by the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair
Hoping against hope, he believed.
When I told Stuart that my theme for today would be ‘hoping against hope’, he thought that I might be going to speak about the situation of Rangers Football Club! Well, no, not really. But it does kind of illustrate the way in which this phrase is one that has jumped out of the pages of the bible and into the language of everyday life. Hoping against hope is a kind of last-ditch, skin-of-the-teeth, attempt to cling to an optimism which, deep down, we don’t really think has much basis in reality. ‘I’m just hoping against hope for a first, for good news, for a reprieve, for a result, for promotion.’
For Abraham, or at least for Paul’s interpretation of Abraham, this hoping against hope is based on a trust that God will keep his word. It’s also a realisation that Abraham himself does not have it in him to make that word a reality. Abraham, you would think, might have an idea of how precarious his situation is – but if he could hear Paul’s account, he might wonder if this guy was really on his side:
He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.
I can imagine Abraham saying: ‘yes, OK, I know; you don’t have to go on about it!’ Many years ago, in the Presbytery of St Andrews, a minister was referred to as being ‘in the departure lounge of life’; it was meant to sound affectionate, I think, but that’s not how it was heard.
But Abraham does know that he cannot do it if he depends on himself – he has to depend on something beyond himself, outside himself, outwith the scope of his abilities. He has to depend on the promise he believes has been made to him, a covenant in which he believes himself to be included.
Last week we looked at the covenant with Noah – the covenant with all flesh, the covenant whose sign is the rainbow, the promise that God will never again wipe out the life of earth, that Noah and his family have won for all flesh a fresh start. So this week we come to the covenant of Abraham: the covenant of posterity, of multiplication, of a future.
And much of this covenant is the application to Abraham and his descendants of the covenant already made with Noah. It is the claim on behalf of the children of Abraham to the promise earlier made to all flesh. In particular it is the acknowledgement of faith, the response of faith, to a covenantal God. It is the understanding that a covenant made by God depends on God – and not on frail flesh, fallible humanity.
So Paul seizes on this understanding as a chance to speak of the God of grace, the God whose promises overcome, supersede, the backsliding and the faithlessness that are the way that humanity so often travels. It’s not about what you deserve, Paul says, it’s about what God has promised. ‘All my hope,’ we sang, ‘on God is founded.’
Lent is the time above all times when we do our best to take seriously the limitations within which we live. Lent is the time when we do our best to acknowledge the many and various ways in which we are tempted to go off in wrong directions – and the many and various times we do just that. But Lent is also the time when we ought to do our best to remember the promise, and to remember who it is who makes and keeps the promise.
Paul’s main point is that the promises of God do not, indeed cannot, depend on our response. The promises of God are not predicated on our keeping of religious laws. The promises of God are not about human decision; they’re not even about human understanding, nor even about human belief. Paul reminds us that what God is about is the bringing into being of things that do not exist. God promised Noah, and here promises Abraham, a future. It’s a future of descendants, of successors, of generation – in other words, God’s promise is about a life to come – a life yet to be made, a life constantly generated in and by the promise of God.
And Abraham, says Paul, finds that the promise applies to him by believing in the one who makes it. Abraham looks at the circumstances of his life, at the barren, desolate, terminal state of it, and believes in the future and its life – neither of which yet exist. And that belief changes who he is and how he acts. It changes his decisions; it persuades him to strike out into a future he may well have been tempted to think was not for the likes of him.
It is not that God’s promise is dependent on Abraham’s actions, it is that Abraham’s actions are liberated by God’s promise. So what might all that mean for us today, for us as individuals, for us as the church, for us as a society, or even as a world community?
It means that it is never too late to do something new, something daring, something imaginative. It means that the supposedly religious people who, down through the ages, have, by word or deed or sandwich board, proclaimed that ‘the end is nigh’ have got it wrong. It means that the tendency among many as they get older, to think that the world is going to the dogs, or to hell in a handcart, means they are failing to listen, failing to believe.
It means for the church that it must always act as if it believes in the future, and not just in the past; that it must always behave as if the world is the gift of God, not the enemy of the faith; that it must always plan for a future it cannot see, that it must believe in a life it does not yet know.
Hoping against hope. It’s an attitude we associate with resignation, with a faith that is hanging by a thread. But hoping against hope is a belief that there is hope – hope in the promises of God, hope in the future of God, hope in the life of the world. It’s a belief that even in a world where the barbarism of IS, or the paranoia of Putin, seem to threaten us; where the desperation of war and violence and poverty drives people into the sea; where human beings are bought and sold and demeaned and dehumanised; there is still a future.
And it is because of our faith in that promise of a future that we are called to do what we can to wait upon it, to work for it, to walk into it, to open the life of the future to all God’s people. And, as we walk with Jesus to Jerusalem this season of Lent, we place our trust in the God of the covenant – who promises that, even as we reach Calvary, there is still a future in which to believe.