Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 22, 2016
Romans 5:1-5 Commentary
We forget it most of the time when we read Romans but the fact is that Paul was writing to a group of Christians for whom hope was no doubt in short supply. They lived in the heart of Roman darkness, right under the nose of the Caesar himself. They lived in an empire in which that same Caesar was declared Deus et Dominus, God and Lord, on every coin in their pockets. What’s more, the regime was increasingly hostile to the then-new Christian faith and before too much longer would flex its muscle in trying to get rid of this new band of believers, putting to death even the very apostle penning the letter to the Roman Christians.
So if you are going to preach hope to people living under those conditions, you had for sure better know what you are talking about. These people can’t afford to have sunny but finally empty promises lobbed their way. They cannot tolerate false hopes because those have a way of making already bad situations much, much worse. What’s more, only a sadistically cruel person would give them false hope.
But Paul was not selling false hope—he was proclaiming a hope that could not die because it emerged FROM the death of God’s own Son. The hope that was forged in the fires of death cannot itself then die when suffering and persecution come because this is a Gospel hope that transcends all suffering on account of having been born out of hell and death and the worst suffering ever. This hope is ray-shielded against the destructive forces of suffering and death—these things now bounce off true hope. And this is a hope that has given us access to grace—a grace that, Paul colorfully pictures for us, we are standing hip-deep in. Maybe we are neck-deep in it. We stand in hope and this hope, Paul says, cannot disappoint.
How do we know all this for sure? Well, we can’t prove it (but then, if we could prove it, we would not call it “hope,” would we?). But we can testify that it is true because the love of God has been poured into our hearts. Telling a skeptic that God’s love is inside you will ultimately prove to be as fruitless as trying to explain why you are head over heels in love with another person. You can’t prove that you are nuts over Joanie or George or Sarah but you can bear witness to your heart-pounding love for that person and that’s about as far as you may be able to go. But you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this love is inside you. And it’s no different with God’s love by the Holy Spirit: it’s undeniably there and it anchors the hope that we will see it all fulfilled one day too.
One can scarcely imagine a more stirring message for the Christians at Rome. But then, politically and globally, hope seems in pretty short supply these days too. Indeed, from the right or from the left folks looking at the political situation in the United States right now again and again post on Facebook and Twitter thoughts that are downright hopeless.
We still need Romans 5.
In his splendid book, Standing on the Promises, Lewis Smedes reminds us that our souls need hope the way our lungs need oxygen. Because we are inextricably temporal creatures who are forever moving into an unknown future, we need hope to keep us moving lest we become stuck, struck dumb with a paralyzing fear of the future. Hope is God’s gift to us in this broken world–it keeps us moving. Of course, the nettlesome twin sibling of hope is worry. If hope is what keeps us going, worry is what makes us cautious in our steps. If hope helps us to stride forward with confidence, worry is what makes us slouch even as we duck our heads in fear of the next blow that may wallop us up-side the head.
Far too often it seems like even Christians let worry edge out hope. Saintly believers near the twilight of their lives start to mumble to pastors and elders, wondering if they’ve been “good enough” for God. The more extreme fringes of even the Reformed tradition of which I am a part has believers not daring to sing “Jesus Loves Me” because how do you know? Some of us know people who have never dared take the Lord’s Supper because they worry that to do so could send them straight to hell because maybe, just maybe, they will unwittingly partake in the dreaded “unworthy manner.”
To folks like us Paul would say, “You’re forgetting something, my friends: grace is where you live. Your relationship with God is one of shalom–everything is in order now because of Jesus. Where’s your hope? Why are you letting worry forever edge it out? This is the time for rejoicing, not nail-biting; for joy, not fear.”
Of course, all of this is complicated by the fact that we are justly dissatisfied with how we live many times. We do have sins to confess every day. We can’t be content with how things go in the wider world or very often in our private worlds. The trick, according to Romans 5, is to let this proper discontent fan our hope not our fear. The sins of our world and the sins of our hearts should lead us to fall back on our hope of glory through Jesus not to fall back on our fear of hell. In this sense hope rooted in grace is what keeps us moving in this grim world. Even when what we need to move through is our own sin, we nevertheless move forward into God’s light knowing that we walk hand-in-hand with a God with whom we already have peace.
“Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul/ And sings the tune without the words/ And never stops–at all.” So wrote Emily Dickinson in the poem that now serves as the epigraph for Lewis Smedes’s book. Indeed, hope must never stop its singing in our souls because if it does, it brings certain death to our spirits in this otherwise dark world. The hope we must never tire of proclaiming among ourselves and to everyone else is nothing short of the hope of grace–a grace so luminous as to overwhelm the pathetic little flickerings of worry. For his favor, praise forever, he doth us salvation bring. Hallelujah! Amen!
A triplet of hope-related clips from a movie that is all about a hope that will not die, The Shawshank Redemption. In the first clip the main character of Andy has just gotten out of a month-long solitary confinement on account of his having high-jacked the prison’s loudspeaker system to broadcast a beautiful Mozart aria. The conversation soon turns to hope but as Red knows (Morgan Freeman’s character), careless talk about hope in a gray world of a prison can do more harm than good if it is not genuine.
The second clip shows Red after he is at long last paroled some years after Andy successfully escaped from Shawshank. At Andy’s direction Red goes to an old hayfield in Maine and finds some money and a letter left for him by Andy.
Then the film’s final scene as Red goes to Mexico to reunite with his old prison friend, Andy. And the film ends with “I hope . . .”
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