A Living Hope

April 28, 2014

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I was on an airplane recently and found myself riveted by my favorite in-flight periodical, Sky Mall.  There are so many products in the Sky Mall catalogue that improve lives and make the world a better place.  Take for instance, a product called “Bob’s Affirmation Box”—a product for those whose name is Bob who have self-esteem issues—“Every time the lid is opened,” the ad reads, “a perky voice pipes up: ‘Lookin’ good, Bob,’ ‘You sure are sexy, Bob,’ ‘Way to go, Bob,’ and ‘You’re the man, Bob.’

If “Bob’s Affirmation Box” doesn’t do it for you, surely another product, my favorite in the entire Sky Mall catalogue, will—the “Bigfoot, the Bashful Yeti” Tree Sculpture (apparently Bigfoot is bashful, who knew?)—it’s a stature of Bigfoot bashfully peering from behind a tree.  The Sky Mall ad reads:

“If you’ve never personally spotted Bigfoot, perhaps it’s just because he’s been hiding behind the nearest tree!”  This statue is “Highly detailed in quality designer resin and painstakingly hand-painted to make passers-by look twice.”

Even though such products indeed improve lives and make the world a better place, none of these products last—and as a result Bob’s self-esteem plummets and Bigfoot once again hides behind a tree.

During this Easter season, many of the scriptures assigned in the lectionary encourage us about things that actually do last, gifts that God gives us as a result of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  As Paul preached last week, Jesus Christ indeed rose from the dead—“for real!”— and one of the lasting gifts God has given us in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the gift of hope: “By (God’s) great mercy,” Peter writes, “he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1:3).

In this letter Peter identifies himself as “an apostle of Jesus Christ” (1:1) and as a “witness of the sufferings of Christ” (5:1).

You may remember that Peter was the brother of Andrew, and one of the first disciples Jesus called to follow him.  Peter, along with James and John, was the only one of the disciples who was present with Jesus when he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, present at the Mount of Transfiguration, and present in the Garden of Gethsemane the night Jesus was betrayed and arrested.

Peter was the only disciple who identified Jesus as the Messiah at Caesarea Philippi and the only one who had the courage to step out of the boat at Jesus’ invitation and actually begin walking on water toward Jesus.

And yet Peter, like all of us, was a broken human being, riddled with neuroses and weaknesses.  After identifying Jesus as the Messiah Peter began arguing with him about his suffering, and Jesus rebuked him, “Get behind me, Satan.”  After Peter began walking on the water toward Jesus he took his focus off of Jesus and began sinking, crying out to Jesus for help.

And of course, after asserting at the Last Supper that he would never leave Jesus and was even willing to die for him, when Jesus was arrested, Peter split, and later denied Jesus not once, but three times.

And yet again and again Peter experienced the unconditional love and boundless compassion of Jesus—when he began sinking and cried out for help, Jesus immediately saved him.  And after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter was completely forgiven and restored by Jesus at a breakfast on the beach—three times Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?”—to match the three times Peter had denied Jesus in his darkest hour.

And at Pentecost it was Peter who preached with the power of the Holy Spirit and thousands of people believed the gospel.  In Acts, we see that with the power of the Holy Spirit Peter went on to heal the lame and the sick, and was even rescued by an angel after being imprisoned by Herod.

Peter spent about three decades preaching the gospel, and toward the end of his life he wrote two letters that are in the New Testament, 1 and 2 Peter.

One of the recurring themes in the First Letter of Peter is hope.  Four times in this letter Peter encourages us about the hope God gives us in the resurrection of Jesus Christ:

“(God) has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”

“Set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed” (1:13).

“Through (Jesus) you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God” (1:21).

“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you” (3:15).

In First Peter, and throughout the New Testament, hope refers to a favorable and confident expectation about the unseen and the future, the sense that indeed events will turn out for the best.

This “living hope” Peter writes about is much more than a positive attitude, or optimistic thinking, it is based on the historic reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ— as one biblical scholar puts it: “Our hope is anchored in the past: Jesus rose!  Our hope remains in the present: Jesus lives!  Our hope is completed in the future: Jesus is coming!” (Edmund Clowney, The Message of 1 Peter, p. 46).

And because this “living hope” is based on the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is indeed, as the Bible tells us elsewhere, “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:19).

But in spite of being given a “living hope” there are things in our lives that tend to gnaw away at that hope, undermine it, cause us to have second thoughts about whether that hope is actually real or not.  One of these things is regret.  About a year and half ago (Sunday November 11, 2012) The New York Times published a fascinating op-ed by a rabbi named Erica Brown who wrote about regret.  In a class she was teaching, she handed out index cards to all her students, who ranged in age from 18 to 80, and asked each student to write both a small regret and a large regret on their card.  In her article, she reveals several of the responses.

Here were some of the “small” regrets:

I didn’t participate more in school.

I didn’t take more vacations.

I was nasty to people.

I regret not trying harder in college.

I was callous in breaking up with a girlfriend.

Here were some of the “large” regrets:

I wish I had spent more time with my mother the year she died.

I did not tell a friend why I ended our friendship.

I regret my failure to love my ex-wife in the manner she needed.

I never said thank you to my father.

I retired too early.

I should have retired a long time ago.

