Here is the beginning of my sermon for Sunday. I can’t believe that I have gotten this far already. I will move from where I have ended to talking about the fact that ultimately Abraham’s hope did not disappoint, though it was fulfilled in God’s time and not his own. I will also reference the fact that part of the reason Peter rebukes Jesus is that his own hope in Jesus was that Jesus would be a different kind of Messiah than the one Jesus says he will be . . . i.e., one that must suffer and die. Hopefully (pun fully intended), I will move to talking about the hopes the people of First UMC have for their church and how we must live that hope out even when things seem dire or hopeless.
Let me know what you think, if you don’t mind. The scriptures the sermon is based on are as follows:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous." Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
God said to Abraham, "As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her."
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, "I have made you the father of many nations")- -in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become "the father of many nations," according to what was said, "So numerous shall your descendants be." He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith "was reckoned to him as righteousness." Now the words, "it was reckoned to him," were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels."
"Hoping Against Hope"
As a kid there were two presents I always hoped to get for either my birthday or at Christmas.
The first, when I was younger, was a giant set of Legos,
you know, those small building blocks that are still popular today.
You see, my cousin David had the biggest collection of Legos in the world,
and I would go to his house and literally spend hours playing with them —
building spaceships and houses and other assorted projects.
I think I played with those Legos more than David himself did.
But year after year my hopes were dashed.
I never got those Legos I so desired and wanted.
When I was older for several years my hopes were set on receiving a combination microscope and chemistry set.
The one that came with at least 30 different chemicals and promised hundreds of experiments.
I envisioned spending hours learning the mysteries of the universe,
perhaps even making new discoveries with these tools of science and technology.
I saw myself as a young explorer on the way to becoming a renowned scientist.
I was sure that this microscope/chemistry set was all I needed to get me started down the path to my eventually winning the Nobel prize for Chemistry or Physics or Biology.
Remembering my experience with the Legos,
I became determined to make my wishes known in as many ways as possible.
I gave my parents birthday and Christmas wish lists,
with this set on the top of each one – underlined and circled to make it clear that this was what I really wanted more than anything else in world.
I cut pictures of the set out of catalogs and taped them the refrigerator.
I talked about how well I was doing in my science classes and how much better I would do if only I had a microscope and a chemistry set to further my education.
I begged and pleaded and cajoled my parents so much that one year for Christmas they finally gave in and I discovered a rather large box under the tree with my name on it.
Hoping against hope, I carefully and slowly unwrapped it,
and discovered that I now had the object of my desires.
To say I was thrilled is putting it mildly.
I couldn’t believe that I held in my hands the one gift I had wanted for so long.
Needless to say, my hopes were dashed again.
The microscope was some cheap plastic toy that looked nothing like the pictures in the catalog.
The chemical set, which promised hours of discovery and hundreds of experiments,
was also a disappointment.
After all, how many times can you mix chemicals to see them change color or foam before getting bored?
Not many times I soon discovered.
It was only a matter of days, or at most a week or so,
before I packed this once-prized and coveted gift away in my closest,
never to use it again.
Hope is a strange thing, isn’t it?
At one point in Romans chapter 5 Paul writes,
“and hope does not disappoint.”
Now I don’t know about you,
but this has not been my experience.
I have fou
nd that hope has often been disappointed in my own life,
and I am willing to bet that you have found the same to be true as well.
What are some of the things you have hoped for?
Think about that for a moment.
Have you ever found your hopes dashed against the rocks of reality?
I bet you have.
Because of this several individuals have had a rather negative view on hope.
The French philosopher Albert Camus talked about learning to live "without appeal."
To Camus, hope was a distracter, a dilutor, a sop.
It distorted any clear comprehension of reality,
and Camus was convinced that hope was an illusion, and therefore inadvisable.
The infamous athiest Nietzsche went even further.
For him, not only was hope a waste of time,
it was an instrument of avoidable cruelty.
Nietzsche called hope "the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torments of man."
And then there are the opening lines of Woody Allen’s parody, “My Speech to the Graduates,” which read:
"More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads.
One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness.
The other, to total extinction.
Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."
And yet we continue to hope.
In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul tells us that three things endure:
faith and love and, you guessed it, hope.
The noted English author and man of letters, Dr. Samuel Johnson, once said,
"Hope is necessary in every condition."
And I think he was right in saying so.
My normal thoughts lie more with Johnson than with Camus or Neitzsche,
but there are times when I am tempted to agree with them.
There are times when hope seems hopeless.
Take our passage today from Romans 4.
In it we read about Abraham and the faith he had that God would fulfill God’s promises.
Paul writes about Abraham:
“Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’
according to what was said,
‘So numerous shall your descendants be.’
He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body,
which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old),
or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.
No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God,
but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God,
being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”
Now I don’t know how Paul knows all that about Abraham,
having lived himself hundreds of years after the man in question.
And the stories about Abraham in Genesis show us a man who is often impatient when it comes to waiting for God to fulfill God’s promises,
and he also seems, at times, to be filled with doubt.
For instance, at one point Abraham lies to Pharaoh about his wife Sarah,
fearing for his life.
Does this sound like a man filled with faith?
Or how about the time he takes matters in his own hands and tries and succeeds in having a son with his servant Hagar,
thinking that this will be the solution and answer to his concerns about an heir?
In fact, the one thing that Paul seems to get right, as far as I am concerned is that very first phrase: “hoping against hope, . . . [Abraham] believed.”
“Hoping against hope. . .”
Now that is a curious phrase,
and when I looked it up online, here is what I found:
hoping against hope is . . .
“to have hope even when the situation appears to be hopeless;
to hope very strongly that something will happen,
although you know it is not very likely;
or to hope with little reason or justification.”
Now that sounds about right to me.