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Enduring Hope

A sermon delivered by David Hughes, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on December 5, 2010.
Romans 15:1-13

This week I had the privilege of conducting Kathleen Sauve’s funeral.  As I prepared the meditation for the funeral, I began to think of different ways I might word Kathleen’s epitaph.  That line of thinking led me to check out epitaphs that had been written by or about other famous people in history. 

One of the more distinguished epitaphs I uncovered belongs to Thomas Jefferson.  It reads:

“Author of the Declaration of American Independence

Of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom

And Father of the University of Virginia”

As epitaphs go, that’s pretty impressive.  And it doesn’t even include the fact that Jefferson served two terms as President of the United States!

I was also fascinated by Winston Churchill’s epitaph that reads:

“I am ready to meet my Maker.

Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal

of meeting me is another matter.”

A sense of humor until the end!

But in some ways I am even more impressed by the epitaph of a man we’ve probably never  heard of—a man named Amos Fortune.  In a cemetery in Jeffrey, New Hampshire you can read the following epitaph:

“Sacred to the Memory of Amos Fortune

who was born free in Africa

a slave in America, he purchased

liberty, professed Christianity,

lived reputably, died hopefully

Nov. 17, 1901.  At 91.”

Now the phrase in that epitaph that grabs my attention is “died hopefully.”  When I think about what this Amos Fortune went through—being captured in his native Africa and ripped forever from his family, somehow surviving a hellish existence aboard a slave ship that brought him to America so that he could be forced to provide back-breaking labor for some white slave-owner—I am amazed that he could survive to the ripe old age of 91.  I am even more amazed that he died not cynically, or bitterly, or desperately, but hopefully.  

How does that happen?  Civil rights advocates would say it’s because Amos Fortune was able to purchase his freedom from slavery.  Christ-followers would say it’s because Amos Fortune professed Christianity.  And they both would be right. 

But here’s the thing.  I am a free man.  And I know Christ as my Lord and Savior.  But I can’t honestly say I always live hopefully.  Which leads me to wonder:  when I die, will I die hopefully?

I even wonder if the Apostle Paul occasionally wondered if he would die hopefully.  Christians today often think of Paul as a bulletproof disciple who never wavered in his faith or wobbled in his hope.  But a close reading of Paul shows he did have his dark moments when in the face of suffering and hardship he despaired of life itself (see 2 Corinthians 1:2). 

That said, it is hard to find anybody in the pages of scripture who emphasized hope more than Paul.  Somehow, like Amos Fortune, Paul experienced the worst life could dish out and still believed the best about life’s ultimate outcome.  Was Paul an incurable optimist?  No.  In fact, Paul was very realistic about the trials and tribulations of life.  And he knew intuitively he would never die a natural death at 91. 

Even so, Paul’s writings pulsate with hope till he pens his last word. 

The book of Romans is a case in point.  In Romans 4, Paul reports that against all hope, Abraham believed in God’s promise to give a baby to him and his wife Sarah, even though they were old enough to reside in assisted living!  Abraham’s impossible hope was rewarded, and he became the father of many nations as God had promised.    

In Romans 5 Paul offers a powerful hymn of hope.  It is the amazing grace of God in Jesus Christ, Paul says, that gives us hope that one day we will share in the glory of God.  In the meantime, our suffering forces us to deepen our character and our hope, and prepares our hearts to be flooded with the love of God. 

In Romans 8, Paul’s writing is at its inspired best.  Paul acknowledges that the whole of creation groans like a woman who labors mightily as she waits patiently to give birth.  With the help of the Spirit Christ-followers do not wilt in the waiting.  Rather, their hope for what God will do in and through the endless waiting endures, come hell or high water.   

Now, in Romans 15, Paul is concluding this highly complex but deeply hopeful theological epistle.  Remember, Paul has never met the Romans he’s writing to.  Remember, far more of the Christ-followers in Rome are Gentile than Jewish.  Remember, getting Jews and Gentiles to live together in Christian community is no picnic. 

And Rome is no exception.  Indeed, the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome have been clashing over the dietary habits and rules of the Jewish Christians.  The conflict has gotten so raw that Paul (Romans 14:10) cites the Roman Christians for treating each other with contempt.  This is no way, he says, to treat brothers and sisters in Christ.  And just as importantly, this is no way for people of hope to keep hope alive.    

So in the first three verses of Romans 15, Paul urges his fellow believers in Rome to stop insisting on their right to eat and do whatever they want, and instead put the interests of others above themselves, as Christ did.  In making his point, Paul quotes an Old Testament scripture for added authority, something he does repeatedly in the book of Romans. 

