We began this series three weeks ago looking at 1 Corinthians 13. We noted then that the apostle Paul put out a list in that passage of three qualities that are considered indispensable to the Christian life: faith, hope, and love. We have already talked about faith and love. Today we’re going to wrap up the series by considering how hope is an indispensable quality to the Christian life. And to do that we’re going to look at a passage of scripture written during a time when God’s people might have considered themselves to be the most hopeless.
The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt. Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit. There will be a day when watchmen cry out on the hills of Ephraim, ‘Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.’ ” This is what the Lord says: “Sing with joy for Jacob; shout for the foremost of the nations. Make your praises heard, and say, ‘Lord, save your people, the remnant of Israel.’ See, I will bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the ends of the earth. Among them will be the blind and the lame, expectant mothers and women in labor; a great throng will return. They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble, because I am Israel’s father, and Ephraim is my firstborn son. “Hear the word of the Lord, you nations; proclaim it in distant coastlands: ‘He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.’ For the Lord will deliver Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they. They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord— the grain, the new wine and the olive oil, the young of the flocks and herds. They will be like a well-watered garden, and they will sorrow no more. Then young women will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow. I will satisfy the priests with abundance, and my people will be filled with my bounty,” declares the Lord.
This prophetic poem from Jeremiah begins with a few words about the past. Before God launches into a message of what his people can expect from him in the future, it is very important to give a quick reminder of where they have been. In particular, God is reminding them of his covenant relationship with his chosen people that can never be shaken or removed.
So often, we think about hope as being only future-oriented. We think that hope only has to do with what is coming tomorrow. We quickly forget that our hope always has its roots in the past. So before we think about and talk about our hope for what is yet to come, let’s take the reminder here from Jeremiah to begin by grounding our hope in the past.
For Jeremiah this is a reminder of God’s everlasting love, his unfailing kindness. It is a hope that is grounded upon God’s everlasting covenant promises. It is a hope that appeals to the past as a foundation for everything moving forward. Let me put it this way. Everyday we hope the earth will keep spinning and the sun will come up. Every year we hope that winter will melt away into spring, and new life will bloom from the ground. It is an expectant hope. We long for it. And it is also a certain hope. We probably don’t even think twice about doubting it. Of course we know that winter will always turn into spring. Maybe we know it because we have studied and learned the science behind the motion of the earth and the seasons. But I think that for most of us it is a hope that comes more from a foundation of the past. We have expectant hope for spring after winter because that’s what has always happened before.
There are countless hopes that we all hold onto which have their foundations in our past experiences. Most of these hopes are trivial and rather thoughtless. When I get in my car to go somewhere, I hope that it starts up when I turn the ignition key. That’s a rather thoughtless hope because I try to take good care of my car and I have a pretty certain expectancy that it will, in fact, start up every time I turn the key. But this wasn’t always the case. Back in my teenage years when I bought my first car with the little bit of money I could save working a part-time high school job, the vehicle wasn’t quite as reliable. That was a time when my hope for the car to start was a bit more conscious. In fact, I might have even said it out loud a time-or-two—“I hope this old car starts up this time.” But most of the hundreds of day-to-day hopes we hold onto come and go thoughtlessly because our past experience confirms our certainty. I hope that when I flip the light switch, the light will come on. I hope that when turn on the faucet, water will come out. And I hope that water is clean and won’t make me sick.
Those might all sound ridiculous to categorize as hopes. I don’t have to hope for those things. I know that those things will all happen with almost perfect certainty. But of course, there is nothing I can do myself to guarantee any of it. it is simply based upon my trust and reliance of past experience. It is a certain and sure hope that has foundation in what has already happened.
Our hope in God has a foundation in the past like this. It is a hope that begins in the assurance of who God is and what he has already done. It is a hope that has a solid foundation of past faithfulness. This is a hope that always remembers the ways in which we have been blessed in the years behind us.
This is important because it is otherwise so easy to lose sight of God’s past faithfulness. It is so easy to fixate our attention only on current circumstances. And then it becomes so easy to lose hope because we forget all the many ways God has always provided in our lives. But this is also a hope that does not remain in the past. It is a hope that looks expectantly to the future.
How does a hope anchored in the past instruct our faith towards an indispensable hope for the future? Sometimes people can hope for some pretty crazy and unrealistic things. There are thousands of people who buy lottery tickets week after week, hoping they’ll win big. But the reality for the overwhelming majority of those people is that it will never happen.
