Sunday, May 29, 2011

Account for the Hope In You

Account for the Hope In You

© copyright 2011 Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor

Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 29, 2011

I Peter 3:13-22

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you

an accounting for the hope that is in you.

What are you afraid of? People are afraid of different things and have different reactions to their fears. There was a story told about a couple fleeing in their night clothes to a bomb shelter while their block was being flattened during the blitz in London in World War II. They had just reached the street when the woman turned to go back to the house, and the husband, frantic at his wife’s erratic behavior given the circumstances, shouted at her, “Where are you going?!”

“Have to go back,” she replied, “forgot my false teeth.”

To which her husband replied, just able to make himself heard above the din of falling bombs, “For God’s sake! They’re not dropping sandwiches you know!”

Different people fear different things. One man’s fear of German bombs was matched only by his wife’s fear of being seen in public without her teeth in place. Different priorities, yet one thing in common: Fear.

What are you afraid of?

Verna Dozier, Episcopal lay woman, biblical scholar, and African-American activist, set the biblical studies world ajar 20 years ago when she wrote in her best-known book that “doubt is not the opposite of faith, fear is.”1 That is a phrase that stays with a person, especially any among us who has known fear.

The opposite of faither is fear. There is no sense trying to claim to be fearless people. We all know fear, and we all have fears, some that haunt us only on occasion, others that are with us hour by hour. Some may live with the fear that the business will go badly this year, that the medical bills will not get paid, that there might be a continuation of the economic downturn into next year and money in the family kitty will dry up. We may have a gnawing fear that we’ll not have enough money to live on throughout retirement, that we won’t get into the college we choose, that the fan belt we have nursed through four years of our car’s life will finally go bad on our next trip east of the Cascades.

There are big fears and little ones.

A big fear usually involves things beyond our control, like the state of the economy, or violence in the streets or the fear of world-wide political chaos, a loss of income, or insurance, or a job, random shootings on city streets.

Little fears have their day too. But at least they appear to be in some ways within our control, or nearly so. We may be afraid:

· that we won’t get the promotion we want...

· ...or that we will, and we’ll have to pack the family and move a thousand miles again;

· that since we missed the deadline for filing form 1040, we’ll have to pay a penalty;

· that the car won’t start;

· that the refrigerator will need replacing;

· that the roast will be burned;

· that the water didn’t get shut off before we left home on vacation.

The list of things the human mind can fear is limited only by the amount of time we have for tallying it.

When Peter wrote, “Do not fear what they fear,” he was echoing the prophet Isaiah2 who wrote to the people in Israel during a fearful time. Nations around them were allying together against tiny Israel. Yet Isaiah wrote, “Do not fear what they fear.” He reminded the people of Israel of the very thing we all need to remember but often forget: that God is Lord over all possibilities; God – not the Syrians, Romans, Americans, or Al Qaeda warlords – God is the true ruler of history, no matter how things appear in the short term.

In I Peter, the hard thing for us to swallow may not be that we should avoid fearing all the things we do fear, but that we should save a holy emotion like fear for the one who has real power over life. Peter said, “Do not fear what they fear...but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.”

Dethrone fear of the contingent, the temporary, and instead reverence Christ who rules the world for ever. Don’t reverence, fear, or stand in awe of your tormentors more than you fear God. That certainly is blasphemy. When others seem to have more power to destroy us than God has to save us, it is an overwhelming fear. Peter told his readers and he tells us, decide ahead of time not to give in to such unholy fear. Then, if the time comes, we will be prepared to account for the hope that lives in us because of our faith that Christ truly is Lord of all life.

A sermon which dwells this way on fear in the post-Easter season may come as a surprise. We believe in a loving God, and this sermon was to have been about hope, if we can judge by the title. And there is in fear, paradoxically, something of the essence of hope. Knowing what we fear gives us information about the thing upon which we base our deepest hopes.

Lots of famous people have uttered equally famous words on the subject of hope. Miguel de Cervantes best-known character, Don Quixote, said, “Sanity may be madness but the maddest of all is to see life as it is and not as it should be.”

Elie Wiesel, Jewish survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, once wrote, “…just as despair can come to one another only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings.” Christians believe this has come to pass for us in the person and work of Christ among us, human as we are human.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “If you lose hope, somehow you lose the vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of it all. And so today I still have a dream.”

Theologian Reinhold Neibuhr wrote, “Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime, therefore, we are saved by hope…”

Poet Václav Havel, arguably one of a handful of true twentieth century political heroes, who managed to outlast the crumbling Soviet empire and bring his native Czechoslovakia into the family of free nations, said, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.”

How do you envision the essence of hope, how do you account for the hope that the love of Christ places in you?

Biblically speaking, there are two types of fear about which we often hear: The first fear relates to the love God has for us, yet the second often characterizes the timid response we make to that love. These are fears born of love: of Christ’s ultimate love for us and our inadequate response to his love.

For believers, then, the word hope deals with the deepest longings as well as the most desperate fears within us. It is not a mere sigh, a whim, a casual wish: we hope it won’t be too hot (or cold!) today, that Santa will get to our house next year, that we’ll make the green light at the next intersection; these have nothing to do with biblical hope and aren’t really hopes at all, but fleeting wishes.

“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.” Dr. Scott Hahn3 in his book, A Father Who Keeps His Promises, shared a story from the deadly 1998 earthquake in Northwest Armenia, which claimed 25,000 lives in a single day. It could as well be a picture of the lives of thousands of citizens in Joplin, Missouri this week. After that quake in Armenia, a distressed father ran frantically through the streets to his son’s school. He had always told his son “No matter what, Armand, I’ll always be there.” His heart sank when he got to the school and found nothing but a pile of rubble. Even so, he ran to the corner where he knew his son’s classroom had been and began to dig with his bare hands. A bystander told him, “Forget it, mister, they’re all dead.” Any of us, in the same situation, might have tried to help a grieving father simply face reality. But that father looked up and said, “You can criticize me or you can help lift these bricks.” A few people of generous spirit helped move bricks for a while, but the situation seemed so hopeless, they soon wandered away. Still the father continued to dig. 12, 18, 24, 36 hours went by. Still he dug. Then he heard a muffled groan. He pulled a board back and cried out, “Armand!” From the hole in the wreckage of the building came a weak, shaking reply, “Papa?” They managed to find 14 of the 33 students still alive. When Armand was finally freed he turned to his friends and said, “See, I told you my father wouldn't forget us.” Our hope is like the hope of that son, only more so. Armand’s father is but a small example of the kind of Father we know through Jesus Christ.

The essence of biblical hope – if the words of I Peter are to be believed – rests in a decision that sets aside fear. A decision for the Lord. And that decision remains even when our emotions or our failed circumstances might carry us away from it. It is a conviction that the future and all that will take place in it are already being redeemed by Christ. No matter where our lives may take us, Christ is there ahead of us already, redeeming the times and the seasons in which we live.

© copyright 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved


1 The Dream of God: A Call to Return, by Verna Dozier [], © 1991, Cowley Publications.

2 Isaiah 8:12.

3 A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God's Covenant Love in Scripture, Charis Books, © 1998 by Scott Hahn. Dr. Hahn is the founder of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology.