08/29/21 “Super-Sized Hope”

Ephesians 3:16-4:6

Oh, the bad old days when a thirsty fast-food customer could only purchase a 7-ounce cup of Coke at McDonald’s. That was in 1955, when McDonald’s first formed a partnership with the Coca-Cola Company. Twenty-five years later, the beverage world had changed dramatically. In 1980, 7-Eleven began selling its 32-ounce “Big Gulp” soft drinks. Not to be outdone, Burger King, Wendy’s, and McDonald’s all began offering 42-ounce drinks. 7-Eleven refused to take that challenge lying down and, over the next few years, they followed up with the Super Big Gulp at 44 ounces, the Double Gulp at 64 ounces, and the 128-ounce Team Gulp. Just for comparison purposes, the capacity of a normal, adult stomach is about 32 ounces.

7-Eleven won the quantity war, but McDonald’s and the movie it inspired made “super-size” a household word. This idea wasn’t an original creation by McDonald’s marketing department, though. It was God who originated supersizing, and one of the supersized things on God’s menu is hope.

Hope is, at its heart, a way we relate to the future. It’s a little word, and we often give it a rather small meaning. Typically, we say we “hope” for things that are possible but not a sure bet.  It’s like saying “I hope it will be nice for camping next week.” It’s possible that the weather will be nice, but it’s also possible that it will be hot and humid—again.  Or we might say, “I hope the pandemic will be over by Christmas.” It’s possible, I suppose, with increased mask-wearing and vaccination rates and no new variants, but it’s certainly not a done deal. We “hope” in this small way about things we want but have no confidence we’ll get.

That’s the way the people of Paul’s day thought of hope, too. 1st-c. secular society was shaped by Greek values. It was believed that human lives were ordered by circumstances and powers beyond our control, and it was best to just accept that there was no certainty things would turn out well.

The Greek philosophy which permeated everyday life took a dim view of hope. The Stoic philosopher Seneca called hope “an uncertain good.” It might keep you going during a bad time, but confident hope was seen as misguided and an invitation to disappointment.

A poem sometimes attributed to Seneca despairs of “Hope the deceiver, the sweet evil, solace for the wretched whithersoever their destinies drag them… Lying, she yet wishes to be trusted…even those she has once deceived she nonetheless deceives again. Unstable, erratic in motion […], reckless, and not one to suppose that anything is closed to her, she promises all things, with the gods’ well-known capriciousness.” That is definitely a 7-ounce size serving of hope.

But, hope in the Bible isn’t anything like the dinky little portion of the Greek philosophy. It’s much larger. When the Old Testament writers wanted to express what they felt and believed about their future and God’s role in it, one word wasn’t sufficient. They used a lot of different Hebrew words with a broad, rich range of meanings. In Psalm 91, hope is described as the refuge we find under God’s wings. The same word can mean “to hide,” and even “to love.” Jeremiah used another word to speak of hope as longing, and the Psalms speak of waiting. Nearly all of the words the Old Testament prophets and psalmists and historians used to describe hope convey a sense of trust. They express confidence and expectation. Longing, safety, security, trust, confidence—all these are words that characterize the way God’s people understand hope. Even the Hebrew word for “hope” in our psalm today implies waiting in expectation of a certain outcome. This is nothing like the “it is what it is” outlook of the ancient Greeks.

You’ve probably heard that the Eskimo languages include more than fifty words for snow. Among languages in other frozen lands there are more than seventy words for sea ice. The Sami people, who live in the northern tips of Scandinavia and Russia, have as many as 1,000 words for reindeer. People develop a rich store of words to describe what is most important for them—matters of life-and-death. It’s no wonder, then, that the Hebrew people had many words to describe how they believed God participated in their future and what that meant for their lives.

But a problem cropped up when the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek. Where the Old Testament writers used many different Hebrew words to describe how human beings and God relate to the future, the Greek translators boiled thirteen of them down to one simple word: elpis, which means desiring a particular outcome with no expectation of whether that outcome will be good or bad. The translators used one word to cover the richness of what God’s people believe about the future and God’s role in it. One word that, especially to 1st century readers, reduced a rich and beautiful idea to bland, impersonal, and ineffectual wishing. Basically, the translators reduced a Big Gulp serving of hope to a seven-ounce cup.

But, when we get to Paul’s letters, we find that Paul has put a bigger hope on the menu. Paul transforms the meaning of elpis. It’s no longer merely a hope that depends on a capricious god or chance or fate. It isn’t a meager little hope. Paul supersizes it. He includes all that the Old Testament writers understood about hope and more.

Like his predecessors, Paul expresses a trusting hope—a confident hope in a God who is steadfast, who is faithful, who is a refuge. But this is also hope that is anchored, not in something that may or may not happen, but in something that has already happened—in someone who has already happened. This hope is rooted and grounded in the person of Jesus and love of God. This hope isn’t a wish; it’s a certainty.

