TEXT: 1 Peter 1:1-19
Victor Frankl was a young psychiatrist who had just begun his practice when the Germans took over his native Vienna and shipped him and all the other Jews off to a concentration camp. Then began the awesome task of survival. With his trained psychiatric eye he noted that many prisoners simply crumpled under the pressure and eventually died. But some didn't, and Frankl made it his mission to get to know these special people and discover their secret. Without exception, those who survived had something to live for. One man had a retarded child back home whom he wanted to care for. Another was deeply in love with a girl he wanted to marry. Frankl himself aspired to be a writer, and was in the middle of his first manuscript when he was arrested: the drive to live and finish that book was very great. Frankl did survive, and has contributed greatly to our understanding of the human 'will to meaning'. He developed a process called 'logotherapy', which, expressed as a simple question is: 'If the presence of purpose or meaning gives one the strength to carry on, how do we human beings get in touch with it?'
Peter's answer, in a word, is 'HOPE'. Writing to Christians who were living in constant, real danger, he begins this general letter by praising God for 'hope'. And he ends his letter with the same general idea in chapter 5. Despite all the threats of persecution and death, Peter advocates a vibrant 'hopefulness'.
And he ought to know. He's writing as one of the church's 'senior statesmen', but he wasn't always that way. He was once a stumbling, faltering, sometimes failing disciple. We might have been tempted to 'write him off' as a hopeless case! When his friend and Lord was crucified Peter's despairing outlook was anything but hopeful. The passage before us provides some clues to this man's dramatic change.
I have a friend who is an Anglican priest, and an alcoholic. Once or twice he has phoned me late on Saturday night, in drunken despair over his lack of adequate preparation for the coming day. His favourite book in the Bible? 1 Peter!
'Hope' has been called the Cinderella of Christian graces. Perhaps we talk - and preach - more about faith and love than hope. But the Bible is full of hope. The God who called Abraham and his family to leave the land of Ur and go to the unknown land of Canaan is the same God who is ahead of us, too, beckoning us to the land of 'not yet'. The New Testament mentions the idea of hope more than fifty times. Our God is the 'the God of hope' (Rom. 15:13), so we can 'place our hope in the living God' (1 Tim. 4:10). Those who do not know Christ personally are 'without hope' (Eph. 2:12, cf. 1 Th. 4:13). On the other hand hope is so much an essential part of Christianity that Paul says without it the Christian is the most miserable of all persons (1 Cor. 15:19).
The Greeks did not have this idea of a God who goes before his people: their God was rather the transcendent Other who is above and beyond the processes of the world. So it is not surprising that their word for hope (elpis) was a very ambiguous term. It had the sense of 'foreboding' - a future of either good or evil. The gospel of Christ emptied elpis of all its bleakness and filled it with only good.
In our text, Peter says four things - explicity or implicitly - about hope.
(a) First, Christian hope is CERTAIN, simply because God is its author! Note how often 'the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ' is mentioned in the first three verses. Peter begins by affirming the essence of the 'good news'. This is a very different idea from our words 'I hope so...' It's not Mr. Micawber's 'hoping that something will turn up'! Nor is it a kind of 'everything will be all right' wishful thinking - considering something to be so because we desire it to be so. It's not a holiday-maker's 'It should be fine tomorrow' nor the politician's 'the economy should pick up by the middle of next year'! Those sorts of statements may or may not be based on demonstrable grounds for hope, but merely on the desire that things should turn out that way.
Perhaps, however, wishful thinking is better than not thinking at all. A lonely refugee child, told that his parents were dead, still believed they were alive and went on searching for them. As it happened, he eventually found them. His 'wishful thinking' wasn't based on anything concrete, but it drove him on.
Christian hope is not an 'airy fairy' thing, building castles in the air. It's not merely 'such stuff as dreams are made of'.
No, our hope is certain because 'we can trust God to keep his promise' (Heb. 10:23). It is based on the character - the trustworthiness - of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is rooted in our understanding of who God is, and how in history he has proved himself utterly reliable. It is based on fact, not fantasy.
F.W. Boreham in one of his essays tells of his boyhood expectation of finding a pot of gold at the foot of the rainbow. 'I never met another boy,' he write, who actually found a pot of gold, but what had that to do with it? Such an irrelevant circumstance could not keep me and my brothers from setting out in quest of that magic spot on which the many-tinted pillars rested... What castles in the air we erected as we made our way to the rainbow's foot.'
Many people have searched vainly for El Dorados, or Loch Ness monsters, or what-have-you, and their 'hope' has been baseless. Ours is grounded on the trustworthy promise of a trustworthy God.
