These Three Remain (Week 3)
Hope (1 Corinthians 13:13)
If you go on any new website, open up any newspaper or just look at the “Trending” section on Facebook you will invariably see bad news. The civil war in Syria continues to rage on, displacing hundreds of thousands of refugees. Around the world, populism continues to gain a foothold. North Korea is increasingly belligerent. The economy seems to be terrible and recent university graduates are struggling to find jobs. The Nova Scotia provincial elections are heating up and it’s promising to be just as ugly as every other election we read about.
On top of that it seems like we tend to hear lots of stories about how church attendance is declining, divorce rates are increasing and more people are claiming to be religiously unaffiliated. Is the world getting worse?
Are the systems and structures of the world—government, business, economics, education—are they degenerating? Are the forces of evil—money, sex, and power—are they winning? And if they are, if the world is simply getting worse, then how are we as Christians supposed to be people of hope, as Scripture tells us to?
In the American evangelicalism that I grew up in, it was regularly taught that the world would progressively get worse and worse until God was forced to destroy the world with fire and take all of us Christians to heaven. But is this what Christian hope is? Is our hope simply found in the idea that, while God can’t fix the world, he at least has a nuclear option in his back pocket? What is hope? More to the point, as Christians, what exactly is it that we’re hoping for?
Today we’re concluding our three-week series called These Three Remain. We’ve been taking an in-depth look at 1 Corinthians 13:13 where Paul says, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” And we’ve been talking about how these three, faith, hope and love, will remain even into the age to come.
Two weeks ago we talked about how faith is all about trust. We talked about how we’ve been intentionally designed with weaknesses which will force us to rely on others and ultimate to rely on God. Then last week we talked about love. We talked about how love is inherently action-based. We talked about how love will actively go out of its way to make the lives of those around you better. This week we’re wrapping up the series talking about hope and what it means for followers of Jesus to have hope.
If there’s one area that my faith has changed the most over the last few years it’s in the area of hope. I have become an increasingly hopeful person. And so, even though we can turn on the news and discover any number of depressing, discouraging stories, I still remain a person of hope. And today I’m going to explain why it is that I’m so unbelievable hopeful for our future. But before we jump in, let’s open with a word of prayer.
What is hope? What are we talking about when we talk about hope? The word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 13:13 that we translate as “hope” is the Greek word “elpizo”. Elpizo means an attitude of confidently looking forward to what is good and beneficial. When we hope, we’re looking ahead to what’s coming up with confidence that it’s going to be something that’s good and beneficial. In this sense, hope is different than wishful thinking.
Often times we use hope when we really mean wishful thinking. Think back to when you were a kid and it was your birthday or Christmas. I’m sure you either said or thought, “Oh, I hope I get…” I hope I get that bike I wanted. I hope I get that guitar I was asking for. I hope I get that Daisy Red Ryder BB Gun. Which… no, of course not, you’ll shoot your eye out. In this context we’re saying “I hope”, but we really mean “I strongly desire this thing and there’s a chance it might happen.” But this is different than what Paul is talking about.
Elpizo isn’t wishful thinking. Elpizo is confidently looking forward. The hope that Paul talks about is the idea that we can look forward, we can look into the future, and even though we don’t know exactly what it will look like, we can trust that it will be good and beneficial.
But in what do we place our hope? Obviously, we place our hope in Jesus. We what exactly are we hoping he's going to do? Do we hope, like I used to think, that Jesus will eventually grow tired of this world and the evil around us and decide to just start over? Do we hope that sinful people will eventually get what’s coming to them while those of us who are saved will get to ultimately go to heaven and spend forever and ever singing to God? To understand what hope looks like, we have to look at the Joseph story in the book of Genesis.
If you’re not familiar with the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis, I’d highly encourage you to read it. It’s found starting in Genesis 37 and goes all the way to the end of the book in chapter 50. It’s too long for us to read right now, so we’re just going to touch on the highlights. We start with the patriarchs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jacob then has 12 sons. Joseph is son number 11, but he’s clearly the favourite which makes all of his brothers jealous.
