Trinity Sunday C
May 16, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
Nowhere in the gospels does Jesus talk as much about the Holy Spirit as here in John 16. Indeed, as Frederick Dale Bruner notes, the Spirit receives, at best, modest treatment and attention in the Synoptic Gospels. But then, that seems to be true of the New Testament generally. It seems that the people who are the most filled with the Spirit are the same people who seem to be the least conscious of that fact. The spotlight remains on Christ, and it is the Spirit’s “job” in the economy of salvation to make sure that that spotlight remains on Jesus alone.
But because Jesus is talking so much about the Spirit in John 16, it’s not surprising that this becomes one of those texts in which the Doctrine of the Trinity seems to get a boost. As any Jehovah’s Witness can tell you, the word “Trinity” appears nowhere in the Bible. What’s more, nowhere in the New Testament do we get anything approaching a systematic presentation of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity as it has come down to us from the tradition of the Church via Nicea and Chalcedon.
John 16 certainly is not very systematic in this way, either. However, what can escape no one’s notice is that the Son is here talking about both his Father and the Spirit as discrete persons who can be distinguished from himself. What’s more, the unity of these three persons—and the tighter than tight bonds that exist particularly between Father and Son but also among Father, Son, and Spirit—is vividly on display. These are, to invoke language reminiscent of Trinitarian theology, three persons who can be distinguished but not separated. What each person does first and foremost is to bring to the world the things collectively shared by the three.
After all, what Jesus says here is that the Father has given everything to the Son in terms of power and knowledge. The Son, in turn, has given as much of all that to the disciples as they could take up to that point. However, when the Spirit comes, the process of giving to others what the Father and Son collectively share will continue and deepen.
So as Dale Bruner once pointed out, the Spirit will give to the world not just the content of revelation but also will reveal the relevance of that revelation. A question that could be raised in this regard has to do with what it means that the Spirit “will guide you into all truth.” Was that process of truth-revealing limited to the era of the disciples turned apostles or is this something we are to envision as going on and on throughout the entire era of the church? To get more concrete, a little over a 100 years ago the church in the United States determined in the 19th century that despite its centuries’ long acceptance of (and even biblical warranting of) human slavery, this practice could not, as a matter of fact, be accepted on biblical grounds. Indeed, on biblical grounds it had to be rejected and even repudiated. Was this about-face the result of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing work of leading us into all truth? A case for that could well be made.
Safeguards are needed, of course. We should not expect the Holy Spirit to lead us into a truth that will contradict core Christian teachings such as the identity of Christ or the trustworthiness of revealed Scripture. But that our understanding of those things will deepen—or the idea that how we apply those things will change over time—could certainly be validated by John 16.
But for Trinity Sunday, all of that may be somewhat tangential. The key here is the utter unity of the three persons in God and how each so freely contributes to the further glory of the other two persons. The Spirit seeks no glory for itself—indeed, by doing ongoing revelation on behalf of the Son (and by extension of the Father), we are told that this brings glory to the Son. We have here the ultimate deferential community of sharing. Glory comes when each person promotes the other two.
In contrast to the Western tradition that has often depicted the Trinity by way of a triangle, the Eastern tradition has usually opted for a circle to convey the idea of perichoresis, of the circular dance of the three persons in God. Call it the divine choreography, if you will. It’s a dance of life and love that is never-ending as each person adoringly waltzes with every other person in a divine eagerness to make known to the world the riches of one another. The Father pours out everything onto the Son. The Spirit then takes all that from the Son to pour out these riches on all other people. Each person in God exudes enthusiasm for the other two (and the three together display a zestful enthusiasm for us all).
Some while ago three other drivers and I all arrived at a Four-Way Stop intersection at virtually the same moment. Although altogether too many drivers seem unaware of this fact, the rule at Four-Way Stops is that drivers take turns in a clockwise fashion or according to whoever got to the intersection first. In this case, the four of us arrived simultaneously and so there was no logical starting point for even a clockwise rotation. What happened instead is that each of the four of us was making hand gestures to encourage someone to go first. After being momentarily stuck with no one moving, the next thing you knew, all four of us crept forward a bit at the same moment! Again we all stopped and again we all encouraged each other to go first. After lots of silly grins and even laughter among us four strangers, eventually we managed to get someone to go first. It was the complete opposite of what often characterizes road rage—we were terminally deferential! But it was hilarious and wonderful at the same time.
