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Romans 15:4, 13
Paul begins our second reading for today by reminding us that everything written in the past, he is talking about what is recorded in the Bible, was written for our instruction. God inspired his prophets and apostles to write exactly these things down and saw to it that they were preserved for us today so that we could learn from what they wrote. As we think about that in the context of what is recorded in Isaiah, the coming of John the Baptist and the season of Advent, we learn that God, through his word, provides hope for the hopeless.
Consider what it was like in Isaiah’s day. The once mighty kingdom of David and Solomon had been divided by civil war. Ten of the twelve tribes separated and formed their own kingdom. Assyria had just come and destroyed that kingdom of ten tribes and their sights were set on Judah, the two tribes that were left, ruled by descendants of David. Although God rescued them from the Assyrians, it wouldn’t be long before the Babylonians came. When they did, God allowed them to take wave after wave of people as captives to Babylon, and finally to completely destroy Jerusalem and the temple of God. As long as the temple was still standing, people had hope. But when the news came to the captives living in Babylon that the temple had been destroyed, it seemed as if all hope was gone.
The captives in Babylon expressed their hopelessness in these words from Ezekiel. Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off. The Psalmist writes, our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? They felt hopeless, not only because it didn’t look like they would ever get back to their own country again. They felt especially hopeless because the kingly line of David looked like a dead stump. If Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed and there were no descendants of David sitting on his throne how was God ever going to keep his promises and send the Messiah who was to rule on David’s throne forever! It seemed hopeless.
After seventy years of captivity, something happened that gave anyone who had not lost all hope a reason to hope again. Cyrus conquered Babylon and decreed that any Jews who wanted to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple could do so. A small number of Jews did return. In the face of a lot of opposition and with a lot of hard work the temple of the Lord and the walls of the city were rebuilt. But, Jerusalem never again had a descendant of David ruling them. They were ruled by the Persians, by the Greeks and then by the Romans. It had been about 400 years since the temple had been rebuilt, but no descendant of David was ruling on the throne. It seemed to many that hope was gone, that God had cut them off.
Then, suddenly, about 25 AD, something happened again that gave hope. There was this guy named John who reminded a lot of people of the prophet Elijah. He was preaching in the wilderness and baptizing. He claimed that he was preparing the way for the Messiah to come. For those paying attention, there was hope.
There are different levels of hopelessness. You may feel hopeless because you didn’t get a job you were really hoping for. You may feel hopeless because you lost your job; maybe the company downsized, and you are over 60 and can’t imagine who is going to hire you. You may feel hopeless because your spouse just told you they found someone else, or God called them home to heaven, and you don’t know how you can survive on your own. You may feel hopeless because your advancing age means you can’t do the things you used to do, you have to give up driving and you have to move out of your home. Those are all things that can make you feel hopeless. But none of those things can compare to the hopelessness the captives in Babylon felt. The lowest level of hopelessness is thinking that you are cut off from God, that there is no hope of salvation or eternal life for you.
Satan wants to use all the bad things that happen in our lives, especially the things that we bring on ourselves because of our sins, to convince us that we are hopeless. He wants to convince us that God has given up on us and cut us off for good. But, through the encouragement of Scripture we see that is never true. There is always hope.
When the captives thought that they were hopeless God gave Ezekiel the vision of the valley of dry bones. He had Ezekiel preach to the dry bones and through his preaching of God’s word the Spirit brought those dry bones back to life.
Scripture presents example after example of people who were in seemingly hopeless situations, who either were tempted, or could have been tempted to think that God had cut them off, but they were shown that they really didn’t need to feel hopeless. God is the God of hope. In him, in his promises, there is always reason to hope, because his promises never fail. He always does what he says he will do. But, waiting for him to keep his promises often calls for patient endurance.
Consider Abraham. God told him it would be 400 years until his descendants would inherit the Promised Land. Consider David. He had already been anointed the next king of Israel, but he had to endure years of persecution by Saul before he finally was able to rule as king. Consider Noah. He had to endure 120 years of hard work building the Ark, and of mockery from his neighbors before the flood finally came, and then he spent a whole year cooped up in the ark caring for all those animals. I could list many more examples, but each example recorded in Scripture for our learning reminds us that God always did exactly what he promised when he knew the time was just right. When your eyes are focused on God and his promises there is always hope.
The greatest reason for hope is what we are preparing to celebrate. Thousands of years after his promise to Adam and Eve, 2000 years after his promise to Abraham, 1000 years after his promise to David, God fulfilled his promise. He sent one like Elijah, John the Baptist, to prepare the way of the Lord, just as he said he would. He sent Gabriel to tell Mary and Joseph that Mary would give birth to a child even though she was a virgin, just as God had said through Isaiah 700 years earlier. On Good Friday, they pierced Jesus’ hands and feet and cast lots for his clothing, just as the Psalm had foretold. On the third day Jesus rose from the dead, just as he, and Scripture foretold. Paul reminds us that, because of these things there is always reason for hope. After all, He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all– how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
God has removed the greatest reason we could have for hopelessness. In Jesus he has already paid for every sin. When Satan tries to convince you that you are hopeless, that God has cut you off and your hope of eternal life is gone, hold up the cross in his face. Tell him that because Jesus died and rose again you always have hope. God promises that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Jesus says that whoever believes in him has eternal life. Whenever we feel hopeless it is because we have given up on God and failed to trust his promises. Jesus never gave in to hopelessness. He never gave up on God. He trusted the Father’s promises perfectly in your place. He paid for all the time when you showed a lack of trust in God and his promises. No matter how difficult life gets you always have reason to hope because Jesus lived and died for you and rose again.
Revelation reminds us that, as we live in the last days, there will be many situations that call for patient endurance. We will be tempted to cry out, how long, Lord? How long will you allow such wickedness and ungodliness to continue? But his answer is that he is patient. Think about how long the heroes of faith waited for God to bring about what he promised. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that many of them never got to see the fulfillment of God’s promises with their own eyes, but they saw them through the eyes of faith, and they are enjoying the fulfillment of those promises in the glory of heaven.
Paul says that God is the source of patient endurance and encouragement. He prays that we would overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Remember that when you feel hopeless. Remember that God has given you many examples in the Bible of people who felt hopeless, but later saw that they always had reason to hope because God always does what he promises. Remember that the way God gives patient endurance and encouragement is through his word where the Holy Spirit points us to Jesus and assures us that in him we have the sure and certain hope of eternal life.
Now may the God of hope fill you with complete joy and peace as you continue to believe, so that you overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.