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The Soul Afraid Of Dying

Sermon
Sermons On The Second Readings
Series I, Cycle C
Fred Craddock tells a story set in the rural South during the Depression. A father is walking along the side of his house, well, it is more like a shack. He hears his two daughters on the back porch and they're laughing loudly, shrieking with joy and glee. He decides to investigate. On the old back porch on the old wooden steps are his two daughters looking through a Sears Roebuck Catalog. In that they see all of the beautiful clothes, all the bright colors, all the beautiful garments. They are laughing. The father comes up to the children and jerks the book away from them. "Don't you ever let me see you with this book again." He strikes them just a little on the leg and they run into the house trying to stifle their sobs. The father then sits down on the back porch, buries his head in his hands, and cries like a baby.

Now, why did the father do that? Was it because he was not a good father? Was it because he was heartless or cruel? Or entertain another thought. Perhaps he behaved so because he was a good father and only doing what he thought was best for his daughters. Perhaps the father had too often drunk the bitter dregs of disappointment and wanted not to stir false hopes, ill-fated dreams, and expectations in the hearts of his loved ones. Possibly he felt it would be cruel to allow them to have illusions about the beautiful clothes for which they would have no realistic hope ever to own. Hope is too vulnerable. Better not to hope at all than to hope and to know crushing disappointment.

Have you ever been there? Has there ever been some goal or ambition for which you earnestly even desperately dreamed and then to have that dream dissolve or the desire denied? Been there? Haven't we all?

Indeed, some of our hopes are doomed for disappointment and dissolution because they are frivolous, flimsy, even cheap. Some hopes are ill-fated from the outset because they are thin, even irresponsible. "You are dropping out of school? Why is that?" "Oh, I don't need an education to succeed. I know of many who did not attend school and they did quite well, thank you. Did you know that Billy Joel never finished high school, and he is successful? I hope I can do the same!" "You are dropping out of school?"

"You are buying a lottery ticket? Pardon my saying so, but it looks like your little girl could use better clothes and some shoes. You are buying a lottery ticket?" "Yeah! Where else can you buy 24 hours of hope for one dollar?" "You are buying a lottery ticket?"

The diet business in America is a $30 billion industry which sometimes is fueled by wild claims and false, even impossible hopes. "Just rub on this cream and rub off the pounds." "Take this pill and while you sleep the fat will burn away." "Eat what you want and lose weight!" My favorite was the EZ Girdle publicized by Spencer Gifts a few years ago. Just wear the contraption and you could reduce without dieting. Unfortunately they took the miracle device off the market before I could get to it. Just my luck! Often our hopes have no chance at all because they are frivolous, ill-chosen, and destined for defeat before they ever begin.

It also is true that sometimes our hopes are doomed for disappointment because they are built on a faulty or shaky foundation. Often our dreams are based upon and dependent upon an unreliable source for their fulfillment. Some folks aren't dependable.

It is her first starting pitching assignment for her Little League baseball team. For months she has dreamed of this moment. Her father promised that he would come. "I'll leave the office at 5 p.m." he said. "I'll be there if I have to leave the clients waiting." He promised that he would come. She warms up on the sidelines with her eyes ever scanning the stands. There he is, she thinks, so excited she throws the next warm-up toss three feet over her catcher's head. But, no! Mistake! It's not him. "Play ball!" bellows the umpire! And she takes the mound for the most exciting moment in her young life and there is no father to see. He promised he would come.

You have to have rules, even in the church. The rule stated that you must have your deposit in for Youth Camp tonight! She promised that today was payday and she would come straight home with his deposit. For years in the Children's Department, he has dreamed of going to Youth Camp. It is 4 p.m. and he starts supper as usually he does. It is 4:30 and she is not here. She promised that she would come straight home. It is 5:30, then 6:30, then 8:30. At 9:30, she walks into a dark house and to a cold dinner. One look into her eyes and one smell of her breath and he knows that he will not be going to Youth Camp this year.