I think that something of that kind of deferential joy must characterize the interior life of God. There is something wonderful about a shared love and a shared enthusiasm one person for the other that is so intense, it results in a never-ending dance of affirmation and celebration. This Trinity Sunday lection from John 16 is pretty brief. Yet packed into these short verses is the animating energy and verve and effervescence that exists at the bright center of the universe: that holy community that just is God in three persons, blessed Trinity!
Some Bible translations (including the NIV) translate Jesus as saying in John 16:13 have Jesus saying that the Spirit of truth will lead believers “into all truth.” In the Greek of that verse, however, the preposition is EN, not EIS (though the critical apparatus indicates there are some extant manuscripts that have EIS, but the received and official text uses EN). In that case, the translation of “into” may be a bit misleading as the typical sense of “EN” is simply “in” or “within.” Because there can be a bit of fluidity between these two prepositions it may be best not to make too big a deal of it one way or the other. But there may be something tantalizing about the idea that for believers filled with the Spirit, “truth” is not outside of us or always just up ahead of us (such that we’d need to be led into it the way you would have to enter into a building that you are currently outside of) but rather truth is where we dwell as believers such that within that truth, the Spirit can give us a guided tour to this and that aspect of the larger truth of Christ. This sense of in-ness when it comes to truth (and the believer’s relationship to it) fits better overall with the larger context of John 13-17 where there is so much talk from Jesus about his being IN the Father and we believers in turn being IN him.
Preachers talk freely about the need to love God, and half the time we make it sound as though everyone already knows what such love would look like. Deep down, though, we all know that loving God is going to be different than loving a best friend or loving a spouse. Still, at the heart of all love is a certain enthusiasm for the beloved one. When you love someone, you do so for lots of reasons you could list: you love how she makes you laugh, you love how thoughtful he is, you love much she enjoys nature. Yet over and above such specifics, there is at the core of it all a fundamental delight that this unique person is there at all, is alive, is undeniably available for you to enjoy.
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Gilead”, Marilynne Robinson shows her narrator, 76-year-old Rev. John Ames, pondering the enormous love he feels for his little 7-year-old son. At one point Rev. Ames writes to his son, “There’s a shimmer on a child’s hair, in the sunlight. There are rainbow colors in it, tiny, soft beams of just the same colors you can see in the dew sometimes. Your hair is straight and dark and your skin is very fair. I suppose you’re not prettier than most children. You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined.”
Maybe loving God is like that–it begins with the sheer delight we take in the fact that God exists at all. It begins in the wonder we feel when we try to wrap our minds around that Trinitarian mystery of three who are somehow still just one. It begins with having enthusiasm for the God who created such a galaxy of wonders and who then loved us enough to plunk us down smack in the middle of it all. God arranged it so we could enjoy the splendors of a juicy Bartlett pear, taste the oakiness of a sparkling Chardonnay, have our hearts quickened by the lyric, liquid melodies of the Wood Thrush. We begin by loving the sheer existence of God and we go from there.
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Author: Doug Bratt
On even the most “ordinary” Sunday it can be difficult to preach and teach from the book of Proverbs. It may seem well nigh impossible to do so on Trinity Sunday. It isn’t just that Proverbs that doesn’t mention the Trinity. After all, the term is found nowhere in the whole Bible. It’s also difficult to use Proverbs 8 on Trinity Sunday because it alludes only to the second person of the Trinity. That may make it no more of an ideal Trinity Sunday passage than any Old Testament text that mentions any person of the Trinity.
In almost 30 years of parish ministry, I’ve never preached on Proverbs 8. I can’t imagine preaching on it in an explicitly doctrinal, topical way, even on Trinity Sunday. After all, as my colleague Scott Hoezee says in his May 20, 2013 CEP posting on this passage, this is not a “straightforward ontological description of God or God’s Son.”
