A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 30 October 2016
Our two readings in different ways talk about the crucial place that hope has in our lives.
At the end of our first reading, we heard Saint Paul write:
‘Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God
our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us
eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts
and strengthen them in every good work and word.’
Paul has no doubt chosen his words with care, referring to what the Lord gives not simply as comfort and hope, but as eternal comfort and good hope. The implication is that there is temporary comfort, fleeting comfort, comfort that lasts a short time and is then gone. We all know this type of comfort.
But Paul wants us to reach out further, to dig deeper, and know for ourselves an eternal comfort given to us through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
If then we know the difference between eternal comfort and passing comfort, what of the other word that Paul uses – hope – and the distinction that he implies between good hope and other sorts of hope. What might it mean to have good hope?
Hope is a necessary ingredient in almost everything that we do – that what we start we’ll finish. It is a basic attitude of mind that we nearly all have and it enables us to engage in life with a sense of purpose. We can only move beyond surviving day to day if we have a sense of hope – without it any directed and sustained effort is impossible.
So in Christian thinking, hope alongside faith and love, is one of the three foundation stones of our lives as Christians – faith, hope and love – providing, in Saint Paul’s words, an anchor for our lives, safe and secure.
That may help us understand the importance of hope to us – but when is hope good hope?
There are two attitudes of mind that lie on either side of hope that may help us explore what good hope is – and those are presumption and despair.
Presumption is a cocky hopefulness, which presumes that we are bound to get promotion, or that place at university, or accepted as a member of this or that. When we come across someone who is presumptuous we’re made aware that good hope includes a certain tentativeness and humility.
Then on the other side of hope to presumption, lies despair that is both crippling and destructive. In despair there’s a complete loss of self worth, there’s no feeling that we have any value, that life is worth living or that others can be trusted.
And when we experience despair we’re made aware that good hope gives a person confidence, a sense of value and purpose.
So I suggest that good hope occupies the middle ground between presumption and despair. Good hope inspires in us both confidence and humility, a tentative purposefulness that gives shape and purpose to our lives. It enables us to get out of bed in the morning!
What though of any ultimate sense of hope? The importance of this becomes clear to us in the face of death.
One of my university lecturers, Geoffrey Lampe, knew that he was dying of cancer. In 1980, shortly before his own death, he was invited to preach at the University Church in Cambridge, on ‘Preparation for Death’. There he said:
‘…at the heart of our life is unfulfilled hope, a
promise and an assurance of the transformation of
ourselves into the image of God in which,
potentially, we have been created. That
transformation cannot be completed in these few
years of life; and if these years are all that there is for
us, such glimpses of God as we now have are like a
springtime without a summer to follow it. Here is
real ground for fear, and we need trust and hope as
our preparation against it.’
Which brings us to our second reading – Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus.
At the beginning of most Christian funerals, the words we heard Jesus say to Martha are spoken by the minister leading the funeral:
‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who
believe in me, even though they die, will live, and
everyone who lives and believes in me will never
The context in which these great words of hope are spoken is important. Lazarus who died was a particular friend of Jesus to whom he felt especially close. When he meets Mary, Lazarus’ sister, Jesus is ‘greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved’ so much so that he begins to weep.
Again when he gets to the tomb of Lazarus Jesus is greatly disturbed. Those of us who have experienced the death of someone close to us will have experienced that level of emotion that Jesus felt on the death of his friend Lazarus.
When the people around him saw how deeply he was moved, they said to each other:
‘See how he loved him!’
Grief is part of loving. Jesus knew this, knew too something of grief’s devastating power; but he also knew of another power, stronger than death and able to give depth and substance to that gut feeling in us that this life alone is not all that there is – there is more.
Good hope includes an ultimate sense of hope that gives meaning and purpose to the whole of both life and death.
When asked by Jesus whether she believed this, we heard Martha reply with a wonderfully clear:
‘Yes, Lord, I believe.’
We may not be able to say that with the same conviction as Martha did! Our faith and hope may be more hesitant than this!
But a little later on in this service, after the names have been read out, I will invite you to come forward and light a candle. That simple gesture may express, better than any words can, your belief and your hope in the face of death – there is a summer that follows spring.