Abraham had no good reason to believe God. At least not from what he knew. Sarah was famously decades past childbearing years and journeying to some unknown place that would become his descendant’s legacy seems desperate at best. Thus, Paul’s powerful phrase, “hoping against hope.” This is the hope that borders on the irrational, except this call was coming from God.
Abraham’s hope was uniquely insightful. Remember at the outset Abraham did not truly know what kind of God the Lord was. He lacked the benefit of the Bible.
He hoped in a new type of God. Not the gods so many others believed in.
Most of the people believed in gods that were vengeful, despots, licentious, petty, not a god that would go out of the way to bless a relative nobody.
Perhaps Abraham was one of the first to truly hope in God who would bless humanity, a Lord that was merciful and was steadfast, trustworthy, and true.
In other words, a god of love.
And though Abraham was relatively well-off compared to others of his time, we should not think he lived an easy life. As social theorist, and clergyman Thomas Hobbes quipped in the 17th century, “Life is nasty brutish and short.” And for Abraham that also meant the end of his line – no rational basis for thinking he would have an heir. But he wasn’t a fool.
One theologian wrote, “It is a great mistake to confuse hope with optimism. The optimist looks on the bright side, expects a happy ending. Hope, on the other hand, simply refuses the foreclosure of despair, resists the absoluteness of impossibility.”
He hoped against all the evidence to the contrary. Abraham was old. It ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. But for twenty years he continued to believe in this ridiculous, indeed impossibly ludicrous future that kept him focused on the Promise Land. He hoped against hope that God would indeed fulfill, “The unquenched yearning of the human heart for nothing less than everything.”
The titanic theologian of the 13th century Thomas Aquinas explains, “[Imagine] the intrepidity required of [Abraham] as, taking a deep breath, he weighed up what was at issue in leaving home and the familiar world behind and setting out into the unknown, trusting God's obscure promise that the apparently impossible was, indeed, his destiny. And off he goes, seventy-five years old and childless, hoping against hope that 'all the families of the earth' will find blessing through his progeny.” (Hoping Against Hope: Abraham’s Dilemma, Nicholas Lash)
In other words, hope is the belief in the impossible.
Indeed, we hope against hope in the impossible love of Jesus Christ. Paul’s words from Romans are indeed the summation of all Christian hope.
The impossible love of God.
A God of galaxies, a God of goodness.
A God of all knowing, a God who knows us all.
A God of infinite power, a God of intimate tenderness.
A God who demands everything, a God who gives us all.
Even a destiny, an eternal home, a heaven, a place of perfect peace.
When our daughter, Liz, was two years old, she had this habit of trying to leap head first out of our arms when she wanted to get down. And the only reason she did this brave and foolish act is because she had perfect confidence in our care. We would not let any ultimate harm come to her.
This is the hope we have, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." (Julian of Norwich)
And trusting in God’s ultimate care gave Abraham the moxie to go from his country and his kindred to the land. And it is the same bold hope we need. But notice Abraham didn’t remain on his proverbial front porch hoping the future would change. He had to live into; he had to act!!!!
But I want to tell you two stories. It is one of impossible hope and deliverance by God. A journey in some ways more treacherous than Sarah and Abraham’s with a hope no less absurd.
Now I don’t know about you but just watching the evening news is enough for me to lose hope. I want to turn it off, never to turn it on again.
But a few decades ago, a man was watching the terrible news about the Hmong people who were being slaughtered in the war in Laos. He went to his session and told them “People are dying!” And they took action.
Fast forward almost thirty years. I met a young man named Huau, a pharmacist, who at five years old made a treacherous journey.
He told me how his rural farming family had to flee Laos for Thailand. For five years the fate of his family was in his hands, to learn both English and French to give them the best chances to be resettled in a desirable location.
I asked him, “How did you not give up hope!?”
“I never thought I would fail. I never gave up hope. How could I with people like those of your Church making sure I wouldn’t… I am here because a member of your church, was watching the news, hearing about how terrible things were in Laos and he decided to do something about it. You know why I am here? Because there are people in this world who do things they don’t have to do.”
Here in New York someone acted with the same hope. Like the news, the prison systems seem to be a place where hope goes to die.
But hoping against hope, several of you committed to helping forge an educational ministry which results not in a GED, or a college degree, but a master’s degree! And such a program helped educate an inmate, Mr. Absalom, and he obtained a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree while in prison.
He helped bring young people into the prison to talk to them about the impact of gun violence. He spoke candidly about the poor choices he made, the regret for his crime and the continued suffering it caused. “Because of a choice I made 20 years ago, I was not there to be a father to my children, and unfortunately, my children fell into the same cycle. My 17-year-old child, my son, lost his life.”
Colin was granted parole after 25 years of serving time for his crime. But there was a wrinkle. He was Jamaican-born and came to the states when he was 11 years old. And though the New York prison system believed he was reformed and worthy of being returned to society, the Federal system was going to deport him.
That is when the next level of hope – of hoping against hope – went into high gear. One of your members with countless phone calls, emails, visits meetings and more would not be daunted by trying to do something that had never been done before – convincing the governor to pardon someone currently incarcerated. And she succeeded and changed his life and his family’s life forever, because she hoped that God would work. She hoped in a world in which people, and systems, can change.
“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.” (Emily Dickinson)
Let hope in God perch in your soul; so that you may act. Do it with childlike boldness, with the wisdom of the aged, with bright-eyed belief, and steely-eyed determination.
Do so because we have the sure and certain confidence that through God in Jesus Christ, the impossible is certain, that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed to us all. Amen.