No ordinary hope


By 29 October 2019 December 22nd, 2020 No Comments

The verse I spoke on more than any other in my short time as a vicar was this one. “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5). I wrote this talk about hope earlier this year in the hope I might be well enough to give it somewhere. That wasn’t possible so I have turned it into a blog post instead.

Paul is saying that we will never be embarrassed – today or ever – for hoping in Jesus, “because God’s love has has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” There is a past, present and future reality to hope in Jesus Christ.

Most of us live lives where our minds are constantly flicking back and forth between past and future. There is something fairly rational about this: past experience is often a guide to the future. It is something that we learn very early on: a child touches a hot pan and get a fright (and their parent shouts at them maybe); next time they approach a pan with caution. The past is informing their expectation of the future and they adjust accordingly.

But sometimes we can apply the same approach to stuff that isn’t about the laws of the universe, but about our sin or someone else’s. We can get locked in awful cycles where our minds eye flicks between sadness/regret/pain of the past and fearful thoughts of what the future holds for us as a result. The painful “if onlys” of our past become fearful “what ifs”.

CBT addresses this by trying to rationalise the past and look at how changing our thoughts about ourselves can result in positive actions that will lead to a future different from this cycle.

Mindfulness centres on the fact that we don’t live in the past or the future, and we can find freedom by focusing upon the reality of the present because the rest is just in our minds.

I certainly don’t want to knock the real wisdom and life-skills in these approaches. All I would say humbly is that we desperately need Jesus because our whole lives matter to God and to us: past, present and future. Jesus wants us to know that his death and resurrection deals with our past. “It is finished” not because you say so or a counsellor says so, but because God says so (this is not a mind game – something has been done about it). He wants you to know that in his resurrection there is total assurance about our future. So we can live in the present with a hope that will never put us to shame – never futile, never wishful thinking.

This verse on hope in is in the middle of a passage that flicks our gaze back and forth between past and future too. But instead of regrets in the past and fears about the future, this is all about what Jesus has done for us in the past and what that means for our future.

“Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (5:9-11)

What is so horrid about the regret and fear cycle is that we know that there is nothing we can do about the past. It has happened in our history, we cannot go back and change it. And the enemy comes along and says that therefore the future is inevitable – that’s called condemnation. But you know what? The same logic applies to the Gospel. The Cross is an event in history. The moment you believe in Jesus, look to him, that is your past. You have been justified by his blood. You have received reconciliation. It has happened. No one, not the enemy, not even you, can go back and change it. Hallelujah! If you really really know that, it brings hope, because it changes everything about our present and our future. Paul returns to the points begun here in chapter 8 and concludes: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) What St Paul is saying throughout Romans is if Jesus death and resurrection is now our past as well, that makes our future inevitable too – salvation. Salvation means freedom from guilt, freedom from shame, freedom from fear.

I walked out on my wife seven years ago. I would give anything to go back and rewrite my history. But I can’t. It is done. My ex-wife has a lovely husband and children now. But I cannot undo the pain, the guilt, the shame. The trauma for both of us. And that is just top of the list of things I would love to change in my past. I will not bore you with my catalogue of sin. I have no authority whatsoever to speak or write about truth and love, except that Jesus tells a different story of my life. Because in him, my past is now his past. In him, my future is his future. Just as, very sadly, I cannot change my past, no one can change, praise God, Jesus’ past. It has happened. It is unchangeable history. Yours and mine forever, the moment we say “Jesus, thank you for dying for me, I believe and trust in you. I want your life to be my life”. And so it is not a figure of speech when St Paul says, as we all can say: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20). It is how he can say too: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret,…” (2 Cor 7:10a)

