"THE CHRISTIAN HOPE"
Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8)
June 30, 2019
Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church
You will not abandon My soul to Sheol, nor let Your Holy One see corruption. You make known to Me the path of life; in Your presence there is fullness of joy;, at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Psalm 16:10, 11 (ESV)
The dictionary that I have at home defines the word hope as "a feeling that what one desires will happen." I don't know about any of you, but I find that definition to be a bit too shallow--a bit too temporary. I think of hope as being more than a feeling and I think of hope as involving something more significant than what I desire. The problem with feelings and desires is that they change by the minute. I don't always desire the same things and I don't always feel the same way. I would prefer to think of hope as being a confidence that in the future things will be better than they are now. Hope is, in a sense, the opposite of fear. Hope looks forward to the future while fear dreads it. Hope sees improvement while fear sees things only getting worse. Hope is what keeps us going--what makes us want to wake up every morning to continue this adventure that we call life.
Nowhere is hope more important or more valuable than in the midst of death. All of us have all kinds of concerns in our lives, but these concerns are not the same for everyone. My concern about being overweight, for instance, is not something that most of you need to be concerned about and I'm sure that many of you have concerns in your lives that are not a particular problem for me. But one concern that we all have in common is the fact that, barring the Lord's return in the near future, every one of us is going to die someday. What kind of hope do we have in the face of that grim reality? The Good News is that the Christian has hope even in the face of death--not a feeling but a confidence--not for what we desire but for life--life that is free from pain and sorrow--life that lasts forever. As we contemplate the psalmist's words this morning, let's think specifically about the cause and the effect of the Christian's hope in the face of death.
What is the cause of the Christian's hope? It is the Lord Himself--specifically the fact that He "will not abandon [our] soul to Sheol." In the Old Testament "Sheol" is the realm of the dead--a place of darkness and stillness. A person who dies trusting in Jesus Christ is not really dead. Sure, that person's breathing and all other bodily functions have ceased. The lifeless body will be buried in the ground or at sea or perhaps cremated, but in any case it will decay. But even though that body lies cold and dead in a grave, the Christian who has died in fact lives on in the glorious presence of his or her Savior. That's the Lord's promise--the same promise that He made to the repentant dying thief who hung on the cross next to Him: "Truly I say to you," He said, "today you will be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). That's why the apostle wrote to the Thessalonians: "We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope" (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Of course Christians grieve over their dead. They wouldn't be human if they didn't. But their grief is not without meaning nor is it without hope.
This promise of the Lord to those who die trusting in Christ is not an empty one. It is backed up by all the power of God Himself. The psalmist who is confident that the Lord "will not abandon [his] soul to Sheol" goes on to say "nor let Your Holy One see corruption." The Christ who is "the Firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Corinthians 15:20)--who went before us in death and to the grave--did not stay there long enough to decay. He rose from the dead in glory on the third day. This is all the evidence that we need to know that God is as good as His Word--that He keeps His promises. What He promises to do for us, His adopted children, He has already done for His only begotten Son. For this reason we can have confidence that we too will be raised from death in the power of Jesus' resurrection.
And what is the effect of the Christian hope? The psalmist says to the Lord: "You make known to me the path of life." This is the immediate result of our being given hope through the Gospel of our Savior. When we were baptized into Christ we received "the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5). What this means is that our sin has been forgiven and that the power of sin over us has been broken by the power of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. This New Life that is ours in Jesus Christ has been created in us by the Holy Spirit through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. And this Spirit--this New Life--motivates us to respond to God's grace by seeking to please Him. We do this by trying our very best to live according to His Law as He has revealed it to us in the Ten Commandments. But we don't do this out of fear or with any desire to influence God by what we do. We do it freely, as a response to the free grace and forgiveness that He has given us. We certainly don't do it perfectly (and we never will in this life), but He accepts as perfect whatever is done in accordance with His Law in the name of Jesus.
The effect of the Christian hope is not limited to this life. If it were, it wouldn't be much of a hope at all, as Paul makes clear in his First Letter to the Corinthians when he writes: "If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:19). We read in the text before us: "You make known to me the path of life; in Your presence there is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore." While it is indeed true that we experience the presence of our Lord right here and now through His Word and Sacraments according to His promise, it is also His promise that we will one day behold Him face-to-face in heaven and live with Him there forever. People often make the observation that "life is too short." It may indeed seem that way when we draw near to the end of our days and begin to wonder what more we should be doing with our lives. But God's Good News is that a new and glorious life awaits us in the Savior's presence--a life that will never end and will never know pain or sorrow.
The Christian hope is not some vague other-worldly dream. It is not a feeling that is limited to what we desire. It is real and it shines the brightest when believers are in their darkest gloom. The cold and dead Savior who was taken down from the cross and buried in Joseph's garden tomb emerged from that tomb alive and well, giving us hope for every trial that we face in life--especially death itself. Are pain and suffering and death still real for followers of the Lamb? Of course they are. But because Jesus is risen from the dead and because we are united with Him in Baptism, these "bad" things now have meaning and purpose. Our pain and suffering find their meaning in His suffering and our death finds its meaning in His resurrection promise: "Because I live, you also will live" (John 14:19). This hope gives us comfort and courage in every situation that we face in life, reminding us that nothing is hopeless for those who abide in the slain and risen Christ.
May the Lord bless your hearing of His Word, using it to accomplish in you those things for which He gave it. May you be enriched and strengthened in faith that you may leave here today to go out into our world armed with the whole armor of God, prepared to be able ambassadors of your Savior Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. Amen.