Hope for the New Year
JANUARY 3, 2018
I’m writing to you in November just after Thanksgiving and before Advent. You’re reading this in January. So I should say “Happy New Year!” even if it feels kind of funny to do it.
Next Sunday I’m preaching at my home church as part of an Advent series on Hope, Love, Joy and Peace. I’ve been assigned hope. And hope isn’t a bad thing to talk about in January as we start out with the metaphorical clean slate. One of my New Year’s wishes to people is that I hope that the best thing that happened in the previous year will be like the worst thing that happens in the new year.
Someone sent me the following (it’s evidently making the rounds online and if I could remember who sent it to me, I would give them credit, so whoever you are, thanks):
“With the holidays close upon us, I would like to share a personal experience about drinking and driving. As you know, some of us have been known to have brushes with the authorities from time to time, often on the way home after a ‘social session’ with family or friends. Well, two days ago, this happened to me: I was out for an evening with friends and had more than several bourbons followed by a couple of bottles of rather nice red wine and vodka shots. Although relaxed, I still had the common sense to know I was way over the limit. That’s when I did something I’ve never done before—I took a taxi home! Sure enough, on the way, there was a police roadblock, but since it was a taxi they waved it past and I arrived home safely without incident. This was a real surprise to me, because I had never driven a taxi before. I don’t know where I got it, and now that it’s in my garage I don’t know what to do with it. So, anyway, if you want to borrow it give me a call. Merry Christmas to all…”
I’ve often heard (and I’ve said) that the worst state a person can experience in life is hopelessness. I suppose there is some truth to that but, in fact, nobody is hopeless…even a drunk who hopes to get home safely without getting a DUI. Job in his horrible suffering was not without hope…he hoped he would die. The drunk or the addict isn’t without hope…they are hoping for another drink or another hit. People who fail aren’t without hope…they hope they can hide. Atheists aren’t hopeless either…they hope there isn’t a God just as believers hope there is.
Hope wears a lot of masks but it’s still hope. Sometimes hope wears the mask of cynicism. I’m cynical but that cynicism masks my longing that I and everything else will be better. Hope can mask itself in anger. Fred Smith once said to a friend who was very angry at the church that he wasn’t angry…he was hungry. Those who have hope often mask it in unbelief. The famous atheist Bertrand Russell, toward the end of his life, protested that he had never called himself an “atheist” and that he “just didn’t know.” Other times hope is masked in pretense. We recently interviewed Brant Hansen. He said that at a concert of very emotional worshipers he asked, “How many of you didn’t feel the emotion and the closeness of God that others felt?” Over half raised their hands. They hoped that if they faked it, they would experience the reality that others felt. Hope wears a lot of masks but nobody (or very few) is hopeless.
The text for my Advent sermon is Hebrews 1:1-3 (a good New Year’s text too): “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…”
Let me give you three New Year’s thoughts that come directly from that text.
The first: Hope isn’t generated; it is given by God.
G. K. Chesterton said that every time a man goes to a brothel he is looking for God. Pascal said that we were created with a God-shaped vacuum in our hearts where nothing fits but God. And you remember Augustine’s comment that God created us for himself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him.
We live in a culture where politics is a religion and redemption is hard to come by because no party, philosophy, system or human being can deliver. They are all flawed. Our technology has affected our minds with a false community, a false sense of control, and false answers (on Facebook or Twitter) to eternal questions. No movie can save our souls. The Justice League, Spider-Man, The Avengers and The Incredibles don’t exist. They aren’t real. But we keep looking and hoping.
It’s about God. It’s all about God.
The real questions are…Is there a God? If there is, what’s he like? If he loves, does he love me? The questions don’t prove anything but in the asking they suggest that something is going on that is far deeper and far more profound than we first supposed.
Hope is also defined by forgiveness.
When I was reading that text (and I’ve read and taught it a thousand times) I noticed that the only thing it mentions about Jesus’ incarnation has to do with sin: “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” What about the teaching, the blind who were given their sight, the cripples who danced, the virgin birth and the prophecy? Nope, it’s not there. It’s only about forgiveness.
I don’t know about you, but that makes me want to sing “The Hallelujah Chorus.” It sounds so old fashioned, pious and religious…but it’s at the heart of who we are and who God is. If a holy infinite God has decided to redeem finite unholy humans, you have to talk about sin. As we encounter a holy God (the basis of our hope) our darkness and neediness get scary and clear. It’s to the point of forcing a normal person to run from the very thing for which we were created—God himself and what our hope, even if we don’t know it, is all about.
Everybody knows about the famous composer, Felix Mendelssohn. Very few know about his father, Abraham, who was a banker. Many know about his grandfather, Moses, a famous Jewish philosopher. Moses Mendelssohn was a hunchback who fell in love with a woman named Frumtje who spurned Moses because of his deformity. He went to her with a story. Moses said that in heaven before he was born, God told him that Frumtje was to be his wife. “However,” he said, “My future wife had a deformity and was a hunchback. I said to God, ‘She is beautiful, but she must not carry that kind of horror with her,’ so I told God to give it to me.” Frumtje fell in love with Moses that day and shortly thereafter they were married.
That’s what God did. Paul wrote: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). The incarnation has to do with sin, not condemning sin, but sin forgiven freely because the perfect Savior took our ugliness to himself. As an old woman in a Third World country said upon hearing the Gospel, “I always knew there must be a God like that somewhere.” She was right. It was her hope.
One more thing to remember.
The realization of our hope for God is assured by authority.
The text says that Jesus “sat down at the right hand [the place of power and authority] of the Majesty on high.” No matter what anybody else thinks, Jesus who rules in heaven and on earth says…You are forgiven! You are acceptable! You are valuable! You are his!
I make only one New Year’s resolution…to never make New Year’s resolutions. My New Year’s resolution, contrary to yours, is always made and kept. But that doesn’t mean I don’t hope. I hope I’ll get better this year. Who knows? I might. I hope my hearing returns this year (it probably won’t). I hope to grow hair and get rid of these wrinkles (it’s not going to happen). I hope that we get a German shepherd (maybe we will), my new book on how to be right without being insufferable won’t be a flop and embarrass me (we’ll see), and Key Life continues to make a difference.
But because God gave me the hope…I have a sure hope that there is a God who likes me a lot, forgiven me of all my past and future sins, and one day I’ll rejoice in the fulfilled hope of being just like Jesus.
That’s enough to cause this cynical, old preacher to speak in tongues and dance (neither of which Presbyterians do very well.)
You can too.
He asked me to remind you.