Sermon: “The Blessed Hope of Everlasting Life” (November 16, 2014)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Blessed Hope of Everlasting Life” (1 Thessalonians 5:8-10)
November 16, 2014
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The collect for today is particularly powerful. It was written by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer for the 1549 version of The Book of Common Prayer. In this collect we not only acknowledge who inspired the Scriptures to be written and why they were written—“Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning”—we also ask God to help us understanding the Scriptures—“Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.”

But then Cranmer explains why hearing, reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting the Scriptures matters, why it intersects with our day to day life: “that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ” (The Book of Common Prayer 236).

The point of the Scriptures is to point us to Jesus Christ, and in so doing help us “embrace and ever hold fast” something that we all need: hope…specifically “the blessed hope of everlasting life.”

In the days of the Apostle Paul Thessalonica was the capital of Macedonia, as well as its largest city. Paul, along with Silas and Timothy, planted the Christian church in Thessalonica during Paul’s second missionary journey (Acts 17:1-4). Later, as they continued their missionary work, Paul wrote his First Letter to the Thessalonians.

One of the issues at the church in Thessalonica (every church has its issues ☺) was confusion about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and so along those lines in today’s passage Paul writes:

“Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him” (1 Thessalonians 5:8-10).

Did you catch Paul’s metaphor for hope? He describes “the hope of salvation” as a helmet—“put on…for a helmet the hope of salvation.”

The problem is sometimes we misplace our helmet.

One of the greatest running backs in the history of the National Football League is Thurman Thomas, the legendary star of the Buffalo Bills. Over the course of his career Thomas rushed for over 12,000 yards, gained over 4,500 receiving yards, and scored 88 touchdowns. He is the only player in NFL history to lead the entire league in yards from scrimmage for four straight seasons, and in 2007 he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.

And yet, Thurman Thomas is often remembered for something else—misplacing his helmet prior to a rather important game, the 1992 Super Bowl against the Washington Redskins. As the Bills’ offense entered the field for its first series, their all-pro running back was wandering around the sidelines looking for his helmet. Can you imagine? His helmet was finally located but he ended up missing the first two plays, and apparently it rattled him, because by the end of the game he had only managed to rush for 13 yards on 10 carries.

And like Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas each of us is susceptible to misplacing our helmet, even at the most critical times, and like Thurman Thomas, we too can be rattled by it.

There are many contributing factors to the misplacing of our helmet, many things that peck away at the hope of our salvation—a dreaded medical diagnosis, an unexpected financial setback, a broken relationship, a toxic work environment, a strained marriage, unrelenting self-doubt, recurring bouts of depression, overwhelming loneliness—you can fill in the blank, or blanks, for your life.

We often misplace our helmet when what we think should be happening in our lives is at conflict with what actually is happening in our lives. Episcopal priest and scholar Paul Zahl describes this:

“A person should be able to have it all, but it’s just not possible. ‘Should’ and ‘is’ collide… ‘Is’ always wins. (Nobody’s thrilled about this, by the way, but it’s factual). By ‘should,’ in this context, I mean ideology. That is to say, ideology is when you have an idea of how something should be, and how it should go, in life. You have a conception, in other words, of the way the world ought to run—and the way you ought to run. Ideology you impose on reality. You want the ‘is’ to be in line with the ‘should’…life’s not this way. We have to accommodate ourselves to life, not the other way around” (The Mockingbird, Fall 2014, p. 70).

And yet rather than facing things as they are we keep hoping things in our lives will turn out as they “should,” as the brilliant and prolific 18th century writer Samuel Johnson once observed: “The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure but from hope to hope” (from “The Rambler,” No. 2, March 24, 1750).

Over the course of time even the most zealous and faithful Christians may experience a steady erosion of their hope, an imperceptible whittling away of their hope. And what is the result of this? The writer of Proverbs gives us the sobering answer, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12).

Hope deferred makes the heart sick. There are a lot of sick hearts out there…and perhaps there are some sick hearts in here this morning.

And yet, as singer-songwriter Alison Sudol reassures us, there is still hope:

Crushed under heavy chest
Try and catch your breath
But it always beats you by a step
All right now
Making the best of it
Playing the hand you get
Well, you’re not alone in this
There’s hope for the hopeless
There’s hope for the hopeless
There’s hope
(from the 2007 album One Cell in the Sea by A Fine Frenzy).

The sixteenth century Reformer Martin Luther differentiated between “theologians of glory” from “theologians of the cross.” In short, the theologians of glory are works-based and strive to make life accommodate to how they think it should be; while theologians of the cross are grace-based and trust the love of God to meet them where their life actually is. The theology of glory may work for a season, but eventually a theologian of glory will misplace their helmet, and as their hope in their own efforts is deferred, their hearts become sick.

But there is hope for the hopeless— and in today’s passage Paul tells us why there is hope for the hopeless: “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.”

Hope is found in Jesus Christ.

The gospel enters our lives as they actually are, and the gospel gives us hope—as Gerhard O. Forde writes in his lucid book On Being a Theologian of the Cross:

“The theologian of the cross knows that there is nothing to do now but wait upon grace, to recognize that when all the supports have been cut away we can only throw ourselves on the mercy of God in Christ…When the theologian of glory has finally bottomed out, Christ enters the scene as the bringer of salvation, hope, and resurrection” (60).

In the 1998 film Hope Floats Sandra Bullock plays Birdee Pruitt, who is tricked into appearing on a talk show supposedly for a free makeover only instead to be surprised to find her best friend on the set. In front of the studio audience and national television audience Birdee’s friend tells her that she and Birdee’s husband are having an affair.

Humiliated and devastated, realizing that her husband was gone for good, Birdee returns to her hometown to try and begin again, to try and cope with the fact that what should be happening in her life did not line up with what actually is happening. At one point in the film Birdee says this about hope:

“Beginnings are scary, endings are usually sad, but it’s the middle that counts the most. Try to remember that when you find yourself at a new beginning, just give hope a chance to float up. And it will, too.”

And hope indeed “floated up” for Birdee. Love entered the scene of her life as the bringer of hope.

Jesus Christ the Son of God did not wait for the human condition to become as it should be before his incarnation (which is a very good thing). Instead, at his incarnation Jesus accommodated himself to the way the human condition actually is, and entered the scene with the unconditional love of God.

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick”—that is beginning of Proverbs 13:12—but it does not end there. It continues…“but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”

On the “tree of life,” the cross, Jesus Christ, the “dear desire of every nation,” the “joy of every longing heart” (Charles Wesley, “Come Thou Long-expected Jesus,” Hymn 60) was “crushed under heavy chest” until he was unable to catch his breath.

Jesus died for you to give you hope, so that whether you are awake or asleep you may wake with him.

And in the places in your life where the ways things should be continue to collide with the way things are, where in your mind you continue to fly “from hope to hope,” where in your heart you are rattled, Jesus continues to give himself to you—“Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

In other words, Jesus gives you a brand new helmet of the hope of salvation—you do not have to wander around the sidelines anymore.

And when your earthly life is through, your remains will be returned to the earth “In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ” (BCP 501).

Scripture points you to Jesus, and the good news of the gospel is that Jesus died for you.

That means you can embrace and ever hold fast to “the blessed hope of everlasting life” because the Lord is embracing and ever holding fast to you (John 10:28).

So in the words of the Apostle Paul: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

Amen.