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The Benediction: Living in Hope

June 8, 2014

Sermon:  The Benediction: Living in Hope
Text:  Romans 5:1-5

We are keenly aware that some of our members are on a youth mission trip to Nicaragua this morning. Jonathan is preaching, and the youth are assisting in the service. Tomorrow they will begin other work. I told them Friday morning before they left, “Remember that you are taking the love of Christ with you; you are not just telling it. Show that love in the way you live.” My prayer is that this mission trip will not only impact the people of Nicaragua but that it will also impact our young people. I pray that the trip will be meaningful in their lives.

Our series this month is The Benediction. Our topic last week was “You Are a Family of Faith.” This week the topic is “Living in Hope.”

I want to read from Romans 5:1-5, adding it to Romans 8:24-28, which was read earlier in the service. These two passages are from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Hear now the Word of God.

1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

Hope is difficult to define. A professor told me that defining hope is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. You just cannot quite get your hands around it and contain it. This is why Paul says, “Hope that is seen is no hope at all” (Romans 8:24). In that regard hope and faith have a lot in common. It is true that faith is also unseen. Faith is the confidence in things unseen. Paul says in II Corinthians 5:7, “We walk by faith and not by sight,” or in other words we walk by faith and not by certainty. The biggest mistake that people make in trying to understand hope is confusing real Christian hope with wishful thinking.

A middle-aged man, single again, was walking on the deck of a cruise ship the first day out of port. He encountered a very attractive woman about his age whose coy smile drew his attention. He questioned others and learned some details about her, including her name and the fact that she was a widow. The man arranged to be seated at her table during dinner that very night. The woman was surprised to see him seated with her.

He commented, “I wanted to sit with you because you smiled at me so pleasantly this afternoon.”

She answered, “You bear such a striking resemblance to my second husband.”

He knew that the woman was a widow, but unaware of a second husband, he asked, “I bear a resemblance to your second husband?”

“Yes.”

“How many times have you been married?”

“Just once so far,” she answered.

Is that hope, or is it wishful thinking? The woman certainly had a sense of anticipation, a sense of anticipation with optimism. Wishful thinking is based on fantasy while hope is based on reality. Facing reality is the way we encounter hope in our lives.

Hope is patient. I have often said that the people in the beds at the hospital are called patients because so much patience is required. Christian hope is not inactive waiting. Perhaps you have seen the play “Waiting for Godot,” which is about idle waiting. Christian hope is an active waiting upon the Lord, active waiting upon God. Patience is a product that comes to us through our suffering. Paul says that this patient waiting produces strength of character in us. That character produces hope, which is essential for Christian living. Paul connects the dots for us in this passage in Romans 5, telling us that we must wait for something better.

When we, as Christians, affirm that we are living in hope as a church congregation, we are not talking about the world’s wishful thinking. We must build our hope on the reality that the God we serve will overcome this world. Jesus put it this way: “In the world you will have tribulation. But be of good cheer! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

The circumstances of hope often begin with suffering. In both Romans 5 and in Romans 8 Paul begins his discussion of hope with the reality of suffering. Paul says that we can take glory or joy in our suffering because we know that it begins an assembly line. When we suffer we endure. That endurance produces patience. That patience produces strength of character. That character then produces hope and leads to the love of God. Faith is the beginning point. In Romans 8:18 Paul says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy of the glory that is to be revealed to us,” goes on to talk about hope that is not seen, and concludes in Verses 28-29 that he is convinced that “nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Paul writes in I Corinthians 13 that of faith, hope, and love, the greatest of these is love. It might be that the rarest of the three is hope. One possible reason it is so rare is because we have not learned to live without absolute certainty. While faith is a beginning point, love is an end point. Hope draws the two together.

Being a Christian is like a coin with two sides. When we become a Christian we enter into a new life. II Corinthians 5:17 tells us, “If anyone is in Christ that person is a new creation. Former things pass away and all things become new.” This joy of living in Christ’s presence does not vaccinate us from the wear-and-tear and heartache of life. We can, however, count on the assurance in Christ’s promise, “I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you.” We will have difficulty and tribulation in this world, but we will also have the constant presence of Christ. In the midst of all the strain, stress, suffering, and hardships, we can find peace and joy because of the hope and assurance that Christ is with us. This is why Psalm 23 says, “Even when I walk through the dark valley of the shadow – the shadow of death, the shadow of suffering, the shadow of divorce, the shadow of a business failure – I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” We also have God’s promise, “I will never leave you, and I will never forsake you.”