A fairly recent United Press release in a midwestern city told that hospital officials had discovered that the hospital's fire fighting equipment had never been connected. For 35 years, they had depended upon the equipment for the safety of their patients in case of emergency only to find that the equipment had never been attached to the city's water main. A water pipe had extended four feet from the building and simply stopped. Sometimes our hope is a false one because it relies on an undependable source or no source at all!

For many, this reoccurrence of false hope and bitter disappointment has become a paralyzing pattern for life. Because of continued frustrated expectations, they sink into despair. Like the father in the beginning story, "It's just best not to hope." Many would adopt the attitude of the former baseball pitcher and would-be philosopher, Dan Quisenberry, who said, "I have seen the present. I have seen the future. The future is like the present, only longer." Many are like a sore-tail cat in a house full of rockers. They have been hurt so often, it is just best not to move.

But for many this dynamic is not tonguein-cheek humor. It is a harsh reality played out in a life-denying despair. It is similar to the dynamic portrayed by Dante when he hung these words over the Gates of Hell: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here!" Hell is a world without hope. A world without hope is hell. Many live herein every day.

But the Bible promises that there is another alternative. God's Word says that we have a choice. Despair is not the only decision or option. C. S. Lewis agrees. "If we insist on keeping Hell ... We shall not see Heaven ... All that are in Hell, choose it! No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock, it is opened!"1 To hope is a choice we can make. Why not? To hope is one of the most natural emotions that springs from the human soul.

He comes out of the bedroom, his hat held up only by his ears. His tie drags the floor. His shoes are eight sizes too large. He is drenched in aftershave. But he is proud! Why? Because he is dressed like the biggest and best man in his world -- his father -- the one like whom he one day hopes to be.

She appears from the attic with lipstick caked from ear to ear. She trips over her beads, which get tangled in her high heels only to further upset her balance. She falls, but quickly rights herself with no tears. She smiles! She is happy to look like the woman one day she hopes to be -- her mother.

Put a man in solitary confinement and he will tap out a Morse Code-like message that he hopes someone will hear. Place a man in isolation and he will scribble on the concrete wall his communication of hope. Hope is as natural to the human animal as breathing.

The promise of Paul in our text is that real hope, hope in Christ, is a realistic hope that will not disappointment us (v. 5). Paul states that real hope in Christ is not a Pollyanna naiveté that runs around the harsh realities that sometimes cause disappointment and despair. Real hope does not deny present circumstances but looks life squarely in the eye. Real hope is not stoic endurance but a motivation to active participation to bring about that for which we hope. Real hope is not a last resort but intentional planning for the future. Real hope is not by and by pie-in-the-sky but here and now. Real hope is not illusory but based on firsthand experience. Real hope is not a way out but a way through. Real hope connects the present to the future and is based on the experience of what God has done in the past.

We are entertaining ourselves to death. Our word "entertainment" is based upon two Latin words, "enter" and "tain," which combined mean to "keep in between." Entertainment keeps us between, in limbo, often unattached to the world of reality. Many use entertainment as an escape. By contrast the Hebrew word for "hope" is "gawah" which means to "twist or twine." Biblical hope, real hope allows us to weave together all the circumstances of our existence into a strong cord upon which we can depend and onto which we can hold. Again, real hope is not a way out but a way through.

Real hope is a combination of and balance between God's faithfulness and ours. We do what we can do and God does what he does. In verse 1, Paul states, "Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." We not only have peace with God but have access to his grace and the hope of God's glory (v. 2). We have the hope that we shall be like Jesus himself, the full revelation and glory of God. Nothing better can ever happen to us than to become like Jesus. The best is yet to be! But because the best is yet to be does not mean that the worst is over. There may be suffering or pressure in the meantime (v. 3). But be encouraged because pressure produces perseverance or the ability to endure or "stay under." Progressively, perseverance produces a character that has been tempered as if tested by fire, even approved by God (v. 4). Inherent in this kind of character is hope -- a hope that can never disappoint us because the Holy Spirit has been poured out in our hearts as an internal reminder of the solid foundation of our highest expectations (v. 5). The validity of real hope is proven to us every day as God works through the events of life good and bad, to make us more like Jesus and to reassure that our hope is not in vain. Thus, real hope is a wonderful balance between God's strength and our cooperation with him.

