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August 24, 2008


The Greatest of These Is Hope

Romans 8:18-25; 38-39


            Last Sunday, our sermon title was “The Greatest of These Is Faith.”  This Sunday, our focus is “The Greatest of These Is Hope.”  Next Sunday, we will consider “The Greatest of These Is Love.” 

I want to call your attention to a passage of Scripture that I come back to repeatedly, Romans 8.  I will begin reading at Verse 18.  Hear now the Word of the Lord.


I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.  The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.  For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  Not only so, but we ourselves who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, 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 he already has?  But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently…

I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ our Lord. 


            I am sure you have noticed that we live in a broken world, a world of tragedy and sadness.  It is a world that will absolutely break your heart.  We, as Christians, have been instructed by Christ, by holy Scripture, to live as people of hope.  Though living with hope is not always easy to do, we must consider that a part of our calling as followers of Christ. 

            Two weeks ago, I watched, as many of you did, the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing.  One of the interesting aspects about that ceremony was that the leaders of two of the world’s strongest nations, Alexander Putin of Russia and President George Bush, were seated next to each other.  Both men were dressed in shirtsleeves because the temperature in Beijing was very hot and humid.  While those two sat in China’s Olympic Stadium, observing festivities that celebrated unity, peace, and world brotherhood, Russia was invading Georgia, a small country located on the Black Sea.  Georgia used to be a part of the larger Soviet Union, but now it is independent. 

Both countries had athletes participating in the 2008 Olympic Games.  The Georgian delegation walked into that great arena about three countries ahead of the Russian contingent.  Unknown to the delegation at that point, 1,500 people in Georgia had died before Russian tanks and armaments.  The next day, the contingent from Georgia left the games. 

We live in a broken world.  Since those games have begun, the country of Pakistan has been thrown into turmoil.  People have died in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Sudan.  The Olympic Games promote hope; but as Jim McKay commented years ago on the tragedy that occurred in Munich, Germany, the Olympic Games also provide a stage for violence – presenting the way the world really is.

            We are in the midst of a presidential election.  Candidates of every elk are peddling hope.  “We need change!”  “We need hope!”  People certainly seem ready for hope.  It is a great virtue. 

            On Friday afternoon, I heard a fellow say, “I sure hope it doesn’t rain tonight.  I’m going to the football game.”  I went to the game, and it did rain.  The Upstate is in the worst drought we have had in decades.  It would be fine if it rained every Friday night and several days in between because we need rain so badly.

            Two weeks ago, someone commented, “I hope the Atlanta Braves win the World Series.”  They probably thought Russia invaded Atlanta, too.  Where have they been?  The Atlanta Braves are not going to win the World Series.  Three of their best pitchers have had surgery this season, possibly ending their careers.  More than likely, the Tampa Bay Rays will win. 

“I hope I win the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes,” another said.  Somebody is going to win it.  The odds are that one in about 90 million wins.  What about the other 90 million?  Some will lose their jobs.  Some will face the foreclosure of their home.  Some will suffer so much pain they will try to find some way to kill it, possibly by turning to alcohol, drugs, or gambling. 

When we use the word hope in this way – hope that it will not rain, hope that the Braves will win the World Series, or hope that we will win the Publishing Clearing House Sweepstakes – I wonder if we really understand the meaning of hope.  Certainly that view, which equates hope with wishful thinking, does not describe this great Christian virtue.  That attitude bases hope more on fantasy than on reality. 

In the writings of the Apostle Paul, and especially in his treatise in I Corinthians 13, hope stands between faith and love.  We can find the hope he writes about in Romans 8 by looking in three directions.  First, hope can be found in the past.  Hope is rooted and grounded in memory.  I am not saying that hope depends on your short-term memory.  It depends on our collective memory as a people.  We must remember our history. 

Do you remember a time in your life that was especially difficult, a time when you thought you were not going to survive?  Maybe something happened that completely disrupted things.  The nation of Israel recalled a time like that.  They remembered being in bondage in the land of Egypt and the difficulty of being slaves.  They also remembered how God had liberated them, how He had set them free through His servant Moses who declared, “Let my people go.”  Freed from bondage after a series of ten plagues, they went to a worse fate, from the frying pan into the fire.  They traveled into the wilderness.  When they came to the Red Sea, there seemed to be no way across. God made a way for them, however, by parting the waters.  Fifty days later at Mount Sinai, God made a covenant with them, a covenant sealed by Ten Commandments written on clay tablets. 

