The joylessness of much of our preaching could have its deepest root in the hopelessness of so much of our theology-Hermann Sasse
The final Sundays of the Church Year (Pentecost 22/November 10, Pentecost 23/November 17, and the Last Sunday of the Church Year/November 24) invite the preacher to think more deeply and speak more clearly on hope. Hope is different from optimism. Optimism is its opposite. Pessimism is grounded in human potential or lack thereof. Hope is given in Christ and it is dependent on Him. Oswald Bayer notes how hope is tied up with Baptism:
Baptism marks the intersection of the old world and the new. Ethical progress is only possible by returning to Baptism. That progress which promises us good things, and not just good things, but the very best, is converting and returning to Baptism, and therefore a new perception of the world in which we no longer have to choose between optimism and pessimism, between shrill anxiety about the future and euphoric hope regarding the further evolution of the cosmos and the enhancement of its possibilities; all the same it remains true that God the Creator unceasingly does new things. Luther’s courage, which goes beyond optimism and pessimism, is grounded in Baptism. It may be seen in a saying that was not his own, although it fits his understanding very well: ‘Even though the world perish tomorrow, today I will still plant a little apple tree.
This courage, anchored in Baptism, is what the Bible defines as “hope.” Sasse engages the question of, “What is Christian hope?” He responds:
It is given by God, by Christ, by the Holy Spirit. God, and especially Christ, is its content. It belongs to the great charismata God the Holy Spirit gives to those who believe in Christ. It belongs together with faith and love and constitutes with them the triad Paul mentions repeatedly, not only in I Corinthians 13, but also, I Thessalonians 1:3 and Ephesians 4:16 (while other charismata may be lacking, these three are always present in every true believer). Faith cannot be without hope, hope not without faith. And love belongs inseparably together with them. The formula is, so to speak, the shortest description of the Christian life.
The triad also comes to the fore in Paul’s doxological thanksgiving at the beginning of Colossians 1 where he recalls the faith and love of the Colossians in v.4 and their hope reserved in Heaven (v. 5). This doxology becomes the platform for the Apostle’s launching of the great Christological confession of vv. 13-20 (the Epistle for the Last Sunday of the Church Year). In this text, he proclaims the pre-eminence of Christ Jesus through whom all things were created and hold together. It is this Christ who has reconciled to Himself all things, making peace by the blood of His cross. Hence, Paul can say of this Christ that He is our “hope” (Colossian 1:27). Later, in 3:4, he declares that when Christ who is our life appears, we too will appear with Him in glory.
Jesus gives hope in the midst of death, as we see in Luke 23:27-43 (Holy Gospel for the Last Sunday of the Church Year). A dying thief pinned down on a Roman cross for his crimes cries out to Jesus with the petition that the Lord remember him in His kingdom. The Lord meets that prayer with a sure answer: “Today, you will be with Me in paradise.” Here is a man whose life did not merit the Kingdom. He is hopeless were it not for Jesus. Recall Luther’s words: “The Kingdom of God is not being prepared but has been prepared, while the sons of the Kingdom are being prepared, not preparing the Kingdom; that is to say, the Kingdom merits the sons, not the sons the Kingdom.” The thief was born anew to a living hope (see I Peter 1:3) where all human hope had perished and optimism about the future was not an option.
These final Sundays of the Church Year direct and draw us not toward optimistic or pessimistic speculation, but as Johann Georg Hamann reminds us, the Day of the Lord, “will come as a thief in the night and, therefore, there is no time for either political arithmetic or prophetic chronology to bring light.” The signs of the end, spoken of by Jesus in Luke 21:5-28 (Gospel for Pentecost 23), do not invite calculation but repentance and faith so that bent over bodies with downward gaze might “straighten up,” for redemption draws near (Luke 21:28). These signs which, “announce the coming of the Kingdom as the first dim light of dawn announces the coming of the new day. But the day is not yet there.” Hope is faith focused toward the future God has promised, enduring this old world with love that gives of itself freely to the neighbor.
Hope is neither apathetic nor fanatical. It is marked by a particular sobriety, looking to the future while engaging the present. The Epistle for Pentecost 23 (II Thessalonians 3:1-13) with Paul’s exhortation, that Christians are not to be given to idleness and if a man does not work he is not to eat, demonstrates hope is no excuse for lazy indifference to the things of the world. Once again, listen to Sasse:
All the saints of God, all believers, share the hope that according to the wisdom of all nations belongs to the very nature of man, because man lives by hope (e.g., Ecclesiastes 9:4) and cannot live without hope. The hope of the sick for the restoration to health, the hope of the prisoner for freedom, the hope for social justice in a nation and for peace between the nations of the world, all these human hopes are common to Christians and non-Christians and no Christian should disassociate himself from the hopes of his fellow men, as long as these hopes are justified. It would be a grave violation of the great commandment to love our neighbor if we fail to understand these human hopes and if we refused our active participation in the lawful attempts to realize them under the pretext that there are higher things to hope for.
Hope gives Christians the equilibrium to stand firmly in this world while waiting on the blessed Last Day without becoming intoxicated by dreams of Heaven whether in the hereafter or in some renewed society of ecological wholeness where peace and justice reign on this planet.
The Lord has given us a sure and certain promise: a hope which does not disappoint on account of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is in the midst of a world marked by empty and deceptive hopes that have broken hearts and lives that we are sent to deliver the promise of a future that has as its last chapter the resurrection of the body to eternal life with the Lamb who was slain but is alive forevermore.
We who are preachers of hope might very well make Melanchthon’s prayer are own:
To hope grown dim, to hearts turned cold
Speak tongues of fire and make us bold
To shine Your Word of saving grace
Into each dark and loveless place. (585:3 LSB)