We must look at the other side of the coin as Christians. We may sometimes feel as Jesus did when he expressed on the cross, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45-46). Though God’s absence may seem very real to us, He has not forsaken us. God is with us, even in those times when He seems so absent.

What are some characteristics of hope? First, hope has a remarkable sense of humor. You can have a sense of humor when you look at the world and its realities if you are a person of prayer. Prayer and humor are first cousins. We pray about our most-pressing concerns. The real humor comes in the end when we are able to laugh about what concerns us most.

Another mark of hope is spunk, simply being determined to stick it out, endure. Paul calls this determination perseverance. Ultimately our hope is in the resurrection.

I heard a story this week about a couple from Ohio that had wanted for a long time to take a vacation to Miami Beach. Finally in retirement they were able to plan the trip. Late in purchasing airline tickets, they had to schedule their flights on separate days. The husband planned to fly one day, and the wife would join him the next day.

Upon the husband’s arrival in Miami, he wanted to send an e-mail to his wife. In typing in the address, he got one letter wrong. The e-mail did not go to his wife. Instead, it went to a woman in Houston, Texas, the recent widow of a Baptist pastor.

Having just returned from her husband’s funeral, the widow turned on her computer to check for messages. Imagine her surprise when she saw this e-mail:

Hi, Honey. I wanted to let you know that I arrived after an uneventful trip. They have computers in the lobby here, so I’m able to send an e-mail. This place has all the latest technology. I am settling in now and looking forward to your being here tomorrow. I will meet you at the gate upon your arrival. Have a good trip. Bring suitable attire. It sure is hot down here!

Isn’t that a great story? It may be as old as dirt, but I read it for the first time this week.

Romans 8:18 says, “The suffering of this present age is not worthy to be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us.” We have the hope of resurrection, the hope of eternal life, which is ever before us. Eternal life is not just more and more life. Who wants that? Eternal life is life with an eternal quality. That life does not begin after death. It is not just in “the sweet by-and-by.” The very moment we accept Christ, we begin experiencing life with an eternal quality.

Our hope is so important to have yet so difficult to define. I have discovered that hope is often best communicated through symbols. Sometimes those symbols come right out of nature – a sprig, a rainbow. Think of Noah, watching the rain day after day. Finally hope came as a green sprig in the beak of the dove. That small bit can be just enough to renew our hope. The rainbow that Noah saw is also a symbol of hope for many grieving people. I can remember explicitly being at Greenlawn on two occasions when a beautiful rainbow arched across the sky following the funeral.

A woman who lived in a condominium next to the church I served in North Carolina did not really belong in Winston-Salem. She was a mountain lady, born somewhere near the confluence of the Toe and the Cane River, at a place called Toe-Cane. This lady was known as the butterfly lady. She specifically planted a garden that attracted butterflies: a beautiful butterfly bush, zinnias, and lantana.

When she died, friends sent flower arrangements with silk butterflies attached. Her family wanted her to be buried where she had made her home in Bakersville, so her funeral was held on the side of Roan Mountain in one of the prettiest cemeteries I have ever seen in my life. We gathered under a tent with the many flower arrangements. As always, I used what I call my funeralizing Bible. As I was conducting her service a Monarch butterfly flew into the tent and perched on the spine of my Bible as if it were a bookmark. I just stopped for a moment. No way in the world could I have choreographed that event for this funeral. The appearance of that butterfly may have been the most important part of the service for her family. It served as a symbol of hope.

Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”

Blue birds have been a wonderful symbol of hope for our family. I have seen one nesting pair this year in our yard and two nesting pairs here on church property. For some the symbol is a cardinal while others have found a symbol in the sparrow.

One story I remember most about birds serving as symbols is about Sally Middleton, an artist who lived in Asheville, North Carolina. Walking through the woods one day near her home in late autumn, she saw a blue jay feather float down in front of her. She reached out and caught it in her hand. Financially destitute at the time, Middleton said that the feather became her symbol of hope. She included a blue jay feather in every painting she completed after that feather became a symbol for her.

