Hoping Against Hope

As a quiet, shy introverted kid, I really struggled with get-to-know you icebreaker type of games. Whether it was “two truths and a lie” or “tell us something about interesting about yourself” it was always really difficult for me. One of the things that I found most troubling was the game where in which you sat down on the floor with your back up against someone else is back, and by pushing against each other you were able to stand up without using your hands or even bending over. This activity stressed me out because what if I pushed harder than the other person or they push harder than me and we ended up knocking each other over? There was just a lot of unknowns and it just didn’t seem worth it to prove that when things work together, there are significant results.

       This simple exercise came to mind when I was reading through our scripture lesson set for today in the lectionary, particularly as I turned toward God’s covenant between Abraham and Sarah and Paul’s reflection on it in Romans. The way in which Paul reflects and shares about Abraham and Sarah’s faith here is that their faith was not the sole force at play, but rather that faith and hope work together to yield results.

All throughout Paul’s letter to the Romans, from which our second lesson today is pulled, Paul speaks to the power and expansive flexibility that can be found in a life of faith, and in our passage today, we see the interplay between faith and hope. A great example of this, according to Paul, is the retelling of the story of God’s covenant with Abraham. In this covenant, God promises to make Abraham the father of many nations, which we heard read from Genesis. In this passage, Abraham’s age of about 99 and Sarah’s of about 90 made the birth of a child so far outside of the realm of hope that it was laughable. Yet even in this, God also pours out God’s blessing upon Sarah, who bore the great burden of living life as a barren woman; while the covenant is with Abraham, according to Genesis, it is Sarah who receives God’s blessing in the fulfillment of this covenant.

In Romans, as Paul is recounting this story of faith and hope dancing together underneath God’s blessing and covenant, he upholds this as an example of what a life of faith could do; what a life of faith could produce.  In this passage, there is perhaps no greater example of God’s continual, unfailing embrace of faithfulness than the making of Abraham and Sarah to be the father and mother of many nations; to be the familial line of the very Christ. Paul so beautifully describes the faith of the patriarch and matriarch when he says that they were “hoping against hope.”

Hoping against hope, Abraham and Sarah believed in the mere possibility that God…that the God who brought life out of death…might bring this covenant to pass. Hoping against hope they leaned upon their faith and let a tiny seed of improbable hope blossom into a vibrant life as their son Isaac would be born the very next year. Hoping against hope, they did not take stock of their physical bodies or restrictions or the improbability bearing children at their great age. Paul, a master of rhetoric, quite comically describes that Abraham was near 100 and “as good as dead.” A master of rhetoric, but not always the most tactful, Paul describes that everything about Abraham and Sarah would lead them to believe that not only were they as good as dead, but that any sort of hope of a child should be dead as well.

       In my prayer this week, the phrase “as good as dead” continually came back to me; not as I thought about the age of Abraham or of Sarah’s womb, but as I thought about other things in this world. There are so many things that I tend to think of as good as dead; there are so many fragile, broken things that are as good as dead. So many things that our culture or society brushes off as good as dead, and yet I cannot hear these passages from Genesis and Romans and not be hopeful. For what can God do with something that is as good as dead?

What can God do with something for which we have given up hope? What can God do with the tiny, improbable, hope against hope that we might have for a better world? What can God do with the things that we feel are outside of the realm of hope?

       My friends, faith is what leads to a hopeful life, even in the midst of death, even among the things that are as good as dead. For Paul, the improbability of the world’s restrictions can do nothing to contain the hope against hope that find it’s home in God’s faithfulness, and we see it with Abraham and Sarah. Because it is faith that leads to a hopeful life, even in the midst of death.

As good as dead, hoping against hope, yet, still, in all confidence of God’s faithfulness, I dream of a world that is not marked by severe injustices and inequities. I hope for our lives to be more punctuated by love and compassion, even if it means we have to lean against the world’s continual pull toward hate and cynicism. I am hopeful, I am literally full of hope against hope, that God’s kingdom will come, and that God’s will be done.

       Hoping against hope, I pray this for you as well. I pray that the things that feel as good as dead in your life will find this hope. I pray that things in your life which feel beyond hope may become the foundation upon which you can lean into your faith and that, in that, your hope will grow beyond what is imaginable. I hope this because the God that we worship with joy and wonder is never bound to anything in our world, not even death, not even to death on the cross, not even when hope is as good as dead. I pray this Lenten season that we can not only turn and return to the God who is always faithful, but that we can let this hope, even if it is the tiniest light in a sea of darkness, I pray that it will continue to grow. Because the goal of this season is not to proudly account for our faithfulness, but rather to let ourselves be caried away by the vastness of God’s everlasting faithfulness. May we lean upon our faith and let the tiny scraps of hope that remain blossom into something far more beautiful than we can possibly imagine. And just like Abraham and Sarah, hoping against hope, this is my hope for us all.

A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church via livestream for Lent 2B on February 28, 2021.

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