In between our Old Testament and Gospel lessons, with their foreboding prophecies of destruction and judgment, St. Paul sings a song of hope. In many ways, the contrast between the epistle and the other readings is comparable to the season. For example, statistics tell us that, at this time of the year, the rate of suicides increase. Yet, at the same time, we see the Salvation Army ringing their bells of hope. Psychologists tell us that the cases of depression go up in December. At the same time, billboards announce the hope of Christmas. It seems that at a time of the year when hope is most celebrated, many people are without hope.
In our struggle against despair, St. Paul points us to the means by which hope is both created and sustained. He begins with the Scriptures, which record God’s mighty deeds in the past that offer us hope. He closes with the power of the Holy Spirit, who offers us hope now. Together, these means cultivate hope for our future; indeed, we are able to overflow with hope by the God who gives hope.
Someone may ask, what can gazing into the past have to do with hope, which always looks forward? Well much, if we are looking through the Bible. Paul says, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” That’s one of the great blessings of the Bible. It is a testimony of God’s mighty acts in the lives of His people. The Scriptures show us the wisdom and ways of the Lord, our God, who graciously entered into the lives of the saints of old. However, sacred history is more than a record of past facts and figures, but “these are written that you might have hope.”
For whom, then, were the Scriptures written? For everyone. Take Paul’s Hebrew readers, for example. They were prime candidates for the hope found in the Bible. For centuries they had put their future hopes in the prospect of Israel’s rise to worldly power. Yet time and again they had been conquered by invaders from every direction. In Paul’s day, they were under Roman domination. There was little hope in their political situation. With that, a legalistic religion had slowly cut them off from communion with God. A zealous and demanding religious leadership gradually erected walls between the privileged and the poor, between the Jew and the Gentile, destroying their hope in God.
But hope for Israel was born on the darkened stage of their despair. Jesus came bringing the light of the Father: “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the Jews to show God's truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs.” In Christ, promise and prophecy gave way to fulfillment. The writer to the Hebrews understood what Christ meant for the Israelites when he wrote: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but bin these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). Christ restored hope to the people of Israel.
But despair and hopelessness was apparent also among the Gentiles. In a world of paganism, rampant with immorality, where lives were bought and sold in open markets and the average life-span was only thirty or forty years, Gentiles were also plagued with fears about the future. Their lives were both poor and brief. Furthermore, the hosts of pagan deities vying for their worship were as weak and helpless as them. So powerless, and having no divine answer to their despair, the Gentiles lived day by day in despair.
But the Christ of the Scriptures also brought hope to those “sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death” as Isaiah foretold. Here was a God and Savior who was more than a national deity, more than a mere puppet in the hands of devious men. Christ came that the whole world might be saved. He came, says St. Paul, “so that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” Hope surfaced for the Gentiles as God reached beyond the ranks of the Jews to embrace all people with His grace and mercy in Jesus Christ.
Yes, Paul reminds his readers that the Scriptures point us to all of the past things that God has done in Christ for both Jew and Gentile. All people may find common ground and purpose, common faith and hope in Jesus; as the Spirit says: “‘Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with His people.’ And yet again: ‘Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles; and let all the peoples praise Him.’”
But what was written beforehand is not the only testimony of faith for us. Look also at the grace of God with us now. Paul wrote, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The fellowship of the Holy Spirit is also a manifestation of our hope. Here Paul cites a unity of our faith in Jesus Christ, worship that springs from the heart in praise of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Christian encouragement as evidence that God is at work among us. Only a true faith and worship in Christ can sustain our hope; but that hope then produces more Christian unity and faith.
So, our hope is anchored in the record of what God has done for us in the past, as well as in what God is doing here and now, giving us hope for the future. For certainly this present time of grace in Christ is a foretaste of an unimaginable banquet to come. We look ahead confident that the fulfillment of life itself is in God’s hands. Our confidence is assured because Christ conquered death with His own death, and guaranteed life eternal by His resurrection. And this confidence is made ours by the testimony of the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures.
No one need be without hope. This is the meaning of St. Paul’s words today. We have a hope that is given substance by what God has done for us in Christ, by what He is doing now for us in Christ, and by what He still holds in store for those who trust themselves to His unchanging love. The closing verse of the hymn Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers (TLH 72:4) captures that hope well.
Our Hope and Expectation, O Jesus, now appear;
Arise, Desire of nations, O’er this benighted sphere.
With hearts and hands uplifted, We plead, O Lord, to see
The day of earth’s redemption, That brings us unto Thee!