If you don’t mind a little Christmas in early August, let me tell you about a lovely “model” sermon Martin Luther wrote for the feast of St. Nicholas (December 6). We have a nice English version of this and many other “festival” sermons in Festival Sermons of Martin Luther: The Church translated by Joel R. Baseley.
Although St. Nicholas is shrouded in fables, he was known for serving the poor so it seemed appropriate to remember him through the parable of the imperturbable servant (Luke 12). After a very long wait, through the second and third watch, the master/thief finally arrived. Rather than begrudge the wait, he immediately put on his apron and went to work serving his master as if nothing had interrupted him. When it came time to preach on Santa Claus, Luther discarded all the legends and concentrated on the things that make Christ’s servants persevere: faith, hope, and love.
You may remember from 1 Corinthians 13 that “faith, hope, and love” are the big three things that compose our Christian lives—the greatest being love. It seemed to everyone, except Luther, that when Paul said that love was the greatest of the three, he must have meant that faith was the first step, hope was the middle, and love was the final rung on the ladder into heaven. But that is not what faith, hope, and love mean or how we as evangelicals teach them. Faith is not a first step toward salvation—it is the whole banana. Faith is salvation – whole, complete and total – when it is given freely by God and with God’s holy bond: fidem uistificantem (justifying faith).
Faith is like a horse with blinders because it only beholds God’s promise. It is obsessed with what God has already said. If you have forgotten what God said to you, the best place to go is Joel 2: “Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” In Romans 10, Paul underscores this voluminous promise by saying: “faith comes by preaching, and preaching from God’s own word.” Which word? Habakkuk 2: “The just shall live by faith.” When God says these words to you, through a preacher, it immediately silences all “works-saints” who insist upon being God’s little, special servants. They tell God every day what they are going to do for him, how they will obey, serve and sacrifice, but they end up twiddling their thumbs and getting no work done. They have no patience and ignore the real thing of life—which is faith in God’s simple, pure, clear, unconditional promise: “I forgive you!”
So it is that faith clings to God’s promise and accomplishes everything for us. But why then does God bother giving another promise that he calls “hope”? Is hope another step on the ladder to heaven? No. In fact, hope is more like a fast elevator to hell, yet, when it is a pure gift from God, hope keeps a true servant operating through otherwise unbearable hardships. God promises faith and pledges hope. These are two gifts that live like Siamese twins: faith and hope; promise and pledge. You will never go anywhere with one and not the other.
The connection between faith and hope answers a very old question: if faith alone saves, why bother with hope? Let me ask you this: what happens when you first hear God’s promise of forgiveness? You hear the words, and faith believes them; however, you neither see nor feel their truth. You do not see the promise, you do not feel it, and even worse, you see and feel the promise’s opposite. That means faith, while it possesses everything, is also waiting for sight and feeling to catch up with trust. We have the promise; we don’t wait for that. The promise is clean, done, and given; it is in the bag. But we also find ourselves waiting to see and feel what we have already heard. In this way, Christians are already servants of Christ—but they are also waiting servants. They have the full promise but wait to see and feel it. While they are waiting, questions go through their heads: did that really happen to me? Did God really make his promise and forgive me? Did he send a preacher just for me? Did he really say, “I forgive you,” and did it work for me?
Meanwhile, the master knows what his promise says and to whom he has given it. To stop us from abandoning his word for something that looks better, God adds his own pledge, seal, and oath to the promise. God not only sends his love letter to you with your name on it, but he seals it with a royal seal that does not allow anyone to steal your personal letter. Even you cannot destroy God’s promise for you. God will not let you disparage it by imagining his promise was not fully certified, Grade A, Number 1, and divinely approved.
Faith’s special role is to be happy. Hope’s role is to hang on, wait, and guard you in adversity.
Faith has it easy, as Luther preached it: “Faith’s task is only to pay attention to the promises of God.” Hope has the greater load to pull: “Hope attends solely to what God pledges.” Faith is always and only a happy conscience: he chose me! Meanwhile, hope “waits for what God promised, come what may….” Faith’s special role is to be happy. Hope’s role is to hang on, wait, and guard you in adversity.