That may make Proverbs 8 a more suitable text for including in the Sunday liturgy, perhaps even as a “psalm” of praise. But if the preacher and teacher are determined to work with Proverbs 8 on this particular Sunday, how might we do so?
Perhaps the wisest (pun intended) way to preach and teach Proverbs 8 is to focus on what it says about wisdom and creation. Verses 1-4 remind readers that wisdom is for all people. Of course, that means we have to sort out just what kind of wisdom we’re talking about. After all, our culture has its own kind of wisdom that’s perhaps best summarized by our advertisements. In order to flourish, they insist, people must look young, smell good, make lots of money and own fancy cars and homes. Proverbs 8’s wise preachers and teachers will look for ways to help listeners explore what constitutes conventional human wisdom.
Biblical wisdom is very different. Scholars have filled libraries trying to describe what wisdom is in the biblical sense. But perhaps the simplest and best definition of it is a way of living, talking and thinking that honors God and blesses people. Genuinely wise people both understand and do what God created people to do.
This offers Proverbs 8’s preachers and teachers an opportunity to explore just how people can gain such wisdom. Of course, the Scriptures come readily to mind as a source of it. Yet sometimes wisdom is needed to address situations the ancient Scriptures don’t anticipate. How, then, can we gain wisdom to address some of the 21st century’s greatest challenges?
Much human wisdom is both young and flawed. Consider the wisdom of our ancestors who assumed the world was flat, the planets revolved around the earth and women are inferior to men. The wisdom of which Proverbs 8 speaks is, by contrast, ancient. In fact, verse 22 suggests it’s the very first thing God created. Verse 30 even suggests wisdom was and is somehow a kind of partner with God in creating everything that was and is created.
This points to another unique aspect of wisdom as the Bible understands it. We often think of wisdom as something humans create by doing things like peering into telescopes and microscopes, as well as analyzing historical trends and Shakespearean sonnets. While those activities certainly have a place in helping society to flourish, people, says Proverbs, doesn’t generate biblical wisdom. True wisdom is a created kind of “being” that is a gracious gift from God.
Proverbs 8 suggests that wisdom includes an understanding of the origin of creation. Human wisdom sees the cosmos as largely the product of chance. True wisdom sees the cosmos as the creation of a loving and caring God. Of course, people may argue about just how God creates everything that is created. But Proverbs 8, even with its ancient language and worldview, reminds us that genuinely wise people profess God somehow both creates and sustains the cosmos and every created thing and person in it.
What’s more, Proverbs 8’s emphasis on wisdom serves to remind readers that when God creates, God does so wisely. God creates in ways that are designed to allow created things and people to flourish. Though sin has made people assume we can create our own wisdom, our own ways of flourishing, the Scriptures offer the only way to act, talk and think that will allow not only people but also all of creation to be that which God created them to be.
Yet Proverbs is, first of all, descriptive rather than proscriptive. While Christians tend to use this as a guide for what to do, we remember that it’s first of all a description of how God has ordered the world and its creatures. So Proverbs preachers and teachers don’t jump straight to telling people like sons, thieves and farmers (cf. Proverbs 10:1-5) what to do. We first examine what such people’s wisest courses of action tell us about the God who creates and sustains everything God creates.
If preachers and teachers don’t plan to do a sermon or lesson series on Proverbs, it might be useful for them to briefly review some of the wisdom the Spirit embeds in the proverbs that follow this Sunday’s lesson. The Spirit packs passages like Proverbs 10 with help understanding and acting in ways that honor God and bless God’s creation and creatures.
Illustration Idea (originally posted by Scott Hoezee in the May 20, 2013 Center for Excellence in Preaching Old Testament Sermon Starter)
“As Tom Long once pointed out, most everyone takes their cues from some set of guiding principles that often gets summarized in adages and pithy slogans. Americans are no different, it’s just that our favorite and most-often quoted national proverbs cut against the grain of the biblical Book of Proverbs.
