Easter 2 · 1 Peter 1:3-9 · March 30, 2008
By Glenn A. Nielsen,
Good Hopes that Die; The Better Hope that Lives
Hope is good. In a book by John Ortberg (If You Want to Walk on the Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001], 159), he cites medical research that studied men after they had had their first heart attack. It was based on the degree of hopefulness or pessimism. Twenty-one of the twenty-five most pessimistic men died within eight years. Only six of the most optimistic died in the same time period. Hope was a better predictor of death than such medical risk factors as high blood pressure and cholesterol level.
Mr. Ortberg adds a humorous twist to make the point that hope is good: “Better to eat Twinkles in hope than to eat broccoli in despair” (159).
What is hope? Hope is when you are struggling and you believe something better will happen. Hope is the expectation that something good will happen, something you have not seen or have happen yet. Hope is when you are holding out for a future that is rosier than what you are going through now.
When my sister was first diagnosed with cancer in the liver, we hoped she would beat the odds and get better.³ We hoped that the medicine would work and destroy the cancer cells. We hoped that exercise and diet would make a difference. She was given just a few months to live, and when the one year mark passed we held out hope against hope that she would have more time with us. Hope is good when you are looking for a return to health.
When we hear of terrorist attacks and suicide bombings, we hope that peace will come to this battered world. We watch world leaders meet and hope that something good will happen for a change. We learn of a major terrorist arrested and we hope that the violence will be slowed down. Hope is good when you want bloodshed to stop.
When we turn on the news and our eyes are met with a bridge collapsing, we hope that people are not hurt or dead. We hope that rescue workers are successful in their searches. We hope that the bridges we travel over are sound and will not fall down. Hope is good when you are concerned about keeping people safe and out of danger.
Yes, hope is good, but deep inside we know that hopes die all too soon when the future is uncertain or what we hope for will only be temporary. My sister died of cancer just a few months after that one year mark on the calendar. Our good hopes were dashed when no more medicine could be given, when no more food could be eaten.
A lull in the war against terrorism is shattered by another bomb exploding, another plot uncovered, another day of soldiers killed. Our good hopes disappear when evil wins out over peace, when death takes innocent lives.
Deep inside we know the next disaster is soon to happen. A hurricane, tornado, plane crash, flood, tsunami, building collapse, earthquake—something will be the next breaking news story. Our good hopes for safety die just a bit more each day with each new catastrophe.
Now do not get me wrong here. Hope is good and we are not to give up hoping for health, safety, peace, and a better future. Those are good hopes. But they are also dying hopes because they are uncertain or will not last.
It is not hard to make a list of words that begin with the letter “D” that are words describing how these good hopes are dying hopes. Discouragement, despair, disease, disaster, devil, disappointment, disobedience, depression, distance from God, detractors, and death. The last one is literally the killer of hope—death.
I am not sure why, but so many cemeteries seem to be on a low hill, exposed to the harshest weather conditions. In the heat of summer, with the grass turned brown, or the dead of winter, with an icy wind blowing down your neck, you stand amidst a sea of eroding gravestones, and deep inside you know hopes for health and safety and something good died when the caskets were lowered into the ground. Yes, good hopes die.
And yet, even when these good hopes die, we know there is a better hope that still lives. Against all dying hopes, we have one hope that lives deep inside of us. You can hear it in the apostle Peter’s words. “Praise be to the God and Father.” “Greatly rejoice.” “An inexpressible and glorious joy.” “Praise and honor.” “New birth.” “An inheritance that can never spoil, fade or perish.” These first verses of Peter’s letter shout hope—living hope—as he encourages his readers with the reason for the better hope that lives. God has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead!
What is this better hope? Hope is when you are struggling and you believe something better will happen because Jesus will never leave you nor forsake you. He lives and guards the salvation that has been given to you. Hope is the expectation that something good will happen, something we have not seen or had happen yet. No, we have not seen heaven yet. We have not experienced life after death. We have not had the last day resurrection from the dead that will empty all the cemeteries in the world. But that inheritance is kept in heaven for us. Hope is when you are holding out for a future that is rosier than what you are going through now. Even when good hopes die, we have deep within us a better hope, the hope of the resurrected Lord Jesus who lives for us, who lives within us, who lives to give us life, peace, and safety with Him that will never fade or die or disappear.
My parents are buried in a small cemetery, exposed to the harsh weather conditions. When I visit their graves in the summer, the heat has turned the grass into a crinkly carpet of brown blades. A stifling breezeless afternoon brings sweat to my forehead as I walk to their graves. Death surrounds me. But then I look down and see someone has placed flowers on their graves. The color and beauty of the flowers remind me that hope lives even in a cemetery.
You see, the flowers take me back to Easter and all the flowers that fill a church on that joyous day of celebration. They take me back to the first Easter morning when Jesus’ tomb is empty. I see Mary Magdalene, whose hopes were dashed by Jesus’ death on the cross, now holding on tighdy to her risen Lord. Her hopes are alive again. Deep inside she knows that even though death may kill some good hopes, she has her arms around the better hope, the eternal hope, and the hope for salvation that cannot be taken from her no matter what “D” word may invade her life.
And this same hope lives within us as we bury a sister, a mother, a spouse, a child, or a close friend. In the service at the graveside, we read this paragraph:
We now commit the body of (you fill in the name) to its resting place; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subdue all things to Himself (Pastoral Care Companion [CPH, 2007], 134).
In preparing for this sermon I came across a helpful item of how Easter brings a living hope. It is just a short saying: “Easter is the New Year’s Day of the soul” (A. B. Simpson in “Inspiring Quotations,” Christianity Today, Vol. 41, no. 4). New Year’s Day: a day of hope for a brand new year. A day pictured as a new baby full of life and promise walking in while the old man of the last year walks away. Easter is the New Year’s Day of our souls. The old and dying give way to the new and living. The resurrection of Jesus Christ brings new birth deep within us: it brings a faith that lives in the promise of something better kept in heaven for us. Because Jesus lives, our hope lives.
My mother died in 1993, but I still remember what a green thumb she had. She loved African violets and a plant called Christmas Cactus. If a leaf broke off, she would replant it and it would grow. She always had hope that she could grow another plant. I bought a African violet this week to remind me that a small cemetery in Wisconsin is not a place where hopes die, but deep inside is a living hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
And you know what? The living hope makes even the dying hopes good. We hope for health because we believe that God’s healing touch reaches into our lives today to give temporary reprieve from the disease and despair that invade our bodies. We hope for peace because we believe God works times of quiet and protection as a little bit of relief from the destruction and death of this violent world. We hope for safety because we believe God sends His guardian angels to defend us from so many times of disaster.
Yes, hope is good, but even when good hopes die, we have been given a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Amen.
³ I use personal stories in my sermons. You may use this story with proper reference given. Or you may recall a similar situation with someone in your own family or a congregational member.