Sunday’s sermon: Defending Hope

Hope Tutu quote

Texts used – Acts 17:16-28 and 1 Peter 3:13-22

  • Over the last decade or so, there’s one type of movie that seems to have exploded in popularity: superhero movies.
    • Probably started with the original X-Men franchise → has expanded from there to include Spiderman, Ironman, Captain America, the Avengers, more X-Men, Batman, even Guardians of the Galaxy and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
    • Superhero movies are great because they speak to people of all genders and all generations.
      • Certainly geared toward the generation that grew up reading these characters in comic books
      • Also appeals to generation that may have watched some of these characters on TV
        • Live action Batman show from the 1960s with recently-deceased Adam West
        • Cartoons like X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that were so popular when I was a kid
    • Whether you are an aficionado on the life story of all the characters involved in these movies or whether, when you sit down in that theater seat, you’re seeing them for the very first time, there is something about the superhero story that draws us. → all have somewhat similar basic storyline
      • Character experiences some sort of disadvantage/hardship
        • Superman = orphaned and dispelled from his home planet just before it was destroyed
        • X-Men = isolation/fear/shame of being a mutant
        • Spiderman = basically a social outcast overlooked by the girl he loves
      • But despite these rough beginnings, for each and every one of these superheroes, there is a rising from the ashes – an incredible, immeasurable good that comes from their darkest of days. We see their struggles and identify in them our own challenges and hurdles. We watch them not only overcome but triumph, and we are encouraged to be strong and steadfast in the face of whatever trials we are facing. To put it simply, we continue to love and adore these superhero stories – in whatever form: comic books, graphic novels, cartoons, live action shows, or movies – we continue to love and adore these superhero stories because they remind us of the power of hope.
        • Hope for the good guy
        • Hope for a happy ending
        • Hope that there is more to the story
  • Frankly, the world is full of stories about hope … poems about hope … enough inspirational quotes about hope to fill a Hallmark outlet store and then some. Hope seems to be one of those topics that everyone loves to talk about and is fearful to talk about at the same time because hope is such a strange and sometimes contradictory dichotomy in and of itself.
    • Hope is fragile and tenuous … BUT … hope is strong (strong motivator, brings us strength)
    • Hope is all about looking ahead … BUT … hope can only exist when what is ahead is unknowable
      • Heb 11: Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see.[1]
    • Hope is a brilliant light … BUT … hope shines brightest in the darkness
      • Archbishop Desmond Tutu: Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.
    • Illustrated by Carl Sandberg poem – “Hope Is A Tattered Flag”

Hope is a tattered flag and a dream of time.
Hope is a heartspun word, the rainbow, the shadblow in white
The evening star inviolable over the coal mines,
The shimmer of northern lights across a bitter winter night,
The blue hills beyond the smoke of the steel works,
The birds who go on singing to their mates in peace, war, peace,
The ten-cent crocus bulb blooming in a used-car salesroom,
The horseshoe over the door, the luckpiece in the pocket,
The kiss and the comforting laugh and resolve—
Hope is an echo, hope ties itself yonder, yonder.
The spring grass showing itself where least expected,
The rolling fluff of white clouds on a changeable sky,
The broadcast of strings from Japan, bells from Moscow,
Of the voice of the prime minister of Sweden carried
Across the sea in behalf of a world family of nations
And children singing chorals of the Christ child
And Bach being broadcast from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
And tall skyscrapers practically empty of tenants
And the hands of strong men groping for handholds
And the Salvation Army singing God loves us….