Some while back I read an author who contends that this is the quintessential, the most basic, of American proverbs: ‘Different strokes for different folks.’ But you cannot detect a lot of respect for universally underlying truths of God’s creation design in that proverb. When faced with lifestyles that run the gamut from church-going religious types all the way over to pornography consuming men who cheat on their wives, Americans shrug through their most-loved proverbs. ‘Different strokes for different folks. Live and let live. To each his own. A man’s home is his castle. Don’t rock the boat.’ These are America’s most-loved proverbs. But what they all boil down to is that one-word phrase which, though not a proverb, in many ways spells the doom of all biblical proverbs: the great postmodern verbal shrug of ‘Whatever!’
What American proverbs convey is the notion that when all is said and done, this world’s many jigsaw puzzle pieces cannot, and so will not, be assembled into a single, coherent picture of life. Wisdom in the biblical sense need not be pursued because there’s finally no point to it. Each of us has been handed a little box of puzzles pieces that conveniently snap together in any number of different ways. So if the picture I end up assembling of what I think my life should look like ends up being wildly different from what you piece together, big deal! Different strokes for different folks. Why would anyone even expect that any two puzzles would end up looking similar?
The Book of Proverbs offers a concentrated graduate course in the art of living. It is an education founded on the premise that life adds up to something coherent and good, stable and full of shalom because there is a Creator God who made each person and each thing. Further, God made each person and each thing to work in certain ways (and not in others) so that if everybody functions the way they were made to function, life would get webbed together into a marvelously complex, inter-locking system of mutual affirmation. There simply is a wise way and a foolish way to do most anything.”
Author: Stan Mast
Throughout the Christian church this is the Sunday to celebrate the Trinity. Our other readings for today are richly Trinitarian (John 16:12-15 and Romans 5:1-5) or at least suggestive of the Trinity (Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31). Psalm 8? Not so much. In Year A of the lectionary cycle Psalm 8 is paired with Matthew 28, and we could conceivably connect the Commission to go into all the world and make disciples with the commission to have dominion over all the works of God’s hands. But here in Year C, there doesn’t seem to be any logical or theological connection between the Trinity and Psalm 8, unless we treat it as a hymn of praise to the as-yet unrevealed Trinity.
However, it would be a shame to ignore Psalm 8, for it is a whopping good hymn. Indeed, it is the first hymn of praise in the entire Psalter. After pleading with God for various kinds of deliverance in Psalms 2-7, Psalm 8 praises the God to whom we pray for salvation and reveals something surprising God. It is not technically a call to praise. Unlike so many of the Psalms of praise there is no exhortation. It is simply and purely praise addressed directly to the covenant God of Israel for his sovereignty. That theme of sovereignty is suggested by the two names of God in the opening verse. “O Lord (Yahweh), our Lord (Adonai), how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
To be specific, God’s majestic sovereignty is revealed in two very different ways: in the heights of heaven and in the dust of the earth. God’s glory is set above the heavens, and it is seen in the heavenly bodies created by the fingers of God. As he gazes up at God’s high glory, the Psalmist feels very low and insignificant. But, to his and our surprise, God has crowned puny humankind with glory and honor. Indeed, the children of Adam (the one made from the dust of the earth) have been made little lower than the heavenly beings. And Yahweh has given human beings the role of ruler over all of God’s earthly creation. The sovereign Lord has made us sovereign lords.
A statement like the last one will raise all kinds of red flags for those who are concerned about the way humans have misused their sovereignty in relation to the environment. I’ll say much more about that soon; in fact, this Psalm puts some very important safeguards around that whole environmental discussion.
For now, the Psalmist’s high words about the glorious place of humans in God’s creation reminded me of the often misquoted saying of the early church father, Iranaeus. “The glory of God is man fully alive….” What follows those ellipses is even more important. Like Psalm 8, Iranaeus centered the glory of man in the wider context of the glory of God: “the life of man is the vision of God.”
If you decide to preach on Psalm 8 today, you will need to deal with some meaty problems in the text. For example, you will find verses 1b-2 to be, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, “obscure and problematic.” The first part (“You have set your glory above the heavens”) is not the problem; the problem is the connection between that high glory and the praise of children and the defeat of God’s enemies.