It can seem so radical; if you are anything like me, you don’t want to let yourself off your regrets, fearing succumbing to ‘cheap grace’. But it is true. Paul (like David before him) knew the pain of real sin and yet knew the God and ‘gospel of no regrets’. Those, like me, who have spent years too long – any time is too long after we have come to Jesus – weighed down in shame and fear and sadness (what Paul calls in the second half of that verse 2 Cor 7:10 “worldly sorrow”) are struggling to truly take Jesus at his word when he says “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17). Worldly sorrow is the feeling that ‘I am not sure I can truly come to God empty handed and not be a disappointment to him’. It seems noble but is actually perfectionism. Fear rather than faith. The confusion between justification (all the statements of God’s unconditional love) and discipleship (Jesus’ teaching on how to make the most of our life, eg the parable of the talents). Perfectionism is built on the illusion (which is actually pride dressed as humility) that we need to earn God’s approval. We never could. NOT because we cannot please God by actions, NOR that it is not lovely and a truly worthy goal to hear from God the affirmation “good and faithful servant”. It is just the utterly profound truth that God loves us because he loves us. Because we are his beloved (Song of Songs 4:7). We know that because of Jesus Christ: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (5:6-8) Jesus died freely for everyone with no obligation on us to accept it. But if we do his salvation comes without condition because his love (“while we were still sinners “) came and remains without condition. If we really know that, it changes everything. The Holy Spirit – God’s personal presence with us – comes that we may no longer fear (because of our sin and death) but call God ‘Abba’. Paul says that in this relationship and because of this relationship we can know a hope that will not (can not) put us to shame. We are God’s beloved son or daughter now and into all eternity.

I want to draw this together by talking about why this is no mind game. This is not a pick me up talk of positive words that is like sand through our fingers when we try to carry it out into all the pressures, uncertainties and problems of our lives. That key phrase “Hope does not put us to shame” is true. It means that if we decide today to receive God’s love, his life, to want nothing else than for his life to be our life:

No hope in our heart will be futile

No hope will embarrass us (put us to shame) by turning out to be wishful thinking

Hope will not disappoint us. Why? “because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” This is a present as well as future reality: God’s love has been poured, will go on being poured, will eventually be all we know when we see him face to face.

I know that there’s a big difference between present and future fulfilment. I was diagnosed with motor neurone disease five years ago. I’m typing this with my thumb which still works. But I cannot speak or move without technology or a carer to help me. There’s a big difference between the healing that I know will come in heaven and the miracle that I long for in the present. What I am saying is that it is one and the same hope because it is one and the same reality. The reality is that Jesus is risen. He is alive. Nothing can separate me from his love. The crucial thing for me to see whenever I am tempted to despair is that it is actually hope, waiting, that God is present in. “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Hoping is not about looking for God is about meeting God. It is where he is. Want to be where God is? Find something to hope for, to long for, to cry out for, to wait for. It is where he is.

There is a verse in Isaiah which says “Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” The word for “hope in the Lord” used by Isaiah can be translated “wait on the Lord”. Waiting on God is not about absence but presence. Not like waiting on the platform alone for a train that is not there, but more like waiting for a birth: the life is already all there, it is just a matter of timing.

I love that Bethel song ‘Take Courage’. Why can our hearts take courage, why can our souls stay steadfast? Because “He’s in the waiting. He’s in the waiting.” God is in the waiting. He is IN our hoping. That is where he is! The Holy Spirit is poured into our hearts – God’s very presence, his life, his love, poured into our being when we are hoping. The situation may be desperate and appear hope-less. You may have no idea how it could ever work out. That is no barrier to his Holy Spirit. The Bible tells us that Jesus was raised to life in the power of the Holy Spirit. Raised from death, from the depths of conquering hell. That more than encompasses every situation that we can see no answer to. And this is why the verse says that this hope will not put us to shame. It cannot, because it is based on something that has already happened. My motor neurons in my brain are dealing with stuff that I do not understand. No one does, not even experts in the field. But God knows all about every cell in my body.

I’m hoping for a miracle. Nothing can stop that miracle ultimately. “by his wounds we ARE healed.”(Isaiah 53:5). I cannot fully explain how the present and future tense are true at the same time, in hope in Jesus they are. I understand the pragmatic fact that answers to prayer for healing are sometimes ‘now’ and sometimes ‘not yet’. But I do not accept that this means we should ever take the ‘not yet’ to explain anything. Because God is our Father who loves us more than any human father could love their son or daughter. What human father would see his son and daughter in pain or lack or dying and not do everything to relieve that? And God did on the cross. So all we can ever mean by ‘not yet’ is that we are not God (Job 38:1-42:6 & 1 Cor 13:12). We do not have an answer. Ultimately, hope is about relationship that doesn’t require that I pretend me “all is well” (with my body or anything else) when it clearly is not, it is the gift of the reality (Word and Spirit) that by faith assures me that because all WILL be well, all IS well here and now: “and we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

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