Then when Joseph was about 17 years old, God told him through a series of dreams that he would one day be a great and powerful person and that his family would bow down to him. Considering he wasn’t well liked by his brothers already, this didn’t sit well with them. So one day, while they were out in the fields, they saw Joseph coming and decided to kill him. However, before they did that, they saw a group of Midianite traders heading to Egypt and decided “Why kill our brother when we can make money off him instead?”
Down in Egypt, the Midianite traders sold him to an Egyptian named Potiphar, who was one of Pharaoh's officials. Joseph lived in Potiphar’s house as a slave, but Potiphar noticed that he was a hard worker and that he had success in everything he did. So Potiphar eventually put Joseph in charge of his entire household. However, eventually, Potiphar’s wife began to notice that Joseph was pretty good looking and tried to convince him to sleep with her. Joseph continually refused, but one day she cornered him in a room and demanded that he sleep with her. When he still refused, she made up a story that he tried to rape her. When Potiphar heard about this, he threw Joseph in prison.
But just like before, Joseph was a hard worker and had success at everything he did and so the warden ended up putting Joseph in charge of the prison. A little while later Pharaoh put two of his officials in prison where Joseph was. One night they each had dreams. When they told Joseph their dreams, he was able to interpret them. Essentially the cupbearer's dream met he would be restored to his position while the baker would be killed in prison. Joseph then asked the cupbearer to remember him when he got out of prison, but of course, the cupbearer forgot.
After three years, Pharaoh himself had a dream and no one could figure it out. And suddenly the cupbearer remembered Joseph. Pharaoh called for Joseph to come and interpret his dream. Joseph listened to the dream and said, “Here’s what it means. Egypt is about to have seven really lush and prosperous years. The harvest will be bountiful and overflowing. But after that will come seven years of famine worse than the world has ever seen.”
“So here’s what I recommend,” Joseph said, “Let’s build some storehouses and save some of the grain during the good years. That way, when the famine comes there will be enough grain to last us through the bad years.” At this Pharaoh appointed Joseph as the second in command of all Egypt.
The famine eventually struck and it was so bad that even Joseph’s family in Canaan were affected. So they went down to Egypt to buy grain and when they got there Joseph immediately recognized them. Joseph’s brothers came to him afraid that he would take revenge on him for the whole attempted murder, selling him into slavery thing. But here’s how Joseph responds in Genesis 50:20. He says, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done. This is the culmination of the Joseph story and it’s critical we understand what he’s saying here. There are two ways that we can understand how this works.
The first way is to suggest God actively caused all these events to happen. In this view, we would say that God made sure that everything played out exactly as he wanted it to. That he not only wanted Joseph to become the second most powerful person in Egypt but that this was exactly the way he wanted to accomplish that. This is the kind of view that loves to say “Everything happens for a reason”. This view essentially looks at God as the cosmic cause for each and every effect. And so God caused Potiphar to promote Joseph and God caused the prison warden to look favourable on him as well.
But the problem with this view is that if God caused those things to happen, then what about all the negative turns in this story? Did God cause Joseph’s brothers to hate him and sell him into slavery? Did God cause Potiphar’s wife to lust after Joseph and accuse him of attempted raped? And if that’s the case… if God not only allowed those things to happen but actively caused them, then what exactly does that say about the character of God?
If everything happens for a reason, as some people are fond of saying, then what do we do with the really, really dark stuff that happens in this world? What do we do when we hear stories of molestation or abuse? What do we do when we hear stories of massacres and genocide? Does God active cause those things to happen? And if he does… can we really, honestly say that God is loving, merciful and kind?
Now, fortunately, there’s another way we can look at the story of Joseph. The second way is to say that instead of causing everything to happen, God has a unique ability to use everything to bring about his ultimate desire. Here’s what I mean by that.
God told Joseph that he would become a powerful ruler and there were many ways that God might have done that. But then Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. And that’s not something that God wanted or caused to happen. But rather than giving up, God worked with it. God guided the traders to make sure Joseph lands in the household of Potiphar, who is very close to Pharaoh. Which means, we can see how Joseph could probably go from Potiphar’s house directly to Pharaoh and become a ruler. But then Potiphar’s wife lied about Joseph and got him arrest. Once again, this is a negative turn in the story. Not one God specifically wanted to happen, but something that God could use. Even in prison, we see God working in Joseph’s life. He was put in charge of the whole prison and even though the cupbearer original forgot about him, ultimately Joseph was brought in front of Pharaoh.
