Advent II - December 7, 2014
Epistle Lesson: Romans 15:4-13 (KJV)
4 For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
5 Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus:
6 That ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
7 Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God.
8 Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers:
9 And that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name.
10 And again he saith, Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with his people.
11 And again, Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles; and laud him, all ye people.
12 And again, Esaias saith, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust.
13 Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.
Today we lit the Hope Candle in the Advent wreath. But what is hope? If I say, “I hope I get a million dollars for Christmas,” I look to the future - Christmas Day; I focus on an object - a million dollars; and I express a longing but not not a certainty. However in the Bible a “hope” is something God has promised. It is not in doubt; it is certain.
The word “hope” occurs 4 times in today’s Epistle Lesson - once in verse 4, once in verse 12 and twice in verse 13. I’d like to focus our attention on these four times Paul speaks about hope.
1. God and Hope
Let’s take Paul’s references to hope in reverse order, beginning with verse 13 where we find the word hope used twice.
Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.
Human beings must have hope. We will persist in hope even when things seems hopeless. When we have a bad day and say, “Tomorrow is another day,” we express hope that tomorrow will be better than today. People who are starving will hope as the sun goes down that tomorrow there will be food. Patients who are told by doctors that their case is hopeless will nevertheless hope that tomorrow a cure will be found. Spouses who have lived in misery for years hope that tomorrow their marriage will become happy. People will create false hope because they cannot go on with no hope at all. One of the primary signs of real depression is hopelessness - the conclusion, justified or not, that things will never be better.
Before World War I was a time of hope for the future. Many people believed that human beings themselves could would be changed for good if their circumstances were improved. People put a lot of hope in science - what it could contribute to our understanding of the universe and what it could do practically to lift the burdens of daily living. Great hope was placed in education, because ignorance was a great enemy of human happiness and harmony, and knowledge was the cure. Social scientists believed that the improving the environment of the masses by doing things like eliminating alcohol and providing better housing would make for better character and conduct
It was the age of theological liberalism when people believed in the benevolence of God and the goodness of man. Maybe we could not be perfected but we could be made better. A magazine called The Christian Century began publication. Then came the War, and at the beginning there was hope for the War that it would be the war that would end all wars. Then despite all the carnage and destruction people placed hope in international treaties and the League of Nations.
But all these hopes were crushed. Barely 20 years after World War I ended the Second World War began. Yet hope persisted that, if the evil of Nazism could be defeated and international trust increased the world would get better. But World War II had hardly ended when the Cold War began. Then the Soviet Union collapsed and there was hope for a new world order. Then came 9-11.
One of our most persistent mistakes is the hope we place in politics. In the 1980s Americans put hope in Ronald Reagan’s sunny disposition and optimism about the future. More recently they turned to Barack Obama’s promise of hope and change. Despite all disappointments we have hope, because we can’t live without it.
It is good that we begin the Christian year with Advent, because it reminds us of the darkness. That the world is fallen beyond human ability to right, that man is sinful beyond human ability to renew, and that life is broken beyond human ability to repair. As Christians we are righteous in Christ, yet still sinners; our lives are reclaimed by Christ yet often broken by our own and others’ sins; even the creation, though redeemed by Christ, groans because of its bondage to decay.
The inscription at the entrance to Hell in Dante’s Inferno reads, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” There is no hope in hell because hell is the place of abandonment by God. And, if we live without God, as real or practical atheists - denying God or living as though he makes no difference - in a sense we are living in hell now because without God we live with false hopes that are sure to be disappointed and doomed.
In verse 13 Paul refers to God as “the God of hope.” As St. Paul says in Ephesians the natural human condition is “having no hope and without God in the world” (2:12). But with God there is hope - not mere optimism, not wishful thinking, but hope that will not be disappointed because it rests in the God of hope. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God we confess in the Creed, is the God of hope who gives us joy and peace peace when we believe in him. Joy that persists in times of profound sadness. Peace that endures in times of great anxiety. By the power of the Holy Spirit whom God gives to us who believe in Christ, we can overflow with hope rather than drown in despair.
2. Christ and Hope
God is the God of hope, but how does the God of hope give us hope when the world is fallen, life is broken, and our hearts sinful? We move back to verse 12 and find that we have hope because of Christ and the Gospel.
And again, Esaias (i.e. the prophet Isaiah) saith, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust.
That word “trust” at the end of verse 12 is not the usual word for faith or believing but a verb that means “to hope”. What Paul says is “in him shall the Gentiles hope.”
But in whom the do the Gentiles trust? To find out we go back to verse 8 where Paul starts to make the point he concludes in verse 12:
Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers.
Paul begins with Christ and the Jews. God made great promises to his Old Testament people. When he called Abraham and made him of father of a covenant people, God promised, “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed: (12:2-3)...thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee” (17:5-6). A thousand years later, when God gave them his people David as their King, he promised David that his kingdom would last forever and that one of his descendants would always sit on the throne (2 Samuel 7: 12-16).