They soon sinned and broke this covenant, causing God to impose on them a forty-year trek through the wilderness.  God stayed with them, however, providing a cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night, a sticky substance to eat called manna, and occasionally a harvest of quail.  During that time, they erected a tabernacle, a tent of meeting, that represented a place where they could encounter God.  That tabernacle became for them a symbol of hope.  Likewise, a small box made out of gopher wood, a box they called the Arc of the Covenant, symbolized God’s presence with them.  The Israelites remembered, and we, too, must remember.  We, too, can rely on the symbols God provides to help us understand the nature of hope. 

In this current recession, you will notice that the strongest people are the ones who have a good memory.  They still remember for themselves or know of the Great Depression of the 1920’s and 1930’s because their parents or grandparents have shared their memories.  Having a recollection of that event makes people strong now. 

I can take you to a lumberyard and show you hanging on the wall there a hay cradle.  Our family knows the story behind that cradle.  At some point, times at the lumberyard were not going so well.  An off-hand comment made then was, “I remember cradling hay, and this is certainly better than doing that.”  As a Christmas gift years later, one brother gave that hay cradle to another.  It hangs in the lumberyard showroom now as a symbol of hope, a symbol to help us remember that even when times are really hard, other times were harder. 

During the Depression, my grandfather lost everything, including his home and business.  With eight children and one on the way, he moved to Cedar Springs and rented a house on land that is now Mountainview Nursing Home.  He tilled the ground and raised sweet potatoes and turkeys.  He created a ready market by striking a deal with the principal of the School for the Deaf and Blind located across the street. 

The joke in our family was that my grandmother could fix sweet potatoes three different ways for the same meal.  She fixed candied sweet potatoes, baked sweet potatoes, sweet potato soufflé, sweet potato pie, sweet potato bread, sweet potato muffins.  One of my uncles would not touch sweet potatoes in the years following the Depression, but they became a symbol of hope for our family. 

The second direction I want you to look with me is the present.  Hope finds its basis in the present.  It is rooted in present reality.  So often when bad news comes into our lives, our reaction is denial.  “Tell me it is not so.  Surely I must be having a bad dream.  When I wake up, this is all going to go away.”  Our motto is somewhat like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind:  “I don’t want to think about that today.  I’ll think about that tomorrow, and tomorrow is another day.”  Facing the facts, facing reality, facing the truth, is the way to hope.  Jesus said, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).

Right at this point, I want to throw down a flare and share an aside.  Listen carefully.  One of the most dangerous people in this community, one of the most dangerous people in this church, one of the most dangerous people in your home, is the cynic, the person who thinks, “It’s just not going to get any better.  Things are never going to be any better.”  When a person starts thinking that way, they adopt that old theme from Hee-Haw:  “Gloom, despair, agony on me.  Deep dark depression, excessive misery.  If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all.  Gloom, despair, agony on me.”  They ask, “Ain’t it awful?”  So many people face the facts and decide that their response is going to be bitterness, hopelessness, and cynicism. 

The other way to face the facts is through the life of faith.  This becomes now the connection between the virtue of faith and the virtue of hope.  Facing reality with faith nurtures hope in the spirit.  It nurtures hope in the soul.  It is right at that point that hope and faith become intertwined.

I remember in 1973 a massive tornado that roared across Louisville, Kentucky, in Jefferson County.  The tornado happened right at rush hour late in the afternoon.  It stayed on the ground fourteen miles, and its path was about a half-mile wide.  The tornado did tremendous property damage, but not one life was lost.  A helicopter pilot named Dick Gilbert followed that tornado and communicated over the radio information about its path.  His reports gave people enough time to get out of the way of that storm.  A helicopter can be a symbol of hope.    

Following the early service, Alva Blankenship commented to me, “A helicopter is a symbol of hope for our family, too.”  I recalled that when Hub, her husband, had his heart attack in Gatlinburg, he was air-lifted by helicopter to a hospital in Knoxville. 

The day after the tornado, I woke up to the sound of chainsaws as people cleared away the rubble.  That tool can be a symbol of hope.  I imagine that is the case now in Florida.  I imagine chainsaws are buzzing as people try to restore order to their broken lives. 

In a few weeks, we have an opportunity to participate in an event called Christmas in Action.  This year, groups from our church are planning to go the mill town of Clifton, which is the setting of our Christmas story this year.  Steve Kibbe, Steve Smith, and Holly Irvin are organizing groups of workers, including some members of the choir.  You can imagine that the ringing of hammers will be a symbol of hope for homeowners as repairs are made to residences in the area.  Hammers will symbolize the care that a larger community has for a smaller portion of the community. 

