Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow Nation guided his people through the deep crisis brought by the invasion of the white man. Shortly before his death in 1932, he said to his biographer: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.” Jonathan Lear, author of Radical Hope, is haunted by this phrase. What did Plenty Coups mean by “after this nothing happened”? It is as though there is no longer an ‘I’ there.”
We have a term for life without hope: despair. Aquinas calls it the greatest sin. That judgment is something of a surprise, since hope is not the greatest of the virtues: love is. So why would despair, which opposes hope, outrank hatred, which opposes love? Aquinas believes there is something about despair different from either unbelief, which opposes God’s truth, or hatred, which opposes God’s goodness. While hatred and unbelief oppose God directly, despair, says Aquinas, “consists in a man—when we—cease to hope for a share of God’s goodness.”
Despair concerns God indirectly; it detaches us from God’s story. Despair does not so much deny or oppose God’s truth or story directly, but rather says: whatever the truth is, or whatever the story may be, there is nothing in it for me.
Hope is what sustains us when things go badly in our lives and in our world. The Hebrew prophets were soaked in hope! When the children of Israel were out of step with God, going in wrong directions the prophets pictured a better future with God bringing them back, blessing them with new hearts. The emphasis is always on God’s action and mercy up against our human failings and frailties.
Hope is not having rosed colored glasses. Hope is not optimism. It doesn’t pretend that things are better than they are. It does not mask reality. Hope keeps us trusting even in the midst of trials and troubles.
Sometimes when life is good, when we have things go our way without any challenges and difficulties we get comfortable and think this is the way it is supposed to be. Then when troubles come we loose sight of what hope really is.
Our faith becomes soft and squishy. Then we don’t have anything to hold on to (or to hold us steady) when troubles come. And troubles do come!
Odysseus had to be tied to the mast as he passed the signing of the Sirens so he wouldn’t capitulate and be drawn to them. Aquinas tells us that as Christians we need two be tied to a person—Jesus and the cross.
We dare not be fooled. If we fall into the trap of thinking life should be easy and we shouldn’t have struggles then we are vulnerable to giving into despair. There is no perfect life. There is no perfect job. There are no perfect families. There are no perfect marriages. There are now perfect children or patents. No one has it “made in the shade.” No one is trouble free! One of my members that I served years ago—an older widow who knew life could be hard—would tell me “this ain’t heaven yet!”
Christian fellowship is when we realize we are all in this together and are pilgrims and sojourners of hope that lean on each other as we travel this sod.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “I have never been an optimist. I am a prisoner of hope.” That is a quote from Zechariah 9:12 in the Old Testament. In that verse the prophet says to despondent Israelites, “return to your stronghold.” Their situation was not changing immediately for the better. They needed to rest in God’s grace and presence in the midst of struggles. That is why the prophet Zechariah then calls them “prisoners of hope.” Hope is refined and strengthened in the darkness. Hope endures great evil and calls us to “buck up” and continue to entrust ourselves to God.
There are times when we realize our grip on God is slipping. Our faith is not strong enough. And we feel like giving up and giving in to despair. Don’t! Jesus does not give up on us. His grip won’t let us go. We are tied to the cross through baptism even when we feel our faith is flimsy and failing. It is not about how strong our faith is, but how strong our Savior is.
Consider Psalm 80. It starts by crying out to God “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel” (Israel here applies to all the people of God in both the Old and New Testaments, including you and me) “come to save us!” The Israelites recognized their sin and desperate need, and their dependence upon God to save them. We recognize our need and God’s ability to save us also! Three times in our psalm for today the cry of the psalmist is “Restore us, O God. Let Your face shine on us and we shall be saved” (verses 4, 7 & 19).
Let Your face shine upon us is a tremendous phrase. God looks our way favorably. God sees our condition and acts upon His great love to care for us. This captures the essence of Jesus coming—God in human flesh—God with us. God as one of us. God taking on our brokenness and giving us hope. God holding on to us in the midst of the storms of life.
This Advent season once again gives us hope. We have the hope of several vaccines for this dangerous virus. We have hope for a healthy government and the possibility of unity and harmony even with social discord and tension.
Our hope isn’t in the hands of the donkey or the elephant. Our hope rests in the Lamb.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.