When a couple in our city tragically lost their son in a drowning accident at Lake Blalock, I was asked to be one of the ministers participating in his funeral. The following day the family asked me to accompany them to the camp in North Carolina where this young man’s ashes were to be interred. While walking along a path through the woods to meet the couple, I tried to think of a way to help them with their grief. When I saw a blue jay feather, I reached down, picked it up, and put it in my Bible. Further along the path I saw another blue jay feather, which I also placed in my Bible.

Once I reached the family standing in a clearing next to the lake, we walked over to a small grave only large enough for the urn. Stuck in the ground was a shovel with a stirrup handle. During the service I heard a blue jay squawk, then saw it fly through the center of our gathering and perch on that shovel handle. I continued with the funeral service, adding the story about Sally Middleton.

Just as I said, “I brought a blue jay feather for each of you as a symbol of hope,” the blue jay squawked again and took flight. Again, I could have never choreographed that.

Two days later the mother of the boy and one of her friends returned to the camp to visit the grave. As they were walking to the grave, the same blue jay flew down and perched on the mother’s shoulder. Overcome by this bird’s behavior, she stopped on her way out of the camp and told the ranger what had happened.

He said, “Yes, that pesky blue jay! The staff feeds him peanuts all summer, and he thinks everyone has peanuts for him. He flies down and perches on their shoulder all the time.”

That knowledge, that explanation, did not diminish the mother’s experience. For those parents, the blue jay feather became a symbol of hope.

Another powerful symbol of hope is found in Hebrews 6:19: “We take hold of hope offered to us that we may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope as an anchor of the soul, firm and secure.”

Ben Dixon MacNeill’s book The Hatterasman includes numerous stories from the Outer Banks of North Carolina. One story is about Oren Padgett who lived on Ocracoke Island. Hearing of a terrible storm’s approach, Padgett moved his fishing boat out into the Pamlico Sound and dropped anchor. He knew his boat would be better able to survive the storm there rather than leaving it moored near shore. While anchoring the boat he thought, I need to find some safe place to anchor myself. He climbed about fifteen feet high in a live oak tree, one that had grown for many years, and tied himself to it. The storm came, bringing with it wind that blew all night long. The limbs of the tree bent in the wind, almost wrapping around him. Surge waters rose close to his feet. Finally when the storm subsided, Oren Padgett untied the rope and climbed to the ground. He had found a way to anchor himself by tying himself to the tree.

Before the service I conducted a survey of three Navy veterans I found in the congregation, by asking, “Can you tell me why the anchor is located in the bow of the ship?” The consensus was that an anchor in the bow causes the ship to turn naturally to face the tide. The bow is headed into the teeth of the storm, which is the best way to survive.

An anchor is an excellent symbol for hope. God does not make a way for us to go around the difficulties of life. Instead, He makes a way for us to go through those difficulties. The anchor that holds us secure is hope.

During World War II Ruth Caye Jones wrote these words:

In times like these, I need a Savior.
In times like these, you need an anchor;
Be very sure, be very sure
Your anchor holds and grips the Solid Rock!

This Rock is Jesus, Yes, he is the one.
This Rock is Jesus, the only one.
Be very sure, be very sure
Your anchor holds and grips the Solid Rock!

When we say that we are a Family of Faith, Living in Hope, we remind ourselves and inform this community that we are anchored to Jesus Christ. Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus Christ. He is the source of hope. We are certainly not exempt from the difficulties that face everyone, but we have something the world does not have to offer a sure and steadfast anchor for the soul: hope.

A small church in Nova Scotia was built on bedrock, a granite outcropping, right along the barren coastline. People have asked how it has stood for so many years as it seems to have no protection from the storms that whip the seacoast. When they look more carefully they see that the builders connected the church’s foundation to the rock on which it stands. They ran an anchor chain through the church’s foundation and bolted it into the rock on either side. The church has survived not only because it was built on the rock but also because it was anchored to the rock.

We can say that We are a Family of Faith, Living in Hope because we are anchored to the Rock that is Jesus Christ. We understand the power of prayer. We are praying that our youth group will have a successful mission while they are in Nicaragua. Many members are praying for their safety. We are people of prayer, and we are commissioned to minister to others. They go, not in their own strength, but in the strength and power and love of Christ Jesus. Pray for them every day this week. Our hope is not wishful thinking. It has a solid foundation anchored to the rock of Christ.

Have you found that anchor for your own soul? Have you accepted Christ as your Savior? You know how God is leading you. We invite your response.

Kirk H. Neely
© June 2014

 

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