Based on 1Samuel 1:9-18, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-18, Mark 13:1-8
“…Many people are broken and without hope. It’s not surprising that a Brooking’s report in October 2019 noted how ‘deaths of despair’ were affecting many sectors of society, particularly in America’s heartland. Carol Graham, Brooking Institution’s senior fellow, made this eye-opening observation: ‘The metric that really stands out is not sort of happy, or unhappy. Happy today doesn’t matter a whole lot. It’s hope for the future or lack thereof that’s really linked with premature mortality.’ More and more research is showing how the absence of hope and the lack of resources to deal with our most basic emotional and physical needs are coming at a great cost. Fear, isolation, pain, purposelessness, despair…these are the symptoms of a society that is broken and hurting, and they can lead to an early death not only from suicide but from very real damage to the heart, immune system, GI system, and brain – the entire body goes into states of low-grade inflammation that can increase our vulnerability to disease by up to 75 – 95 percent when we are in a constant state of turmoil….”
Note that Graham’s reflection on lack of hope in the U.S. came fully 6 months prior to the beginning of the pandemic! We come to understand through this insight that we were a society that was “broken and hurting” even before the life-altering effects of lockdowns, masks, physical distancing, anxiety about dying from the viral infection, etc. It begs the question…in what do these folks hope who are stricken in this way? If they are hoping in themselves, a political party, platform or human leader then they will always be sorely disappointed, as the Bible reminds us. These “deaths of despair” come at a time when for decades people have been leaving organized religion for some other way of finding a robust hope. Interestingly, in a recent study of the health benefits of attending church, regular church attenders had a 68% reduced risk for “deaths of despair” if they were women and a 38% risk reduction for men. I wonder if all those folks who used to be in churches know how unhealthy it is to stay home on Sundays?
Our scripture readings today speak to us about a robust hope that will not fail when we go through prolonged periods of trial. The psalmist writes a song of trust and security in God and the writer of the sermon of Hebrews echoes this sentiment. Jesus speaks prophetically about the future and its trials and about in whom the disciples should place their hope. Hannah, beloved yet barren second wife of Elkanah, prays desperately yet hopefully to the LORD that she might have a son after many years of waiting. Before we go any farther, let us go to God asking for God to help us develop a robust hope in a power which is present, eternal and almighty…
Hannah is the second wife of Elkanah. Elkanah’s first wife, Peninnah, has borne children and treats Hannah poorly because she is barren. However, Elkanah loves Hannah and tries his best to ease her suffering and torment. He tries to convince her that his love is enough even if she never has children. One year, Hannah decides to present herself before the LORD and to plead her case directly. She makes a vow to God that if God will give her a son, she will give the child back into the service of God as a Nazarene priest. She prayed so long and so fervently that the priest, Eli, thought that she must be inebriated. He confronted her only to learn of her deep faith and robust hope in the God of Israel. Eli blessed her and prayed that God would grant her petition. In due time, Hannah gave birth to her son, Samuel, who would become the last of the judges of Israel.
The writer of the sermon to the Hebrews and the psalmist both sing their praises of a God who saves us from our sinful decisions and ways. The psalmist sings that God is his “portion and cup, who holds my lot”. The song tells of a God who instructs and is always available to the believer. The song ends with the truth that, “…You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore….” The pastor is finishing up the portion of the sermon about Christ as our high priest with the truth that Jesus has offered for all time forgiveness of sins through his sacrifice. The writer quotes from Deuteronomy the covenant promise of God who writes God’s laws on our hearts and who remembers our sins and lawlessness no more. He ends this section with these words, “…Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin….” When we come to believe in the truth of these words of God, then we find we have a robust hope that no matter what happens to us, we are already in right relationship with our God who gives forgiveness and eternal life.
Jesus is providing a challenging teaching in our Gospel reading today. One of his disciples is marveling at the magnificence of the Temple building. Jesus offers a prophecy that the Temple will be destroyed and implies that trusting in man-made things, no matter how seemingly permanent and grand, will always be a poor choice. Jesus reminds his inner circle of disciples that the love and trust in all things human must pass away – and that this will be difficult and accompanied by much suffering before the kingdom of God can be realized. Jesus is trying to instill a robust hope in Almighty God rather than the hope that depends on people and worldly knowledge.
What these scriptures suggest to me is that a robust hope isn’t about magical thinking or trust in ourselves or other humans – it’s about the long haul and the potentially long darkness. The hope that the Bible teaches about is robust, muscular, unstoppable, and long-suffering. A robust hope never gets so cynical or skeptical that it can’t be surprised. Our robust hope seeks after and discovers God in the world’s most desolate and forgotten places. This kind of hope kneels in the Temple for hours and prays without shame. It ponders, meditates and ruminates; it does not give in to apathy. Robust hope sits alone and abandoned in the darkness – outlasting torture, humiliation, crucifixion, and death – until a transformation occurs and a “gardener” shows up at dawn in a graveyard, calling us by name.
These days I rely on robust hope not because things are alright but because my God of the small, the everyday and the inexplicable is my constant companion. I’m learning, slowly and cautiously, to live with the mystery of the already-and-not-yet kingdom of God. Yes, this kingdom has already come, and its in-breaking during Jesus’ time on earth was marked by all kinds of signs and wonders. However, these types of signs and wonders have never been a daily reality for me or any other human. Therefore, our great sorrow and our great calling is to live graciously and compassionately in this vast and often terrible in-between time. To offer the comfort of our steady witness to those in need. To ask others to hope for me when I cannot – and to take my hopeful turn when they are hopeless. To pray into the mystery of our ongoing chaos, pain and discomfort; to pray into what often feels like a pointless void or a dark and desolate tomb on the day after a crucifixion.
Fear, isolation, pain, purposelessness, despair and early death…these are the symptoms of a society that is broken, hurting and relying on the hope that the human thinking and behaviors that got us into this societal and ecologic chaos will get us back out. Einstein reminded us that believing that the thinking and behaviors that got us into one mess after another will never solve them. There is only one thing more powerful than our lawlessness and sin and that is the Almighty and unconditional love of God. When we put our hope in human creations and leadership, we will always be disappointed. When we hope in the God that we learn about in the Bible and experience in our lives of faith, then we embody a robust hope which cannot and will not fail.
After all, what is robust hope? Isn’t it precisely the mystery that strains toward what we can’t yet see or understand…the unknown, the unrealized? If we already had what we long for, we wouldn’t need to hope. As it is, robust hope offers itself as our lifeline, our foundation, our solace. It’s a bridge, wider and sturdier than we ever could imagine, that will forever connect us to the God who every day and for all of eternity unconditionally loves us all. That is the robust hope of Hannah, Jesus, and the inspired writers of the Bible…and that should be our robust hope, too. Thanks be to God, amen!