Military cargo planes now landing in Georgia, bringing medical supplies and food, have become symbols of hope for those people whose country has been invaded.  Vacation Bible School offerings, including an offering from Morningside, have provided money to purchase waters filters for a Southeast Asian country devastated by a cyclone.  Those filters are symbols because people now can have drinkable water.

Clare and I have found the bluebird to be an appropriate symbol of hope for us.  Soon after our son died, I was at Greenlawn Cemetery on a February day.  I noticed a bluebird perched on his tombstone.  I picked up the cell phone and called Clare, telling her, “There’s a bluebird on Erik’s tombstone.”  About that time, the little bird flew away.  Clare suggested, “Just wait a minute.”  I did, and the bluebird returned and perched there again.  A second bluebird flew down and perched next to its mate.  When I left the cemetery, I went straight to Wildbirds Unlimited and bought another bluebird box to hang in my yard.  Ike Badger has made a bluebird trail on the Morningside Expressway.  I have enjoyed seeing bluebirds fluttering around those boxes in the spring and summer.  They are a symbol of hope.  

Some years ago, I read a story about Sallie Middleton, an artist from North Carolina.  At one point in her life, she was devastated.  Her marriage was in trouble, and she was having financial problems.  As she walked through the woods on a winter’s day, a blue jay feather drifted down from a tree and she caught it.  She took that feather as her personal symbol of hope.  Since that day, she has included a blue jay feather somewhere in all of her paintings.  It could be tucked away under a few leaves on the ground or maybe woven into the side of a bird’s nest.  That feather became a symbol of hope for her.

About this time several years ago, a young man whose grandparents were members of this church drowned.  His mother and father asked me to have a part in his service at Trinity United Methodist Church.  Rudy Mancke, Ricky Fisher, and I did the service.  Several days later, the family wanted to inter his ashes by the lake at a campsite in North Carolina.  They asked me to do that graveside service.  The message I had planned was simple.  I thought, I need something to give this family.  Walking through the woods to the lake, I saw a blue jay feather.  I picked it up, put it in my Bible, and thought that I would give them that feather and tell them the story of Salle Middleton.  I walked a little further and found a second blue jay feather.  I picked it up as well and placed it in my Bible. 

During the service, I told that story and gave each parent a feather.  Just as I began the benediction, the crowd and I heard a loud squawk.  A blue jay flew through the middle of our group and perched on the handle of the shovel that was to be used to bury the urn.  We all stood there in amazement.  Moments later, the blue jay squawked again and flew away.  I had the benediction, but I also had chill bumps. 

Following the service, people talked about how unbelievable it was that the blue jay would make such an appearance.  No one could have choreographed the bird’s arrival.  Two or three days later, the mother returned to her son’s grave with a friend.  While she was standing beside the grave, a blue jay lit on her shoulder.  Surprised and startled, she talked with the ranger before leaving the campsite. 

He explained, “Yes, that pesky blue jay bothers everybody.  Campers give him peanuts all summer long.  When the season is over, he shows up anytime a visitor comes.  He begs for food.” 

That explanation did not take a bit of the mystery away.  It did not rob Randy or Susan of their symbol of hope.

Symbols of hope are all around us in butterflies, dragonflies, flowers, and birds of every sort.  All we have to do is pay attention.

The third direction that we look for hope is the future.  Paul states, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed” (Romans 8:18).  He concludes this great chapter by saying in Verse 39, “There is nothing in all the world that will ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”  Our hope is rooted in reality.  That reality reminds us always that God is present.  We see His presence in the wilderness, the tabernacle, the Arc, the manna, the cloud by day, the pillar of fire by night, the two clay tablets.  God is present in a hay cradle and sweet potatoes.  God is present in a helicopter, chainsaw, cargo plane, water filter, bluebird and blue jay.  God was present at a stable and a manger in Bethlehem.  A child was born out back, and he was to be called Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” 

On a hill outside of Jerusalem, a Roman cross was raised.  It looked as if God had forsaken the one that He loves the most.  God was never so present as He was that day.  Three days later, an empty tomb pointed to the great beyond.  Our faith is not just a “sweet by and by” faith.  It is a faith rooted in the past and in present reality.  We have this future hope, the hope of a holy city where the dwelling of God is with His people, where death shall be no more.  Tears of anguish, sorrow, pain, and grief will be no more.  “Former things have passed away, and all things have been made new” (Revelation 21:4-5). 

Hope is not wishful thinking.  It is rooted in the promise of God, “I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you.  For lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world” (Deuteronomy 31:6).  No matter your difficulty, your problem, and your circumstance, be assured that God is with you.  That, my friends, is reason for hope.



© Kirk H. Neely

August 2008

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