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The Hope of the Ages          Romans 15:4-13   December 5, 2010
 
How puny our dreams have become -- how puny our hopes, how puny our ambitions, how puny our faith. There is a Peanuts comic strip where Charlie Brown says: I've developed a new philosophy. I only dread one day at a time.
In contrast, the Epistle lesson on this second Sunday of advent, reminds us of one of the most precious gifts we receive from God. This gift can be neither bought with money nor made by human hands. It is a gift that only God can give us: that is, the gift of hope. …”these things were written so that we might have hope.” This hope is the heart of the gospel for today and all our tomorrows.
 
We could convince ourselves that God is merely a philosophy, or a crutch to lean on, so we can easily ignore him and go about our business. Or, we can face life with the words of Danish philosopher, Soren Kirkegaard, who said “hope is the passion for the possible.”
 
To poet Emily Dickinson, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” We tend to think of hope as a winged thing, flying serenely above the storms, untouched by the mundane earth. But the value of hope lies in its presence in our everyday lives, a constant earthly promise of welcome to ultimate fellowship with God. And hope doesn't have wings - if we choose to invite it, hope walks beside us as we travel.
 
The Biblical word, “hope,” means to trust that God’s future is for us. Faith means to trust in God in the here and now; but hope means to trust in God’s future. To realize that God is in control of all of future history and is in control of your personal history. To realize that God will not desert us in the years ahead of us.
 
Jacques Ellul has argued, rightly it would seem, that the challenge of the church today is not giving people something to believe in. It is giving people something to hope for.
How can we have hope in a world that seems to be falling apart? To hear words of despair is not uncommon. Poet Matthew Arnold observes that much of life “Hath (really) neither joy nor love, nor light / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; / And we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
 
Thomas Merton wrote in Seasons of Celebration, “The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.” …and all that is not yet in this world of ours.Paul takes the long view knowing that we as individuals, and the church, have a future: the redemption of the world.
 
Each Advent gives us an opportunity to renew our hope that God will come among us to heal and to save. We discover anew that “the hopes and fears of all the years: are met in a stable in Bethlehem. God became flesh among us, and gave the whole world new reason to hope.
 
Let’s take a few minutes to look at the context in which Paul writes this passage. In Romans 15:8-9, Paul declares the purpose of Christ’s coming is to confirm the promises given long ago to the patriarchs and in order that the Gentiles may give glory to God for his mercy. Now the Gentiles were those not born of the Chosen People of Israel.

God is a God of hope. Paul knows this and believes that those who hear the prophetic promise, whether Jew or Gentile, will give praise to God for his abundant mercy. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the hope of ancient Israel, the people of God, longing for a Savior. However, not Israel’s hope alone, but the hope of all the people of the earth. To see Jesus Christ is to see God in Jesus Christ as the hope of the entire world.
 
Paul wants his readers to open themselves to is the “steadfastness and … the encouragement of the scriptures” (v. 4).

Most Christians in the church at Rome were Gentiles. They hadn’t been raised on the Hebrew Scriptures.  There were Jewish Christians, but they were a minority in this church. Because Scripture available then — what we today call the Old Testament — was a Jewish work written for Jews. Gentile Christians thought those texts did not apply to them.
 
But Paul understood that as followers of Jesus, the Roman Christians, regardless of their bloodlines or upbringing, were among the inheritors of that Scripture. He didn’t want them to be without the Bible’s guidance and inspiration; he knew their spirituality would be impoverished without it.
 
Thus, Paul doesn’t write that the Roman Christians should “remember” or “recall” what the Hebrew Scriptures say; rather, he directs them to read it. He does that by saying it “was written in former days … for our instruction.”

Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message captures Paul’s meaning wonderfully well:

Even if it was written in Scripture long ago, you can be sure it’s written for us. God wants the combination of his steady, constant calling and warm, personal counsel in Scripture to come to characterize us, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next (v. 4).

The Christmas carol we sang at the beginning of the service expresses this exquisitely. “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, … “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” David Reid, writing in Devotions for Growing Christians, puts it this way: “What hopes and fears of [people] were met in Bethlehem on that first Christmas night?
 
The age-old fears of [humankind] could all be summed up in the question, ‘Is there Someone out there to whom [we have] to answer?’ The hopes of the years were centered in the longing to know that there was Someone out there who cared! The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem brought an end to the fears and gave substance to the hopes of [humankind].”

Christ is the One in whom ancient longings for salvation are fulfilled. Christ is also the One in whom this world’s present troubles will find their hope. Paul boldly declares that in Jesus Christ is the hope for all people, Jew and Gentile alike. The entire purpose of the servant Jesus is to fulfill the ancient promise so that in the end all will give honor and praise to God for God’s mercy.

Paul’s hopeful encouragement is reflected when we sing the traditional Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”:
 
“O come, O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel.”   … and later …
 … O come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; Bid envy, strife and discord cease; Fill the world with heaven’s peace. Rejoice! Rejoice!”

This hymn captures humanity’s deepest needs, our deepest hopes and our joyful praise to God, even as we yearn for the future that God promises to bring to completion.
 
4For 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.
 
When Paul says that Scripture was written for us, he knows quite well that his readers weren’t the original audience for the books of Moses and the prophets. He doesn’t mean that when Isaiah or Jeremiah or the other Old Testament writers composed their writings, they had first-century Roman Christians in mind — or 21st-century American Christians, for that matter. They didn’t.
 
But he does mean that God has given Scripture a life that goes beyond its original setting. And the Hebrew Scriptures, or OT, becomes Scripture for the first-century Christians when, as believers, they place themselves under its direction.

The same is true for us. As followers of Jesus, we also place ourselves under the direction of Scripture. The Bible is the book of the community in covenant with God. By placing oneself under the Book and deciding to live by it, is part of the way we change our behavior. It would be hard to obey God’s commands if we don’t know them. Therefore, we must read them, or hear them.

Placing ourselves under the Bible’s authority is an important part of what embracing Christianity means for us. In another letter, Paul explained: “And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29). So, too, we who belong to Christ today are the inheritors not only of the faith in general from Abraham’s offspring but also of the Book. The entire Bible, Old Testament, as well as New, has become ours.

This means we read the Bible with this perspective: “While I know these words were originally written for another time and place, I believe God has chosen to communicate to me today through them.”

Plenty of detail in the Bible does not apply to our circumstance, of course. But our task as inheritors of the Book is to apply the meaning and spirit behind the detail to our lives now. When we do that, we find that the Scriptures are unexpectedly relevant. Life places on us stressful demands, which push us toward discouragement and hopelessness. But the Scriptures speak to those moods and conditions.
 
Thus, Paul’s claim that “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” makes sense. Steadfastness is the true grit that refuses to give in to those down-pulling forces.
 
Encouragement is fuel for steadfastness, and hope is, as Peterson words it, what keeps us “alert for whatever [God] will do next.” It is confidence that God is still working in our world and our lives and will continue to do so.

The benediction of this passage (v.13) sums up what Paul has been saying to the church about why the Gentiles, including us, are now able to live with…hope. They, and we, have the same hope Israel has. Paul’s prayer for them, and us:  “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.
 
Hope is not a human accomplishment, but the gift of our gracious God. We can abide in the hope of knowing what God has already done and anticipate in hope for what will surely come. Amen.
 
Rev. Rosemary Stelz
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