(b) Second, Peter says our hope is LIVING (1:3). Only dead things have no future. The very word 'living' implies a future, a destiny. Hope, says the author of Hebrews, is 'set before us' (6:18). We are encouraged to 'hope to the end' (Heb. 7:25). Just as a truthful God provides grounds for our hope's certainty, so 'the living God' guarantees that our hope, too, is living.
In fact, the notion of hope is woven like a golden thread through the whole fabric of God's creation. An experiment by psychologists at the University of North Carolina found that rats soon drowned if they were put in a large bottle without an apparent escape. But put the rat in a jar with the lid half cut away, and it will swim for about 36 hours before drowning from exhaustion!
In South Pacific, Mary Martin sins 'I'm stuck like a dope with a thing called hope, and I can't get it out of my heart.' Nor can any healthy living organism.
The essayist Pope put it well: 'Hope springs eternal in the human breast'. It does, and it was put there by God. Hope sustains the farmer when he ploughs and sows, the student when she studies, the athlete when he trains. And, the first person in whose body an artificial heart was placed. He was chosen, the doctors said, because of his 'attitude to life'. The old maxim 'Where there's life there's hope' could easily be turned around: 'Where there's hope, there's life'. Give up hope, and you may die - literally! I once pastored the downtown Baptist church in Sydney, Australia. Around that city-area, many men (and some women) slept in parks, in drains, in railway tunnels, or abandoned buildings. They were called 'no-hopers'....
What oxygen is for the lungs, such is hope for the meaning - and existence - of human life.
A visitor to Chartwell, Winston Churchill's old home in Kent, asked the guide (who was on old friend of the family's), 'Did Winston Churchill ever lose hope?' 'No,' she replied, 'hope was built into him. He never expected anything but victory.'
Nor can the Christian!
The absence of a living hope is the essence of despair. The person who's simply 'given up' believes there's no ray of hope anywhere. All the possibilities have been exhausted. That's a false assumption for a believer in the living God. He's 'the God who is there', who will never leave us or forsake us, in whose vocabulary the word 'hopeless' cannot exist! He's the 'God whose other name is surprise', and he's the God of the Easter-event...
(c) Third, Peter says our hope is a RESURRECTION hope (1:3). God raised Jesus from the dead, and this fills us with a living hope. This fact, of course, gives special meaning to the word 'living' for a Christian. Such 'living' is much more than biological - or psychological - survival. Jesus was the 'incarnation of God' - God in a human body - and if on Easter Sunday he broke loose from the tomb, overcoming all that human nature could do in its evil schemes, then our ideas about the nature of reality are drastically altered.
The hope Peter talks about (and it's a recurring theme in his epistle) is very specific: it is a vision of eternal realities. His expectation is that of a glorified life, a life with God, an 'eternal life' that conquers death. Such is the Christian's 'Open Door of Hope' - a firm belief in limitless possibilities beyond death.
That is why, at funeral services, there is the biblical affirmation of 'a sure and certain hope'. This hope is not immortality, as such, but 'resurrection'.
When I was a theological student I was able to spend three weeks in a few hospitals. During that time I saw a couple of Caesarean operat- ions. These experiences were among the most profound of my life. What a privilege to witness, not just the skill of medical science, but the miracle of birth itself: that moment when the baby was born into its new world, breathing, yelling, kicking - and very much alive. The resurrection for Peter was like being born into a new life, a new environment.
Peter goes on to speak of hope as related to 'an inheritance'. What does that mean? Simply that one now possesses in reality that to which the person was an heir. Peter paradoxically talks about possessing an inheritance - in the present - but which 'will be revealed in the last time'. Kierkegaard said it's something like a new garment: we have it already, clean and glittering, but the event for which we will wear it in all its magnificence is still to come.
So, with this resurrection hope we are always 'leaning forward' in passionate longing for the 'not yet' (Moltmann). We share - with de Chardin - the vision of a 'divine milieu', when God will be all in all. 'How many of us', he asks, 'are genuinely moved in the depths of our hearts by the wild hope that our earth will be recast? The Lord Jesus will only come soon if we ardently expect him. It is the accumulation of desires that should cause the pleroma to burst upon us... Only twenty centuries have passed since the Ascension. What have we made of our expectancy?'
So Christian hope, in this sense, is much, much more than mere optimism. The New Testament talks about 'the patience of hope'. Christian hope is deep; mere optimism is shallow. Optimism may be a good natural trait - and have no religious connections at all. 'Hope', says John Macquarrie in his magnificent little book The Humility of God, 'is humble, trustful, vulnerable. Optimism is arrogant, brash, complacent... Our hope is not that in spite of everything we do, all will turn out for the best. Our hope is rather that God is with us and ahead of us, opening a way in which we can responsibly follow.'
