Sermon

Romans 8:18-39

Just Hoping

By Richard Niell Donovan

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes:

“But now faith, hope, and love remain—these three.
The greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).

I don’t have any doubt that Paul was correct when he said that “love” was the most important of these three, but “hope” must not be far behind.

If we don’t have “love”, at least we live in the hope that we will someday be loved. However, if we have no “hope”, we have nothing at all. C. Neil Strait says:

“Take from a man his wealth, and you hinder him;
take from him his purpose, and you slow him down.
But take from man his hope, and you stop him.
He can go on without wealth,
and even without purpose, for a while.
But he will not go on without hope.”

William Clark, a Methodist minister in Kansas City, tells of serving as a chaplain intern in a prison. He says that the most terrifying thing that those prisoners faced was an “indeterminate sentence.” Prisoners who had a definite release date lived in the hope of that day—whether it was 1 year or 5 years or 20 years away. People with indeterminate sentences had no idea when, if ever, they would be released. That ambiguity destroyed the strongest of them. They lost hope.

People who are in touch with teenagers know the importance of hope. Most teenagers have hope but some do not. The teenage years may be the most difficult with respect to hope, because so much of life lies ahead and teenagers tend to feel so uncertain about themselves.

You adults in the congregation may still be able to remember what it was like to be a teenager. Most of us wanted to do great things, but we wondered if we could. Who knew whether we had greatness in us–or even mediocrity? We were largely untested–and unsure of ourselves.

And, of course, the world in which we live presents its own uncertainties. The superpowers have accumulated enough weaponry to burn the world to a cinder. Even small nations, such as Nicaragua and Libya, seem beyond control. Newspapers are full of turmoil. It is easy to lose hope.

All this is easier to deal with as an adult than as a teenager. Adults have the advantage of having seen the world continue in spite of crises. Teenagers are just discovering the scope of the problem. It is more difficult for them to hope, because they haven’t yet had the opportunity to see people survive problems.

And so, the single leading cause of death among young people, ages 14 to 20, is suicide? The reason is simply that some of our young people lose hope. And hope is God’s answer to the problems of life. Unless we open ourselves to receive this God-given gift, we cannot continue.

Some people would say, “Of course, I have no hope. Just look at the crazy world in which I live. How can anyone have hope for the future when things are so fouled up.” But, if we lived in a perfect world, we would have no need for hope. G. K. Chesterton says:

“As long as matters are really hopeful,
hope is a mere flattery or platitude;
it is only when everything is hopeless
that hope begins to be a strength at all.
Like all the Christian virtues,
it is as unreasonable as it is indispensable.”

Or as Paul says in our scripture text:

“Hope that is seen is not hope.
For who hopes for that which he sees?” (8:24).

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist from Vienna who lived through the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. In his books, he talks about the survivors. They survived, not because their world encouraged their survival—far from it. They survived because they were able, somehow, to keep hope alive in spite of the hopelessness around them. Frankl says that it was this ability to be “sane” in the midst of insanity—to find “meaning” in the midst of meaninglessness—and “hope” in the midst of hopelessness—that kept these people alive.

The question, then, is how we can keep hope alive–in ourselves and in those around us—in a world that is so far from perfect.

The answer, I think, is found in the “faith, hope, love” triangle of I Corinthians 13. Love stands at the apex of the triangle, and faith and hope compose its foundation. Both love and faith are necessary to keep the figure a triangle, and they both feed the third corner, hope. The person who has experienced the “love” of God and who therefore has “faith” in God can also “hope” that God and goodness will prevail.

The scriptures give us hope as they reveal God and his relationship to us. They don’t ignore the problems of life. They portray life realistically, showing all humanity’s ups and downs. They tell the stories of “Abel’s murder”–of “David’s adultery”–of “Israel’s infidelity”–of “Christ’s crucifixion.” But brooding over all of it, they show the love and constant involvement of God, who refuses to give up on us–and who keeps history from getting completely out of hand.

The closest that history ever came to getting out of hand was at Golgatha, where they killed God’s son. But God intervened, and the rock was rolled away– and the tomb was emptied. The message of that day was that “nothing” is hopeless–because God intervenes when nothing else could save us.

And so Paul says:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time
are not worthy to be compared with the glory
which will be revealed toward us….”
“We know that all things work together for good
for those who love God,
to those who are called according to his purpose….”
“If God is for us, who can be against us?
He who didn’t spare his own Son,
but delivered him up for us all,
how would he not also with him freely give us all things?”
(8:18, 28, 31-32).

Paul reminds us that God, having stood by us this long, won’t abandon us now. If there is one thing that we can depend on, it is that the God who gave us His Son will keep on keeping on.

Leon Suenens puts it this way:

“I am a man of hope,
not for human reasons nor from any natural optimism,
but because I believe the Holy Spirit is at work in the
Church and in the world,
even when His name remains unheard.”

And “that” is our hope. There is none other. Our “wealth” cannot save us. Our “technology” cannot save us. Our “diplomacy” cannot save us. Our “weaponry” cannot save us. But the “prayers” of this little group can save us, because they are connected to “the” power. Having faith in him, we indeed have hope.

Paul says:

“For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor principalities,
nor things present, nor things to come,
nor powers,
nor height, nor depth,
nor any other created thing,
will be able to separate us from the love of God,
which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8:38-39).

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2006 Richard Niell Donovan