed was under a window that looked out on the ocean. I would lie there and watch the sun come up, always at the moment announced on the radio the night before. I couldn’t pray or read the Bible. If I thought about God it was only to question his ways. But one morning as the sun popped up God spoke to me: “Have you commanded the morning or caused the dawn to know its place?”
That question, put to Job when he was doubting God’s goodness, renewed Alice Chambers’ trust in the One whose mercy and power are infinite.
Lord Jesus, thank you for your presence with us now, and for the glorious hope of a future in your new creation. Amen.