Is Hope Possible?


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

December 2, 2018

Texts: Psalm 71:1-11; Luke 21:25-36

       Imagine yourself living around 80 or 90 CE as part of a Christian community. The original church in Jerusalem has relocated to Pella in the Transjordan; the churches in Antioch and the towns throughout Asia Minor are struggling; and the church in Rome is underground. Various stories and writings about Jesus, the one you call Lord, circulate possibly with the letters of Paul. People in your community are being turned over to the authorities who are giving you two really bad choices: sacrifice to the emperor or face possible horrible brutal death. Where is the hope?  

       The early church was attacked by Rome as promoting atheism. The Romans did not understand why Christians worshiped only one god. By this time, the early communities of belief had coalesced into churches; they were now called Christians. They had shown themselves ready, willing, and able to die for their faith. Entire families were being killed, some dying in the arena, eaten by wild beasts, others crucified like Jesus, and others dying as a result of torture utilizing methods that make our feeble attempts at water-boarding look tame by comparison. Where was their hope? How would that hope be realized? Out of the nightmare of their lives, Luke offers a vision of apocalypse and redemption.

         Usually those of us in the liberal churches don’t think of apocalypse as a form of hope or re-demption; we leave that to the Tim LeHays of this world. But to the early church, this was their hope; this was the only way they could envision re-spite from the terrors of the time. This is the context in which Luke’s Gospel–and the other Gospels as well–was written. What can we draw from this portion of Luke’s Gospel? Or from the visions and nightmares of Daniel that most of us have never even read?  

          We who live in the comfort of twenty-first century America find it difficult to imagine ourselves in such a place. We read about violence and mayhem throughout the world but in reality little of it touches us here in spite of drive-by shootings in ghettos far removed from us or even in attacks on Jewish synagogues such as the one in Pittsburgh. And, in light of that terrible attack, one should note which of our know nothing politicians have been silent fearing the loss of their supporters and which ones have responded. And, yet, we seem to be a people without that elusive feeling we call hope.

          The Pew Charitable Trust, perhaps the most respected survey group in the United States, overtaking the old Gallup polls from the 1950s and 60s, examined these kinds of ques-tions from different perspectives. In its report on the declining middle class, it notes gloom among people due to the realiz-ation that children will not have “it”––whatever “it” is––as we did as their parents. The income gap indicating a continuing growing economic inequality in the United States played itself out well in the elections. If you think the resultant despair was felt in the elections, just note that GM decided to wait until after the election to announce its “restructuring” costing over 14,000 jobs. That’s real despair.

          Several years ago the Pew Trust also conducted a study of religion showing a significant increase in the people who identified themselves as “nones,” that is not affiliated with any church, a growth from about 16 percent in 2007 to just over 22 percent in 2015. The so-called “nones” are not necessarily atheists or even agnostics; they simply have no particular religious convictions one way or the other. They tend to be younger. Faced with the news of an unstable world, to say the least, where is their hope?  

          Is hope possible––in our world as we now experience it? Luke’s Gospel pins hope on the triumphant return of Jesus as Lord with routing of enemies and a time of a new kingdom. Most of us in 21st century America do not really believe in such a view of the world or its end. Therefore, we need to look at how we can develop hope and share that hope with others in the context of our everyday lives. If hope is faith in the future tense, do we have it?

         In Hebrew as well as Greek and Latin based languages, the word for hope and wait come from the same root. The Psalmist says that he “waits on the Lord.”  However, an alter-native translation could be that we hope in the Lord.” Sim-ilarly, the word in Spanish for hope and wait are the same, “esperar.” What does this mean in the context or our lives today?  

          Hope is possible because we are called to live as if there is the possibility of hope. This sounds like a tautology, to be sure. Living in the possible is not an easy task, but a necessary one, for it is in living our possibilities that we can find fulfillment, not in the material sense of the world but in the deeper sense of who we are and who God calls us to be.

         The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann quipped that waiting on the Lord is not like waiting for Godot. In fact, he notes, that waiting has a connotation of expectation. Thus waiting on the Lord, hoping in the Lord is a form of resistance to the evils of the world and calls us to action against them. Thus we are to live a future-oriented life rather than a past-oriented one, which does not give us hope but rather leads to despair. There is much to be said for this.

          We are told to watch and wait for the time but not to do nothing. During this time we must work actively for peace by living as if the Kingdom of God is already here. We are told that the Kingdom is here and now. In the words of Jesus, we pray, “thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is not a watch and wait for the Kingdom in some afterlife; this is get up off your duff and work for the Kingdom, for it will only come if and only if we work for it. Jesus did not just sit idly by; neither should we.

         There are times, I admit, that I wonder what would Jesus do or say when faced with the world today. Unlike some people, I doubt he would dismiss a report on climate change  or trash a nuclear arms treaty. He certainly would call for a moral response to the refugee crisis at the southern border of the United States not to mention the Middle East and Europe.

        The Jesus who offered hope did not sit idly by but took on the powers and principalities of the world. That’s why he was crucified––he was a threat to the institutions that op-pressed the people including the occupying forces and their collaborators.

         Our occupying forces are different today. We may not have Roman soldiers standing at every corner ready to take possible dissenters into custody, as in China, Russia, or the new autocratic states of Eastern Europe. We are occupied by other kinds of forces, such as our desire for ease and comfort, lower gas prices no matter the cost to the environment, and our consumer driven lifestyle.

        To be sure, it is difficult to move society beyond these occupying forces. But if we serve as a model, not in silence, but in speaking out on the destructive nature of these oc-cupying forces, we can help to create a society that will turn away from them and their power. We may know that these forces hold out false promises. And we must recognize above all, that these forces are very powerful, for who doesn’t want to live in comfort or pay lower prices for gas?

         In some ways, we of the older generation have helped to create our reliance on the occupying forces. We want our children to be successful, to have more than we did, perhaps to even enjoy life more than we have. You know, in spite of the tariffs on Chinese goods, the stores are full of Chinese made Christmas decorations made by workers under a dicta-torial regime.

          True, we also try to conserve. The items we will use to decorate this church today have been stored in boxes from year to year. And when we begin to decorate our homes, we probably use items we have stored from year to year. We find ourselves caught between past and present.

           Hope is not just a future wish or dream. It is an active part of our present just as it was for the One we follow. So, is hope possible? Yes, it is. Hope is possible because we are a community that is active in the present to create a future re-flected by our love and faith and our drive to radicalize the world in the name of the one we follow, even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.