What the story of Joseph shows us is not that God actively causes everything to happen, but rather that God uses everything to advance his purposes. Every aspect of your life is redeemable by God. God doesn’t cause bad things to happen. God doesn’t cause people to people to sin. Instead, he takes every choice and every decision and every action and uses all of it. In God’s economy, nothing is ever wasted.
This is our hope. Not that God will eventually do away with everything and start over, but that Jesus can and will take all the negative, sinful stuff of this world and ultimately use it to reconcile all things to himself. Our hope is that Jesus will continually use us to tell a better story.
I’ve sort of hinted at this in the past, but I’ve been married before. Karly is my second wife. Before I was married to Karly I was married to a woman named Amanda. And when Amanda and I met, I thought I would eventually move out to Calgary and start some new churches out there. Both Amanda and I went to Kingswood University and one of the requirements to graduate at Kingswood was that you have to do a six-month internship at a church.
At the time I had never lived in Halifax or anywhere in Nova Scotia, but Amanda had heard about Deep Water. It was a new church in Halifax that was attracting a lot of young people. So we contacted Deep Water about her doing her internship and they let us come. We both loved Deep Water and Halifax, but my heart was still in Calgary where I felt called by God.
After her internship we moved out to Calgary and started the process of making contacts, building relationships and making plans to start this new church. But after nine months in Calgary, right before we were about to launch the church publicly, Amanda decided that she didn’t want to be married anymore and she left.
After she left, I got a call from the pastor at Deep Water. He said, “I have a part-time, short-term position at Deep Water. Are you interested?” So I came back to Halifax for a short-term position, which eventually turned into a full-time position. I ended up being at Deep Water for three and a half years.
Now here’s the problem. God definitely used me at Deep Water. But the only reason I moved to Halifax in the first place was for Amanda’s internship. And the only reason I was available to come back to Halifax was because Amanda left. If we say that everything happens for a reason, then did God actively make me get married to Amanda? And if so, did he also actively make Amanda leave me?
It’s not that everything happens for a reason. But God can use everything for his glory and our benefit. Our hope is in Jesus’ ability to redeem everything. And redemption is not about simply getting rid of the old and replacing it with something new. Redemption is not about wiping everything away and starting over. God’s redemption is about bringing something good out of the sin and destruction in our lives.
The thing that’s so marvellously and amazing is that God is never stumped by us. When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery; when Potiphar’s wife lied about him and got him thrown into prison; when Amanda decided to leave me, at no point did God look at these events and think “Well I have no idea what I’m supposed to do now!” No matter what we do, no matter what happens in our lives God constantly says, “I can work with that.”
This is our hope. Our hope is found in the fact that Jesus can and will continue to redeem everything. That all things are being reconciled to God through him. This is exactly what Paul is talking about in Colossians 1:19-20 when he says, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”
Jesus is in the process of reconciling all things in heaven and on earth to God the Father. Our hope is that Jesus will continue to tell a better story; a story of redemption and reconciliation of all things. Now… how exactly does this hope remain into the age to come? Once we’re reconciled, isn’t that it? Once we’re redeemed, isn’t that it?
Two weeks ago we mentioned that if you take the sin portion out of the Bible that you still have a Bible. If you take out all the parts that deal with sin, then you’re left with four chapters. Genesis 1-2, which take place before the fall into sin and Revelation 21-22 which take place after God has done away with sin once and for all. Now, two observations about this.
First of all, in Genesis 1, when the first people are created the very first command God gives them in verse 28 is “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” So from the very beginning, even before sin, the first people were tasked with increasing in number, spreading out over the whole earth doing something with it.
Second, God puts these first people, Adam and Eve, in a garden in Eden. And yet, in Revelation 21, after sin has been done away with, we see a city and many people constantly passing through its gates. So in Genesis, we see two people, a garden and a command to be fruitful and to increase in number. And then in Revelation, we see tons of people, a city and people constantly going in and out. A city is more complex than a garden and a multitude of people are more complex in their organization than two people.
