“Hoping Against Hope”
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, July 3, 2022
Reading: Romans 4:13-25
This morning’s scripture reading from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, takes us back to that well-known story in the book of Genesis about the great father of the Judeo-Christian faith, Abraham. It’s one of those stories that makes us tilt our heads a bit, really; when an angel of God tells Abraham that his wife Sarah will conceive a child and that through this child – born to Sarah – Abraham will become the father of many nations.
Now remember – what makes us tilt our heads about this story is that we’re told that Abraham and Sarah were very elderly – not “just slightly beyond the age of childbearing,” but well beyond the age of childbearing. The way Paul puts it here in the reading from Romans is a little rude, actually; he says Abraham was “already as good as dead.” So, as Paul would put it, Abraham has one foot in the grave when an angel comes and tells him that he is going to become the father of many nations. Sarah, his wife, is in her tent a short distance away, and overhears what the angel says, and laughs at the absurdity of what he is suggesting. She “knows” that there is no hope of her every bringing new life out of her old body.
Years ago, I attended a workshop about how to teach children the Bible stories using a particular Sunday School curriculum called “Godly Play” and the instructor demonstrated the curriculum by telling us this story of Abraham and Sarah. When we came to the part of the story where Sarah laughs, the lady sitting beside me – who, I think it would be safe to say, was also well beyond childbearing years – leaned over to me and whispered, “Sarah laughed?”
I asked her, “Well, wouldn’t you?”
She said to me, “No…I’d cry!”
What Paul is telling us when he says that Abraham was “as good as dead” is that the probability of his body producing new life at his age was virtually non-existent. The Bible tells us he was a hundred years old! Now, we don’t know what system of time measurement they were using – it may not be the same as what we use today – but what we are told is that he was a very old man. You could think, well…Tony Randall was in his 70s when he fathered a child…” Okay, but Sarah was 90, and no amount of creative thinking could allow us to imagine a woman of 90 becoming a new mother! So, what the story in Genesis makes clear is that this promise and this birth would have its source from outside the natural realm.
It is difficult to say for sure just how strong Abraham’s faith was at this point in his life. He had already taken some strong steps of faith in his life. Paul tells us that Abraham “did not weaken in faith,” and that “no distrust made him waver,” but the fact is that even after the angel of the Lord told him of God’s promise, instead of trusting the angel he instead turned to Sarah’s maid, Hagar – as was the custom of the time (in fact, it was Sarah’s idea) – and in this way he hoped to produce descendants in his name. So, this might indicate a less-than-robust faith, that he wasn’t willing to take the angel’s word at face value. The result of all this was his son Ishmael, and poor Ishmael and his mother Hagar ended up being the ones to suffer for the consequences of Abraham and Sarah’s lack of faith.
But Abraham was not totally faithless, even once it seemed that all hope was lost of him and Sarah ever having a child together. He continued to seek God, to walk with God, even when he was struggling to trust God’s promise; and he continued to have relations with his wife Sarah, even when the thought that she might become pregnant seemed like an obvious impossibility. Then, of course, Isaac was born to Sarah, and Abraham saw for himself that God’s impossible promise was indeed fulfilled. Paul says that Abraham “grew strong in faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”
“Hoping against hope,” it says in verse 18; clinging to hope even when hope seems impossible; hoping for fullness of life to come out of that which is already as good as dead.
Is there something in your own life that feels impossible? Is there a situation that feels as hopeless as Sarah giving birth at the age of 90? Is there a dream that seems like it has no possibility of ever coming to life, as it must have seemed to the 100-year-old Abraham that he would have descendants as numerous as the stars?
This is our Canada Day weekend, of course, and I have been reflecting on the lives of my ancestors, and maybe some of yours, and the immigrants from many countries of the world who have come to Canada over the years, arriving in a new and unknown country with no idea of what they would find; the earliest farmers, wondering whether their crops might grow; manual labourers coming over and wondering whether they’ll be able to find work and earn a living; whether there was hope for a life and a future here for them and for their children; hoping against hope and learning to trust in God in seemingly impossible situations.
I shudder to think of the first winters for those who arrived here one, two or three hundred years ago; the harsh winters with which Canada’s first nations people were already very well acquainted. When we have a lot of snow and bitterly cold temperatures now, we can at least count on heated homes and cars, well-stocked fridges, and closets full of warm clothing; the roughest winter might be an inconvenience, but it seldom presents any real hardship to us.
In July, now, winter is far from our minds – and I hate to remind you of it but imagine being in Canada in the winter without those luxuries – without central heating and enclosed transportation. Your family gets sick; your animals are dying; the crops you sow may or may not produce enough food to last the winter, depending on how the weather is during the summer. How easy it must have been for those earliest immigrants to wish they had never come, to stop believing and stop hoping.
In some way or another, most believers will have times in our lives when we lose hope, when we struggle to really believe, even long-time believers struggle to hold on to their faith during trials and the blows that life always seems to throw at us when we’re least expecting it. There are so many things in life that can slowly eat away at our faith in God. Often, we can’t even understand why these hopeless situations have happened to us. We think we have done everything right; everything we thought we were supposed to do; and yet, we find ourselves in a situation that feels hopeless.
Faith is to continue to hope right at the point where our understanding stops. Faith is to hope in God, and not in our own abilities, and not in the circumstances of our situation – to hope in God despite our situation.
Paul’s description of Abraham’s faith, though, goes deeper than simply an account of heroic trust in the face of impossible odds. What Paul is saying is that in Abraham’s faith – faith in YHWH, the one true God, which is Christian faith – in that kind of faith our lives are at their most abundant, regardless of our circumstances. Right at the point when all hope seems lost is when a believer, a person with faith, is enabled to see what a genuine, full human life is like when entrusted into God’s hands.
What Paul tells us by reminding us of the experience of Abraham and Sarah is that our God is the God of hope, because He is the God of new beginnings and new life. Paul says that Abraham’s faith was “reckoned to him as righteousness” – in other words, Abraham was found acceptable before God by trusting in God to set him right. And likewise, says verse 24, “it will be reckoned to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead...”
Paul knows, of course, that it isn’t the faith of Abraham alone that gives us hope against hope. Abraham was a signpost, pointing us to another time in history when God would act definitively to bring about new life when all seemed hopeless. Abraham pointed humanity to the beginning of a long and winding road, not to the ultimate goal. The goal, of course, was reached in Jesus Christ and in the events of His death and resurrection. This was God’s ultimate act of restoring hope where all seemed hopeless, of giving new life where “his body was as good as dead” – except, of course, that Jesus’ body was not just “as good as dead” – it was fully dead; and even that was no match for our Almighty God’s power to restore life and hope.
And if God can do all this – cause an old, barren woman to produce life, and can raise a man from the grave to live again – can He not also bring new life to those parts of our own lives that seem hopeless? V. 16 “For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants…to those who share the faith of Abraham.”
Like Abraham’s faith that God would give life as He had promised, we as Christians believe that God continues to give life to us, where it seems impossible; that God will bring abundant life to those areas of our lives that seem hopeless. We believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. This is a recognition that God is God, that our life and the life of the whole world are in His hands, that He has already begun to redeem His creation and make it new, and that He invites us to trust Him and to go with Him.
If Abraham’s faith was finally vindicated in Jesus Christ, then ours has been too. Hopelessness has been defeated in a decisive way, once and for all. God has sent His own Son to restore hope to all who believe in Him. Those who believe in Jesus Christ, in God’s Son, are assured that we are people of the covenant. The single world-wide family promised to Abraham centuries ago includes us. We are God’s people, and for this we have every reason for hoping against hope. Amen.