Our church begins each Sunday gathering with a strange word of welcome: to the burdened, to the mourning, to the weak. Worship isn’t just for the cheerful and hope-filled, but also for the down and despondent. You haven’t been forgotten, we say in effect. And we believe worship can be a critical means to genuine healing.
However, as the pandemic has dragged on and on, the number of us feeling weak, burdened, and discouraged has swelled, and the cheerful and hope-filled have begun to feel more like the exceptions — especially in an increasingly cynical society. Might we now need a particular word of welcome for them as well?
And if you’re generally joyful this morning, we welcome you too, unusual as you are. You need not feign despondency to sing together with this poor, burdened lot of worshipers. Jesus welcomes those teeming with hope, and so do we. It’s okay to have hope — in fact, that’s our prayer. We have gathered here to have our hope renewed and strengthened in Christ.
We should expect secularism to produce cynicism. Such unbelief, as sophisticated as it may seem, cannot but eventually generate ever thickening skepticism, criticism, disappointment, and complaint. Christians, however, have a countercultural calling: hope. Christ calls us to be hopeful, subjectively, because we have real hope, objectively. In Christ, we have hope in us, because we have Hope in him — “Christ Jesus our hope” (1 Timothy 1:1).
Grieving with Hope
None of that means that Christians pretend to have only hope. We all know life in this age to be complex. We weep over our own lives, and we weep with those who weep. Yet we also offer them what we have in Christ (and what they desperately want): real hope. In the Hope we have in Jesus — a real, solid, stable, energizing hope — we are able to face up to the real sin and pain and disappointment and deep hurt in our world, and in us.
“Christ calls us to be hopeful, subjectively, because we have real hope, objectively.”
We grieve still, but not “as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Nor do we lament, criticize, and rage as the hopeless. If Christ can give hope even as we stare at a loved one’s headstone, surely he can give hope no matter what else erupts in our lives or sightlines.
For now, even as we grieve, we cling to hope. Grieving, yet always hopeful.
What Hope Is and Does
For the Christian, hope is no thin wish. We often use the word hope far more casually than the New Testament. I hope it’s warm tomorrow. I hope our team wins. I hope the pandemic is over soon. In everyday talk, we say hope for thin wishes about an uncertain, even unlikely, future.
Not so for the apostles and the early church. Their hope was not flimsy, fleeting, or uncertain. Rather, they spoke of a well-founded faith with a future orientation. Their hope, rooted in faith, was “knowledge of the truth,” looking forward (Titus 1:1–2). And what is remarkable, and perhaps regularly overlooked, is how powerful, how catalytic, how transformative such true hope will prove to be.
It is no accident that the two New Testament letters that may be most manifestly concerned with prompting Christian good deeds — 1 Peter and Titus — are also fed explicitly by the power of hope. Not simply faith, but hope in particular.
Again and again, 1 Peter rings the bell for doing good (2:12, 14, 15, 20; 3:6, 10, 11, 13, 16, 17; 4:19), stemming from hope (1:3, 13, 21; 3:5, 15). Hope in God leads to doing good in the world (1 Peter 3:5–6). Unbelievers see the good Christians do and ask about what? “The hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:13–17). Have you ever paused to consider how the lives of others benefit as a result of your hope? Or conversely, what good does not happen in the world as hope runs thin and cynicism rises?
Blessed, Energizing Hope
So also in Titus. The refrain is striking. Do not be “unfit for any good work” (Titus 1:16), but rather “be a model of good works” (2:7), “zealous for good works” (2:14), “ready for every good work” (3:1), devoting yourselves to good works (3:8, 14) — which does not mean to put one’s own righteousness on display but rather “to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful” (3:14). In other words, tangible actions motivated by love. There’s the strong emphasis in Titus on doing good.
And yet, as immediately as the letter’s first sentence, Paul speaks of godliness birthed “in hope of eternal life” (Titus 1:1–2). First is faith, and this faith gives rise to “godliness, in hope of eternal life.” In other words, hope is the critical link between faith in Christ and doing good to others. Faith in Christ’s person and work produces hope of eternal life which frees God’s people from the barriers and attachments of this present age to love and do good for others. And this hope is a blessed hope (Titus 2:13). Hope in the coming of Christ, and the bliss he will bring, gives us joy even now in the present, joy enough to free us from seeking our own, to love others and seek to meet their needs.
Paul’s structure of thought is similar in Colossians 1:4–5: “we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” The people of faith did good for others (love) because of their hope. Faith in Christ fed hope in a certain promised future which released God’s people from earthly fears and entanglements and laziness, to dream about, and make good on, doing good for others.
God Never Lies
Why is it that Christian hope — and not hope in general — has such a catalytic effect in and through our lives? Paul answers that in the opening lines of Titus. When he mentions “hope of eternal life,” he adds, “which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began” (Titus 1:2). Why would he say that here? Of course God never lies, but why say that now?
“Hope produced the greatest labor of love the world has ever known.”
Because the never-lying, certain promises of God, about the future, have everything to do with our hope. Our hope, which catalyzes faith in Christ into actions of love for the good of others, is based on the words of the God “who never lies.” God’s truthfulness is absolutely critical to our hope. And our hope, in Christ, is as good as God’s word. Our hope is not what we wish or dream; our hope is what God has promised — and he never lies.
Man of Hope
This dynamic — faith producing hope which inspires loving risk and sacrifice for others — also shows up again and again in Hebrews, and particularly in Christ himself. How was it that the consummate man of faith, God himself in human flesh, the founder and perfecter of our faith, did the single greatest good that has ever been done? What propelled him, against the greatest of obstacles, to go to the cross? In a word, hope.
Jesus “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). By faith, he looked to the promises of God and saw his reward. This was not wishful thinking about the future, but the eyes of faith looking to the future and realizing, and tasting, that this outcome is as sure as the promises of God. Faith fed hope. And hope produced the greatest labor of love the world has ever known.
In Christ, we don’t let the growing hopelessness around us dampen our hope. And in him, we don’t apologize for having real hope, and being hopeful; we don’t give in to the pressure to stoop and be as cynical as our surroundings. Rather, we take God at his word. He never lies. And he promises us a stunning hope in Christ, one that unleashes us, with joy, to do good.