I gave up on too many dreams.

If we were to pass out index cards to each of you today, what small regret would you write on it?  What large regret?  Perhaps some of you would need a stack of index cards.  These regrets tend to undermine our hope.

On a personal level, hope is directly related to something else: dreams.  Perhaps some of you, like the person in Rabbi Brown’s class, regret giving up on your dreams.

I’m not talking about the dreams that are rife with your rage or lust, or the weird dreams that are due to the uber-spicy Mexican food or pizza you ate the night before.  I’m talking about the dreams that minister life to you, dreams that the Bible refers to as the “desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4), dreams that, well, give you hope.

In the opening montage of his 2012 documentary Sound City, the legendary recording studio in California, director Dave Grohl (also the drummer for Nirvana and front man for the Foo Fighters) recalls how it felt when he and fellow Nirvana band members Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic drove to Sound City in a rundown van.  With images of the country passing by, he narrates in a voiceover:

“We were just kids with nothing to lose and nowhere to call home.  But we had these songs and we had these dreams.  So we just threw it all in the back of an old van and just started driving.  Our destination?  Sound City.  Watching the world through a windshield there’s no looking back.  We’d left everything behind.  When you’re young you’re not afraid of what comes next, you’re excited by it.  We were driving a van that could break down at any moment, going on tours that could be cancelled at any moment, and playing music with people who could disappear at any moment.”

As many of those dreams came true for Nirvana, there was tragedy as well, as Kurt Cobain indeed in his death “disappeared” one moment.

Another illustration from the world of rock ‘n roll…Last month I read the fascinating memoir of Neil Young entitled Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream (2012).  Neil and his wife Pegi have a son, Ben (often referred to by Neil as “Ben Young”), who is now in his early thirties.  Ben is a quadriplegic—unable to walk or talk, and in need of constant care, as Young writes:

“We have always tried to have a crew of two with Ben Young to make his comings and goings as safe, fun, and easy as possible, while also taking excellent care of him.  He is completely dependent on others now and is taking nourishment through a feeding tube in his stomach…Ben has seen a lot in his thirty-three years” (252).

And while Neil and Pegi have done well caring for Ben Young, and while they absolutely adore him, Young vulnerably shares his hope for something more, a hope expressed in his dreams.

“I remember some of the dreams I’ve had where Ben Young is walking and talking, dreams that seem so real and vivid.  The things he says are so natural, like he has always talked, and he exchanges a knowing glance with me as his mother makes an observation concerning the feelings she has had her whole life” (495).

Some have hopes and dreams when they’re young and aren’t “afraid of what comes next;” others, although not so young, still cling to those hopes and dreams. Still others have felt beaten down to the point that they have simply given up their hopes and dreams altogether.

But the good news of the gospel is that God has given us a “living hope” through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Even death is not the end of the story, for as Peter writes in today’s passage, there is “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”

Not even Sky Mall can compete with that!

Near the end of the Gospel according to John, Jesus, after completely forgiving and restoring Peter, said this:

“Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished.  But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:18).

And after three decades of ministry, Peter was indeed taken where he did not want to go, and in 65 A.D. during the persecution of Christians at the hand of the Roman Emperor Nero, Peter was crucified—and as you probably know, church tradition maintains that he was crucified upside down because he did not consider himself worthy to die the same way his Lord did.

But although Peter died a horrible death, he did not die without hope; he had a “living hope” for he placed all his hope in the grace of in the One he called later in his letter, “the God of all grace” (5:10).  And Peter is now in heaven, enjoying the “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” inheritance that had been “kept in heaven” for him.

One of my all-time favorite movies is the 1989 classic Field of Dreams.  I remember seeing it in the theater with several friends at the end of my sophomore year in college.  We all avoided looking at each other at the end because no one wanted their friends to see that they had been crying.

Kevin Costner plays Ray Kinsella, a middle aged man who had had a major falling out with his father but whose father died before they reconciled.  Following the lead of a voice that repeatedly whispers, “If you build it, he will come,” Ray constructs a beautiful baseball field on his Iowa farm.  At the end of the movie, many dead baseball players from the past appear on the field and play ball, and Ray is startled to see his father, John, as a young man playing catcher.  As the two of them talk, Ray, completely overwhelmed with joy and wonder, asks his father, “Is there a heaven?”

“Oh yeah,” he father responds, “It’s the place dreams come true.”

Like Ben Young, Jesus Christ saw “a lot in his thirty-three years.”  He died to atone for all your sins—all your regrets—and he knows all your dreams, all the desires of your heart.

And as we celebrated anew last Sunday, Jesus Christ is risen today.

And the good news of the gospel is that he also gives a “living hope”—and you can be assured that indeed events will turn out for the best.

May the Holy Spirit stir up that “living hope” in your heart today.

I’ll close with some of my favorite Bruce Springsteen lyrics, from a gospel song that I have seen him perform live, a song that reminds me of the living hope Jesus gives us in his resurrection:

I will provide for you

And I’ll stand by your side
You’ll need a good companion now

For this part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past
Big wheels roll through fields where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams (from “Land of Hope and Dreams” on the 2012 album Wrecking Ball)

Amen.

Bible References

  • 1 Peter 1:3