There are examples of false hope like this that exist among people of faith as well. There is an entire empire of health & wealth televangelists out there who prey upon these false hopes. Hopes for money, hopes for fame, hopes for power and influence. Tens of thousands of people fall for this. People flock into these false gospel ministries around the country that promise a hope of wealth and comfortable living. But it’s a false hope for the future because it does not have any foundation in a hope from the past.
Indispensable hope for the Christian is a hope that looks to the future, but is rooted in the past. That is to say, it is a hope that has confirmation in what God has already done and promises to continue. God has promised that there will always be seed time and harvest. There will always be seasons. And this is a hope that has confirmation in the past. God has shown himself to always be faithful in keeping that promise. And so this is a hope for the future that is secure.
The key, then, to identifying certain Christian hope for the future is to embrace the promises of God in scripture that have always been confirmed in the past. This automatically disqualifies some of the hopes that maybe we would like to be true. God never promises in scripture that all of us are going to be rich beyond our wildest dreams. In fact, the Bible seems to caution us in just the opposite direction—that great wealth is a stumbling block to our faith. God never promises us positions of power and authority. In fact, the Bible tells us that the first shall be last, that those who exalt themselves will be humbled. The question is still out there. What kind of hope for the future is God extending to his people?
Jeremiah uses images in this passage that point towards a hope of comfort for the oppressed. It looks to a hope for God to preserve his people, even if that preservation only shows up as a remnant. It is a hope that consoles those who are the most marginalized. It is a promise for God’s mercy to continue to those who are the most downtrodden. Jeremiah gives hope to those who are most in need of God’s shepherding. He gives hope to those who need his embrace the most.
In other words, God gives hope to those who might otherwise appear to be in the most hopeless circumstances. And it is a hope that looks for the provision of the shepherd.
My children live within the certain and faithful hope of provision within my home. They live in the certain hope that I will give them the provision of food that will nurture and sustain them. This does not mean that they have an endless supply of candy and soda. Maybe they would like something like that, but that is not what I supply as part of their provision. I give them what they need. And that doesn’t always necessarily line up with what they want 100% of the time.
God promises to provide for the nurturing and sustaining of his people. He knows what we need. He sees the bigger picture of our eternity. He sees the needs that are not only physical, but spiritual as well. He cares for and provides for the needs of our souls. He calls us to be his disciples and to follow him. And he provides everything we need in order to answer that call to follow him. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, giving them the words of what we call the Lord’s Prayer. In that prayer, we pray “may your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We look to a hope that God will always bring about his will for this world.
This is where a past hope and a future hope come together and give us something of a present hope. A hope for the present is a hope that directs and motivates our faith. It is a hope that fuels our mission and becomes the backbone of our activity.
The hope for spring to come after winter is what provides farmers with a present hope to go out and plow fields and plant seeds. It is a hope that has foundation in the past, a hope that looks to the future, and a hope that takes shape in activity for the present day.
God promises to always shepherd and nurture his people. He gives hope that he will always provide what is needed for his will to be accomplished. He gives a hope that takes shape for us right now today. What does this look like for us today? How is this a hope that give direction for us right now?
God’s everlasting love and unfailing kindness for those who need him the most is what provides our hope for today. A church of people who has hope for tomorrow is a church of people who live today in the certain hope that God still reaches his everlasting love into this world for those who need him the most. It is a church filled with hope in the mission God has given. It is a church that leans so heavily upon this hope that they are willing to sacrifice for it. It is a church full of people who are so committed to this mission that they pray every day for God to sanctify their hearts to follow Jesus in this certain and sure hope.
A hope like this that informs and directs my present day activity is a hope that compels me to lean and press into what I see God doing in my community. It is a hope that acts with boldness and speaks without fear. It is a hope that pushes me to reach out into new relationships with new people, because it is a hope that molds my heart to see other people the way God sees them. It is a hope that stretches me to love other people as God loves them.
This is a hope that does not give up. This is a hope that always sees people as beloved creations of our heavenly Father. This is a hope that always views our community around us as full of people who have value because they are loved by God. This is a hope that drives us to extend grace and mercy to all because we hold a certain and sure hope that God can always restore what is broken, he can always redeem what is lost. He can always resurrect new life in what the world around us casts away as dead and worthless. This is our present hope. This is why we do what we do. It is a hope that is secured in God’s faithful promises we see taking shape in the past. It is a hope that gives us a clear picture of who he wants us to become as his church for tomorrow. And it is a hope that drives our hearts to take hold of his mission for this world today.