Then in Romans 15:4 he offers this observation:  For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 

If you have ever wondered how it is that a book written thousands of years ago applies to you, then you’ll want to pay close attention to this verse!  Remember, Paul’s Bible (in the mid-50s AD) contains nothing but the Old Testament—the New Testament won’t be complete for a number of years.  Remember, the Gentile Christians can only assume that the Old Testament was written by Jews for Jews, and has no bearing upon them. 

Paul wants to correct that faulty assumption.  He’s saying in Romans 15:4 that whatever was written in the Old Testament centuries earlier was not just written for Jews long ago, but for Gentiles in the present.  The Old Testament is their Bible too. 

Hopefully, it’s clear why Paul’s 2000 year observation might matter to us now.  Words written by and for people thousands of years ago still apply to us today in the 21st century.  Somehow in a way reason can never fully explain the Holy Spirit of God can speak through those ancient words to instruct Jews and Gentiles in the first century…and the twenty-first century. 

But that’s not all!  As I grew up and learned about the Bible in church I heard plenty about how the Bible was to instruct me in how to live.  But I heard little or nothing about how the Bible was designed to encourage me and give me hope, especially during those days when I struggle to have hope. 

Scores and scores of references to hope appear in both the Old and New Testaments.  Why would the Word of God put so much emphasis on hope?  Because, says theologian Emil Brunner, “hope is the oxygen of life.”  To take hope away from people is like pumping oxygen out of the room.  We simply cannot live without it.

Human beings are instinctive hopers.  Hope is what got us out of bed this morning and brought us here to church.  Hope is why we decorate our trees and light our candles at Christmas.  Martin Luther said, “Everything done in the world is done by hope and we cannot move without it.” 

Why is reading scripture, and studying scripture, and meditating on scripture, and memorizing scripture so important?  Because God breathes the oxygen of hope into our souls as we absorb his Word.  And without that Word, we are hopeless…in more ways than one.

Now that Paul has spoken to the deep purposes of scripture, he returns to the theme of unified community.  May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Jesus Christ, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. 

Then he spends the next five admittedly confusing verses quoting from all around the Old Testament to justify what he has just said—namely, that God has planned all along for Jews and Gentiles to be together in the community of the redeemed, and they need to do their part to make unity among themselves a reality. 

Ever the realist, though, Paul knows that Christians in Rome or anywhere else have no hope for harmony apart from Jesus.  And Paul says as much in his last Old Testament quotation of this passage that is a paraphrase of Isaiah 11:10, where Isaiah prophecies that “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall have hope.” 

What is it that will bind the Jews and Gentile believers together?  It’s not their good upbringing or education.  It’s not their politicians or their preachers.  There’s only one person who can pull together people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds with conflicting opinions and stubborn prejudices—and his name is Jesus.  Only the one prophesied by the prophets and promised to the patriarchs, only the one who was born in a manger and lived a perfect life and died on a rugged cross, only the one who rose from the grave and will one day rule his people with peace and justice can knit together the people of God in unity. 

Without Jesus, we are a people with no harmony and no hope.  With Jesus, we are a people who can live in hope rather than fear, who can welcome others who seem so different from us.  The greater our hope, the greater our prospect of harmony because we no longer live in fear.  And the greater our harmony, the greater our hope because we can encourage one another, especially in those moments when we are tempted to despair of life itself. 

To that end Paul adds this wonderful word of encouragement that can help our hope endure even in the darkest of daysMay the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

If hope seems somehow beyond you, that’s because it is.  But you are not beyond hope.  When you cannot hold on to hope, the God of hope will hold on to you.

A woman named Helen Lescheid learned this lesson about hope the hard way when her husband decided to commit himself to a psychiatric hospital because of chronic depression.  It would have been hard enough if the treatments had worked.  But all the medications, and treatments, and the hundreds of prayers lifted up for her husband seemed to have no effect. 

This crisis with her husband dragged Helen through a five year cycle of raised and then dashed hopes.  Her prayers seemed to bounce off the ceiling.  If you or a family member have suffered with long-term depression, you know the despair Helen felt. 

Thankfully Helen eventually encountered some sunshine of hope.  As she repeatedly went to the Lord in scripture and prayer, she found herself sustained by the love and faithfulness of Jesus Christ. 

Guess what scripture Helen pondered and memorized, what scripture breathed hope into her soul each day?  May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

May it be so, in your life and mine!