Some scholars see a covert reference here to the first Gospel promise in Genesis 3:15, where God promises that the seed of the woman will finally crush the head of the seed of the serpent. Others detect an occurrence of a frequent biblical theme, the idea that God uses weakness to defeat his enemies. Indeed, Jesus uses Psalm 8:2 to silence his critics after his Triumphal Entry and the cleansing of the Temple. God shows his glory by using the praise of the smallest children to defeat his loudest critics.
Still others want to rearrange the lines so that they read something like this: “Your splendor above the heavens is praised from the mouths of children and infants. You have established power because of your foes, to quell the enemy and the avenger.” In other words, God’s sovereign power, displayed in the heavens, defeats his enemies. For that victory even children praise God. Given the difficulty of discerning the meaning of those few words, you probably won’t focus on them.
You almost certainly will zero in on verses 3 and 4, because they raise what philosophers call “the man question.” As he lay out under the stars, possibly keeping watch over his father’s sheep, David gazes up at the Milky Way and is overwhelmed by his own insignificance in the total scheme of things. The “stargazer” asks the great question about the worth and purpose of the human race. “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?”
As a member of God’s covenant people, the Psalmist has experienced both “mindful” and “care.” “Mindful” means that God remembers his people and “care” means that he visits them in their historical situations. Both words speak about the fact that the God whose glory is set above the heavens pays attention to, remembers in mercy, and visits his children, in spite of their finitude and fallibility. The Psalmist might have asked, “How is it that you do that, O God.” But that would have required a different Hebrew interrogative word and it would have focused on God. Instead, he asks “What is man…,” and that focuses the question on us. In that focus we can find rich ground for preaching.
I mean, this “man question” can be and has been asked by a wide variety of people. An evolutionary biologist may ask it and conclude that man is simply an animal, an advanced animal to be sure, but merely an animal nevertheless. An economist would answer the question very differently. Man is a consumer of goods and products. If the economist were a Marxist, that would be the end of the answer. That’s all we are, mere consumers driven by dialectical materialism. A political philosopher like Thomas Jefferson would give the Deist answer to the question. God is so high and lifted up that he does not, in fact, pay much attention to us at all and certainly doesn’t visit us in any special way.
It is fascinating that the “man question” is asked and answered in a very different way elsewhere in Scripture. In Job 7:17-21 Job complains that God pays too much attention to man (particularly Job himself) and unfairly examines him and even makes him a target. Job can’t understand why God has visited his little speck of dust with such terrible suffering. Many a child of God has asked the “man question” with just such despair.
But David gives a doxological answer to his own question. Rather than focusing on unfair suffering, David celebrates the fact that God has given us glory and honor beyond our deserving. “You made him little lower than the heavenly beings….” Note the “made.” Our exalted status is not something innate. It’s not that humans are inherently more exalted than the rest of creation; we truly are part of the animal world. But in his grace, God has given us special status in his world, just a little lower than the “heavenly beings.” The Hebrew there is elohim, which is the common name for God. But it probably means angelic beings here.
Not only have humans been given an exalted status, but we have also been assigned a special task. “You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet.” Then the Psalmist lists all the creatures under mankind’s feet. Using representative words, it amounts to everything. In his sovereignty God has given us sovereignty over his creation on the earth. We are, in effect, a stand in for God. In typically striking fashion, Brueggemann puts it this way. We have glory and honor in relation to angels, not unlike God. We have dominion over other creatures, not unlike God. Humans are not unlike God.
But we are not God. Only God is God. This powerful claim about human sovereignty occurs within the context of even more powerful claims about the sovereignty of God. “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” “Doxology gives dominion its context and legitimacy,” says Brueggemann. This placement of human sovereignty in the context of God’s sovereignty is the proper response to the legitimate alarm of environmentalists over man’s dominion. This is our Father’s world, not ours. He put us in charge, not to abuse it, but to care for it, to protect it, and to make the most of it, that is, to civilize it in the best sense of that word.
