Hope in the Face of Despair
A sermon by Luke Dowding for 'Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation', the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 21st June 2020
Listen to the sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/bloomsbury-1/hope-in-the-face-of-despair
Have you read any good books recently? Perhaps if you have, you might like to jot the title and author in the chat section – as lockdown has encouraged a particularly veracious appetite for a wonderful read!
I devoured little book of fiction with some speed recently. It’s written by a Japanese author, Genki Kawamura, and despite its title it’s not really a book about cats. “If Cats Disappeared From The World” primarily explores the theme of how humans approach death, with the back cover leadingly asking the question: “what would you sacrifice for another day of life?”
I can certainly empathise with the protagonist’s friend who we encounter halfway through the book. We learn that she always watches sad films again, as she lives in hope that the end will be different that time around. I’ve similar relationship with a favourite TV show from my teen years, or with Phillip Pullman’s “The Amber Spyglass” – I watch and read them again, knowing the sadness that awaits, but with that childlike hope that it might all be different this time around.
In “If Cats Disappeared From The World”, the protagonist calls upon a series of old friends for help in his time of need. Often their lives had moved on from one another, but they had reconnected because of his circumstances of hardship. That might be a familiar experience for you recently; or perhaps like me, you can think of someone who has gone the extra mile for you over the last three months
It might have been someone who has bought you your shopping if you have been shielding, or unable to get out and about easily; or perhaps it was a dear friend at the end of the phone who was there when you needed to talk. Maybe it was your employer, or the cashier at your local supermarket; it could have been a delivery driver, or a healthcare worker.
In many ways we have seen some truly wonderful examples of the best of human behaviour since our world was turned upside down in March, and whilst it’s sometimes easier and more obvious to draw on all that has been bad, troubling, or downright awful, it is a source of great comfort to me that many of us might be able to think of at least one person who has gone that extra mile in recent weeks.
There are glimmers of hope out there too: from legislation to reform the police force on the cards in the US, to studies suggesting that being kind and volunteering will help you live longer; from meaningful discussions about a truly green recovery for our economy, to the apathy towards homelessness being challenged both locally by Bloomsbury, West London Citizens and others, and nationally through innovative projects in places like Cambridge. If you want to read more about other heartening news out there, then check out www.positive.news online – a much needed antidote to the barrage of everything else we receive daily at the moment.
And so, like Job, perhaps in the depths of despair, something like hope can truly emerge.
Hope may seem naïve in the face of Covid-19, systemic racism, a failing economy, a broken and life-threatening immigration system, and a world that is on track to surpass the 2.5 degrees of warming that could prove fatal for many of the world’s ecosystems (and humanity itself). Heck, after reading that out loud again, it does offer a bit of a reality check, doesn’t it?
It is in these verses read for us today that we see a shift in Job’s narrative and reflections, as he begins to articulate something that sounds a little bit like hope. In this, we are offered perhaps one of the most well-known lines from Scripture
“For I know that my Redeemer lives.”
And from it, a hymn that many of you may know”
“I know that my Redeemer lives;
what comfort this sweet sentence gives!
He lives, He lives, who once was dead;
He lives, my everliving Head.”
It is in the use of the word “redeemer” that we gain an insight into not only on the hope that Job is nurturing based on his experiences before, but of its intimacy as well. The Hebrew word used here is “go’el”, which is used specifically to refer to the deeds a righteous family member would do for a relative in need, including:
- Buy back the property for someone who has sold their land due to debt (Leviticus 25:25),
- Free an Israelite slave who had sold themselves in times of poverty (Leviticus 25:48),
- And, dramatically, avenge the death of a murdered relative.
This is deeply intimate between Job and God, for Job is calling upon God as he might call upon a relative to redeem him. Job has fallen well beyond debt, his entire life seemingly lost to ill health and destitution, and so he calls on his kin-person:
“For I know that my Redeemer lives.”
And this deep longing comes not from naïve or vain demand, but from the faith Job has in experiences of God’s care in the past – as declared in chapter 10, verses 9-12:
9 Remember that you molded me like clay.
Will you now turn me to dust again?
10 Did you not pour me out like milk
and curdle me like cheese,
11 clothe me with skin and flesh
and knit me together with bones and sinews?
12 You gave me life and showed me kindness,
and in your providence watched over my spirit.
And what hope is Job nurturing in his times of despair? That he will see God:
26 and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in[d] my flesh I shall see God,[e]
27 whom I shall see on my side,[f]
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!
The whole of Scripture is a witness to this very hope, and that it is a hope that finds fulfilment. In years gone by I might have ended such a reflection with this thought, the idea that God has been seen and will be seen again – if only we might have the faith, like Job or the Psalmist in Psalm 22:
9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
10 On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.
That knowing we have a Divine redeemer in the crucified Christ ought to be enough to fill our hearts with hope and encourage us to just keep on keeping on.
Yet sometimes, it isn’t, is it?
Maybe I’m the only one whose hope has wobbled, not just in recent times, but in years gone by. Not moments of disbelief in the Divine, for they’re different but related, but times of uncertainty about the nature of God and how God behaves. The same sense of “if you’re there, what the heck are you playing at?”, better articulated by Job in earlier parts of the book. Ah, that could be why I balked at the idea of a sermon series engaging with this troubling book…
But perhaps we can be certain in a God who redeems, who literally saves us from the depths of despair as a kin-person might do for their kin, because we can see this sort of redemption revealed in those actions we reflected on a short while ago. God lives in those actions, as God lives in all of creation.
As modern-day disciples of Jesus Christ, our calling today, perhaps more than ever, is one of hope. Not exclusively a hope in a distant end-time in which we come face to face with our Lord and perhaps the throngs of serenading angels, but the very current hope of a neighbour checking in; of a world leader acting in kindness and not in fear; a new parent feeding their child; or a church like Bloomsbury asking the hard questions and seeking to take another difficult step.
Redemptive hope is the Christlike action of protesting against systemic racism, or climate change; it’s the writing of letters to challenge the lack of toilet and washroom facilities for rough sleepers in Westminster; it’s the praying for, lobbying for, and not letting our own circumstances prevent us remembering the lives of those who live under constant lockdown and fear in places like Palestine and the Yemen.
I do not know for certain what kind of hope awaits any of us when our time on this earth comes to an end, and many of us have been confronted with that question recently with our own ill health or the ill health of those close to us. But I do know what hope looks like right now, or rather, I know what hope feels like right now. Let us not be afraid to hope, because we have been redeemed and have the gift to continuing redeeming in that dynamic relationship of Kingdom building with the Divine – we are called to bring hope to the world, to be bearers of the Light, and messengers of the Good News.
The act of redemption is costly, but it is a cost we are called to embrace.
This is not the childish or naïve hope I mentioned at the beginning of this reflection – the kind where we come back to a favourite book, hoping the ending is happier; but one founded in wisdom and power. We stand on the hopes of generations before us and offer a platform of hope for the generations to follow. It is a profoundly difficult calling, but one we embrace for the wellbeing of ourselves and the world around us.
“He lives to silence all my fears,
He lives to wipe away my tears,
He lives to calm my troubled heart,
He lives all blessings to impart.”