(d) Finally, Peter says this hope is a very PRACTICAL thing. This message was addressed to suffering people. They could literally become food for the Colisseum lions at any time. This is real 'crisis theology'. Such hope was the spiritual motivation, not only to wait for the end of all things, but to 'live in hope' in the here-and-now.
These people couldn't share the rollicking optimism of the musical Oklahoma: I have a wonderful feeling Everything's going my way.
No, their hope rested on God, not on humans, or luck, or fate. It is a dynamic, transforming quality, not only 'hoping to see my Pilot face to face, when I have crossed the bar' (Tennyson), but providing deep meaning to life's struggles before that time. Christian hope says 'History is His story'. God's divine purposes for the world and its inhabitants can't be thwarted by the evils humans perpetrate. The hope for our sick, tired world is the Kingdom of God, for which we wait, but which we also experience now. Hope sures us that there is a 'joy seeking us through pain'. It's not based on a kind of utopia-idea, but rather issues in active, productive obedience.
The Power that can raise the dead can also conquer evil.
This sort of hope is the mainspring of our confidence in God, especially when the traumas and troubles of life come in upon us.
Have you ever heard the little poem by Victor Hugo?
Let us learn like a bird for a moment to take Sweet rest on a branch that is ready to break; She feels the branch tremble, yet gaily she sings. What is with her? She has wings, she has wings.
Hope provides the Christian with wings.
You see, life is difficult. Morning to evening, each day is a problem- solving period. No one's life is problem-free. No, life is problem- solving, and problem-solving is life. Our human choice is never between pain and no pain, but rather between the pain of loving and the pain of not loving. To be human is to have problems. But to be Christian is to have problems - and hope.
Life, wrote Baudelaire, is a hospital in which each patient believes he or she will recover if they is moved to another bed.
That's not the Christian life. Hope, for the Christian, is not just 'the icing on the cake'. It is the cake! It helps him or her 'face forward'. (Have you heard about the poor man in Denver who was stricken with a strange mental illness that forced him to walk backwards all the time?' Predictably, his form of hysteria ended him up in hospital). We aren't going backwards, or living life looking over our shoulders. We can face the future - and the present - with confidence, with hope.
Can human beings really live in the reality of this sort of hope when the going's tough?
Perhaps this story, from The Reader's Digest, by Kingsley Brown, answers for itself:
'Among the works of art which draw visitors to Europe are the great cathedrals. I have stood in awe of many - Notre Dame, Chartres, Reims and Canterbury. But none has stirred me so deeply as the shrine built by Russian prisoners-of-war in Stalag 3A at Luckenwalde, just outside Berlin.
In February 1945, I was one of hundreds of British and American POWs thrust into Stalag 3A. Unlike us, who rated some protection under the Geneva Convention, the Russians were helpless. Underfed, denied medical attention and forced to do hard labour, their death rate was staggering. Although we had no communication with their compound, each morning we watched in fascinated horror while a truck collected its daily quota of corpses.
The days of tribulation ended on April 22, 1945, when we were all liberated by the Ukrainian army. Within hours, the Russian barracks were emptied; hundreds went off to fight again, while those too sick to volunteer remained behind. We then entered the Russian compound. It was a scene of indescribable horror. But in the heart of a barracks block they had wrought a miracle - they had built a church.
We stood breathless. A great golden crucifix flashed from the altar, its radiance reflected in prismed chandeliers hung the length of the nave. The windows were a splendour of stained glass, and along the walls were the Stations of the Cross, fashioned in coloured mosaic. It seemed incongruous. How could starving, dying men have created so magnificent a place of worship? Then we looked closer and all was explained. The golden crucifix was two pieces of slim timber, painstakingly sheathed in gold-foil paper salvaged from the refuse dump. The chandeliers were creations of thousands of tiny slips of cardboard, each covered with silver paper and suspended by almost invisible threads. The stations of the cross were crafted not from Florentine porcelain tile but from bits of coloured paper snipped from magazinewes rescued from rubbish bins.
In the constant presence of death, and from scraps gleaned from the dump, they had built a church. God had illumined it with a divine authenticity.'
Mother Teresa cares for the dying in a building called 'The House of the Living', a place I have been privileged to visit. On a visit to Australia she said, 'I picked up a man dying in an open drain. He said, 'I have lived like an animal all my life but now I will die like an angel'.
[This is one of four sermons from 1 Peter. The others: Holiness, Humility, and Happiness.