We can only exercise our dominion properly when we call Yahweh “our Adonai,” our Sovereign. We are accountable to God for how we rule this world. When we turn “dominion” into “domination,” “rule” into “ruin,” and “subordination to the divine purpose” into “subjection to human sinfulness,” we will have to answer not to the EPA or the Sierra Club, but to our covenant God. “The glory of God is man fully alive” as the God ordained ruler of this earth. But the purpose of life cannot be restricted to this earth; “the life of man is the vision of God.” “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”
No, we can’t preach a Trinitarian sermon on this Psalm, but we could certainly preach a Christ-centered one, given the way Hebrews 2 uses verses 4-6 as a reference to Christ. In fact, that would be the very best way to end this Psalm with its earth-keeping implications. Hebrews 2:8 admits that not everything is subject to “him” at the present time. Does that “him” mean “the son of man” in the sense of humanity? We have not exercised our dominion properly, so the world is not the way it’s supposed to be. Or does the writer refer to Jesus when he says not everything is subject to “him” at the present time? Death is still roaming the earth apparently out of control.
Whatever “him” means in Hebrews 2:8, the writer’s intention is clearly to hold up the eschatological vision of that day when all things are subject to the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. For a little while, God made him a little lower than the angels. In that lower state, he did battle with the forces of evil that have ruined the world, especially death. Right now, things are still in a bad way in many places. But God will bring many sons and daughters to their God-ordained glory, on that day when the risen and reigning Christ returns in all his glory.
In the meantime, we must live up to our exalted status and fulfill our God given task, for the sake of Christ the true King who “took the form of a servant whose governance was in the form of obedience.” (Brueggemann, again)
In my comments above I interpreted Psalm 8 in the light of Genesis 1 and 2. We have been put in charge to “protect and serve.” In many American cities those very words are imprinted on police cars and badges. But as Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities have experienced, authority can be abused. Pictures of dead bodies and angry mobs remind us that things can go terribly wrong when those appointed to “protect and serve” use their power in a dominating way.
“The man question” not only occupies serious thinkers, but also surfaces in all kinds of popular culture. Think of the classic song by Kansas, “All We Are is Dust in the Wind,” or the movie, “Less than Nothing.” On a positive front, I just finished my yearly quota of young adult books with two marvelous stories about disabled kids who demonstrate that they, too, are crowned with glory and honor. Soar is about a boy whose heart issues keep him from playing his beloved baseball, but not from coaching his peers to new heights. And Out of My Mind tells the story about a fifth grade girl who is unable to speak or control her body because of cerebral palsy. But behind her spastic movements and drooling grunts is a brilliant mind. When she is finally given a Stephen Hawking speech machine, her classmates experience her glorious mind. But they can’t see past her disability. Both are worth a read in and of themselves, but they will help you think about the royalty that resides in every human being.
Author: Scott Hoezee
We forget it most of the time when we read Romans but the fact is that Paul was writing to a group of Christians for whom hope was no doubt in short supply. They lived in the heart of Roman darkness, right under the nose of the Caesar himself. They lived in an empire in which that same Caesar was declared Deus et Dominus, God and Lord, on every coin in their pockets. What’s more, the regime was increasingly hostile to the then-new Christian faith and before too much longer would flex its muscle in trying to get rid of this new band of believers, putting to death even the very apostle penning the letter to the Roman Christians.
So if you are going to preach hope to people living under those conditions, you had for sure better know what you are talking about. These people can’t afford to have sunny but finally empty promises lobbed their way. They cannot tolerate false hopes because those have a way of making already bad situations much, much worse. What’s more, only a sadistically cruel person would give them false hope.
But Paul was not selling false hope—he was proclaiming a hope that could not die because it emerged FROM the death of God’s own Son. The hope that was forged in the fires of death cannot itself then die when suffering and persecution come because this is a Gospel hope that transcends all suffering on account of having been born out of hell and death and the worst suffering ever. This hope is ray-shielded against the destructive forces of suffering and death—these things now bounce off true hope. And this is a hope that has given us access to grace—a grace that, Paul colorfully pictures for us, we are standing hip-deep in. Maybe we are neck-deep in it. We stand in hope and this hope, Paul says, cannot disappoint.
