True Hope

There are two books on my bookshelves which are there for humorous and serious reasons.  One is The Gospel according to the Simpsons – The Spiritual Life of the World’s Most Animated Family. It is more of a theology rather than the gospel.  You may be interested to know, Mark Pinsky the author, claims that The Simpsons is the most religious programme on television; in no other programme is God, and other religious traditions, spoken of so often.  It sits in the theological section of my personal library.

The Gospel According to the Simpsons is a relatively new publication compared to the other, The Gospel According to Peanuts, by Robert L Short, is an account of the gospel expressed in Charles M Schultz cartoon strip involving Charlie Brown, Snoopy and others.

I was reminded of this while watching DVD’s of the television series, West Wing and an episode concerning the repeated failure of a missile defence system.  President Bartlett likens the missile defence system to the cartoon strip displaying how Lucy holds the football, inviting Charlie Brown to kick it.  Charlie Brown complains that every time they do this, Lucy will pull the ball away at the last minute and Charlie Brown falls down on his butt.  Lucy, however, promises Charlie Brown that she won’t, and of course she does.  The failure of the missile defence system once again leads President Bartlett saying, ‘The words you are looking for are “Good grief!”’

One of the things, amongst many, this particular Peanuts strip is trying to highlight is hope.  Or, in this case, misplaced hope.

The Psalmist writes for us today,

In you, O Lord my God, have I put my hope: in you have I trusted. Psalm 25:1

For the Psalmist hope is related to trust, particularly trust in God.  The prophet Jeremiah records the words of the Lord,

The days are surely coming when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  Jeremiah 33:14

For Jeremiah hope has something to do with promises made, particularly the promises of God; for God is the only one who is truly trustworthy.  Paul, in writing to the Thessalonians, prays,

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you.  And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.  And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.  1 Thessalonians 3:11-13

There is nothing contradictory in Paul’s hope here for the Thessalonians to what we would expect God would want for them and for everybody.  Finally, the gospel reading speaks about the promise that the kingdom of God is something for us to hope for and, therefore, look for and be attentive to the kingdom of God and the One whose kingdom it is.  Hope, according to Luke, is what enables us to look forward to the things of future fulfilment and participate in them becoming a reality in the present.

In addition to this, trust must be accompanied by awe of God (Isaiah 32:11); for ‘hope looks to him whom none can control’. (Bultmann)  Hope involves a quiet waiting on God; calls us to be patient (Isaiah 30:15) and, as we will recall from the letter to the Hebrews, ‘Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.’ (Hebrews 11:1)

I hope for many things.  Every time the clouds come over, I hope for rain.  I hope that all the plants I have planted will survive.  I hope that St Stephens will be a significant church again.  I hope there will be true freedom for all in the world.  I hope that when I die I will feel satisfied with my life well lived.

I wonder what you hope for?

Biblical hope, as we have seen, has little to do with what we might describe as wishing for something to be true, to come to fruition, independent of trust in God, what God has promised, what God wants for all, pointing us to the fulfilment of God’s kingdom and working towards that which we hope for with patient endurance.

I wonder if this challenges what we often hope for, or, rather, reveals our hopes to actually be little more than wishes, however good they may be?

One of my favourite contemporary theologians, Canadian, Douglas John Hall,[1] states that hope is not just an aspect of our understanding of God, it is fundamental to the being of God and, therefore, the essence of the gospel proclaimed by and in the person of Jesus.[2]  However, he goes on to say, in as much as God is knowable, but not as yet fully revealed, like faith, hope is about ‘confidence, not certitude.’[3]  We can only proceed in hope of fulfilment of our task as much as we believe we understand the promise God has made to us, being open to the possibility that we have misheard or misunderstood.

Douglas also goes on to say,

A faith that has not entertained such bleak thoughts about historical existence, a faith does not in fact do battle with such thoughts, is no basis for Christian hope.[4]

Hope, therefore, calls us to be honest about ourselves and what is wrong with the world, but a confidence that we can do something about making it right.[5]  Any other understanding of hope, within Christian understanding, is simply a ‘sentimental, positive religion’.[6]  If that is the case

we are lost—afraid even to admit our lostness.  Vision has failed us, personally and corporately.  Hope has been reduced to slogans in which we no longer really believe, though we continue to mouth them—for the children’s sake.[7]

Those who are afraid, or lack wisdom, to acknowledge this loss of vision have ceased to have Christian hope.[8]

Christian hope is, then, focussing on trusting in God for the promises he has made to us.  This means the essence of the gospel is hope.  In Jesus is ‘the fulfilment of the deep longing of humanity.’[9]  The beauty of this true, Christian hope is, despite its focus on God and what God has promised, in this hope humanity ‘is directed toward their own destiny’[10] and ‘will achieve happiness,’ consequently, growing into their salvation.  To hope for the things of God is to hope for the fulfilment of ourselves.  The problem, of course, is humanity’s lack of self-understanding and the things which we wish for can stand in the way of our deepest needs, in contradiction to our true destiny and, therefore, achieving true happiness.[11]

As we in this season we call Advent, our preparation for the celebration of the One who came that first Christmas, and also our preparation for his coming again, we consider our true hope.  A hope that has its source in him as the fulfilment of the promise to fix up all that is wrong with the world, as a promise of the kingdom to come, and fulfilment of our hopes as we participate in enabling those things God promises to come to fruition.

If we are hoping for anything that does not acknowledge that there are things wrong with this world and are working towards enabling that to be fixed, then our hope is just positive thinking.  If our hope is not centred in and empowered by our relationship with God, then our hope is just a wish.  If our hope is not inspired by what we believe God has promised us, then it will not be fulfilled and we will have failed to achieve our own destiny and fulfilment.  The outcome of aiming for all that is not this hope that is God will only be to cry, ‘Good grief!’

[1] Professing the Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context.  Fortress Press:1996.

[2] Ibid, p. 100.

[3] Ibid, p. 143.

[4] Ibid, p. 173.

[5] Ibid, pp. 174, 193.

[6] Ibid, p. 294.

[7] Ibid, p. 542.

[8] Ibid.  p. 294.

[9] Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Jesus—God and Man. SCM Press:1968. p. 205.

[10] Ibid, p. 206.

[11] Ibid, p. 205.

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