I recently heard a tape by the best ex-president our nation has had in my lifetime, Jimmy Carter. President Carter tells of growing up on the farm in rural Georgia with African-American children. Carter loved, played with, and adopted the language of the black children. One peculiarity of their speech was that they would say, "I'll hope you," instead of, "I'll help you!" They substituted "hope" for "help." Not too bad! Even theological. God helps us and instills hope. We help or cooperate with God in causing our hope to grow. Somewhere there is a balance between help and hope, or at least an interesting dance of the two.

Real hope enables us to allow God to work with us to produce the Christ-like qualities in this life of perseverance, character, and hope. That's this life, but the best is later. Hope means something good is in the future.

Someone once asked Elton Trueblood, "What is the most important word in the Bible?" The great scholar responded, "The most important word in the Bible is 'and.' Because with God there is always more and the best is yet to be." We can hope in Christ and not be disappointed because the Holy Spirit is our guarantee that God loves us and can be trusted to keep his word. That is a hope that will not disappoint us in this life or in the next. Oh, the wonderful benefits of God's assuring hope.

God's working in our lives to make us more like Jesus (Romans 5:2 and 8:28-29). Henry Jowett, on his deathbed, wrote a note to his friend, which said, "Just remember that Jesus is greater than anything we have ever said about him." Just remember God is fulfilling our own hope of Christ-likeness.

In God's hope we have the guarantee that he is with us now. Phillip Yancey reminds us in a recent study that individuals with a strong faith and hope in Christ lived on an average several years longer than those who did not. Viktor Frankl and Jurgen Moltmann, both concentration camp survivors, chronicled case after case where individuals with hope far outlasted hopeless individuals. Hope enabled them to persevere and not give up. They were sustained by hope. The hope that they kept, kept them.

Bob Crawford, who recently died of cancer, lived longer than anyone ever had, according to the recorded data, of those with his particular kind of disease. From the moment he first heard of his cancer, several years ago, he said that he had God's peace about the situation. He also believed intensely that God would heal him. I believe that it was this hope that sustained Bob and made liars, admittedly, of every doctor in Chattanooga. But, I also must admit that I asked myself, "Why is Bob so vulnerable to this hope of healing? Is he not building himself up for a big let down when he seemingly has no chance of beating the extremely wide-spread cancer?" I was wrong! It was his willingness to be vulnerable to hope that extended his life years beyond what any doctor had promised. Days before his death, he said, "I still believe God is going to heal me. It may not be this side of heaven!" Today, Bob Crawford is healed.

Chattanooga has had no finer or more eloquent preacher than Herman Battle, who for over forty years served the First Baptist Church on Eighth Street, an African-American congregation. Dr. Battle was a cherished friend whose prayers brought one to the very foot of the cross. In our community-wide Good Friday service, I heard him relate the story of the homegoing of his beloved wife. For 34 years they shared as close a relationship as any two people could. He was at her side for weeks during the last stages of her illness. As time drew near and she was about to meet her Lord, she turned to her husband and said, "Oh, Herman, do you see them?"

"No, honey, I don't! See what? I don't see them."

"Oh, Herman, don't you see them? Don't you see the lights?"

"No, honey, I don't. I don't see the lights. I wish I could, but I don't see the lights!"

Then mustering all the energy she could, she said, "You will!"

That is a hope that will not disappoint us -- now and in the world to come.

____________

1. C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: MacMillian Publishing Co., Inc., 1946), p. 33.
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