Muscular Hope

Romans 5:1–11
Presented February 24, 2008, by J.D. Kline
The Third Sunday in Lent

Lenten Theme: Another Way of Living

There once was a woman who owned the finest winery in all the land. Everything about the winery was superb. Its fertile land yielded some of the finest grapes to be found anywhere. The large wooden vats that nurtured the crushed grapes until maturity produced some of the world’s most exquisite wines. For more than two centuries people came from all over the world to visit the winery and sample the famous wine.

One day, though, the wine developed a bitter taste. No one could explain why, for nothing had changed. The wine was still being made exactly as it had been for two centuries. When the number of visitors and customers began to decline markedly, the woman hired consultants from around the world to ascertain the reason for the wine’s sudden bitter taste. After intense study, each expert arrived at the identical diagnosis: the vats had outlived their usefulness. They had become old and sour, and there was no way to clean and restore them. The consultants concluded that the woman’s only option was to replace the old vats.

The owner was outraged. The beautiful vats had been in her family longer than she had been alive. Family tradition demanded, she was certain, that the vats be retained. And so she tried dozens of other remedies, one desperate effort after another to improve the quality of the wine. Different fertilizers for the land, changing the acidity of the soil, new labels for the bottles, even a new overseer for the grapes—none of these produced the needed change. Still, the owner continued to put the wine into the old wine vats, and the finest grapes in the world continued to produce bitter wine.

The number of visitors and customers steadily declined, and finally the day arrived when no one came to taste or buy any wine from the once-noted winery. Eventually the vineyards fell into ruins. Faithful family members remained the only customers, convinced that family tradition was more important than satisfying wine.

Church consultant William Easum shares this story at the beginning of his book Dancing With Dinosaurs, a book in which he suggests that the church stands dangerously close to becoming a dinosaur. Much of the church has become so content with traditional customs, understandings, patterns, and ways of doing things that it is in peril of losing its focus, its hope, its very purpose. How is it that we might more convincingly proclaim the good news of hope in Christ to a world far more familiar with brokenness and despair? How shall we live and proclaim Christ’s gospel of peace with a world far more accustomed to violence and warfare as the answer to its conflicts? How shall we announce Christ’s gospel of new life to a world little inclined to listen to a church many believe has grown irrelevant and stagnant?

The writer of 1 Peter 3:15 urges us ever to be prepared to give voice to the hope that is in us. But hope is often reduced these days to a matter of blind optimism, to a naïve sense that things are getting better and better. All that’s easy enough to believe in when life is going well, when our vineyards are bountiful. But few of us live trouble-free lives for long; smooth sailing lasts only just so long. Far more commonly, we know what it is to confront times of difficulty and struggle in life, times when the wine turns bitter, and at such times, naïve optimism is far from enough to carry us through. Nor does it offer genuine hope to a world fraught with uncertainty, suspicion, and fear.

I have borrowed the title for this morning’s sermon from the writings of Peter Gomes, pastor of Harvard University’s Memorial Church. In his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, Gomes includes a chapter entitled “The Gospel of Hope”in which he asserts that hope “is not merely the optimistic view that somehow everything will turn out all right in the end if everyone just does as we do.” Much more, declares Gomes, “hope is the more rugged, the more muscular view that even if things don’t turn out all right and aren’t all right, we endure through and beyond the times that disappoint or threaten to destroy us.”

It is this matter of a muscular hope—a hope with some teeth in it—that I invite you to consider this morning. Muscular hope, it seems clear to me, is a central quality in this new way of living to which Christ calls us. Muscular hope, stemming from a willingness to trust in the goodness of God, even at those times when the wine grows bitter. Muscular hope, as Peter Gomes asserts, is “the stuff that gets us through and beyond when the worst that can happen happens.”

Many of you know that I do an annual retreat, a week of silence, and this past December, on an unusually warm day in Kentucky, I penned these words about hope:

December 11—70 degrees, an unexpected gift at an unexpected time.
And isn’t that the way your gifts frequently come to us, O God—
In the midst of our pain,
   a flickering light,
   a peaceful touch,
   a gentle caress,
   a kindly reminder that pain, though real, does not have the final word in life.

In the thick of loss and grief and hurt, you come with a word of comfort and hope—
   Be not afraid, for I am with you,
   sheltering, upholding, strengthening you as you walk through dark valleys of uncertain grief.

Where will it lead?

Where will the journey take me?

This much I know—
   God is present even when it feels as if there is nothing to grasp hold of,
   God knows my grief, even when I feel alone and forgotten,
   God walks with me through the darkness and the pain.

The apostle Paul, writing to the Christians at Rome, a community beginning to experience the reality of persecution, nevertheless pens some of his strongest words of hope in that letter. In this morning’s Scripture lesson, Paul reminds his fellow believers of the gift of God’s love sustaining us through life’s challenges. “Therefore,” writes the apostle,

Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Romans 5:1-5).

In The Message Eugene Peterson paraphrases this text from Romans 5, asserting that we can even praise our God,

. . . when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience within us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

Notice that Paul does not say that we boast about or celebrate our sufferings, but that we celebrate in our sufferings. It’s not a matter of giving thanks for the painful and even grief-filled experiences of our lives—those times when the wine grows bitter. Rather, it is a matter of giving thanks that ours is a God who stands with us during those trying times, a God who is able to transform us, even in the midst of times of trial, into the truly human people we were created to be. We may well find ourselves experiencing new levels of endurance and patience, new qualities of personal character.

Muscular hope stems from a willingness to wrestle with this God, trusting that ultimately God will provide us with a surprising peace able to carry us through the storms of life. Muscular hope stems from the conviction that we are ever surrounded by God’s love and generosity. Indeed, as Tom Wright asserts in his commentary Paul for Everyone, we are “invited to breathe [the grace of God] in as our native air.” And when we do, we need not cling to the past, as did the vineyard owner whose vats needed replacing. Instead, we are invited to live in the present as hope-filled people, people with one eye toward the future, hoping and praying and working and thirsting for the unfolding of God’s new creation—the coming of that day when justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, the coming of that day when all of life is transformed, when swords are beaten into plowshares, when bombs are refashioned as instruments of healing and wholeness, when tears are wiped away and all creation lives in joy and in peace.

Muscular hope is waiting and praying and working for what we cannot fully see. Muscular hope is what empowers to stay the course, to “hang in there” even in the face of adversity, to hold on even when holding on seems pointless, to embrace the change that keeps our wine from becoming bitter. Muscular hope—trusting in the God whose love will not let us go.

This morning you are invited to come for anointing, to receive the cooling oils that point to the promise of God’s abundant healing and wholeness, God’s empowerment as we seek to walk in a new way of living, God’s gift of muscular hope. As you are anointed, we will pray that you might experience a renewed sense of hope for your life, the courage to embrace another way of living, and the strength to walk in footsteps of Christ Jesus our Lord.