    • Captures all sides of faith – the tenuous and tattered side, the light and enlightening side, the underdog side, the fill-up-a-room side, the soothing side, the uplifting side, the all-encompassing side … and everything in between.
  • Throughout the Bible – spanning both the Old and New Testaments – all of these different natures of hope are captured in the variety of words that have been used for hope. – accompanied by a variety of connotations
    • Heb. “hope”
      • Tikvah: expectation, hope (kind of hope that makes your heart and stomach flutter)
      • Yachal: wait, hope (more uncertain – dubious, shaky)
      • Michveh: hope, confidence/security (kind of hope
    • Gr. “hope” = consistently helpitzo: hope, expect, foresee → And I don’t know about you, but I find something theologically copacetic in that – about the Good News of the gospel, about the free gift of God’s everlasting grace poured out for all, about Christ’s coming and dying and rising, about eternal hope conquering sin and death forevermore – there’s something about all of that being tied to one word that feels so theologically fulfilling.
      • One word in Gr., yes, but many variations of that word – different forms, different parts of speech, different tenses that carry a variety of connotations in Gr. (much more so than in English) → Just as each of us have different stories and need different manifestations of that same enduring hope in God and Jesus Christ throughout our lives, so throughout the New Testament there are many variations on the same linguistic “hope.”
  • This is what we see in our two Scripture readings this morning.
    • Passage from 1 Pet → encouraging all believers in the hope of our faith
      • Acknowledges the presence of challenges in our lives – text: But happy are you, even if you suffer because of righteousness! Don’t be terrified or upset by them. … Act in this way so that those who malign your good lifestyle in Christ may be ashamed when they slander you. It is better to suffer for doing good (if this could possibly be God’s will) than for doing evil.[2]
      • Crucial verse: Instead, regard Christ as holy in your hearts. Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it.[3] → “Whenever anyone asks you to speak of your hope, be ready to defend it.”
        • Important linguistic distinction – Gr. “defend” = logic, reason, speech (not violence) → Defend it with your knowledge, with your own conviction and belief. Defend your hope with your testimony, your own personal experience – all those times in your life when hope seemed ridiculous, ludicrous, completely crazy and out-of-bounds … and yet, that hope – hope in God, hope in the strength and courage that you know God can provide, hope in the promise of new life thanks to God’s grace, hope in a Savior who knows all the pangs and prejudices of being human and yet still chose to live among us and go to the cross for us – that hope, ridiculous and ludicrous and out-of-bounds as it may be, has gotten you through.
          • Peter’s encouragement = we have to be ready to defend that hope – to speak to it and share it openly – with every ounce of our faith
      • The rest of the passage from 1 Peter is a remind of just where the hope comes from – the story of our faith, of Christ’s suffering and sacrifice, of God’s patience and unshakable desire for us, of the hope poured out in the waters of baptism and our salvation in Christ’s resurrection. Our belief in these things, these tenets of our faith, uphold and fuel that hope, even in the darkest of times.
        • Archbishop Desmond Tutu: Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.
        • Acts text = hope in action → Paul doing exactly this – defending his hope to the people of Athens
          • Athens = center of universe when it came to theological and philosophical thought at the time
            • Mish-mash of belief in the traditional Greek pantheon of gods/goddesses (Zeus, Athena, etc.) as well as other, more family-centered systems of belief (belief in household spirits, etc.)
            • Home to the school of a wide variety of different philosophical ideas: Sophists, Stoics, Epicureans, etc. – all intellectuals who taught courses on things like logic and rhetoric (how to debate and craft words convincingly)
            • Home to philosophical giants like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (all lived, taught, died prior to Paul’s time) → In fact, Paul uses some Greek philosophical techniques in a number of his arguments and persuasions throughout his New Testament writings, especially when he’s talking about the physical body versus the spirit and his treatment of wisdom. Our text for this morning is a bit of that as well – Paul turning Greek philosophical technique back on its originators to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with them.
          • First, hear the typical Athenian hunger for knowledge – text: They took [Paul] into custody and brought him to the council on Mars Hill. “What is this new teaching? Can we learn what you are talking about? You’ve told us some strange things and we want to know what they mean. (They said this because all Athenians as well as the foreigners who live in Athens used to spend their time doing nothing but talking about or listening to the newest thing.)[4]
          • Paul’s response = story of faith
            • Covers creation (“God, who made the world and everything in it, is Lord of heaven and earth.”[5]), God’s love and desire to be in relationship with all of creation
            • Uses Greek philosophical rhetoric and both physical and literary landmarks that would have been extremely familiar to the people of Athens (with a little bit of flattery thrown in to keep their attention) – text: Paul stood up in the middle of the council on Mars Hill and said, “People of Athens, I see that you are very religious in every way. As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you. … God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him. In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us. In God we live, move, and exist. As some of your own poets said, ‘We are his offspring.’”[6] → Paul stands up and speaks of his hope, defending it not in ways that are combative or accusatory or divisive – not in ways that are meant to browbeat or shame his listeners into belief – but in a way that’s conversational, a way that utilizes the cultural cues and landmarks around him to relate to those listening, a way that opens up for true dialogue – speaking, listening, and attempting to understand. Friends, this is the type of defending that we seem to have lost track of in this country. We carry this powerful hope: our hope in God – in all that God has done for us, in all that we can be in God’s presence and in service to God, in the love and peace and unity of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. As Peter spells out, it is our mandate to be ready to defend that hope but to do so “with respectful humility, maintaining a good conscience.”[7] God doesn’t promise that this will be easy, and we certainly know that in the current cultural and political climate, the pendulum has swung pretty far in the other direction – away from respectful, humble discourse from a place of good conscience – but that is indeed our call: to share our hope – the Good News of our faith – without tearing down other people’s hope in the process. Amen.



[1] Heb 11:1.

[2] 1 Pet 3:14, 16-17.

[3] 1 Pet 3:15.

[4] Acts 17:19-21.

[5] Acts 17:24a.

[6] Acts 17:22-23, 27-28.

[7] 1 Pet 3:16a.

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