Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hope Springs Eternal

Hope Springs Eternal
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 12, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:12a
Revelation 19:1-10 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

So this morning our line from the "Marks of a true Christian" is simply Romans 12:12a "Rejoice in Hope." And it's cool that it's for this morning because yesterday was a cool day here at church. I thank everyone who was a part of it, and all who came. We had a great time, and if I could have thought back a few months ago when we were first thinking and planning it that it would have gone so well, it would have been more than I had hoped. I mean who gets weather like that in August in Virginia. It's been so hot and so humid for so long, to get a day that was cool with no rain was so much more than I could have asked for. It was great. Thanks you again, everyone really, but hope is an interesting topic, and one that I have taken alot of time thinking about this week. What hope is, whether it's good or not, and whether it is possible to rejoice in it. I chose a passage from Revelation to get at hope, knowing that for some reason it's always a little bit intimidating to preach from Revelation. There is so much stuff in it that sounds a little bit crazy, what with the trumpets and the seals and the numerology, and the dragons, and there are all kinds of different ways that people interpret it and use it, and frankly there is a great history of irresponsible misuse of it. But all in all the message of Revelation is one of hope and witness to that hope, and no other passage in the entirety of the book represents a witness of hope more than this one I am about to read, the Hallelujah scene.
I've heard the president of my seminary preach and lecture on this passage often, and I've enjoyed his take, and that it is a major victory party, celebrating an end to oppression by a people who have been oppressed for a long time. The early Christians, and Jews as well had found themselves in a period where persecution by the Roman Empire had grown fierce, and were looking for things in the world that could give them hope. Ever since the fall of the Kingdom of Israel, the area of Palestine had been controlled by a series of foreign empires. First the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Macedonians, then the other Greek city states, and finally by the time of Christ, Rome. Much like the book of Daniel and other works written within the history of being a subjected people, the book of Revelation is from the genre, from the Greek word, apokolypsis, which means secret teachings, or disclosure, manifestation, revelation. These were words and books of hope written to inspire the people to believe in a future state where things would be put right, where the rulers of the day would be thwarted, the power structures replaced, and righteousness restored. It was easy for the Christians in the first century to look around them and think there must be something more than this, there must be something better than this, God is better than this, and God is in control, and God will set things right, we believe this, and it gives us hope. The passage that I selected this morning to get at the idea of rejoicing in hope is very much a victory celebration over the evils of the world. Evils that to the Christians of the first century were certainly apparent to them and surrounded them in every way, and the victory is complete, and the host of heaven sing hallelujah. Three, maybe four years ago, when I heard this passage preached at the Massanetta Springs Bible and Music Conference the anthem that accompanied the scripture reading and the sermon was the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's "Messiah" sung by a huge mixed choir of all the musicians and singers that had been there that week. It was truly moving music because it put you in that place. You felt like they had almost accomplished the sound that the writer John of Patmos was describing in court of heaven. So have that song going through your head while I read: Revelation 19: 1-10: 

After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying,
Salvation and glory and power to our God,
2     for his judgments are true and just;
he has judged the great whore
who corrupted the earth with her fornication,
and he has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” 
3     Once more they said,
The smoke goes up from her forever and ever.”
4     And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who is seated on the throne, saying,
“Amen. Hallelujah!”
5 And from the throne came a voice saying,
“Praise our God,
all you his servants,
and all who fear him,
small and great.”
6     Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying out,
For the Lord our God
the Almighty reigns.
7     Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready;
8     to her it has been granted to be clothed
with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
9 And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.” 10 Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”[1] 

This is the word of the Lord, thanks be to God. Look at this celebration. It is celebrating the idea that God is more powerful than things, all things. He's more powerful than evil, more powerful than war, more powerful than enemies, more powerful than hatred, more powerful than injustice, more powerful than genocide, more powerful than oppression, more powerful than slavery, more powerful than a "bad day", more powerful than a petty disagreement, more powerful than a broken relationship, more powerful than doubt, more powerful than sin, more powerful than our minor disobedience, more powerful than our major disobedience, more powerful than the outcome of some election, more powerful than negative adds, more powerful than cynicism, more powerful than any clear and present danger that we face, and that very fact is cause to celebrate. And not just is God more powerful, God is also good, all the time, beyond time into the infinite, the beginning and the end, and so hope springs in the eternal, the eternity of God.
So we ask ourselves, why not now? Why all this injustice now? Why all this pain now? These earthquakes, this disease, this discord, and hatred and war. Why wait? Why doesn't God just fix it all now if He can? Many agnostics and atheists ask these questions, and speak ardently that if God exists, God is either a monster or is completely ineffective, for to let so much pain exist in the world, and therefore their shouts at God are not hallelujah. I do not hope to preach today as to why, because I do not know the answers of these questions, but I believe part of our comfort is found in the today's idea from the Marks of a Christian. "Rejoice in hope."
It's funny to me to see rejoice in hope. It is so alien to our world to do so. We don't rejoice in hope; we rejoice in attaining things, in victories, in gold medals won, and challenges accomplished, and bottom lines. Those are the things we tend to rejoice in, but how fleeting are the trophies, how fleeting are the accomplishments? How much more inspiring and powerful is it to strive, and having striven felt the extra push of force that hope gives? I'll get back to that because there is something of truth in that, but we aren't ready yet. . .
***Ha ha got you hoping? Man I sure hope I can pull this off? Are you hoping with me? I hope so***
If you look at the prayer of preparation, you'll see that line: hope springs eternal. I chose the passage, coming from one of my favorite poems, Alexander Pope's "Essay on Man." What Pope is trying to accomplish in the poem is to describe the human condition. The poem has four parts, and the first part, from which this passage comes, he is trying to describe the way the world works, and in his words to "justify the ways of God to man," which is one of the great poetic challenges taken up by poets since the beginning of time from the writer of Job, to the psalmist, to Homer, to Shelley, Milton, Keats, all of them, the greats. He takes a different spin on it, reflecting his time, because he questions whether man is in any position, any moral place to question God. He wonders how can you question the maker of you? How can you wish for more than what is? Is it the place of the creature to question the actuality and the quality of the creation? It is a cool poem placing the perfection and the sovereignty of God at the forefront of his understanding of the world, concluding the first section with the poem with some of my favorite turns of a phrase:

All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good:
And, spite of pride in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, whatever is, is right.

In other words, Pope puts the sovereignty of God at a premium, first and foremost in his view of the world and uses that as the lens to view and judge the way the world operates, made perfect by God, but now let's take a look at the section including the words "hope springs eternal" because it is here where he talks about how hope, and hoping is a crucial part of the human condition, as humans were created by God. I'll begin and include a few lines I left out of the bulletin for reasons of space:

Heaven from all creatures hides the book of Fate,
All but the page prescribed, their present state:
From brutes what men, from men what spirits know:
Or who could suffer being here below?
The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed to-day,
Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?
Pleased to the last, he crops the flowery food,
And licks the hand just raised to shed his blood.
Oh, blindness to the future! kindly given,
That each may fill the circle, marked by Heaven:
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
Atoms or systems into ruin hurled,
And now a bubble burst, and now a world.
Hope humbly, then; with trembling pinions soar;
Wait the great teacher Death; and God adore.
What future bliss, He gives not thee to know,
But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

 Pope suggests that hoping is part of our nature, that we were created to be hopeful, and that there must be some driving purpose to it, in his words confined from home, perhaps driving back to home. There must be some purpose to which he suggests we should not question. Paul takes it one step further, not just to not question, that we are created hoping, but to rejoice in it. To be thankful for our capacity to hope and rejoice, believing that the future blessings will be incredible.
Hope is an interesting phenomenon in other faith systems. It is not very much a part of the eastern religions and philosophies as we looked at briefly today in Sunday School, and to the pagan Greeks, hope was kind of a mixed bag. As the myth of Pandora goes, when her curiosity compels her to open the box, out come all of the evils of the world, one by one and personified, but too, hiding in the bottom of the box, out pops hope. Hope enters into the world along with the evils according to that ancient Greek story, which shows their world view. Does this mean they saw hope as a piece of the evil, or our only positive in a world now fraught with evil.
How do you view hope? I've spoken often in the last few weeks about cynicism, that most ancient and hopeless of Greek philosophies, many in the world of today would say that hope is foolish, or misguided, or a tool that those of great power, intelligence, and influence use to control those who are hopelessly gullible, dimwitted, and weak. Someone intelligent could never be controlled in such a way. I can see how that would be and could be true. False hopes, or placing  your hope in something that cannot deliver would certainly leave you out on a ledge, looking foolish, that is why hope is tied to faith, and love, those spiritual gifts that Paul writes of in his first letter to the Christians at Corinth. Having faith in the truth, that God is all powerful as I opened with, and that the hallelujah passage gives witness and testimony of provides a hope that is not foolish, but if true the only possible source of hope.
Having hope in that truth can allow us to see our world in a different light, to see our place in the world in a different light, and to see our work in the world in a different life. It allows for the end to be taken care of, to hope for, to inspire us, to recharge us with ultimate drive and desire, infinitely ahead, allowing us to love in the present, rejoicing in the present, rejoicing in hope. I said earlier that trophies and accomplishments sometimes are fleeting at best or underwhelming at worst, anti-climatic might be the best word. There is so much build up that once it's all over and achieved there isn't much left, but life was lived in the achieving. Life is lived in the hope of achieving. There is something to the wisdom of creating human beings with an innate capacity to hope. It drives us, it moves us, it is us, it is life, and life is a gift to be lived, and a gift to be thankful for, and a gift to be rejoiced in, that when it is all over and we come face to face with the infinite, the hallelujahs burst forth from our inward parts with a loving chorus of praise for the amazing love and power that created each and every one of us, completely unique, with an infinite capacity for hope.
I began this morning talking about yesterday and how great of a day it was, and how that it exceeded my hopes for it, but now it is past, and my hope still lives for new opportunities to do new things here at this church, new paths to take with you, just like we the musical and tasty road we walked together yesterday. Our hope springs eternal towards amazing manifestations of the promises of God in the life of each one of us, and the unity of our lives together here. In hope we walk together singing: "Thanks be to God! Hallelujah! Amen."

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Re 19:1-10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.