But the covenant people repeatedly rebelled against God until 400 years after David God sent the Babylonians to conquer them and carry them off into exile. Eventually some returned to the Promised Land, but the nation never recovered materially or spiritually. They never had another king, military power, economic wealth, or international importance. So increasingly they hoped for the coming of the Messiah. We put ourselves in their places when we sing with mournful tune, “O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.”
Had God lied to Israel? Had he been unfaithful? Would his promises go unfulfilled? Paul says that Christ became God’s servant to Israel to demonstrate that God is faithful and true. Christ came to fulfil the promises God had made to Abraham and David but in ways that surprised the Jews. To fulfill the promises Christ had to to atone for their sins. “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). Christ is a Savior and King who is far more glorious than the political and military Messiah Israel expected. He is the King who delivers his people from their greatest enemies - Satan, sin, and death.
Not only was the salvation God bigger than Israel expected, God’s plan was also much broader than the salvation of Israel, for God’s plan reached the whole world. Christ is “Israel’s strength and consolation” but he is more - “Hope of all the earth thou art, dear Desire of every nation, joy of every longing heart.” Paul tells us that Christ came “that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” - that not just the Jews but all the nations might experience God’s merciful salvation. Paul uses a series of Old Testament quotations to show that God always intended to show his mercy to all nations.
He uses of prophecy of what Christ would do: “For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name.” How does Christ confess God among the Gentiles sing of God’s praise among them? By his church, his preachers, his Christian witnesses - declaring to the nations the good news of what God has done for them in the saving work of Christ. So the nations find hope in the gospel and glorify God’s mercy in Christ.
Paul quotes the Old Testament calling on all the nations to join their voices to the voices of his Old Testament people and to praise God and glorify his saving mercy:
And again he saith, Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with his people.
And again, Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles; and laud him, all ye people.
He concludes with the prophecy of Isaiah:
And again, Esaias saith, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust.
Christ is the root of Jesse who was the father of King David. Christ is a descendant of King David, of whom we sing, “O come, thou Rod of Jesse’s stem, from every foe deliver them that trust in thy great power to save, and give them victory over the grave.” He is the Savior-King of all the nations. He accomplished, not just for Jews but for all who hope in him, salvation from Satan, sin, and death.
The God of hope gives all the nations hope through the Christ - through the good news of the salvation Christ has accomplished by his conception, birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. This hope is the only real hope there is for the world. We we are not going to save or deliver ourselves. But what the world has never accomplished and what we can never do, God has done for us in Jesus Christ, the hope of the world.
3. The Scriptures and Hope
God is the God of hope who calls us to put our hope in Jesus Christ. But how do we know the God who gives hope? How do we know Christ so we may hope in him? Paul tells us God gave us the Scriptures so we may have hope.
For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
The word “Scriptures” means “writings.” “Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning so that we through patience and comfort of the writings might have hope.” But these are not ordinary writings. The are holy writings, set apart from all other writings, because they have dual authorship.
St. Peter tells us about the process by which the Scriptures were given: “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:21).The Holy Spirit used human authors, but he moved them, or carried them along where he wanted them to go as they wrote.
St. Paul tells us what was the result of this moving of the Holy Spirit: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God.” He shows us that the nature of the words of Scripture is that they are inspired or, a better translation - God breathed. We cannot say that about the words of any other book. Just you or I exhale when we speak so the words of Scripture are God’s speech. When we read them, we read what God has said - his out-breathed words.
The unique process by which the Scriptures were given and the unique nature their words - the words of God - means we must give them special attention - “to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the Scriptures. The Scriptures are given for our instruction - to teach us what is true and right. But it is a mistake to approach the Bible as though it is a book of information or rules. The whole Bible is from the God of hope and the whole Bible points us to Christ, the Son of God, our Messiah and Savior, the hope of the world. The whole Bible reveals God’s work of salvation in Christ. The whole Bible tells us how God redeems us sinners from guilt and judgment by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The Scriptures reveal the glories of Christ and promise us nothing less than glory. We will share in the glory of risen and ascended Christ; our present lowly bodies will be raised up and made like his glorious body; we will live forever in his glorious eternal kingdom.
That is how the Scriptures give us hope.They turn our eyes from our this fallen and decaying creation. From ourselves - our struggles with temptations, our defeats and failures, our troubles and trials, our disappointments and heartbreaks. From fear of the devil and the persecutions of world. From the dysfunction of families and the brokenness of relationships. From grief, pain, tears, and death. The Scriptures focus our attention on “Christ in you the hope of glory.” They call us to looking forward to the blessed hope of Christ’s coming again in glory.
Focus on the God of hope, on Christ the world’s hope, on the Scriptures that give hope. Come to this Table where the Lord meets us and tells us that the meal we share with him now is a foretaste and pledge that we will sit with him at the Marriage Feast he has prepared for us in coming Kingdom. Put your hope in God, in Christ, and in the Scriptures. You will not be disappointed.
Listen to Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus with St. John's Cambridge Choir.