A sermon for the Second Sunday of Epiphany, 17.1.21 given by Graham Low.
A few days ago a friend was talking to me about some major challenges she is facing. She went on to say that she was noticing that the words of a hymn she learned as a child kept on coming into her mind: Will your anchor hold through the storms of life? She then wondered about what her anchor is attached to. After a necessarily brief further conversation she saw that her anchor is holding onto hope.
This reminded me of George Herbert’s poem called Hope. Here he uses hope to describe the personification of Christ. He tells us that Hope, i.e. Christ, gives him several things, the first of which is an anchor. An anchor is cross-shaped. It is very likely that Herbert had in mind the words from Hebrews (6.18,19): The hope set before us is an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain where Jesus has entered.
Thus hope is not of human origin, but of God and eternal in source and scope. Later in the poem Herbert indicates that hope is made effective by taking the long view, and then by being willing to work and act in such a way that it is brought nearer to us. He reminds us that there is both restlessness and longing in hope. In a commentary on this poem, Mark Oakley remarks that hope is a soul’s strong, but deep down, unseen, anchor.
Hope is one of the three Christian virtues: it is about the desire and search for a future good, difficult but possible to attain. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us as Christians that through the resurrection we are brought again into a living hope. The end, the motive and the creator of hope is Christ. So we may say that hope is about trust and confidence that God’s goodness is opposed to despair and presumption.
We have just heard part of Psalm 139. We are moved by its author’s profound and radical trust in God’s knowledge of every thought and action he may have. We are drawn into this psalm in a way that makes it speak to each of us too. Like the author we are not to be overwhelmed by threat or fear or uncertainty. Yes, God is acknowledged as judge and we are to expect to be examined for our wrongdoing. But as we read into the psalm we hear the psalmist speaking more and more movingly of how God created each of us and is ever with us and about us, of how God encompasses us.
The Psalmist, who may well have been a singer, gives us a lively, personal, fresh picture which is not abstract. We can see that he is in danger and that he is seeking God’s help. He is asking God directly. Instead of fear and anxiety in his situation, we find adoration and worship. In spite of danger he delights in God’s understanding of him, his care of him from the day of his birth and long before that. He is a man with the profoundest hope.
We are living in a time when our hopes in human institutions and actions often seem to be dashed. We are living at a time when the worldwide chaos caused by a virus seems to diminish hope for the restoration of family and community life in the immediate future. In the midst of this I find hope in the very balanced weekly statement on the pandemic, by an epidemiologist, Tim Spector. On his research app he shows his hope in human efforts to understand and to overcome today’s challenges.
At the same time let us pray that the complete trust that the psalmist places in God may be a trust that our souls can be held in, enfolded in, and anchored in. Amen.