The English poet Lord Byron, writing to Thomas Moore remarked, “What is hope? Nothing but the paint on the face of existence; the least touch of truth rubs it off, and then we see what a hallowed-cheek harlot we have hold of.” I shall presume your very presence here today is a repudiation of Byron’s pessimism. For it is hope which claims us, hope which sustains us and hope which allows us to look beyond the reality of the moment and profess the conviction of our faith. In one of my favorite hymns Jane Parker Huber writes, “Live into hope of captives freed, from chains of fear or want or greed. God now proclaims our full release, to faith, and hope, and joy and peace.”
Lest you mistake me for some wide-eyed Pollyanna, let me confess it takes a great deal of faith to live into hope. When I reflect on the conversations I have had with many of you during the past weeks, I am well aware of how we can easily be captured by the uncertainties of life. As I mentioned last week we live in a time when fear and uncertainty paint a dreary backdrop across the canvass of our lives. We yearn to blissfully sing Jane Huber’s anthem but it is hard to dismiss the reservations found in Lord Byron’s voice.
When I lived in Clinton, many mornings around 6:45 my dear friend Bill Scott and I could be found peddling our bikes along some lonesome highway. I have met very few folks who can equal Bill’s optimism for life. By 7:00 a.m. I was praying, head bowed, that God would let the sun come up just a few moments earlier. Bill was looking into the heavens, remarking on how beautiful Venus appeared. As we were simultaneously praying and gazing one of those large trucks that transport hogs would fly past us doing every bit of 70 mph. Bill, the optimist, would joyfully remark, “I bet when those truckers see our blinking lights they wish they were riding with us enjoying this crisp morning air.” The Lord Byron in me thought, “Our blinking lights just give those trucks something to aim at.”
As much as we want to live into hope, life often comes barreling down upon us, and sometimes it doesn’t miss, making us little more than a hood ornament.
In our Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah found himself about to be run over by something a great deal larger than a truck. Jeremiah and everyone he knew were about to experience the cruel and swift reality of the Babylonian Empire. For more than a month the most powerful army in the world sat outside the walls of Jerusalem. The capital was completely surrounded and Babylon was not in a negotiating mood. Their mission was to destroy Jerusalem, tear down the Temple, enslave those who could offer ransom for their lives and exterminate everyone else. There would be no terms of surrender. There would be no miracles. Within days, the Palace of David and the Temple of Solomon would become a memory. What made it worse was everyone in Jerusalem understood their fate, especially Jeremiah. God had earlier spoken to the prophet and said, “My people have forgotten me. They burn offerings to a delusion. They have stumbled in their ways and gone into bypaths, making their land a horror. I shall scatter them before them enemy. I will show them my back, not my face, in the day of their calamity.” As the army of Babylon gathered for its final assault, Jeremiah had no illusions concerning what was to about to happen. The prophet understood the reality of the moment. And yet, in one of the most amazing stories in the Bible, Jeremiah illustrated what it means to live into hope.
Jeremiah’s cousin owned a piece of land. One does not have to be a tax assessor to figure out how much that property was worth. Yet Jeremiah agreed to pay his cousin full price. Why would Jeremiah make such a foolish investment? The answer becomes clear when Jeremiah presented the deed for the land to Baruch. He instructed his friend to seal the proof of purchase in an earthenware jar, so that in the future, when the jar was recovered, people would know that someone had believed that God would restore the fields and vineyards of Israel. Jeremiah invested in God’s promised future. In this historically documented moment hours before certain death, Jeremiah chose to live into hope. What did Jeremiah remember, what did he believe that would cause him to act in such a preposterous manner? Jeremiah based his decision on his faith in Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham. “They shall be my people and I will be their God.” Jeremiah did not believe Jerusalem would be rescued in his lifetime but he believed the children of Jerusalem would eventually be given the opportunity of new life. Jeremiah believed the children of Jerusalem, much like their ancestors in Egypt, would cry out to the Lord. Jeremiah believed God would hear their cries, rescue them from Babylon, and bring them back to Jerusalem. Jeremiah placed his hope in the memory of a God who would not forget his ancient covenant. Jeremiah placed his faith in the fidelity of a God who always responds despite the sins of his people. It did not matter to Jeremiah that he would not see this restoration. Jeremiah believed one day his children would experience the resurrection of Zion.
How might we embody the faith of this courageous prophet? It is no easy task in these perilous days in which we live. The two most important days on the Christian calendar are Good Friday and Easter. Good Friday is the moment when the sins of the world collectively and individually hung the symbol of innocence on a tree and dared the world to gaze upon his defeat. On Sunday, humanity awoke to the astounding news that sin has no claim on God’s imagination. What was dead was alive. What was stained was cleansed. The power that sin envisioned on Friday disappeared with one holy thought. Now we who claim Christ sing triumphantly that evil no longer has dominion over our lives. Each of us believes this to be true or we would not have gathered here in this holy space. But having affirmed the power of the resurrection, do you sometimes feel like Jeremiah? Some days does it seem Babylon is about ready to run you over? Do you feel you are living your life on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter? We believe in the power of the cross. We cling to the promise of the empty tomb. Yet some days it feels as if we are living between the promise and the fulfillment of God’s triumph. Am I the only one who sometimes wonders when God will step back into history? Am I the only one who sometimes wonders what tomorrow might bring?
I remember sitting in my office in San Angelo Texas one afternoon in the middle of the summer. A couple of church members and I had spent the morning at City Hall arguing that folks who lived in the city limits and paid city taxes ought to have the benefit of city water. Our pleas had pretty much fallen on deaf ears. I sat in my office, both wondering if our efforts had done more harm than good and feeling sorry for myself. Beatrice Torres, an elder at St. Paul, and the person who had brought this inequality to our attention walked into my office. In my anger, I asked, “How can we change the minds of folks who refuse to see the problem? I am about to give up hope.”
Beatrice looked At me and said, “La esperanza muere ultima”. Translated that means, “Hope dies last.” Then she placed an empty water bucket on my desk and said, “Let’s go carry some water.”
As long as there are folks like Jeremiah, as long as there are folks like Beatrice, as long as there are folks like you who believe and act on God’s promise, hope lives. And where there is hope, there is life. Amen.