Our super-sized hope is anchored in Jesus Christ and the salvation he secured for us. We know that our future isn’t the plaything of some bored, detached lower-case god. Our future is held securely in the hands of a God who loves us and wants only what’s best for us—a future with hope, as we read last week in Jeremiah. This hope is not one that deceives and makes us vulnerable to disappointment. Paul assures us in his letter to the Romans that our hope “does not disappoint us,” cannot disappoint us, “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

John Wesley had something to say about this supersized hope. He wrote these words about those who accept God’s gracious gift of salvation in Jesus Christ: “There is one Spirit who animates all the living members of the Church of God…There is, in all those that have received this Spirit, one hope; a hope full of immortality. They know, to die is not to be lost: Their prospect extends beyond the grave. They can cheerfully say, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, according to his abundant mercy, hath begotten us again to a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away…”

Wesley continues: “There is one Lord…who has set up his kingdom in their hearts, and reigns over all those that are partakers of this hope…There is one faith, which is the free gift of God, and is the ground of their hope. It is the faith which enables every true Christian believer to testify with St. Paul, ‘The life which I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.’ There is one baptism; which is the outward sign…of all that inward and spiritual grace which our Lord is continually bestowing upon his Church. It is likewise a precious means, whereby this faith and hope are given to those that diligently seek him.”

That is super-sized hope. No, it’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than Supersize hope, bigger than Super Gulp hope or Double Gulp hope or Team Gulp hope. This is God-sized hope. This hope and the love that fills us with it is so big that it surpasses human understanding. It is so big that Paul prays these words for all believers, including us: “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” This is God-seized hope offered through God-sized love.

The recipients of Paul’s letter needed this God-sized hope. The temple in Jerusalem was in ruins. Paul was in prison. The Romans had the power, and everyone could see the grand temples dedicated to their gods. The readers of the letter to the little churches in and around Ephesus may well have wondered about the future of the Church. Remember that even Jeremiah had his doubts about the future. When all the available evidence says that what you hope for is a long shot at best, that’s when you need a God-sized hope the most.

We need that God-sized hope now. The world is a mess. We suffer in body and spirit. So, we express hope for good test results, successful medical treatments, an end to the pandemic. We hope that hurricanes won’t come ashore, and that wildfires will be contained. We hope our elected leaders will get their act together and lead with wisdom. We hope for happy marriages, secure retirements, good lives for our children. We hope for peace in the world.

We also know that, as the Rolling Stones so eloquently put it, “you can’t always get what you want.” But, as Christians, we have a bigger hope. Our hopes are always held within our God-sized hope. In the midst of our trials, we know that we have an unshakeable hope in Jesus and in the kingdom he brought near. The believer’s vision stretches far beyond the uncertainties of today to a future about which there is no doubt—a future that rests securely in God’s hands, a future in which this world will be transformed.

We believe that what God has spoken through the prophets will happen. Justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, as we read in Amos. The hungry will be filled with good things, as Mary sang. We know that creation itself is waiting with eager longing for its own transformation, as Paul writes to the Romans. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, as we find in Revelation. Our confident hope in these things rests in our confidence in Jesus and in the power of his Spirit.

And, our hope is not simply hope for the future. It’s also hope for the present. Our God-sized hope for the future frees us to work for the kingdom today. It frees us from the fear of disappointment that binds us up and makes us timid. It strengthens us in the midst of our trials. It enables us to live with humility and gentleness and patience. It enables us to lead lives worthy of what we are called to be: God’s people, disciples of Jesus.

None of us are big enough to hold this God-sized hope alone. So, God gave birth to the Church—the beloved community, the community of the beloved of God. Together, we share one calling, one faith and one baptism; one body, one Spirit, one Lord; one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all—one hope. We are bound together so that we can embody our God-sized hope so that all can see it. Together with all believers, we are given the capacity we need to comprehend the extent of God’s love, given through Jesus, and poured into us by the Spirit. Together we are given the capacity to embrace the hope that is anchored in the self-giving love of Jesus.

In recent years, many of the fast-food chains have discontinued offering their largest portions, or at least renamed them, supposedly in the interests of healthier options. That may be bad news for some customers.  But, the good news for Christians is that God-sized hope will never be taken off the menu. God has offered this enormous hope throughout history, and then made it visible in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. And, the better news is that God offers unlimited refills. Our hope is continually being renewed as Jesus dwells in our hearts.

McDonald’s customers started out with 7-ounce cups of Coke, and then discovered they could have more. That’s how we experience hope, too. We begin with small, immediate hopes like the Greek philosophers did—wishing without confidence in the outcome. Then we begin to know hope in God the way the Old Testament writers did—as security, refuge, strength. Finally, as we come to know Jesus, our hope gets bigger still. It grows until it contains all our other hopes. It grows until it encompasses the future of all creation. It grows until it needs all of us to contain it. Our is not a measly supersized hope. Ours is a God-sized hope, poured into us daily through our faith in Jesus, so that we may be filled with the fullness of God. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young