What we see, even if we remove the sin stuff from the Bible, is that this world is supposed to be dynamic and changing. Even without sin, we see progress and movement. Which means, even in the next age, there will be change. We will be heading somewhere. We won’t just sit around and look at each other. There will be things to do. Even in the age to come, Jesus will continue to use us to tell and even better story.
Remember from last week how we talked about how love continues to increase and overflow. That increasing, overflowing love will continue into the next age and it will continue to increase more and more and more. And Jesus will continue to tell and better and better and better story.
Susan Hedahl says it this way in her book Preaching 1 Corinthians 13, “Hope remains into the eschaton because hope is not wishful thinking but is the ardent anticipation and deep trust that God will do that which God promises to do, that is, rectify the cosmos to God’s own self.” Hope will continue into the age to come because God will continue to rectify the cosmos to himself.
And I’ll be honest, I have no idea what that’s going to look like. But I don’t have to. Because hope isn’t about having all the answers. Hope is an attitude of confidently looking forward to what is good and beneficial. And so I don’t need to know how God is going to do it, but I trust that he will. I trust that God will continue to tell an increasingly better story in and through us. And as he does that, he will receive increasingly great honour and glory and praise and worship.
Now, if this is the case, what does it mean for us today? How does this hope in God’s future change our current, present reality? First of all, since God is remaking all of the cosmos, that means that he’s currently remaking you as well. He’s in the process of reconciling you as we speak. N.T. Wright speaks to this in his book Surprised by Hope. He says, “The intermediate stage between the resurrection of Jesus and the renewal of the whole world is the renewal of human beings—you and me!—in our own lives of obedience here and now.”
As we live lives of obedience, as we respond to Jesus more in our lives, he’s continuing to renew and restore and reconcile and redeem us and then through us, redeem the whole world. Which mean the way you live matters. The way you engage with the world around you matters.
The problem with the view I had growing up, that the world would get progressively worse and worse until Jesus had to torch it all and start over was that it allowed me to completely abdicate my responsibility to work at building for the Kingdom of God. If Jesus doesn’t actually change my heart or my actions until after I die and if this physical world around us is perishing and will eventually be burned up, then why modify my behaviour at all? Why should I be more compassionate or merciful or kind? Why should I work towards making the world more equitable or fair for others? Why should I care about the environment or politics or civil rights?
But that’s not at all what Scripture teaches us. Scripture constantly shows that God works through people, like in the Joseph story, as Joseph says himself, “to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” The reconciliation of the cosmos, the universe, the whole world, starts with the redemption and reconciliation of individual Christians who experience radical transformation from Jesus and in turn go out and work for the redemption of others. So first of all, this matters today because you are being redeemed and restored for the expressed purpose and working towards the reconciliation of all things.
And second, this matters today because no matter what junk you have in your past, there is nothing too powerful for God to use. God is not stumped by your past. He’s not confused by your sin. He’s not worried about how to use your story. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or what was done to you. God can and will use it. No matter what has happened to you God can and will always say, “I can work with that.”
Jesus is remaking your story and he will continue to use you to reconcile all things to himself. Because in God’s economy nothing is ever wasted. Not everything happens for a reason, but God uses everything.
The hope we have in Jesus, the hope that will remain into the age to come is not wishful thinking, it’s not the kind of hope that buries it’s head in the sand and pretends everything is fine. The hope we have in Jesus is the confidence that no matter what happens in this life, that Jesus has the unique ability to take it and to continue telling an increasingly better story.
This week, here’s what I want you to do. As you’re spending time with God reading Scripture and praying, I want you to reflect on this. What are some areas of your life that you have always felt are irredeemable? What are some of the things in your life, maybe you did them or maybe they were done to you, and you’ve always thought “There’s no way this is going to end in anything other than pain and misery”? This week, take those moments, take all of that pain and sorrow and hurt and loss and ask God to make something beautiful out of it. Ask God to show you how he might want to redeem your story through those moments. Nothing is ever wasted by God. He uses it all to tell an increasingly better story in our lives.