How do we know all this for sure? Well, we can’t prove it (but then, if we could prove it, we would not call it “hope,” would we?). But we can testify that it is true because the love of God has been poured into our hearts. Telling a skeptic that God’s love is inside you will ultimately prove to be as fruitless as trying to explain why you are head over heels in love with another person. You can’t prove that you are nuts over Joanie or George or Sarah but you can bear witness to your heart-pounding love for that person and that’s about as far as you may be able to go. But you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this love is inside you. And it’s no different with God’s love by the Holy Spirit: it’s undeniably there and it anchors the hope that we will see it all fulfilled one day too.
One can scarcely imagine a more stirring message for the Christians at Rome. But then, politically and globally, hope seems in pretty short supply these days too. Indeed, from the right or from the left folks looking at the political situation in the United States right now again and again post on Facebook and Twitter thoughts that are downright hopeless.
We still need Romans 5.
In his splendid book, Standing on the Promises, Lewis Smedes reminds us that our souls need hope the way our lungs need oxygen. Because we are inextricably temporal creatures who are forever moving into an unknown future, we need hope to keep us moving lest we become stuck, struck dumb with a paralyzing fear of the future. Hope is God’s gift to us in this broken world–it keeps us moving. Of course, the nettlesome twin sibling of hope is worry. If hope is what keeps us going, worry is what makes us cautious in our steps. If hope helps us to stride forward with confidence, worry is what makes us slouch even as we duck our heads in fear of the next blow that may wallop us up-side the head.
Far too often it seems like even Christians let worry edge out hope. Saintly believers near the twilight of their lives start to mumble to pastors and elders, wondering if they’ve been “good enough” for God. The more extreme fringes of even the Reformed tradition of which I am a part has believers not daring to sing “Jesus Loves Me” because how do you know? Some of us know people who have never dared take the Lord’s Supper because they worry that to do so could send them straight to hell because maybe, just maybe, they will unwittingly partake in the dreaded “unworthy manner.”
To folks like us Paul would say, “You’re forgetting something, my friends: grace is where you live. Your relationship with God is one of shalom–everything is in order now because of Jesus. Where’s your hope? Why are you letting worry forever edge it out? This is the time for rejoicing, not nail-biting; for joy, not fear.”
Of course, all of this is complicated by the fact that we are justly dissatisfied with how we live many times. We do have sins to confess every day. We can’t be content with how things go in the wider world or very often in our private worlds. The trick, according to Romans 5, is to let this proper discontent fan our hope not our fear. The sins of our world and the sins of our hearts should lead us to fall back on our hope of glory through Jesus not to fall back on our fear of hell. In this sense hope rooted in grace is what keeps us moving in this grim world. Even when what we need to move through is our own sin, we nevertheless move forward into God’s light knowing that we walk hand-in-hand with a God with whom we already have peace.
“Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul/ And sings the tune without the words/ And never stops–at all.” So wrote Emily Dickinson in the poem that now serves as the epigraph for Lewis Smedes’s book. Indeed, hope must never stop its singing in our souls because if it does, it brings certain death to our spirits in this otherwise dark world. The hope we must never tire of proclaiming among ourselves and to everyone else is nothing short of the hope of grace–a grace so luminous as to overwhelm the pathetic little flickerings of worry. For his favor, praise forever, he doth us salvation bring. Hallelujah! Amen!
A triplet of hope-related clips from a movie that is all about a hope that will not die, The Shawshank Redemption. In the first clip the main character of Andy has just gotten out of a month-long solitary confinement on account of his having high-jacked the prison’s loudspeaker system to broadcast a beautiful Mozart aria. The conversation soon turns to hope but as Red knows (Morgan Freeman’s character), careless talk about hope in a gray world of a prison can do more harm than good if it is not genuine.
The second clip shows Red after he is at long last paroled some years after Andy successfully escaped from Shawshank. At Andy’s direction Red goes to an old hayfield in Maine and finds some money and a letter left for him by Andy.
Then the film’s final scene as Red goes to Mexico to reunite with his old prison friend, Andy. And the film ends with “I hope . . .”