Hope Against Hope     Romans 4:13-25          March 8, 2009                       

Why is it that the biggest disasters always seem to coincide with events on which we pin so much of our hopes? The times we expect will be the best often turn out to be the worst.

How many big family get-togethers -- Christmas, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July -- start out fun, then turn into fiascoes? Cousin Jimmy still won't talk to Uncle Frank, and the stains from Aunt Bertha's pie will never come out of the carpet.
Weddings are another time when anything that can go wrong will-- cakes dropped, rings lost, flowers delivered to another planet. The things that can go wrong is about equal to the number of people who wish they had just eloped!!

Sometimes it seems that when we expect the best of times, we get the worst of times instead.

Thankfully, the reverse is also true. How many people, once having attained the great American dream, find themselves looking back nostalgically on their early days of struggling to get ahead?

--What makes life so full, so rich, and so wonderful is that we can never completely filter out the good from the bad or the bad from the good. There is always a little bit of both on our plate, spicing up our lives in unexpected ways.

If this "mixed grill" doesn't sit well with those who like to divide things into neat categories -- consider this: There are two types of people in the world -- optimists and pessimists. An optimist is a person who doesn't know any better. A pessimist is a person who doesn't know any better.

Already an old man when he first hears God's call, Abraham obediently begins his long, wandering search for a home solely based on God's promise.           
Even when God promises that he and Sarah shall have their own son, after all physical evidence would predict the opposite, Abraham believes. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Abraham's faith enables him to "hope against hope."
 
The Good News of the gospel is this: The best has come, the best is with us now, and the best is yet to come. Therefore, we can have hope against hope.
A long-term AIDS survivor (that means four or more years), Frank Sabatino, attributes his continued survival to one very powerful additive in his treatments -- hope.

"Hope has kept me alive, kept me taking my medications and going to my appointments, long after a physician judged that I had a 65 percent chance of being dead within three years of my diagnosis .... Hope -- like the respect shown to me by a clinical nurse (she, who always called me `Frank' during a series of weekly examinations while I was in a drug trial (although the clerk referred to me as 0054, my identification number.) -- sustains my spirit.
And living, I've discovered, is as much a spiritual experience as a biological one." (Cited by Martin E. Marty, Context (15 April 1993), 6.)

Throughout history the seemingly worst, has produced the ultimate best:

--Out of his experience with a corrupted, institutionalized faith, Martin Luther re-read his Bible and breathed the air of Reformation back into the church.

--Lying on his back, his "canvas" curving overhead, Michelangelo produced the glory of the Sistine Chapel.

--Stone-deaf Beethoven composed music so moving that it brought audiences to tears.
 
--Feeling called to give back some of the many gifts he had been given, Albert Schweitzer took his considerable talents to a tiny, isolated mission in Africa (and stayed on, even in the middle of war).

Faith is seeing beyond our present circumstance. Hope, based on God's promises, is the substance of our faith. Hebrews, chapter 11, 
 
1Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2This is what the ancients were commended for. (NIV)  1Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (KJV)
This is the promise of the gospel. It is this promise that enables us to live on in faith, continually "hoping against hope."
 
A closer look at our text will serve to elaborate on this.
Romans, chapter four, has four main themes:
Verses       1-8             Faith which takes God at his word
Verses       9-12           Father of the Faithful
Verses       13-17         All is of Grace
Verses       18-25         Believing in the God Who Makes
                                       the Impossible Possible
 
 
Paul saw that the Jews attitude toward the law had completely destroyed the promise. The basic thought of the Jews was that a man must earn God's favor. . . . He must earn merit in God's sight through doing works which the law requires. . . .(Barclay 68) To the Jew a man who was not circumcised was quite literally not a Jew, no matter what his parentage was. (65)
 
"All the great promises of God are made not to the Jewish nation, but to the one who is Abraham's descendent because he trusts God as he did. . . . The descendants of Abraham are not the members of any particular nation, but those in every nation who belong to the family of God." (66)
 
In this text, "Paul has laid down the great principle that the way to God is not through membership of any nation, not through any ordinance which makes a mark upon a man's body (circumcision); but by the faith which takes God at his word and makes everything dependent, not on man's achievement, but solely upon God's grace." (67)
 
Paul saw things in black and white. He saw two mutually exclusive ways of trying to get into a right relationship with God. On the one hand, was the never-ending losing battle of trying to perfectly obey the written law.
 
On the other hand, was the faith which simply takes God at his word. "The essence of Abraham's faith in this case was that he believed that God could make the impossible possible." (71)
 
On the one hand, the choices are Promise, Faith, and Grace. On the other, Law, Transgression, and Wrath. There are two Greek words which mean promise, one is conditional, the other means a promise made out of the goodness of someone's heart completely unconditionally.
 
The latter is used in today's text: God is like a human father; he promises to love us with a love that will never let us go. Faith, is the certainly that God is in fact like that. Our hope is built on God's free gift of grace: unearned and undeserved.
 
It is said that St Theresa once set out to build a convent with no more than a few dollars as her only resource. Someone said, that not even St Theresa can accomplish much with that!, To which she answered, "but St Theresa, a few dollars, and God can do anything." Hope against hope. 
 
So Paul sets before the us two ways. The one is a way in which a person seeks a right relationship with God through one's own efforts, which is doomed to failure. The other is a way in which a person enters by faith into a relationship with God, which by God's grace already exists. It only requires our trust in order to come into it.

 
Rosemary Stelz, Pastor
 
 
 
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