In Romans 5, Paul explains that faith gives you peace right here and now. Meanwhile, while hope rejoices along with faith, it does so in the coming glory. While faith is focused on the “right now,” hope concentrates on the unseen glory to come—it anticipates. Hope gives patience, and patience, over time, gives experience. Just as the servant waited and waited to be able to serve the Master, Paul’s “experience” means the longing, waiting, and hurting that attends a promise that you cannot yet see or feel. When you are hung out on the edge of the cliff, then the experience will not yield despair and misery but hope!
While faith is running around having fun, hope “does not let itself be disappointed.” It is like a telescope zoomed in on the “coming glory” and is ready to serve the master the minute glory breaks in. In this way, hope is always a gift from God. It is never your own inner power. You do not drum up hope from within yourself, nor do you “keep hope alive.” Hope is entirely the power of God’s word. Hope is a second word that pledges and seals the first word of promise. Hope never depends upon itself; it depends upon God saying: “as I have promised, so it shall be. When I promise, unlike you, I do not lie. I seal my promise with my own oath. So what if you become unfaithful? I will remain faithful, and that is all that matters.”
Waiting is hard enough, but because the devil does not like you getting a promise, and because every evil power aligns against a promise, you do not see or feel your promise. Failing to see and feel is no small thing since those are the ways we “experience” something as true or false. Hope does not feel faith’s merry joy. Instead, it experiences suffering and cross. That is why Christ told his disciples, “pick up your cross and follow me” (Mark 8), which says: “Have patience now. Hope! Depend upon my promise that I have pledged and sealed. You feel and see nothing but sins and death, even though I have said there is no sin and you will not die.”
Paul explained to us that hope is an experience. The first thing hope experiences is sin and death. But God’s gift of hope then kicks in to give you something you are not able to give to yourself: it patiently waits.
Jesus is well aware that after you receive his promise, your own personal sin begins speaking to you as if it were some kind of ventriloquist: “Look, you are a sinner! Don’t you feel it? You know what sinners get! You have to die for it!” At that moment, hope jumps in and talks back—talking smack and mocking sin: “Wait a minute! It was God who promised forgiveness, not me. He sealed it, not me! Off with your head, you lousy sin!” Then, after silencing your sin, hope turns around to talk directly to you, apart from your sin, saying: “it will get better! Wait it out! He’ll get here.” That is why Paul explained to us that hope is an experience. The first thing hope experiences is sin and death. But God’s gift of hope then kicks in to give you something you are not able to give to yourself: it patiently waits, clinging to God’s promise, and says, like David: “Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope” (Ps. 16:9).
Over time, hope does not create moral character (as the Sophists thought), but instead, it builds a character of utter, complete reliance on God rather than yourself. Reliance is what “carries us,” as Luther said. Hope learns about the fatherly way God loves us since a father strengthens faith by injuring it, by pushing it, and “throwing you into all kinds of tragedy.” Why? So you rely only on him and are carried only by him. God gives you something you cannot generate for yourself: patience, endurance, and hope that “it will be better!” Believe me, I would never say such a thing outside of God’s eccentric gift of hope: “the sun will come back and shine, the storm passes.” Of course, that sounds like Annie, but what she lacked was the basis of faith in God’s prior promise. When you have his promise and his pledge, then you can live with God treating you in this “fatherly way…hiding life under death, heaven under hell, wisdom under foolishness, grace under sins.”
Once God has made faith and hope in you, then you will actually stick with a neighbor who is stuck in his sins.
So it was for Abraham, David, and all the old leathery patriarchs and matriarchs of faith. God promised, pledged, and made both faith and hope arise in them. Subsequently, one last thing happens to a Christian. From faith and hope, love comes pouring out. Who ever thought that would happen? Once God has made faith and hope in you, then you will actually stick with a neighbor who is stuck in his sins. Nobody else will stick with the stuck. Faith that is confirmed in hope is the only thing in the world that enables you to put on your apron and serve another with love—even the master himself, who has taken his sweet time to arrive. Suddenly you become the effective head of a little hospital, taking care of every sick and languishing person the world has chewed up and spit out.
It doesn’t surprise me that Luther wrote this sermon about the same time he wrote his famous Freedom of a Christian (1520). Faith, hope, and love, these three: by the time you see and feel what you already have in your promise, you will be in heaven. Then, the only thing that remains forever is love—faith and hope will have done their work to bring you through death unto life and will be left behind forever.